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Effective geography classroom practice

‘The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires’

William Arthur Ward (1921-1994)

Topics on this page:

  • Effective classroom practice in schools today
  • What makes great teaching?
  • Poor Proxies for Learning
  • Different forms of classroom practice
  • Observing the teaching-learning relationship
  • Reading

Effective classroom practice in schools today

The opening quote was written in the last century, but it is equally relevant to today’s geography classrooms. It reinforces that it is the classroom practice of the teacher that determines the effectiveness of the teaching.

There are four key aspects of classroom practice that are explored in these web pages:

  1. A teacher must create a classroom environment that allows the student to focus on learning. This involves setting high expectations for behaviour and learning and creating an inclusive classroom. (See Good geography teaching: high expectations).
  2. Teachers must use their good subject knowledge to present subject matter clearly and structure lessons so that students learn the geographical content and ideas they are being taught. This involves promoting appropriate discussion about the geography and developing students’ knowledge and understanding. They should select resources and materials to support an ambitious geography curriculum. (See Geography subject teaching and curriculum).
  3. Teachers must actively present new material for students to learn and employ effective teaching techniques to help them do so, including good explanation, modelling and questioning. Teachers should help students to clarify and verbalise their thinking. They must design and structure lessons to enable students’ understanding and to reinforce learning so that students build on their geographical knowledge and remember what they have learned. (See Classroom practice).
  4. Teachers must systematically check students’ understanding so that they identify misconceptions and provide clear feedback. They should use the information they obtain through assessment to respond to students and adapt their teaching as necessary. (See Assessment).

What makes great teaching?

Coe et al (2014) found from research that the first two factors* in the table below had the strongest evidence for improving student outcomes. The four other elements had a fair-to-moderate impact on learning.

FactorsImpact on learning
Content knowledge*Teachers with strong knowledge and understanding of their subject have a greater impact on students’ learning. Teachers must also understand how students think about content and be able to identify common misconceptions on a topic.
Quality of instruction*Effective questioning and the use of assessment by teachers are important. Also important are reviewing previous learning, providing model responses for students and giving adequate time for students to practice to embed new understanding and skills securely.
Classroom climateTeacher expectations and the quality of interaction between teachers and students.
Classroom managementThe efficient use of lesson time and managing behaviour.
Teachers’ beliefsWhen the teacher has a clear understanding of why they adopt particular practices.
Professional behavioursHow a teacher uses their professional development, works with colleagues and communicates with parents.

Activity: As you observe geography teachers, and in your post-lesson discussions with them, try to pick out each of the above factors and the impact this had on their students’ learning.

Coe (2013) reminds us that it can be too easy as a teacher to labour under the delusion that ‘I have taught it’ so ‘they have learned it’. They are not the same! However good you feel your teaching has been, you need to check on what has actually been learned. Look at these poor proxies for learning he identifies, which can be easily observed, but are not really about learning.

  1. Students are busy: lots of work is done (especially written work).
  2. Students are engaged, interested, motivated.
  3. Students are getting attention: feedback, explanations.
  4. Classroom is ordered, calm, under control.
  5. Curriculum has been ‘covered’ (i.e. presented to students in some form).
  6. (At least some) students have supplied correct answers (whether or not they really understood them or could reproduce them independently).

When you observe geography teachers, have you been taken in by these poor proxies for learning? Did you think the lesson might have had a greater impact on students’ learning than it might have done? How could you find out?

Different forms of classroom practice

DfE Frameworks for ITT and ECTs require that new teachers learn that, ‘Classroom practice can transform pupils’ knowledge, capabilities and beliefs about learning.’

There is no single right way to teach, and when Ofsted inspect schools they do not expect teachers to follow any particular approach in how they teach or the way in which they structure lessons. But geography teachers do have to think carefully about their classroom practice, as Mark Jones points out in his introduction to the Geography Secondary Handbook when he writes:

‘Geography teachers need to carefully scrutinise new ideas, strategies and activities, particularly when applied in different contexts.’

In these pages there are many different ideas, strategies and activities for new teachers to explore. This section has a focus on different classroom practices. You should find out about explicit instructiongeographical enquirydialogic teaching and others.

Different teaching approaches are mirrored by different modes of learning for students. It is important to think about this teaching-learning relationship carefully, particularly in relation to the knowledge and understanding you want to teach.

Observing the teaching-learning relationship

Consider these learning activities that students can be engaged in during lessons. As you observe geography lessons, consider the classroom practice by the teacher that causes these to happen. You will add to the list as you observe different types of lessons, but here are some possible options:

  • Listening to an explanation
  • Participating in discussion/debate
  • Watching a demonstration/video
  • Reading a text
  • Interpreting diagrams, maps or images
  • Doing a practical activity with equipment or artefacts
  • Having an experience, e.g. on fieldwork
  • Solving a problem
  • Answer a question
  • Researching a question.


  • Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., et al. (2014) What Makes Great Teaching? Review of the Underpinning Research. London: Sutton Trust.
  • Jones, M. (ed) (2017) The Handbook of Secondary GeographySheffield: Geographical Association.


  • Coe, R. (2013) Improving education: A triumph of hope over experience. Inaugural lecture, Durham University.