Advice from the GA

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The impact of the new curriculum will vary from school to school

In some schools, the new curriculum might lead to little change. This might be because the teachers and leaders there have a cautious attitude to change, or because many of the new requirements of the curriculum are already being addressed and are working well. In other schools, the new national curriculum might prompt a fundamental review, based on underlying beliefs about geography, teaching and learning. There are always many factors to take into account when designing a geography curriculum – see diagram.

A core knowledge-based curriculum does not mean rote learning

Geography is the world subject. Its core knowledge may be gleaned from the information communicated in maps and globes. This extensive knowledge about the world may seem low level or trivial, but can also be enabling as it provides geographical context. The GA, in its 2009 Manifesto, likens this knowledge to the ‘vocabulary’ of the subject. The geographical information and facts contained in maps and other sources only really become knowledge of any lasting value when they become connected and part of a system – when students are able to give them meaning. Acquiring geographical knowledge in this way aids recall and builds understanding.

Knowing locations counts

When pupils study a place or a country they benefit from becoming familiar with where in the world it is located, rather than simply memorising the location of places in a decontextualised way. Locational knowledge is important rather than trivial, because it helps us to answer other important questions we have in geography. If students are unaware of the significance of location, they are also unlikely to develop understanding of how places and features are formed, how places change, are interconnected, how they are perceived, valued or controlled, and a myriad other questions. Students lacking knowledge of location will also find it difficult to use the uniqueness of places to explain why the outcomes of universal environmental and human processes may vary, and why similar problems may require different strategies in different places. In other words, their interpretive and geographical decision-making skills will also be impaired.

A range of places should be studied

The national curriculum for geography does include, as part of the core knowledge all students should acquire, a range of places at different scales in specific key stages – from their school site, to some major countries and even continents. Yet there is no definitive list of places that children should know about at certain ages and stages. Each student’s prior knowledge about places will depend on who they know, where they have been and even the films or other sources they have seen. Only when students are helped to make sense of these experiences in relation to geographical ideas – such as place or environment – will they be useful in terms of developing capability on geography. We can therefore regard the national curriculum list as a kind of framework – a global jigsaw which helps to create, over the three key stages of statutory geography, a functioning mental map of the world. Teachers should therefore be looking for links and connections between the places specified in the curriculum, rather than thinking about this as an exclusive list or requirement.

Concepts are essential to geography

Rather than including a list of geography’s key concepts, the new national curriculum takes the object of geographical study – the surface of the world – as its starting point. However, many of the ‘big’ concepts listed in the 2007 Key Stage 3 curriculum now apply across all key stages, although they do not always appear explicitly. Concepts remain essential to learning geography and thinking geographically, as they help students find pattern and meaning in their work. Physical and human processes, place and space are all prominent. Concepts such as the environment are implied, since environmental understanding should be founded upon a sound appreciation of physical and human systems. The new curriculum also includes many more concrete ideas, such as ‘latitude’ or ‘weathering’. As students deepen their knowledge and broaden their understanding of these matters, they will gradually gain understanding of the bigger ideas or concepts of the subject.

Assessment is a key issue for schools

If definitions of standards and progression are destined to become local, rather than national, matters, then the Purpose of Study, Aims and introductory paragraphs for each key stage within the new curriculum provide good starting points for defining expectations by the end of each key stage. There is therefore an opportunity for schools to use their experience of assessment for learning to strike a healthy balance between advising students on progress and improvement and reaching summative statements about their overall attainment.

Enquiry and investigation underpins learning in geography

The national curriculum does not aim to specify how to teach. Instead, it introduces the Earth (its elements of land, sea and air, and the people who live on it) as an object of study. All good teachers know we need to create access to such study, and that we can often do this using the everyday experiences of children as the starting point. Good geography teaching has not changed as a result of the new national curriculum. Good geography lessons will still need to contain geography (geographical data, ideas and locational contexts), a means to connect these elements with students’ prior knowledge and understanding and opportunities for students to make sense of new information – a message set out very clearly by Margaret Roberts at a recent GA Annual Conference.

Progression in geography

Progression may be recognised in relation to;

increasing breadth of study, wider range of scales studied, greater complexity of phenomena studied, increasing use made of generalised knowledge and abstract ideas, greater precision required in undertaking intellectual and practical tasks, more mature awareness and understanding of issues and of the context of differing attitudes and values within which they arise.

It can be reflected in:

  • Curriculum planning that develops pupils' geographical thinking in a systematic manner.
  • The changes in an individual pupil's understanding of concepts, use of skills, development of values and knowledge of content over time more information.

Ofsted guidance update

Ofsted have issued an update to their Generic grade descriptors and supplementary subject-specific guidance for inspectors on making judgements during visits to schools.

Teachers should be aware that pupils’ understanding of diverse places and landscapes is routinely strengthened. The document also makes explicit reference to fieldwork and to areas which fieldwork can strongly contribute, such as greater attention to be paid to the use of maps and in particular locational knowledge.

You can read the complete document here. (December 2013)

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