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Geography for young people

“Helping young people to develop their knowledge and understanding of the world, supporting their capacities to engage with it, and enabling them to appreciate the implications of their own actions and those of others on the planet, is the stuff of school geography”

Mary Biddulph, 2017

Topics on this page:

  • Personal geographies
  • Investigation: students’ personal geographies
  • Students as geographers
  • What do students think about geography?
  • Discussion about young people and geography
  • Investigation: students’ views about geography
  • Reading

You should not lose sight of the fact that a major reason for teaching geography is to bring the subject to life for students and help them to make sense of the big challenges facing the world. What we teach must be relevant to students’ lives today and their future lives. The students’ own lives are relevant here.

Mary Biddulph, in the editorial to Teaching Geography (Summer 2010), reminds us that students’ lives are deeply geographical, articulating the spaces, places and lived experiences that our students bring with them into our lessons. 

These geographies acknowledge how young people’s daily lives shape, and are shaped by, a multitude of social, economic and cultural changes. They recognise that before they reach the door of their geography classroom all young people have already lived out many different personal geographies. She continues:

Where do they live and with whom? What have they had for breakfast (if any) and where did it come from? Are they wearing school uniform? Where did they buy it? Where did the shops selling these uniforms buy them from? Who made them in the first place? How did they get to school – by car, by bus or by walking? Who do they come to school with? How do they share their journey? What are the geographical issues around these journeys? What places, buildings and homes do they pass on the way? How long have they been there? Have they changed? If so, how and why? What technology do young people bring into school with them – a mobile phone, an iPad? Where are these things made and with what raw materials from which parts of the world? And so the list goes on …

Biddulph continues, ‘These geographical lives have much to say to teachers, yet how can we, in school geography, work with students to both better understand these geographical lives and to draw on them to shape relevant and worthwhile learning in geography lessons’.

  • Read Habib (2023) that explores how project-based learning can be used to teach about fast fashion and give students a sense of ownership over their learning. This activity gave students the opportunity to voice their ideas and work on a project that made a difference to local people’s lives.

You should make sure that geography lessons build on your students’ natural curiosity and involve them in exploring their local environment and spaces and places already known to them, as well as places that are elsewhere on the globe.

Encourage students to express their own attitudes and share their hopes and fears for the future. You should also ensure that students have a critical understanding of big ideas like ‘sustainable development’, ‘interdependence’ and ‘globalisation’ and are prepared for life in the second half of this century.

Personal geographies

Young people have their own distinct ‘personal geographies’. Their lives are often very different to those of adults, including geography teachers! They live and shop somewhere; they may have friends and relatives that live elsewhere. 

Many experience trips to places and environments that are different from their own local area and they can have interesting perceptions of ‘other’ people and places from holidays.

Indirectly, they encounter a world beyond their experience through other people, magazines, computers, social media and television programmes. During their teenage years, their personal geographies develop rapidly but, sometimes, their personal experiences can lead to misunderstandings about the world. Explore young people’s everyday geographies with them, and find out how this is influenced by their use of mobile technologies. Many students use TikTok or Instagram as their source of news, which can provide them with limited knowledge and inaccurate information.

Students’ direct and indirect experiences from their everyday lives contribute to what Massey (2006) called ‘geographical imaginations’. These are the mental images we have of the world and how we make sense of them. Read Roberts (2023) pp. 27-8 to find out how the term has been used by academic geographers. School geography should help to expand students’ geographical imaginations.

When you plan your lessons you should take account of your students’ personal geographies. Help them to use their personal experiences and connect these to the geography they are learning about. Encourage students to realise that geography can be ‘about them’ and their lives, but do not only consider what they have experienced. 

Find ways to challenge and excite students about geographies beyond their immediate horizon and create a richer geography experience for them. One of the most rewarding things about being a geography teacher is to provide interesting, worthwhile and relevant school geography experiences for young people.

  • Read McKendrick and Hammond (2020), who have studied how young people can share their experiences and imaginations of public space and discuss their neighbourhood and how well their it delivers what they want. Refer to their suggested geographical questions about space and neighbourhood to exploring students’ geographies.
  • Read Parkinson (2022) who encourages us to take a fresh look at curriculum documents and find a little place for the ordinary, the overlooked and the mundane, and allow the stories of students’ personal geographies to be celebrated.
  • Refer to Freeman, D. and Pike, S. (2004).

Design and carry out your own investigation into students’ personal geographies:

  • Identify an aspect of how students perceive and/or use their local environment (outside or indoors), e.g. what features are significant to them in their home area; where do they go in their leisure time; how do they use the school grounds at breaks/lunchtimes; how do they use domestic space?
  • Devise a way to explore these, e.g. questionnaire/small group interview/ observation schedule/setting a piece of work.
  • Carry out your investigation with your students and then use your data and reading to prepare a short paper about what you have learned about the students’ geographies. How could some of what you found be built into a unit of work in the school?
  • Present your findings for discussion with colleagues in a geography department meeting.

You could also carry out the activity described in Subject knowledge to investigate their personal geographies.

Roberts (2023) pp. 34-5 explains how autobiographies can provide insight into how students from diverse backgrounds experience their schooling.

Students as geographers

Good teachers are curious to gain an understanding of the lives of the young people they teach: who they are, what makes them tick, what they find difficult/easy/interesting? These are fundamental questions if a geography teacher is going to connect with students’ pre-existing knowledge. 

Students often have valid ideas and interpretations of geographical matters and teachers should openly discuss their ideas with them and allow them to develop as true geographers. Teachers should encourage students to pose geographical questions about issues that are important to them, such as:

  • Identity: Who am I? Where do I come from? Who is my family? What is my ‘story’? Who are the people around me? Where do they come from? What is their ‘story’?
  • Place in the world: Where do I live? How does it look? How do I feel about it? How is it changing? How do I want it to change? Can I influence this?
  • The physical world: What is the world (and this place) made of? Why do things move? What becomes of things?
  • Human environment: Who decides who gets what, where and why? What is fair? Who decides? How do we handle differences of opinion? The Geographical Association has run several projects that looked at geography from the students’ perspective.

What do students think about geography?

  • Read Kitchen (2013) about research into students’ views of geography.

Research by Hicks and Holden (1995) revealed what secondary-age students in 1995 thought about the future. Do you think this still reflects students’ hopes and fears today? While the table shows that students have an interest in the future at the personal, local and global levels, there is a worrying decline in optimism as they get older. 

The research showed that students felt they did not learn enough in school about global issues or their own future, which suggests that their geographical education was lacking in these respects.

Meet with your mentor or some teachers to discuss:

  • how we can value what our students bring to the curriculum. Any suggestions?
  • how we can use the geographical experiences students bring with them from their everyday lives in our lessons
  • if we listen enough to our students and their opinions, and in what ways we can do this
  • elements of personal geography when observing lessons, including whether this is catered for in the school curriculum, the national curriculum or exam courses
  • how we can give students opportunities to ask questions about geographically-related issues that matter to them.

You should consider more broadly how to involve ‘student voice’ in your curriculum. Students have a huge potential contribution to make, not as passive objects who receive the curriculum but as active players in the system.’

  • Refer to Professor Jean Ruddick’s short paper on Student Voice (2003).
  • Carry out the same research as Kitchen (2013) in your schools, including interviewing some of the students to elicit their views about geography.
  • Discuss with some older students (Y9 or Y12) their hopes and fears and compare their views with those shown in the table Students’ hopes and fears for the future.
  • Discuss your findings with your geography mentor/geography teachers.
  • What did you find out from the Y7 students in the activity described in Subject knowledge? Is this what you expected?
  • What have been the main influences on their ideas? What role has the teacher had on their ideas?
  • What else have you learnt from interviewing Y7 students?
  • How did the views of the older students you interviewed match those presented in the students’ hopes and fears for the future? Were they more or less optimistic?
  • Do students have opportunities to discuss these issues in geography lessons?
  • Discuss anything you have read that surprised you about students’ perceptions. Are other teachers surprised?

Reading

  • A Different View: World Issues Survey: the results of an Ipsos MORI poll to investigate what issues Key Stage 3 students think are important and whether they are learning about them.
  • Barratt, R and Hacking, E. (2000) ‘Changing my locality: conceptions of the future’, Teaching Geography, January.
  • Barratt, R and Hacking, E. (2003) ‘Rethinking the geography national curriculum: a case for community relevance’, Teaching Geography, January.
  • Durbin, C. (2004) ‘The good and the bad in geography’, Teaching Geography, April. This reflects on what adults remember about their geography experience in schools.
  • Fuller, D., Askins, K., Mowl, G., Jeffries, M. and Lambert, D. (2008) ‘My walks: Fieldwork and living geographies’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Freeman, D. and Pike, S. (2004) ‘Home, place and young people’s geography in the classroom’, in Rawlings Smith, E. and Pike, S. (eds), Encountering Ideas of Place in Education Scholarship and Practice in Place-based learning, Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Griffiths, H. (2010) ‘Young people’s geographies’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Habib, B. (2023) ‘Using authentic voices in the geography classroom through project-based learning’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Hopwood, N., Courtley-Green, C. and Chambers, T. (2005) ‘Year 9 students’ conceptions of geography’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Kitchen, R. (2013) ‘What is geography? The view from year 7’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Massey, D. (2006) ‘The geographical mind’ in Balderstone, D. (ed), Secondary Geography Handbook, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • McKendrick, J. and Hammond, L.(2020) ‘ Connecting with children’s geographies in education, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Norman, M. and Harrison, L. (2004) ‘Year 9 students’ perceptions of school geography’, Teaching Geography, January.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Ruddick, J. (2003) ‘‘Pupil voice is here to stay!’ London: QCA.
  • Weeden, P. (2006) Students’ perceptions of geography: a literature review, University of Birmingham. Extract: Students’ perceptions of the subject and the way it is taught.

References

  • Hicks, D and Holden, C. (1995) Visions of the Future: Why we need to teach for tomorrow. Trentham Books.
  • Parkinson, A. (2022) ‘Everyday geographies: the power of quotidian’, Teaching Geography, Summer.

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