Planning a high quality primary geography curriculum

'A high quality geography education should inspire in pupils a curiosity and fascination about the world that will remain with them for the rest of their lives.'

DfE (2013)

Getting started

What is geography?

Geography is a subject packed with excitement and dynamism that synthesises aspects of the world and helps us to better understand its people, places and environments, and the interactions between them. Geography also helps us understand how and why places are changing, and to better imagine, predict and work towards, likely and preferred futures. Underpinning all of this is a strong spatial component that deepens our understanding of what places are like, why and how they are connected, and the importance of location.

Geography It is an enquiry led subject that seeks answers to fundamental questions such as:

  • Where is this place?
  • What is it like? (And why?)
  • How and why is it changing?
  • How does this place compare with other places?
  • How and why are places connected?

It is also imperative that a geographer doesn’t just answer questions but also asks and debates them:

  • What could/should the world be like in the future?
  • What can we do to influence change?

Geography draws on its vast range of vocabulary to identify and name places, the features within them and the human and physical processes at work there. Such core knowledge provides the building blocks of deeper explanation and understanding; providing entry points to geographical conversations about the world.

Geography is more than just core knowledge. Places are dynamic and often space is perceived, used and contested by people in many different ways. Geography seeks to understand how different views, values and perspectives influence and affect places and environments at different scales. It helps explain why places are changing, how they are interconnected and why patterns of inequality exist at both local and global scales.

Geography deals with the 'here and 'now' of real life and as such, is a vital 'living' subject that contributes to and enhances the wider curriculum. Although geography can be taught alone, it also offers meaningful contexts for high- quality cross - curricular work, as noted by Ofsted:

"The effectiveness of leadership and management in geography is outstanding. Geography is given a high profile across the school and forms a large part of the creative curriculum. ... ‘It’s the glue that holds the curriculum together."

OFSTED 2013

2014 EYFS framework

The building blocks of all learning are first observed, recognised, examined and ‘played’ with, if not arranged, from an early age.

‘Early years providers must guide the development of children’s capabilities with a view to ensuring that children in their care complete the EYFS ready to benefit fully from the opportunities ahead of them.’

DfE (2014)

Enabling pupils to take on the role of a geographer: exploring, discovering and beginning to make sense of the world around them is an important consideration when planning for the seven areas of inter-connected learning and development that make up the EYFS framework.

In particular the area entitled ‘Understanding the world’ presents the opportunity for pupils to reflect on the events and routines that they and their peers experience. They should be given the opportunity to formulate questions to investigate the similarities and differences that exist and be encouraged to discuss these with interest and sensitivity.

Through role-play the children can learn experientially about the different environments that different professions operate in and explain why some things happen the way they do in both the physical and human world.

2014 National Curriculum: geography

Geography forms part of the statutory primary national curriculum and must be taught in all local-authority-maintained primary schools in England; this does not include academies or free schools.

The 'Purpose of Study' and the 'Aims' (p187) explain succinctly the philosophy that should be at the heart of geography teaching and learning at primary level.

The National Curriculum’s areas of knowledge, understanding and skills describe geography's richness, scope and potential very well. Fieldwork is a mainstay in the education of a geographer and is specifically identified in the curriculum document as an activity that deepens understanding. Each school has a unique environmental and social context whose investigation and exploration can open a window to the wider world and the complexities it holds.

The 'Subject content' for key stages 1-2 sets out the skeletal aspects of knowledge that need to be covered, although how this is used and how it is put together is very much up to individual schools. Guidance on the creative act of interpreting a curriculum specification or scheme of work and turning it into a coherent, challenging, engaging and enjoyable scheme of work can be found on this curriculum making page.

This allows schools to develop their own schemes of work reflecting the aforementioned unique opportunities available. This 'core' knowledge provides pupils with sufficient vocabulary and understanding to begin to engage in meaningful and relevant dialogue. It is a starting point for conversations about our world but will need to be augmented with other 'stories' about places to keep the geography relevant, contemporary and anchored in the real life experiences of the pupils.

Enquiry is a key approach in geography and pupils should be learning aspects of core knowledge in relevant contexts, as stated in the 'Aims'. The importance of using real places, real experiences and real issues to make the geography 'come alive' cannot be understated. Although written for secondary school teachers in mind the opening chapters of Geography Through Enquiry by Margaret Roberts clearly extols the value an enquiry led approach to learning.

Communicating knowledge, skills and understanding

Pupils need to learn how to communicate geographical information in a variety of ways. Geography is a subject that can be communicated through drama, film, photographs, digital maps and other digital media such as blogs and tweets, as well as more traditional communication techniques including diagrams, sketches and hand-drawn maps. With an emphasis across the broader National Curriculum being on developing literacy skills, geography can benefit from the opportunity to provide the ‘subject’ or ‘stimulus’ for a wide range of extended writing opportunities. Schools where successful and engaging learning takes place have of course always done this, whilst maintaining a high level of rigour within the discrete subject areas.

The GA has produced a primary curriculum guidance poster ‘Geography: A place in your curriculum’ provides support for teaching the geography Programmes of Study. It can be purchased for £4.99 or is free to new members. On the reverse of this attractive A1 poster featuring images and key words from the world of geography there are eight A4 panels give advice and guidance on how to teach key aspects of the primary curriculum:

  • Teaching about... where places are
  • Teaching about... maps
  • Teaching about... where we live
  • Teaching about... physical geography

These guidance sheets provide teaching activities and further ideas of how to develop effective practice and high quality geography in your classroom.

You may find this Geography Expert Subject Advisory Group website useful. It contains the work of a group of experts and practitioners to help teachers and teacher educators interpret the 2014 National Curriculum Framework.

What should a high quality geography curriculum look like?

'Geography teaching and learning should be an enjoyable, creative, stimulating and magical experience for pupils and teachers alike.'

Planning the curriculum, Paula Richardson, Ch22 Primary Geography Handbook. (2010)

Geography enables children to make sense of their world. However, a geography education must encompass more than this. It must provide opportunities which have a transformational effect on a pupils perception of themselves and their relationship with learning. It must enable students to develop a connection and understanding of the world and their place within it.

The National Curriculum sets out ‘the core knowledge and understanding that all pupils should be expected to acquire in the course of their schooling', but a core curriculum is not all that students should be taught. A local and personalised element to the curriculum is essential to ensure that pupils are engaged with innovative and enjoyable learning that has relevance to their lives and work while challenging them to think about 'real world' issue.

A high quality geography education enables a geographer to be able to:

  • draw on a skills set to measure and interpret
  • have fluent specialist knowledge
  • organise their learning and know the next steps, metacognition.

The National Curriculum is like an umbrella which overlays these key requirements, setting out what elements have to be covered by law but the cornerstone is that school’s make the most of their unique setting to create relevance and engagement.

This is summarised by the diagram below:

Many of the ‘memorable moments’ of a child’s primary school education come from the first-hand, hands-on experiences of being a geographer. The inclusion of fieldwork is an essential element that enables pupils to connect with a place, community or environment and it doesn’t even have to be beyond walking distance.

'The school locality is a rich resource for geographical enquiry. It is accessible for fieldwork, can be studied in a great variety of ways and helps pupils to develop a sense of their place.'

Using the school locality, Angela Milner and Terry Jewson, Ch13 Primary Geography Handbook. (2010)

While Nick Lapthorn and Kate Lewis explore the rich potential of fieldwork in the school grounds in the Spring 2016 edition of Primary Geography and unpick what the skills that are developed actually are.

Only when something is viewed from different perspectives can the pupils co-construct new learning and form a deeper connection with the world we live in and strive to become a global citizen.

The diagram below shows the relationship between the subject core as formed by the National Curriculum and the actual curriculum taught in two different schools. As can be seen the divergence can be a large one in terms of coverage but the learning, understanding and skills acquired should run parallel.

The main function of the Programmes of Study for geography is to guide teachers in the selection of what to teach: they do not provide guidance on how to teach. For example, they make no reference to enquiry learning approaches, which are widely recognised as effective in geography. Values, attitudes and pupil capabilities (competences) are similarly omitted.

Primary curriculum CPD

The following online GA CPD courses for primary geography teachers and teachers of geography offer expert advice and inspirational teaching ideas:

My Place, Your Place, Our Place

What do sustainability and community cohesion really mean for learners in primary education? This family of courses explores the relationships between identity and place by drawing on some key geographical processes and understanding.

Geography and the Global Dimension

This course looks at geography's contribution to learning about the global dimension. In many ways we might expect geography to be at the core of any work that includes a global dimension because human geography is all about people and places and how we live in the world today.

Young Geographers Go Local

This course is focused on helping children explore their own personal geographies in a local context.

Young Geographers Go Global

Helping children to develop their visual literacy by encouraging them to 'read' images of children in other places.

Young Geographers Go Green

What role does geography play in enabling the sustainable agenda in schools to be encountered, developed and enacted?

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1 Comment

Mandy Merrett

Mandy Merrett GA Member

Is there a promotional code to enter in order to receive the free guidance poster - A place in your curriculum? I am a new member but on adding it to my basket it wants to charge me!

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