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Geographical enquiry: The teacher role

‘The role of the teacher in the classroom is more significant than that of a manager or facilitator.’

Margaret Roberts, 2023 p 39

Topics on this page:

Setting up the enquiry | Creating a classroom culture of enquiry | Different teacher approaches to enquiry | Supporting learning in the enquiry classroom | Observations and research into geographical enquiry | Encouraging student reflection | Reading

Geographical enquiry takes many different forms; there is no single approach. It may be quite tightly structured by the teacher, or students may be given opportunities to plan for themselves how they are going to undertake an investigation.

They may be working collaboratively with others in a small group, or working individually. They could use a decision-making exercise, present arguments to others in role play or produce a project report or presentation. Any of these activities can be elements of a geographical enquiry. There will be differences in the teacher’s role in each case.

It might seem that a geography teacher has a reduced role in lessons when students are undertaking geographical enquiries and engaged with enquiry activities. This is not the case! Some will tell you that the role of the teacher is to be a ‘manager’ of learning or a ‘facilitator’.

But, as the opening quote shows, Margaret Roberts disagrees with this view because it ignores the teacher’s key role as a specialist geographer. Their role is critical for supporting students to identify appropriate geographical questions and sources of information. They scaffold learning throughout their enquiry and draw on their subject expertise to focus on the key concepts that need to be understood and select relevant examples to make sure that students are thinking geographically through all stages of the enquiry. 

The teacher’s role is crucial in creating a classroom culture that encourages curiosity. Roberts emphasises that ‘the extent to which students can learn to investigate geographical questions for themselves depends on the extent to which the teacher controls the process or enables students to make their own choices’ (Roberts 2023, p. 43).

Key reading

  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 4.

Setting up the enquiry

The teacher’s geography expertise is of major importance when setting up an enquiry. They use their expertise in the subject discipline to determine the enquiry questions and the geographical data that students will use. They use their pedagogical expertise to manage the learning and support students to achieve success. The selection of the main enquiry question is key.

Teachers also use their curricular expertise to ensure that the enquiry is linked with past and future learning and supports student progress. Specific prior learning is often necessary to carry out enquiries successfully. It may be specific prior factual or conceptual knowledge is required, or it may be students need to be able to use a specific skill. A teacher must decide what explicit pre-teaching is required to provide the students with the necessary learning to apply during their enquiry.

Geographical enquiries can be structured and managed in a myriad of different ways, but there is one important decision to be made before it starts. Will it be teacher-led or student-led? In other words, how much autonomy will pupils have in both framing and conducting the enquiry?

Creating a classroom culture of enquiry

For successful geographical enquiry, it is important to engender a culture of enquiry in the classroom so that students can work in an open-ended, investigative way. A culture of enquiry is when teachers continually encourage students to ask questions, think geographically for themselves and critically evaluate the geographical sources they use and what they find out.

  • Read Roberts (2023) p 43, ‘How can teachers create a classroom culture that supports enquiry?’

The essential starting point for any enquiry work is the stimulus, which is used to raise interest and curiosity. Students must be motivated to investigate. The type of stimulus can influence the classroom culture, for example it could include the visual or musical (see Roberts (2023) Figure 5.1), or an external visitor could be invited into the classroom to generate a ‘need to know’. The stimulus could be a context in which students have to present the findings of their enquiry to others.

The stance taken by a teacher in the classroom is also important. This is the teacher’s attitude towards the subject and the activity. Your enthusiasm and excitement should be infectious. You should promote curiosity and the ‘need to know’. You should not dominate discussion, but listen to students’ ideas and expects students to ask, and find the answers to, questions. Teachers communicate their stance by what they say and do in the classroom. Read about this in Roberts (2023) chapter 5.

An enquiry starts with a question and this should not always be ‘given’ by the teacher. See Students’ questioning skills, which suggests learning activities you can use to help students to generate questions to frame enquiries. When students choose their own investigation questions it can give a special impetus to the enquiry. However, it is essential that the questions they investigate are worthwhile and have some geographical rigour.

Different teacher approaches to enquiry

This table shows three different approaches related to the amount of teacher guidance used in an enquiry, from strong guidance at the ‘closed’ end of the table (teacher-led), to less guidance at the ‘negotiated’ end (student-led). Note too that there is a change in the role of the student in each category.

In the ‘closed’ category the teacher decides the questions, sources of evidence and activities. In the middle category, Roberts describes how students are ‘learning to operate geographers’ frames of thinking’ and the teacher has a key role to ensure they do this. Your geographical enquiries at key stage 3 are most likely to be in this category.

Of course, your role will vary as an enquiry progresses and it might not fit neatly into one of the columns in the table. The ‘negotiated’ category is generally found with older students, especially at A level and leading to the NEA (non-examined assessment).

  • Read Roberts (2023) pp. 41-3, ‘What different approaches can teachers adopt in implementing an enquiry-based curriculum?’

Supporting learning in the enquiry classroom

Scaffolding geographical learning is important in enquiry lessons. The teacher has a crucial role to ‘scaffold’ students’ learning through their classroom interactions. The amount required will vary from student to student and from task to task. This includes all forms of discussion with students and direct interventions when students have misunderstandings or need help to move forward in their geographical thinking.

As a teacher, you need to be very alert to students’ responses to learning activities and the progress they are making in their enquiries so you can decide the most appropriate form of intervention. You should ‘listen in’ to students as they work, and be flexible in your response. You may need to ask some probing questions that make them think; you may need to explain a concept or skill to a group of students, or to the whole class.

  • Read Roberts (2023) p 39 about the role of scaffolding within enquiries.
  • Read Roberts (2023) pp. 39-41 about research findings on the role of the teacher in enquiries.
  • Arrange to observe geographical enquiry lessons and use the table in The participation dimension in geographical enquiry as a framework to analyse the roles played by the teacher and the students in the lessons. How does it differ between lessons? Can you explain how factors such as the geographical content, lesson context, the teacher’s role and the learning intentions influenced this?

Use the ideas of Vygotsky, Wood et al. and Webster et al. (Roberts 2023 p 39) to produce a framework investigating the different ways in which you scaffold students’ learning e.g. in prepared materials, dialogues with the whole class or with groups and individuals. It would help to record your dialogues for later analysis. What kinds of interventions promote the development of geographical understanding? To what extent do the ways you use scaffolding restrict or enable students’ learning?

Encouraging student reflection

It is implicit in geographical enquiries that students use geographical data to construct geographical knowledge themselves. This will not happen by chance. The teacher must provide activities that help students to make sense of the geography and develop their personal understanding. You must help them to link their learning to the overarching enquiry question.

Therefore, an essential role of the teacher in geographical enquiries is to lead students in reflection on what has been learnt and how it has been learnt. This involves a teacher-led debriefing where you ask students some critical questions about what has been found out and the way in which this was done. Refer to Debriefing in geography.

  • Read Roberts (2023) chapter 22 to explore metacognition and reflection, and discuss with your mentor how students can be encouraged to reflect on their learning through discussion and the use of learning diaries.

Heeds what Roberts (2023) says on learning reflection taking time. Students must be encouraged to reflect regularly on their learning in geography if it is to become a habit of mind so that they come do it independently, without prompting.


  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4rd edition. London: Routledge, pp. 48-51.
  • Enser, M. (2019) Making Every Geography Lesson Count. Crown House Publishing, pp. 76-9.
  • Ferretti, J. (2017) ‘The enquiry approach in geography’ in Jones, M. and Lambert, D. (eds) Debates in Geography Education, 2nd edition. Oxon: Routledge.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 4.
  • Roberts, M. (2017) ‘Planning for Enquiry’ in Jones, M. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association, pp. 50-1.