Primary geography - curriculum content

The bigger picture

Planning and development at the school level is often shaped by wider constraints. The figure below shows how school curriculum development activities can fit into a wider context.

Selecting appropriate content for the curriculum

'Curriculum-making' is a process in which teachers are guided by their knowledge of pupils' needs and interests when selecting appropriate subject content and develop this into challenging and relevant teaching experiences using their professional skills. It is important to use the ethnic diversity and personal geographies that pupils bring to school to enhance and develop your curriculum. Similarly, draw on the interests, backgrounds and experiences of staff. Add into this the contexts provided by real, local and global issues to ensure the curriculum is full of lively, relevant and contemporary content.

Use the key questions from the figure above to help mould your curriculum:

  • What is special about our school, our pupils and our contexts?
  • How will this guide our geography curriculum?
  • What is our vision for geography?

High quality geography provision, by its fundamental nature (learning about the world), intrinsically links to and enhances all areas of learning whether mental, social or emotional. In turn effective geographical learning only happens in conjunction with its own intricacies and those of other disciplines. For example the article Art and the locality by Jon Clayton in Primary Geography, Spring 2016, delves in to this relationship between Geography and Art, demonstrating an element of symbiotic learning whilst carrying out fieldwork.

The Primary Geography Handbook offers a range of support and advice across the subject from chapters written to help when choosing appropriate content:

  • understanding and developing primary geography, Simon Catley, Ch6 Primary Geography Handbook. (2010)
  • planning the curriculum, Paula Richardson, Ch22 Primary Geography Handbook. (2010)

GA publications coverage table

Alongside the key themes and messages of the Primary Geography Handbook, and articles published in Primary Geography, there are an ever growing number of publications written to support coverage of the 2014 Nation Curriculum.

Download publications coverage table

Developing geographical knowledge, thinking and skills

Thinking geographically offers a uniquely powerful way of seeing the world and makes connections between scales, from the local to the global. We need facts in order to think, but we also need concepts to enable us to group bits of information, or facts, together. The three main organising concepts of geography are frequently said to be place, space and environment. They are the key ideas involved in framing the unique contribution of geography as a subject discipline and can be applied across the subject to identify a question, guide an investigation, organise information, suggest an explanation or assist decision-making.

When planning the geography curriculum, these three central concepts can help provide a touchstone ensuring some rigour, especially when planning in a cross - curricular way. The Primary Geography Toolkit series 'Geography Plus' uses these ideas in each title to show how curriculum planning can be effectively developed.

Geography knowledge is rarely static. The subject is dynamic because the world, and our understanding of it, is continually changing. Yet some key geographical concepts are enduring and will be relevant in any geography curriculum past, present or future:

  • 'Space' - the location of points, features or regions in absolute and /or relative terms and the relationships, flows and patterns that connect and / or define them.
  • 'Place' - a construct that is defined in terms of what it is like, what happens there and how and why it is changing.
  • 'Scale' - the 'zoom lens' that enables us to view places from global to local levels.

So, when planning geography lessons or units of work ensure that all three of these key components are present to some extent. Developing a sense of place - such as for example, a sensory exploration of a 'rainforest' - is not geography until you understand the significance of location and links with other places at global and local scales of study. Other concepts add depth and support a deeper understanding of people, places and environments. Geography synthesises different ideas and types of knowledge which is why it is both a challenging and exciting subject.

Enquiry is and always will be important

Planning is often best focused around enquiry. Geographical enquiry is an active process of investigation in which pupils are fully engaged. Enquiry work can and should include open-ended activities in which pupils are independently discovering things for themselves as well as more tightly teacher controlled activities, and a full range of more or less structured approaches in between. Whether the teaching and learning situation is one of exposition/response (e.g. a teacher explaining an idea to the class) or creative activity with minimum support (e.g. students carrying out an independent project or piece of creative writing) it may be described as enquiry if the activity is oriented towards answering questions, opening up problems and issues and moving towards general principles and solutions, with the teacher managing and organising an appropriate range of teaching and learning experiences.

A suitably-framed enquiry is the most powerful vehicle for developing geographical knowledge and understanding, and is not simply a ‘bolt on’ for skills development. An enquiry approach helps us to select suitable content and appropriate geographical questions in order to tackle an issue or theme in a distinctly geographical way. This approach can work at different scales in the classroom as well being used to frame one lesson or a whole unit of work. The starting point for many enquiries is the harvesting of ideas, thoughts and avenues of questioning through co-operative ‘talking’ activities in class. Through their article, Generating enquiry skills in the Summer 2016 edition of Primary Geography, Sarah Whitehouse and Karan Vickers-Hulse offer a range of strategies to develop this ‘talk’ time to ensure that it is focused and productive.

There are many versions of an enquiry approach but it has a set of distinguishing characteristics as illustrated in this diagram (features hyperlinks). Margaret Roberts clearly explores and explains the value of an enquiry led approach to learning in her book Geography Through Enquiry.

The GA’s manifesto for geography, A different view , is also a good source of geographical questions about our identity and our place in the world (p.21).

Locational and place knowledge

The curriculum refers to the study of areas at different scales to widen pupils' knowledge of the world, the UK (plus Europe and North and South America for KS2) and their locality.

As you’d expect the National Curriculum emphasises the geographical study of the home nations which as Stephen Scoffham, in his article Learning about the UK, learning about ourselves in Primary Geography, Spring 2016, explains other great opportunities for creative cross-curricular links.

Locality should focus in on the area in which people live their everyday lives. For school pupils this usually encompasses where they live, go to school and play. It may also include places they visit with parents on a regular basis, such as going to the shops or visiting relatives. In contrast, a geographical region, as referred to in the KS2 requirements, is generally a large area of land with distinguishing geographical, ecological, cultural or political characteristics that set it apart from other areas and may exist within one country or be spread over several.

Your school may traditionally teach a study of India or a country in Africa and these can provide valuable experiences and link well with a particular cohort of pupils, and this is absolutely fine especially at KS1 where you are instructed to teach about a small area within any contrasting non-European country. However at KS2 the study of aspects of Europe and the Americas are statutory in the 2014 curriculum and units of study focusing on these locations need to be included.

Human and physical geography

The requirements to teach elements of human geography, such as resources, settlements and economic activity as well as key aspects of physical geography including rivers, mountains, volcanoes and climatic zones can be done through the study of whichever locality you feel is appropriate, although linking with the guidance from above is advised.

An example of a premise for a scheme of work on the Americas might be:

With the Americas being such a vast place, start by developing pupils' core knowledge e.g. knowing the location and names of the North and South American continents and their make up in terms of countries, regions, key cities and physical features. Then, drawing on the idea of a 'zoom lens', study several places in more depth, making comparisons between them. For example you might be guided by: contemporary events such as the Olympic Games or World Cup; the significance of physical features like the Amazon rainforest, the Rockies/Andes or alternatively choose a more humancentric theme such as world cities or even holiday destinations in the Americas. Whatever the angle, the study of broader regional and more specific locations and case studies will provide the detail to engage and challenge pupils in their learning.

Remember this is a core entitlement of the curriculum and you can supplement it with whatever you think will inspire pupils in their learning.

Skills and fieldwork

Many geographical skills are in fact life skills which once mastered will help pupils live a fulfilling and successful life. Each skill can be taught discretely, but more impact is likely when maps are read and made about the areas pupils are studying and can associate with: their local environment and regions studied under the ‘zoom lens’ above.

The following links offer guidance and suggestions in terms of practical fieldwork:

Fieldwork is a hugely valuable aspect of geography that helps to motivate and inspire pupils, which in turn raises standards of attainment. It is statutory for all key stages and ideally should be done at least once in every year by every year group. Key stage one might focus on the school grounds and the immediate locality of the school, i.e. what can be reached by walking, whereas key stage two pupils would investigate the wider locality and/or a contrasting locality to the one in which they live. Pupils from different year groups might visit the same place, for example the local High Street, but adopt a different focus or enquiry.

Fieldtrip funding is available for a group of students between 5 and 18 years of age from the Frederick Soddy Trust Schools Award Scheme.

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