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Geography curriculum design

“Curriculum documents are never creative: teachers are.”

David Rogers, 2015 

Topics on this page:

A rationale for a geography curriculum | Thinking about curriculum intent | Designing a coherent curriculum | Curriculum design: disciplinary and substantive knowledge | Designing a knowledge-rich curriculum | Curriculum planning at Key Stage 3, GCSE and A level | The place of concepts in curriculum design | Designing a curriculum for progression | Analyse the curriculum in your school | Curriculum fundamentals | Curriculum design case studies | Ofsted principles for building a geography curriculum | Interleaving and curriculum design | Reading: curriculum planning case studies | Reading

Introduction

Curriculum planning is concerned with making decisions about what we teach, why we make these choices and how we organise teaching and learning. At the department level, a geography curriculum is planned by geography teachers specifically for the students in that school. It has to be appropriate for them and take account of the school curriculum statement and its aims. 

It also has to set out what will be taught in relation to national requirements. At the classroom level, teachers use the curriculum to plan the detail of their lessons and sequences of lessons. A plan covering a sequence of lessons is as a medium term plan, often known by teachers as a scheme of work.

The term curriculum development (or curriculum making) implies more than only organising and sorting material. It is a creative process in which the resulting curriculum is original to your school. Turner (2018) explains how schools need to ascertain their curriculum principles and from these identify questions to ask and from these make precise and deliberate choices about their curriculum.

This web page outlines some of the principles and questions to bear in mind when designing a geography curriculum. From intent to implementation: curriculum making discusses the next stage of detailed planning.

When you are a new teacher, you will not be responsible for designing a complete curriculum although you may well be involved in the curriculum making process in your department.  However, you should know about and understand how curriculum design operates and what decisions need to be made.

Key Reading

A rationale for a geography curriculum

Curriculum planning depends upon teachers having a clear vision of the role and purpose of a geography education. A good curriculum opens with a statement that sets out its rationale – or in Ofsted speak its ‘intent’. Ofsted’s Education Inspection Framework (EIF) 2019 defines curriculum intent as ‘the extent to which the school’s curriculum sets out the knowledge and skills that pupils will gain’. 

The curriculum rationale (or curriculum intent) will articulate the sense of what the curriculum is setting out to achieve. This requires a department to ask some searching questions such as:

  • What is the fundamental purpose of teaching geography?
  • What do we want students to achieve through geography?
  • What are our students’ needs and interests?

The GA’s A framework for the school geography curriculum includes a statement of the learning opportunities a geography curriculum should provide in the shaded box on page 5.   

  • Discuss this with your mentor and other geography teachers. Consider what you would prioritise as the key aims and purposes of a geography curriculum. 

As a new teacher it will give you good insights into how a curriculum intent is written if you discuss the process with teachers who have prepared one themselves.  

  • Read the articles by Gleen (2020) and Kay (2021) to explore how teachers create a curriculum intent in practice. 

Gleen (2020) has written about the process she followed to create her intent statement first and then the curriculum. Her approach of ‘heart, head, hands’ was based on Peter Hyam’s ideas, as she explains.  

Intent of geography

The intent statement should include how geography will contribute towards the cultural capital for students in terms of the knowledge and skills they need to be successful learners and in life. They should be given access to powerful knowledge in the geography curriculum that will take them beyond everyday experience and give them new ways of thinking about the world. 

Gleen (2020), when she was rewriting her curriculum, asked a good question, ‘Do students (especially if they don’t opt to study GCSE) leave school richer for having studied geography? Or do we focus too much on getting them exam-ready?’ 

Kay (2021) went to The GA Manifesto ‘A Different View’ for inspiration for the intent statement. You can find further relevant reading in Being a geography teacher. 

  • Refer to The ‘intent’ of geography from the GA’s Secondary Phase Committee, which reflects on the ‘intent’ of the geography curriculum by highlighting the skills, knowledge and cultural capital students’ gain through their geography lessons.

Consider this example (Kay, 2021) and analyse it closely. Identify how it prepares students for adult life as informed citizens as will as well as learning geography. Would you add or remove anything from this statement?

Our vision: to offer an up-to-date, relevant and issues-based curriculum with sustainability at the core. The programme is designed to engender curiosity and wonder about the world; we want our students to be able to apply knowledge and conceptual understanding to new settings and through enquiry and problem-solving activities prepare for life in the 21st century. Our aim is that students think geographically about the changing world, becoming critical learners and knowledgeable, skilful and responsible citizens who care about the future of our planet.

The diagram from Rawling (2007) indicates the range of factors that influence a geography curriculum. All of these factors need to be considered when a rationale or intent for the curriculum is considered.

Curriculum design

Designing a coherent curriculum

Once the curriculum intent has been identified, a school will begin the task of designing their geography curriculum and ensuring its coherence.  

When inspecting schools, Ofsted look to see whether, ‘the curriculum is coherently planned and sequenced towards cumulatively sufficient knowledge and skills for future learning and employment’ (Ofsted Education Inspection Framework, 2019).  

Getting the curriculum design right is not only about identifying the content, but also how to ensure coherence. A coherent curriculum is one where the content, pedagogy, resources and assessment are all aligned and work together to enable students’ geographical learning.

Coherence depends on identifying the important geographical ideas and concepts that underpin this learning. It also requires clarity about what is understood by geographical learning. 

Curriculum design: disciplinary and substantive knowledge 

Curriculum design for geography must consider the relationship between substantive content and disciplinary knowledge. For further information on these refer to Subject knowledge. 

The GA’s A framework for the school geography curriculum presents in Figure 2 on page 4 a simple outline of a curriculum framework identifying three parts of disciplinary knowledge: geographical key concepts, geographical practice and geographical application. 

Figure 3 on page 5 shows how the three components of geography (key concepts, practice and application) are interrelated. Any curriculum should include each of these, whatever extra dimensions or perspectives are added. 

  • Study these figures carefully and discuss with your mentor and teachers in your school how their curriculum includes these three components of disciplinary knowledge.  

When studying geography students should be guided to identify the connections between different aspects of the subject and develop a coherent sense of ‘geography’. This is usually described as holistic geography and should be considered when curriculum planning. The holistic nature of geography becomes apparent when key concepts, practice and application are combined within the curriculum design.   

  • Read more about this in Thinking geographically and read the article by Rawding (2014) that is referenced there.
Ofsted (2023) emphasises that the curriculum should encourage students to ‘think like a geographer’. this means developing:
 
Pupils’ disciplinary knowledge not as a separate topic but as pupils learn more about the substantive content of the geography curriculum. Disciplinary knowledge should be organised in the curriculum so that pupils learn how geographers question and explain the world.

To introduce students to the discipline of geography, some schools devote a unit of study to consider ‘What it means to be a geographer?’. 

Gardner (2021) believes it is important to share this with students ‘so they develop a sense of what geography is for and its value and what it means to think geographically, and see the world in an interconnected way. In this way, students can begin to see the importance of geography not just for their life now, but for their future.’ 

Designing a knowledge-rich curriculum 

The curriculum design must ensure that learners make progress in their substantive world knowledge as well as in their disciplinary understanding. In recent years there has been a growing expectation that the curriculum is knowledge-rich. 

As Sherrington (2018) explains knowledge has been a hot debate in education since the education reforms after 2010 brought knowledge to the forefront of the curriculum and a ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’ is now ‘de rigueur’. 

In a knowledge-rich curriculum the content is specified in detail and is carefully mapped and sequenced. Knowledge is taught to be remembered, not just to be worked with. Sometimes the terms ‘knowledge-led’ or ‘knowledge-based’ are used. 

  • Read Enser (2018) to understand what this change of emphasis means to a geography teacher at the chalkface. 

Curriculum planning at key stage 3, GCSE and A level 

The minimum entitlement of substantive knowledge at key stage 3 is the National Curriculum and the requirements for GCSEand A level geography.  However, schools have the autonomy to design their curriculum, and decide the key principles that will shape it, how to implement their curriculum and select content most appropriate for their students. 

However, Ofsted (2023) noted that the curriculum ‘in some schools did not match the scope and ambition of the national curriculum. Most often, this was because the aims of the national curriculum had been overlooked or because place and/or geographical skills were not being taught‘.

Ofsted also reported that at key stage 4 and 5 ‘the exam specification had become the de facto curriculum…this approach ignored the synoptic nature of the subject and lacked ambition in terms of developing pupils’ knowledge of the discipline of geography‘.

  • Read Rawlings Smith (2017) to understand how to approach curriculum planning in post-16 curriculum development. She identifies aims/objectives for post-16 in the form of questions which are useful to consider for curriculum development. 
  • In Wales geography is not a discrete subject but is part of ‘Humanities’. Refer to Robinson (2022) for some curriculum design approaches in this context.  

Geography curriculum planning for all key stages should be ‘top down’. The approach is to proceed from the top of Figure 2 in  A framework for the school geography curriculum and work downwards. 

Consider the curriculum aims and geography’s disciplinary distinctiveness first, and then select specific substantive content and organise this into themes or topics.  This is the opposite way to how teaching and learning works in practice, which starts with the substantive content and builds up ‘layers of knowledge and experience’, as students learn geographical concepts and practise geographical ways of thinking and working. 

While it can be enticing to begin thinking about the exciting places to teach and the enquiries you want students to undertake, the overarching principles should be decided first. These should be identified for a school, and its students, to reflect the curriculum intent and not just be copied from the National Curriculum, exam specifications or other’s curricula. 

Obviously, these ideas must align with national requirements, but there is still room for interpretation to design an appropriate curriculum for a school’s students.   

The place of concepts in curriculum design 

As we have seen in Concepts in geography key concepts such as place, space, earth systems and environment can provide a disciplinary foundation for a geography curriculum. Once the key concepts for a curriculum have been identified, the curriculum design should unpack these and establish criteria for selecting content and teaching and learning activities. 

Without a conceptual framework a curriculum will be rudderless. The design should ensure that knowledge, concepts and geographical practice work together. Coherence is achieved by the way the concepts and skills are threaded through the curriculum, how they are connected together for geographical thinking, and how learners progress in understanding them. The actual titles of curriculum topics and case studies selected as the context for study are of less importance as long as they support the overall curriculum aims.  

  • Refer to the GA’s A framework for the school geography curriculum pp 7 to 9 which explains the importance of concepts in curriculum planning.  Study carefully Figure 4 which provides a conceptual grid for school geography with some examples of content. 
  • Read Biddulph et al (2021) chapter 2 about the importance of concepts in curriculum planning. 
  • Refer again to Gleen (2020) and consider how she identified the key concepts and skills first when she planned the curriculum and subsequently the how and the what to teach fell into place.
Ofsted (2023) reports that they found that ‘geographical concepts, as they would be understood in the literature on the subject, were not a feature of the curriculum planning in many schools visited‘. Ofsted goes on to illustrate how the use of concepts in curriculum planning would help teachers to consider how to approach the teaching of substantive and procedural knowledge. For example:

 

The national curriculum specifies “economic activity” as an area for study, but not what to study about economic activity. By considering key concepts (such as environment) and organising concepts (such as interconnection), a leader might decide to focus on how economic activity in an area that is affected by the physical environment and how that environment is in turn affected by the economic activities.

Designing a curriculum for progression 

A school’s geography curriculum should be a statement of intent about how students will make progress in their geographical learning.  It is the why and what is taught rather than the how. The geography curriculum should be ambitious in relation to the standards it expects students to achieve.  

The English National Curriculum and many examination specifications simply provide lists of topics. Such lists, with no discernible order, are unhelpful for designing a coherent geography curriculum that enables students to make progress in geographical learning. 

In Progression in geographical learning it was noted in many aspects of geography there is no clear-cut sequence to understanding the big ideas and practices of the discipline nor is one aspect of learning necessary so the next can build on it. In some geography topics, however, students understanding of processes will develop progressively. 

For example, understanding of erosion and deposition in physical geography will be deepened as students move through the study of rivers, coasts, glaciation; this must be considered when designing the curriculum. 

What is most important is that the curriculum design leads to the study of carefully selected content so that students use geographical practice to move towards developing their skills and capabilities and understanding the key concepts. 

The key geographical concepts that students encounter repeatedly ensure they develop better understanding of these concepts over time. Many geography teachers use geographical enquiry to focus on investigation and build conceptual progression. 

Curriculum sequencing is important and curriculum design should consider the interplay of different types of geographical content as students make their geography curriculum journey. The curriculum also has to prepare students for future learning and make the next stage possible.  

Curriculum planning might be in units of work, but students’ geographical knowledge should be in a learning continuum and not be tied to particular topics. Also, while planning the curriculum think carefully about what knowledge students need to retain and retrieve in the longer term. Not all geographical knowledge plays the same role. 

  • Refer to Hopkin and Gardner (2023) and Gardner (2021) for practical advice curriculum design and progression. 

Analyse the curriculum in your school  

The GA has used this document, based on the Geography National Curriculum Programmes of Study to encourage teachers to ask some searching questions of their current KS3 geography curriculum. Use it to analyse the curriculum in your school and identify its strengths and aspects that could be developed.  

Curriculum fundamentals

Set out below are some fundamental questions to ask as the starting point for your geography curriculum design. Each can be followed up via the links provided.

  • Are we designing a knowledge-rich curriculum? (see Subject knowledge)
  • For whom are we designing the curriculum – are there inbuilt assumptions about students’ backgrounds and culture? Is this a curriculum for all? (see Inclusion and adaptation and refer to Lambert and Morgan (2023) who outline six principles that underpin a racially literate geography curriculum)
  • Do we believe that knowing locations and a range of places is important? (see Place and places)
  • What do we consider are the concepts that are essential to geography? (see Concepts)
  • What do we believe is the role of assessment? (see Assessment in geography)
  • How important is enquiry and investigation to underpin geographical learning? (see Geographical enquiry)
  • Do we believe that fieldwork is an important curriculum experience? (see Fieldwork)
  • What do we see as the role of spatial skills, (e.g. maps, GIS) in geographical learning? (see Spatial skills, maps and GIS)
Remember that these are not stand-alone elements in the curriculum. These aspects should be connected together to give the curriculum coherence: e.g. assessment linked to concepts, enquiry as part of the fieldwork experience, places as the context for developing spatial skills.

Curriculum design case studies

Schools will have different priorities for their students and design their curriculum accordingly. Teachers need to believe in, and be fully committed to, the curriculum they teach. 

Every geography department should determine what principles are important for their curriculum design.  They need to consider: the subject, the pedagogy and the students. These are the three central elements of curriculum making. 

You can read more about priorities that geography departments have identified in these Teaching Geography articles. 

  • Renshaw and Ashton (2014) explain the approach their school followed when they revised their 2007 curriculum to bring it in line with the 2014 National Curriculum revision. They indicate the principles they had identified as important for their curriculum design in 2007 and how they revised their thinking in 2014. This shows that although curricula evolve to accommodate new ideas and regulations, where geography departments hold strong principles, these can continue to prevail in their curriculum design. 
  • Pollard and Hesslewood (2015) wanted to provide students with a more ‘authentic’ geographical education. Their design set out to embed the use of different technologies and permeate enquiry throughout the curriculum with the aim to enrich the knowledge and skills that students required for work and life beyond school. Consider the questions they raise and whether these should be considered for your curriculum.
  • Kyndt (2015) believed in giving students access to topics in the news – the serious matters that adults discuss, concerned with social, political, cultural and economic conflicts. The department developed a curriculum idea for key stage 3 on the topic ‘Walls’ to explore the physical division of space and resulting conflicts. Could this be a principle to consider for your curriculum?
  • Read Cook (2014) who describes how they tabulated the National Curriculum content for key stage 3 and then considered potential key themes, which engendered a lively teacher debate within the department. They focused on what would ‘inspire in students a curiosity and fascination about the world’ as the National Curriculum expects and discussed what topics they currently taught that students loved and what probably should be ‘ditched’. 

Ofsted principles for building a geography curriculum

The Ofsted research review for geography (2021) identifies further matters for schools to consider when they are building a curriculum.

Build on and expand students’ personal experiences of geography. This does not mean to exclude teaching the unfamiliar because students must gain knowledge about the world beyond their own experience. However, they must be able to relate this to what they already know if they are to build a strong schema.

Use real and relevant contexts. Contemporary examples are also helpful. Teachers, first criterion for choice should be that it best demonstrates the phenomenon or phenomena being studied.

Geographers are concerned with the local and the global. They are also interested in how local, regional and national decisions have global impacts, relationships between regions and countries, and interdependence. It is important to consider scale and provide opportunities to ‘zoom in’ and ‘zoom out’ in order to view processes and their impact from local, regional, national and international perspectives.

Breadth of knowledge. Each form of knowledge should get due consideration as well as the interrelationship between locational knowledge, place knowledge, human and physical processes and geographical skills.

Disciplinary knowledge and ‘thinking like a geographer’ should be included to add rigour to the curriculum.

Based on’ A curriculum to ‘think like a geographer’: choosing, building and linking knowledge’ from The Ofsted Research Review: Geography. (2021)

It is important for geography departments to weigh up all the following factors carefully and consider the approach to adopt before they begin to identify specific curriculum content.

Students’ personal experiences. Consider what you know about your students’ personal geographies and how you can find out. Refer to Geography for young people.

Contemporary issues. Geographers should consider major events and their local and global effects. On the other hand, the curriculum cannot be continually diverted for every unfolding disaster. Consider how to build in curriculum flexibility to cope with this. Rogers (2014) expresses the view that ‘floating topicality’ is geography’s secret weapon.

Sittner (2021) suggests a heath study based around COVID-19 that embeds big geographical ideas such as space, population change and globalisation. Usher (2019) illustrates how the saturation coverage of Brexit in the media provided the perfect opportunity to help students make sense of the world in which they live, and affords us, as geography advocates, the chance to highlight the sheer power and importance of our subject.

Local-global perspectives. Refer to Place and places and Teaching about development and globalisation.

Disciplinary knowledge. Refer to Powerful knowledge and Thinking geographically and reflect on how to include these in your curriculum.

Procedural knowledge is a further matter to consider, although absent from the Ofsted list. In particular, geography departments need to decide how to incorporate geographical enquiry, fieldwork and map skills into their curriculum design – should these be embedded or taught as separate topics?

  • Read Renshaw (2014) and Cook (2014) to see how they have grappled with the map skills dilemma in geography curriculum planning.

Interleaving and curriculum design

Interleaving of topics is thought by cognitive science to improve the chances of committing learning to long-term memory. In response to this, some teachers have used this approach in place of the more traditional block learning, where students cover one topic at a time. However, recent EEF research (2021) suggests that its efficacy is unproven outside of mathematics.

Enser (2020), however, has suggested that ‘interweaving’ could be a good approach in geography. He has thought this out carefully and uses an approach to weave in strands of systematic geography into the study of regions. Students have opportunities to retrieve information and to apply it in new situations to lead to meaningful learning.

Enser believes this is important for developing relational thinking and thinking geographically. Cook (2015) similarly writes about an approach to teach key processes through regional topics and to build up the ‘big picture’ of geography so that students see the synoptic links that underpin what can otherwise seem a disparate list of topics.

Both of these writers are trying to avoid teaching geography topics in ‘silos’ and this is to be commended. However, it is worth noting that the general approach is quite similar to the way geography was taught many years ago with the emphasis on the region, with thematic geography embedded.

This led to some superficial teaching of processes because students failed to consolidate their understanding by studying examples in different contexts. These writers have gone to some lengths to avoid this problem in designing their curriculum, but it is a pitfall awaiting the unwary. If you try interweaving in your curriculum design, evaluate it carefully and check that it does result in secure understanding.

  • Read this paper from the expert subject advisory group for geography. It discusses linking systematic geography and locational knowledge at key stage 3 and gives many examples to show how Russia and the Middle East can be linked to teaching physical and human geography.

Reading: curriculum planning case studies

  • Cook, K. (2014) ‘Planning a new key stage 3’, Teaching Geography, Spring. (key stage plan is an additional resource)
  • Enser, M. (2020) ‘Interweaving geography: retrieval, spacing and interleaving in the geography curriculum’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Enser, M. (2018) ‘Knowledge in the classroom‘, blogpost April 14.
  • Gleen, J. (2020)‘ Geography’s intent: developing your curriculum’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Gleen, J. (2020) ‘Geography’s intent: developing your curriculum’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Kay, R. (2021) ‘The deep dive geography experience: intent, implementation and impact’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Kyndt, C. (2015) ‘A world of borders: Exploring geopolitics through divide’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Larkin, M. and Goldup, G. (2014) ‘Planning a new key stage 3’, Teaching Geography. Spring. (key stage plan of units is an additional resource)
  • Pollard, G. and Hesslewood, A. (2015) ‘A more ‘authentic’ geographical education’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Renshaw, S and Ashton, R. (2014) ‘Planning a new key stage 3’, Teaching Geography, (GA members can download the key stage 3 plan which is an additional resource)
  • Usher, J. (2019) ‘Brexit and borders: topical geography’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.

Reading