“For many geography teachers, A level represents the epitome of teaching. It is the opportunity to develop mastery of the subject for both your students and also for yourself.”
Mark Harris, 2017
Topics on this page:
- What is post-16 education in England?
- How different is post-16 teaching?
- Providing challenge for post-16 students
- Student voice
- Post-16 teaching case studies
What is post-16 education in England?
All young people between 16 and 19 must study in full- or part-time education. This does not mean that all young people have to stay in school full-time; they can go to college, take up an apprenticeship or part-time training.
There are many different post-16 qualifications, but the main ones are:
- A levels: mainly academic subjects
- International Baccalaureate (IB): offering a wider range of subjects than A levels
- Vocational qualifications: training for specific jobs, e.g. NVQs and BTECs.
Geography features strongly in A levels and the IB, but there are tenuous links between vocational qualifications and geography because of the emphasis on work-related skills.
The overlap in subject matter is apparent in only a few units and often the geographical content is implied rather than explicit. The two main areas that broadly link to geography are qualifications for the travel, tourism and leisure industries and those related to the environment.
Students who want to take academic qualifications have the option to enrol in a school sixth form, a sixth-form college or a general further education (FE) college. Generally, vocational study is taken at FE colleges but increasingly in schools too.
Sixth forms can vary a lot in size and in the courses and facilities they offer. Sixth form and FE colleges tend to be larger and more informal than school sixth forms.
FE colleges offer similar courses to sixth form colleges. In many FE colleges you are likely to be in a ‘department’ of only one or two specialists who offer geography throughout the college on a variety of courses as well as teaching A level. FE geographers often work on multi-disciplinary course teams, for example in areas such as Leisure and Tourism.
Oakes and Rawlings Smith (2022) ask what constitutes a good A level geography education and discusses teachers’ perception of the purpose of school geography at post 16.
How different is post-16 teaching?
Rawlings Smith (2017) writes:
‘Many of the challenges of teaching post-16 geography, particularly for new teachers, stem from a lack of detailed knowledge of human and physical geography. High-quality resources and CPD can address such challenges, providing subject updates and opportunities for teachers to develop new skills and tackle subject areas not covered during their own undergraduate experience and to actively engage in the curriculum-making process’. (p. 265)
She sets out some suggestions in Figure 12 on page 274 for activities you can engage in that will refresh and develop your own subject knowledge.
The principles of good teaching at post-16 are not radically different from teaching younger students. Of course, at A level the content is at a higher level and more challenging intellectually.
Heed the comment at the top of this page. However, at the start of their post-16 studies, students are still only just beyond year 11, and the difference at first is imperceptible.
There are new skills for post-16 students to be taught such as note taking, essay writing, and report writing and they must hone their independent study skills, including learning how to elicit geographical information from a variety of sources.
See Harris (2017) for teaching techniques to develop these skills in A level students. Many of the vocational courses emphasise the importance of student-centred learning, particularly group reports and presentations. Travel, tourism and leisure courses offer many opportunities for visits and fieldwork.
When you plan post-16 teaching, avoid adopting a ‘spoon-feeding’ approach with content-heavy handouts. Try to explore a wide range of strategies and you will see how effective geography teaching at post-16 has much in common with teaching younger students.
- Refer to Rawlings Smith (2017) pp. 265-275.
The biggest difference in a FE college is that students may include young people and adults of all ages, and the range of academic ability may be wider. Beyond GCSE, students tend to move out of school uniform and appear more adult, which can diminish the age-gap between a new teacher and a Y12 student.
You need to work on portraying the professional role and image of a teacher in these circumstances. Consider carefully the practicalities of how to approach class management, ensure work is completed on time and encourage student participation – all of these can differ considerably from what you expect in younger classes.
- Refer to Teaching strategies to use with post-16 students.
- See Geography Matters. This is a free newsletter produced by the GA’s Post-16 and HE Phase Committee. It features articles on a range of issues affecting post-16 geography education.
- See the GA webpage A level curriculum.
- PowerPoint: Supporting students through the transition from GCSE to A level by Andrew Barker at the GA Conference, 2021
- Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher. Routledge, chapter 11 Teaching A Level.
- Oakes, S. and Rawlings Smith, E. (2022) ‘What constitutes a good A level geography education?’ Teaching Geography, Spring.
- Rawlings Smith, E. ‘Post-16 geography’ in Jones, M. (ed) (2017) The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Sheffield: Geographical Association. This chapter is mainly about strategies for teaching A level geography.
Providing challenge for post-16 students
Think back on your own post-16 experience and particularly reflect on the differences you found between A level and university work in geography. While not all the post-16 students you teach will go on to study geography degrees, some will. All students should be challenged intellectually in your lessons because this is the essence of A level study.
Whittall (2019) discusses the perceptions that sixth form students have about powerful subject knowledge. They recognise that its power lies in thinking about new ways of understanding the world and being provided with the tools to join in with topical discussions and debates. They also acknowledge the importance of teacher explanation in acquiring this knowledge.
Megan Brook (see reference below) writes:
‘I remember being shocked, in my first year at university, by the step change between school and university geography: for the first time, I was encouraged to consider that our own politics and policies could be to blame for the plight of some developing countries. The nature of development was also contested: are we really more ‘developed’ than the Global South, or do the indicators we use simply present us in this way?
Teaching geography at a London comprehensive school, I was frustrated to find I had turned the clock back: I was expected to present development issues in the way I had been taught at school.’
This article goes on to offer encouragement to A level geography teachers that students can engage with higher-level concepts and texts. Take heed of this as you plan A level lessons.
Another approach reverses the traditional classroom practice of the teacher providing information to students as a group and then assigning tasks to individual students. Instead, students first experience a new topic in individual study, often online. Class time is used for challenging work through problem solving, discussion or debate. Read about this is in Baston (2016).
Alcock, Fryer and Robinson (2023) use Harkness discussions in their A level lessons to increase student engagement and develop the skills of evaluation and synopticity. They describe the approach as follows:
A Harkness discussion involves a small group of students discussing an issue around a table. The discussion will usually focus on a shared stimulus, for example an article, but it can also be a fruitful revision method for the end of a unit. The teacher decides upon the stimulus, sets up the questions the students should tackle, facilitates how lesson time is used, observes the lesson (making notes on what was contributed and by whom), and feeds back on it. As well as giving their own take on the topic, students should be encouraged to politely question, challenge, or prompt each other.
They noted that on the first occasion that a discussion takes place, the teacher may need to intervene, to move the conversation on and sensitively help quieter members by suggesting that they start parts of the discussion. Later on, however, such interventions were rare.
- Read the article by Alcock, Fryer and Robinson (2023) Consider the three case studies and try out this technique in your classroom with older students.
It is always important to hear student views and involve them in decisions about teaching and their learning, but particularly when students are post-16.
Rawlings Smith (2017) asked her students what they thought made a successful lesson and their comments on this are enlightening (see page 266 and Figure 6).
Post-16 teaching case studies
Explore some of these Teaching Geography articles about post-16 teaching to give you further inspiration and ideas as well as articles in Geography Matters (see above).
- Alcock, D., Fryer, L. and Robinson, H. (2023) ‘Active geographical learning using Harkness discussions’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
- Baston, J. (2016) ‘A flipped learning model’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
- Brand, S. (2020) ‘Capturing a “sense of place” through fieldwork’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
- Broad, J. (2006) ‘Glacier velocity and pressure melting points’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
- Brook, M. (2013) ‘Development: contested, complex and diverse’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
- Bustin, R. (2019) ‘Investigating lived space: ideas for fieldwork’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
- Bye, C., Hirst, S. and Thorpe, C. (2017) ‘Creating local opportunities for independent investigations’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
- Carrick, M. and Edwards, S. (2020) ‘How can independent research promote critical thinking skills in A level geography lessons?’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
- Gant, R. and Talbot, P. (2000) ‘Wall posters from fieldwork’, Teaching Geography, April.
- Gibson, G and Bye, C. (2019) ‘The non-examined assessment: a student’s perspective’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
- Kitchen, B. (2017) ‘Developing an A level independent investigation toolkit’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
- Maddison, J. and Landy, R. (2018) ‘Casting aside our hammers: Creative fieldwork approaches and methods’, Geography, Autumn.
- Marriott, A. (2007) ‘The transition from A level to degree geography’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
- Oakes, S. and Rawlings Smith, E. (2022) ‘What constitutes a good A level geography education?’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
- Percival, J. (2013) ‘A-level geography 30 years on’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
- Pointon, V. (2010) ‘Water, water, everywhere…’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
- Robinson, C. and Lyon, R. (2017) ‘Fieldwork considerations in a sensitive landscape’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
- Rose, C. (2008) ‘Are year 13s too old to think?’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
- Saddington, L. and McConnell, F. (2023) ‘Debating global governance: resources to engage A level students with geopolitics’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
- Waddington, H. and Foster, C. (2017) ‘Curiosity calling us outside’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
- Waller, R., Adams, C., Miller, G. and Schultz, D.M. (2016) ‘Encouraging students to read beyond the core text’ Teaching Geography, Autumn.
- Warn, S. (2012) ‘Teaching about conflicts at post-16’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
- Whittall, D. (2019) ‘Learning powerful knowledge successfully: Perspectives from sixth form geography students’, Impact. Chartered College of Teaching, February.
- Wood, P. (2007) ‘Developing Holistic Thinking’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
A useful resource for post-16 teaching is the growing collection of videocasts on the GA website. These are intended to provide a deeper understanding of a wide range of issues and challenges in the contemporary world through short, powerful updates. Each video is accompanied by a range of material including further reading and resources.
To develop your subject knowledge for geography A level topics, refer to the GA publications in the Changing Geography and Top Spec Geography series. There are also GEO resources for A level which include: