Things do not happen outside of space and time, and they always take place. There will always be a place for 'thinking geographically'.

Hubbard, Kitchin, Bartley & Fuller, 2002, p. 239.

Thinking geographically takes into account the discipline's 'grammar' (conceptual understandings) as well as its immense vocabulary (including the millions of place names in the world). It is primarily about developing and enriching the geographical imagination.

It is the teacher's geographical imagination that has the students sitting on the edge of their seats. When their eyes glaze, their shoulders slump and their fingers stray to play with digital toys, it is the geographical imagination that reignites students' interest in the world around them – the mental maps they construct, the moral dilemmas they face concerning people and environment, and the captivating trajectories of people’s lives across the vast spaces of planet Earth. 

The students' geographical imagination may be concerned with places that are safe to congregate in, or places that are exciting, dangerous and alien to them. They may be absorbed by journeys across the neighbourhood into new spaces, or they may clarify the aesthetics of the beach and the bush, and also make sense of the patterns and processes prominent in their imaginings.

The poetics of place 

What we think about places is both shaped by, and shapes, our 'geographical imagination'. Pupils carry with them mental images of places – the world, the country in which they live and their neighbourhood. These form part of their 'geographical imagination'.

Geographical Association

In a sense, students are engaging in a 'mind movie'. Their eyes are shut and their heads rest on their desks, imagining that they are in their special place. They can be encouraged to share their ideas with a partner to explore how young people have different kinds of attachment to place.

Students begin to appreciate that places are locations that have meaning. They are positioned in a part of space that is perceived and experienced differently by others. They come to know 'place' as an intimate, humanised segment of space. They appreciate that place is comprised of networks of friends and relatives, it is a setting for people's lives, a useful vantage point to interpret the wider world. They come to learn that the unique human and physical characteristics that define place are dynamic and constantly changing.

Further readings:

Spatial dreams

Geography is not just a collection of arcane information. Rather, it is the study of spatial aspects of human existence

Bednarz Bettis, Boehm, de Souza, Downs, Marran, Morrill & Salter, 1994, p. 18.

Geographical space lay ‘equidistant from the stars and the atoms ... from highly localized studies (say, of a small atoll, an individual settlement or a small river basin) ... through to worldwide studies.

Haggett, 1990, p. 23.

Space is a great expanse extending in all directions, a vast canvas on which geographers work to describe the earth. Space is a container where places, people and the phenomena which geographers study are situated or located. Typically, geographers examine spatial distribution and relationships at a variety of scales. They explore cause and effect, observe patterns, identify trends and predict futures. Geographers are concerned with 'where-ness'. They are spatial thinkers.

There are many other perceptions of space in contemporary geography. Rather than see space as 'emptiness', geographers emphasise the importance of incorporating social relations and processes into spatial analysis. Space is regarded as a medium through which social relationships are produced and reproduced. Space is represented differently by human perception and it can be examined by looking at students’ geographical imaginations.

Further reading:

Situated existence

The environment, like place, encompasses human perceptions and aspirations as well as the biophysical characteristics that can be measured and monitored.

Matthews & Herbert, 2008, p 13. 

The term 'environment', where unqualified, means the living and non-living elements of the earth's surface and atmosphere. 

ACARA, 2011, p. 14.

Everyone is situated in an environment. They are 'environed' by something whether it is concrete or bitumen, mountain or bush. Every plant or animal exists in an environment, in a biome or farmed landscape. Geography students become increasingly familiar with more nuanced environments – biophysical, rural, urban and built environments. They learn that, tragically, we have reached the 'end of nature' to the extent that most parts of the world, from Antarctica to the depth of the oceans, have been modified by human activities. There are no truly natural environments.  

In government reports and popular discourse, the environment is often conceived of as the biophysical environment. 

Typically, geographers investigate terrestrial, marine and atmospheric components of the environment. They are also concerned with the extent and causes of environmental change, two-way relationships between people and environments, and with environmental sustainability. Geographers also engaged in a consideration of environmental perceptions which vary over time, and play out differently over space and place. The environment, like place and space, is crucial to a geographic imagination.

Our mind’s eye

Geography has its foundations in an intellectual tradition stretching back over hundreds of years. Geographical knowledge of sea and land routes was disseminated throughout society in classical antiquity, and Homer's Odyssey can be regarded as among the first surviving geographical works. 

After the appalling journey round Cape Horn from Europe, with scurvy, rotten food and stinking water, not to mention sodomy and the lash, islands appeared where breadfruit and coconuts grew abundantly and no one had to work. 

Stoddart, 1986, p. 35.

… too few children – and ultimately that means too few adults – even possess the most elementary information about the world stage, let alone about the human players who produce a constantly changing kaleidoscope of cities and settlements, roads and regions, conflict and cooperation.

Gould, 1985, p. 5.

The geographical imagination is also expressed in a poetic vision. Australia, in 1914, was described thus: 

From the golden fleece and the golden grain, the profits had accumulated, bark huts became brick and stone homesteads, dirt tracks became highways and rail routes, and the river steamers crunched their way over the snags and sandbars of the Murray Darling with supplies and produce. 

Heathcote, 1994, p. 262.

The geographical imagination is grounded in a firm mental map of the world, a clear knowledge of the characteristics of the earth, a backdrop that allows us to see, appreciate and understand the interconnecting threads that bind people and environments. Such an imagination stimulates curiosity about the world and asks not only where we are literally, but rather seeks to ask where we are metaphorically in an attempt to understand the intrinsic nature of our world. The geographical imagination is less concerned with the substance of geography. It focuses on our humanity seeking to make the world a better place.

About the illustrations

Illustration 1: The child as geographer explores the concept of how primary school students' geographical imagination is engaged. The developing stages of perception are described, and questions for discussion and reflection are provided. A range of additional resources is also provided.

Illustration 2: The concepts considers the history and development of geographical concepts, and explores their meaning and interpretation. Questions are presented for discussion and reflection. A range of resources is provided to support further investigation.


Books and articles:

ACARA. (2011). Shape of the Australian Curriculum: Geography. Sydney: Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. Source: Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) materials. Retrieved: http://www.acara.edu.au/verve/_resources/Shape_of_the_Australian_Curriculum_Geography.pdf

Balderstone, D. & Lambert, D. (2009). Learning to teach geography in the secondary school: A companion to school experience. London: Routledge. 

Bednarz, S., Bettis, N., Boehm, R., de Souza, A., Downs, R., Marran, J., Morrill, R. & Salter, C. (1994). Geography for life: National geography standards. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society. Reproduced with permission of National Geographic Society.

Gould, P. (1985). The geographer at work. London: Routledge.

Haggett, P. (1990). The geographer’s art. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Heathcote, R. (1994). Australia. Melbourne: Pearson through International Geographical Congress Incorporated, 1988. Reproduced with permission of Pearson Australia.

Hubbard, P., Kitchin, R., Bartley, B. & Fuller, D. (2002). Thinking geographically: Space, theory and contemporary human geography. London: Continuum.

Matthews, J. & Herbert, D. (2008). Geography: A very short introduction. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Stoddart, D. (1986). On Geography and its history. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.


Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). Australian Curriculum: Geography. Retrieved May 2013, from: www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/Geography/Rationale

Geographical Association (ND). Curriculum making glossary. Retrieved 12 July 2012: http://www.geography.org.uk/cpdevents/curriculummaking/glossary © Geographical Association.