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Valuing Places: Geographical Imaginations

Mexico City

Geographical imagination is a term that has been much used in recent years, and was developed by Professor Doreen Massey from the Open University. More about Doreen and her work can be found here.

What is a geographical imagination?

In her chapter of the Secondary Geography Handbook, Massey explains her understanding of a geographical imagination.

‘It is probably now well accepted, though it is still important to argue, that a lot of our “geography” is in the mind. That is to say we carry around with us mental images of the world, of the country in which we live (all those image of the North/South divide), of the street next door. The New Yorker’s mental map of the USA, Ronald Regan’s imagination of the world, became popular posters.

All of us carry such images, they may sometimes be in conflict or even be the cause of conflict, and digging these things up and talking about them is one good way in to beginning to examine what it means to think geographically’

Massey, D. (2006) ‘The geographical mind’ in Balderston, D. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook, Sheffield: Geographical Association


Search Google Images for ‘world maps’ and you will be presented with a wide-ranging selection of maps that represent the world. Many of these images have been manipulated for a purpose. Save a collection of these and use them in a PowerPoint Presentation with your pupils. This helps to develop their critical literacy and supports them in questioning information on the internet. Pupils will then develop a confidence in treating maps as representations rather than accepting them as unquestionable truths.

Please respect copyright law and do not distribute these images outside your classroom unless permission is expressly given to do so on the websites where you obtained them.

Consider your own geographical imagination of China and note down a few adjectives and descriptions. Now consider the images taken on the GA Study Tours to China.

  • Which images surprise you?
  • What in your opinion is missing from this set of images?

Any geography textbook or resource can only ever present a partial view of a place. Whenever we use place-based resources with our pupils there is the opportunity to develop their ability to ask critical questions, such as ‘What is missing?’ and ‘What else could be included?’.

In a geography lesson or sequence of learning we can never present a place in all its glorious complexity. Any set of resources and images will always be grounded in time and the geographical imagination of the originator. Activities such as this help pupils become familiar with their own and others’ geographical imaginations.

Multiple Identities

One way to reveal to ourselves and our pupils the complexity of places and make transparent our geographical imaginations, is to think about the geography in our heads. Take a moment to think about yourself and the places that you connect with. Use this Multiple Identities frame to help you.

download 2

Download this example of a year 8 pupil’s completed Multiple Identities frame. This pupil found ‘the global’ challenging – this may be because the global is often presented as something distant to pupils rather than a scale with which their life is intimately intertwined. For more about this issue, look at Place and Interconnectedness.

Raising standards with geographical imaginations

Many of you have done similar activities to the ones described above. In a crowded curriculum you may find it hard to justify the time that these activities take, but you should bear in mind that some research suggests these types of activities help to raise the standard of learning in geography classrooms.

Consider the following three sources:

1. CCEA Key Stage 3 Curriculum Review 2003

A review of the Key Stage 3 Curriculum in Northern Ireland during 2003 stated that ‘Recently, neuroscience has established a number of factors which are critical to learning and to motivation, about how our brains process information. We now know that the human brain creates meaning through perceiving patterns and making connections and that thought is filtered through the emotional part of the brain first. The likelihood of understanding taking place is therefore increased significantly if the experience has some kind of emotional meaning, since the emotional engagement of the brain on some level is critical to its seeing patterns and making connections.’

2. Assessment Reform Group

Download page 8 from Testing Motivation and Learning, Assessment Reform Group, University of Cambridge, 2002.

3. Extracts from Professor Simon Catling’s inaugural professorial lecture ‘Curriculum Contested: Primary Geography and Social Justice’

  • Simon Catling promotes a sense of the child as a dynamic and active participant, rather than as an immature and passive learner.
  • He suggests that ‘the geography curriculum remains fundamentally a reflection of the adult geography of places and the environment’ and continues, ‘to put it starkly, the programme of study for primary education, by omission and inhibition, convey an impression of a western, white, middle class, academic geography, which observes the local area, other places and environmental matters’.
  • He also argues ‘understanding children requires an appreciation of their place experience and environmental and social awareness’.

(Taken from lecture presented at Westminster Institute of Education, Oxford Brookes University on 4 March 2003).


You may now wish to review your Key Stage Long Term Plan. Consider any units that could benefit from activities that value your pupils’ geographical imaginations. When you have identified a unit, discuss with your colleagues how you could review your Medium Term Plan to create the time to include and develop young people’s geographical imaginations relating to that place or issue.

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