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Teaching strategies for post-16 geography

“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”

Emma Rawlings Smith, 2017

Topics on this page:

Strategies for active learning at post-16 teaching | Starting where students are at | Creating a ‘need to know’ | Developing an enquiry teaching unit | Providing challenge for post-16 students | Student voice | Reading


Post-16 geography lessons should inspire students and make suitable demands upon them. Ofsted (2004) pointed out that it is particularly important to encourage post-16 students to think independently.

Inspectors identified that the best teaching is characterised by a good tutorial style, inclusive questioning, challenging content and a brisk pace. Ofsted reports that: ‘this encourages students to participate at a high level in brainstorming, asking and answering questions and devising mind-maps, as well as taking part in class discussion.’

Ofsted criticises post-16 lessons that give students information rather than provide them with the opportunity to develop thinking skills through research and discovery for themselves, discussion, group work and resource-based learning.

Strategies for active learning at post-16 teaching

Rawlings Smith (2017) sets out contrasting strategies (see page 266) that are teacher and student led. Whichever approach is used, Rawlings Smith reiterates the importance of ‘student ownership’ and comments:

‘it is good practice to involve post-16 students in the learning process; informing them about what they are learning and why can enable them to take ownership of their learning.’

Mark Harris (2017) provides a good explanation of how to approach some key strategies for teacher-led A level teaching, such as note-taking and Developing extended writing and essays. He sets out what might be considered a ‘traditional’ approach to post-16 teaching.

Bob Digby provides three strategies to promote active learning among post-16 students. He argues that these will create enquiry-based classrooms for this age group and provide consistency with their teaching elsewhere. (These strategies are adapted from the original ‘Think Piece’ written as part of the GA’s GTIP project.)

The three strategies are designed to promote a particular range of skills and has a sound educational rationale:

  • Starting where students are at; a sorting exercise about Biomes based on what students already know. This can be found in Activity 1.
  • Creating a ‘need to know’ in developing analytical skills; a balloon debate about flood management. This can be found in Activity 2.
  • Developing an enquiry teaching unit of teaching about sustainability; a focus upon Sydney’s Olympic Games.

What these three strategies have in common is their focus on encouraging students to participate and learn through talk. In that sense, they owe much to strategies and their rationale developed by Roberts (2003) about talk in geography classrooms and its essential role in learning.

She distinguishes ‘talk’ from ‘chat’; the former is geography-related and intended as part of the lesson outcome. Several strategies are detailed in her writing, and it is well worth reading her work for active, workable strategies that the new teacher can adopt and work with in comfort.

Starting where students are at

How much do students bring to the classroom? Barnes (1976) draws the distinction between transmission styles of teaching and an interpretative style. Transmission occurs when the teacher treats students as empty vessels, waiting to be filled. In this situation, it is often the teacher who is relied on for everything they know. Remove the teacher and there is nothing.

Transmission is incredibly hard work for the teacher. One teacher explains, “When I began teaching in the early 1970s, I used to sit up until midnight or beyond, making my own notes for students to use the following day. I quickly became aware that this was suiting nobody; I was working harder than the students, and they didn’t always understand what I was trying to teach them. It was completely unsatisfactory”.

In Barnes’ world of transmission, students receive messages from the teacher about what they are being taught. The teachers have got, we assume, knowledge and understanding of the concepts in their mind. 

But how do we know what students are thinking while the teacher is transmitting information? What if the messages are garbled en route? What if the students can’t keep up with the pace of the teacher? What if the student has had a personal issue and is struggling to take in information, such as a pet has died? There are simply too many problems with this kind of teaching.

One of the most important strategies for teachers is to find out and build upon what students already know and understand about the world. Activity 1 is about Biomes; Digby reports that he has used this frequently with post-16 students in units about Biomes from two different specifications. Its purpose is to reinforce the concept of Net Primary Productivity, and use that in assessing the most productive Biomes.

Digby explains that he used it to show how marine ecosystems (i.e. oceans, coral reefs and mangroves) were most productive depending upon the criteria used. In one sense, the activity is based on intelligent guesswork, but it draws on students’ knowledge and understanding of ecosystem process, their knowledge of the world, the extent and nature of different Biomes and their relative productivity.

Creating a ‘need to know’

A ‘need to know’ has been identified by Roberts (2003) as part of the enquiry approach to learning. She describes the enquiry approach as an approach which ‘recognises that knowledge is not something “out there” ready to be learnt; it is generated in the process of answering questions.’ 

However, she stresses that questions need to be students’ own questions, ‘formed from curiosity’ and a need to know. In that sense, therefore, the ‘need to know’ arises out of puzzlement, from a stimulus of some kind.

Flood management can be taught passively, using video, for instance, or through textbook materials, in which students learn from the content. But engagement does not necessarily follow, and without this, student understanding can be limited. 

The strategy shown in Activity 2, a game scenario involving a balloon debate, is designed so that students first gain expertise in one role, with survival in the balloon as the ‘need to know’, and are forced into discussion with others in the balloon.

By having to evaluate their own strategy against others, the exercise develops student abilities in rapid thinking and reaction to questions, decision-making, analytical reasoning skills and their abilities in presenting a case, each of which are important learning skills.

Developing an enquiry teaching unit

Whilst activities can be an integral part of every sixth form lesson given sufficient preparation, there is further skill in developing a unit in which enquiry lies at the heart of teaching. 

Digby’s third activity is designed to demonstrate how teachers might use the Olympic Games in their teaching about sustainability, the geographies of change, urban environments, and of globalisation.

He explains how for some time he has used the example of the Olympic Games in teaching about urban environments and the application of sustainable principles to people’s living spaces, about global change, and about the geography of sport and leisure.

Rather than being taught as a list of content with which to fill empty vessels, it is planned around key questions, which define the enquiry and create the focus. The key questions are:

  1. What are the challenges of managing urban environments?
  2. How do planners and decision-makers attempt to resolve these challenges?
  3. How successful are these strategies in managing urban environments?

Like flood management, urban change features at A level. In the unit, students are engaged as participants in assessing sustainable criteria for urban change. 

It offers a broad understanding of ‘sustainability’, an opportunity for students to judge how sustainable urban flagship developments may be, and students can use the criteria: an ability to analyse. A full rationale is given in the Digby, B. (2007) ‘Teaching about the Olympics’, Teaching Geography, Summer 2007.

Providing challenge for post-16 students

Think back on your own post-16 experience and 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.

Whittall and Rose (2023) illustrate the contribution fieldwork can make to teaching critical geographies at A level. They illustrate how the practice of urban walking, accompanied by expert guides from the local community, can help young people to appreciate the importance of political struggles over urban space.

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.

Argumentation is a useful strategy for post-16 teaching. Read Roberts (2023) chapter 6 on ‘Making sense of geography through reasoning and argumentation and refer to Argument in geography.

Another approach reverses the traditional classroom practice of the teaching 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 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.
  • Read Roberts (2023) p 106 ‘What is a Harkness discussion?’

Student voice

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.

  • 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.
  • Whittall, D. and Rose, I. (2023) ‘Fieldwork in the financialised city: exploring Manchester’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • 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:


  • Barnes, D. (1976) From Communication to Curriculum, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Digby, B. (2007) ‘Teaching about the Olympics’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Digby, B. (2008) Think Piece – Teaching A level geography, Geographical Association on-line.
  • Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher. Routledge, chapter 11 Teaching A Level.
  • Ofsted (2004) Geography in secondary schools, Ofsted.
  • Rawlings Smith, E. ‘Post-16 geography’ in Jones, M. (ed) (2017) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Roberts, M. (2003) Learning through Enquiry. Sheffield: The Geographical Association (particularly chapter 7).