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Concepts in geography

“Concepts can offer keys to learning, in so far as they make significant contributions to the development and organisation of students’ understanding.”

Trevor Bennetts, 2010

Topics on this page:

  • What is a geographical concept?
  • Why are concepts so important in geography?
  • Teaching geographical concepts
  • What are key concepts?
  • Place, Space, Earth Systems and Environment
  • What are ‘organising concepts’?
  • Concepts and the National Curriculum requirements
  • Are concepts fixed in geography?
  • A new model for geographical concepts
  • Reading and references

What is a geographical concept?

concept is what we think with. It is a classifier that helps to organise thinking and make sense of the world. It is a generalised idea about a class of objects, situations, actions, or processes. For example, we have a concept of ‘chair’, but we know there is a huge variety of types of chairs – arm chairs, dining chairs, metal chairs, wooden chairs, red chairs etc. 

Everyday’ concepts such as this are learned unconsciously in our daily lives, acquired through experience. At school, students refine their understanding of everyday concepts and develop new, more theoretical concepts, sometimes referred to as ‘scientific’ or ‘academic’ concepts.

Many concepts we use in geography relate to familiar experiences such as ‘weather’ or ‘town centre’ or ‘rock’ or ‘journeys’. Other concepts relate to more complex, abstract things, such as ‘climate’, or ‘urbanisation’. But, as Margaret Roberts (2023) explains, implicit in every concept in geography is a complex cluster of knowledge and understanding:

Even apparently simple concrete concepts such as ‘street’ are related to an array of images and ideas. What are the characteristics of a street? What does it include? Is it the same as a road? What kinds of roads are not streets? What wider uses of the word ‘street’ are there and what connotations does it have? Is the word “street” used in the same way in different parts of the world?’ (p 78)

Observe a geography lesson and focus on the variety of concepts included:

  • Note down the ‘spontaneous’ or ‘everyday’ concepts that you identify the students are using in the lesson
  • Note down the ‘scientific’ or ‘disciplinary’ concepts that you identify the students are using in the lesson
  •  What scientific or disciplinary concepts does the teacher use during ‘teacher talk’? Note these down
  • What new scientific or disciplinary concepts are being taught in this lesson?
  • Can you identify the ‘concrete’ and the ‘abstract’ concepts included in the lesson? (These may overlap with those noted earlier)
  • Discuss your lists of concepts with the teacher you were observing. Do they agree with your findings? What were the concepts they considered most important for students to develop in that lesson?

Why are concepts so important in geography?

Geography is a content-rich subject and concepts are important to provide an underlying structure and help us to impose order on geography we study. Many topics in geography use the same conceptual understanding, so it is important for learners to understand the concepts that are fundamental to geographical understanding so that they do not see geography as an accumulation of more and more ‘content’ and ‘facts’. 

Once students have acquired a concept they can relate it to different information and ideas and make sense of these; for example, an understanding of ‘interdependence’ enables a student to explore different relationships and connections between people and environments.

Therefore, conceptual understanding will take students beyond learning a set of dislocated facts and move them into the realms of informed geographical thinking. Students build up their conceptual geographical knowledge to develop schema and achieve greater breadth and depth of understanding. They use concepts to interpret information, give explanations and think abstractly i.e. to achieve higher order thinking.

Generalisations express relationships between concepts. A generalisation can be applied to new and unfamiliar contexts beyond a student’s experience, but it depends on their understanding of the underlying concepts. For example, a generalisation such as ‘Britain’s weather and climate are variable due to Britain’s position in relation to the global atmospheric circulation’ presupposes a grasp of the meaning of ‘weather’, ‘climate’, and ‘variability’, as well as ‘global atmospheric circulation’.

Models are another conceptual tool that can be useful aids to understanding in geography by helping students to structure ideas. We use a variety of models, e.g., for migration, population growth, physical geography and urban land use. However, some models such as Rostow or Burgess and Hoyt should be used carefully since they reflect processes many decades ago, and may not be applicable to the 21st century world.

  • Read Rawding (2019).
  • Refer to Hawley (2023) to reflect on using models to teach physical geography.

Teaching geographical concepts

In geography lessons we are teaching concepts and conceptual knowledge all the time. Common concepts include ‘rivers’, ‘maps’, ‘village’ and ‘transport’. These are often described as substantive concepts – the substance of the geography the students are learning about. To fully understand a concept’s meaning a student often needs to explore several examples.

  • Refer to Roberts (2023) p 79-80 on .Substantive concepts in geography’.

More abstract concepts in geography, such as ‘accessibility’ and ‘interdependence’ must be used in several different geographical contexts before students fully grasp their scope. Teachers should be explicit about the meaning of concepts, and check students’ understanding. It cannot be assumed that students have grasped the subtleties of a concept’s meaning. It is important to make links between the different instances and examples used in previous lessons when teaching an abstract concept so that students build up a rich and deep understanding.

An effective geography teacher identifies the concepts they will focus on in a lesson and lesson sequences. Concepts are not something taught directly – you do not hand out definitions for students to learn! Teachers need to bear in mind the geographical concepts they wish students to learn when selecting content, planning teaching and learning, and devising assessment. 

Teachers plan their lessons to build students’ conceptual understanding by interweaving content and concepts into its structure so that the concepts become accessible to the learners. Teachers also take steps to revisit the ideas in different ways within lessons to enable better student recall and understanding. Teachers should always make concepts transparent to students to help them to think geographically and to develop transferable geographical understanding.

All this relies, of course, on teachers having a good grasp of the geographical concepts themselves. What you will need to do is ensure that you understand what is meant by the important concepts in geography, so that you can start thinking creatively about the kinds of teaching and learning experiences your students will need if they are going to understand them.

What are key concepts?  

In this context, ‘key’ indicates importance. Some geographers refer to these as ‘big concepts’ because they are the big ideas and understandings that teachers hope will remain with their students long after their lessons. Key concepts are those judged to be particularly important for a certain context. This judgement is made by the teacher, the curriculum maker or those who design examination specifications. Each subject has its own key concepts and it is the geography teacher, as a curriculum maker, who identifies which should be taught to a particular age group in a particular topic. 

‘Key concepts’ lie at the heart of geography as a discipline. They are considered ‘key’ to indicate a sense of scale and range and their importance to geography. They can be applied to a great variety of topics, and across different fields of geography. They are used widely and give the subject unity and coherence. 

Geography teachers have found that using ‘key concepts’ for their curriculum helps them to shape geographical content, focus geographical learning and plan their teaching. The GA has identified the key concepts of Place, Space, Earth Systems and Environment as a base for their Curriculum framework in Rawling (2022). 

The level of sophistication with which students handle these concepts defines their progress in learning geography. For students to think geographically and become effective geographers they must have a good grasp of the subject’s ‘key concepts’ so they gain understanding of the big ideas of the discipline of geography. 

Place, Space, Earth Systems and Environment  

Space is an abstract idea that relates to how phenomena (e.g., physical features, people, services, goods) are arranged on the Earth’s surface. It is at the top of a hierarchy of ideas such as: location, pattern, distribution, interaction, distance. To understand space and how phenomena have relative locations to each other, students should investigate interactions across space and processes that lead to flows or movements that create patterns and networks. They need to use maps, GIS and atlases to identify, plot and represent features, and examine spatial decision-making. 

When geographers use the term ‘space’, it conjures up certain kinds of meaning in the context of physical and human geography. This is distinct from, but overlaps with, how mathematicians or astrophysicists understand ‘space’. This is because, in geography, spatial patterns, distributions and networks can be described, analysed and often explained by social, economic, environmental and political processes. When students understand and apply this concept they are being ‘spatially aware’. To study ‘space’ in geography involves knowing where things are located, why they are there, how the patterns and distributions are created, how they are changing and the implications. 

Place: every place has a particular location and a unique set of physical and human characteristics and it can be represented in different ways. What we think about places is both shaped by, and shapes, our geographical imagination, i.e. place has a personal dimension. Studying ‘place’ in geography involves understanding the characteristics of places, how it became like this and how it is subject to forces of change. Places are not only the context in which geography happens, they have a significant influence on what happens. Students need to recognise when considering strategies to address similar problems in different places that they need to take account of the distinctive characteristics of each place (see Place in geography). 

Earth Systems is understanding ideas about physical processes and cycles, and that the world’s landforms, environments and landscapes are a result of dynamic biological, chemical and physical changes, Understanding these processes is fundamental to explaining and responding to change. 

Environment is the understanding that the world’s environments, landscapes and societies are dynamic and that changes result from a wide range of human and physical processes. It involves ideas about interaction between physical and human geography, ecosystems, environmental change and impact, resources and sustainability, in a variety of contexts and scales. Central to the concept is that people are dependent on the biophysical environment for their survival and wellbeing; also, the environment influences human life through its resources, both renewable and non-renewable. In addition, humans are changing the environment at an increasingly rapid rate. Other aspects for students to understand are that there are different forms of environmental hazards, both natural and those created by humans; and that qualities are attributed to environments. The linked concept of sustainability relates to an ideal in which physical and human processes maintain the quality of environments and the availability of resources. Sustainable development is promoted through conservation and environmental and resource management. 

What are ‘organising concepts’? 

Organising concepts are ideas that consider the dimensions of geographical thinking and the range of perspectives used to consider geographical content. The GA framework recognises these as Time, Scale, Diversity, Interconnection and Interpretation 

Time provides the dimensions of past, present and future, over which processes operate. The concept also introduces key geographical ideas of stability, dynamism, continuity and change, essential to studying processes in physical and human geography.  

Scale is used to analyse relationships by investigating them at different scales. Scale is often seen as a ‘zoom lens’ that enables us to view places at all levels from the personal, local and regional to the global. There are also national and international scales that are very important politically, and exert a huge influence on the identity of individuals and groups. Scale influences our perceptions of phenomena so the choice of scale to study is important. Students also need to be taught to realise that there are links between different scales e.g., decisions/events at a local level can have global consequences, and vice versa. 

Diversity is appreciating the differences and similarities between people, places, environments and cultures and understanding the contribution they make to the dynamic functioning of societies and economies. It is an important concepts for exploring the world. Diversity exists between and within places and cultures and may lead to inequalities and conflict. 

Interconnection is the understanding of the interrelationships that operate in our complex, diverse and changing world. Students must understand that nothing studied in geography exists in isolation, because everything is influenced by its relationships with other phenomena, both within and between places. Interconnection is the concept at the top of a hierarchy that includes interdependence, interaction, processes and systems. This concept involves the understanding of not only how things are linked together, but also how one aspect affects and needs another. The concept of interconnection is about young people recognising that the places in which they live are connected to places around the world, and that their climate, population, economy and culture are influenced by these interconnections at all scales from the local to the global. It involves holistic thinking, because it makes students look for multiple explanations for observations, and to use knowledge across the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities. This is why geography claims to be an integrative discipline.  

Interpretation is a different organising concept, that is key to understanding the way in which the world is influenced by changing narratives, different values, a range of viewpoints and interpretations, and contrasting imaginations, including those generated and disseminated through social media. It includes ideas such as attitudes to climate change and fake truth. 

  • Read Roberts (2023) pp. 80-3 ‘What are geography’s overarching concepts?’
  • Read Rawling (2022) pp 7-9 Chap 2: Geographical concepts
It is important to recognise how key and organisational concepts are related to each other. Geographical concepts are not ‘stand-alone’. The Geographical Association’s A framework for the school geography curriculum shows how its five organising concepts are related to each one of its key concepts (see Figure 4). It also identifies (see Figure 6) some of the concepts associated with each of the four key concepts.

Discuss both tables with your mentor in the context of the geography taught in your school. Focus on one of the units you are currently teaching and discuss with your mentor the key concepts and organising concepts taught in this unit.

Create a blank version of Figure 4, pp. 7-9 from the GA’s Curriculum Framework. Using the headings, identify the opportunities for developing conceptual understanding in this unit and fill in the grid with the concepts that are to be taught.

Concepts and the National Curriculum requirements 

Learners cannot acquire concepts and develop understanding without content. The 2008 Geography National Curriculum was described as concept-led and identified: place; space; scale; interdependence; physical and human processes; environmental interaction and sustainability; cultural understanding and diversity as the overarching concepts. In comparison, the 2014 National Curriculum is often described as a knowledge-led curriculum

These labels are an oversimplification, and are misleading because both ‘knowledge’ and ‘concepts’ are central to both. See the table of substantive concepts in the 2014 National Curriculum identified in Roberts (2023) p 80.  

The concepts of the 2008 curriculum can still be identified in the 2014 text. For example, the concept of ‘environmental interaction’ is implied in ‘how human and physical processes interact to influence and change landscapes, environments ……’ The 2014 curriculum does specifically identify several concrete concepts, such as ‘latitude’ and ‘weathering’, within its listed content. 

The GCSE specifications require students to demonstrate ‘geographical understanding of concepts and how they are used in relation to places, environments and processes’. The Eduqas GCSE specifications list a number of specific concepts and provide a conceptual framework of six ‘big concepts’: place; sphere of influence; cycles and flows; mitigating risk; sustainability; and inequality. The other GCSE specifications are less explicit, but the content is full of terms, such as globalisation, that demand conceptual understanding.

At A level, students must understand not only substantive geographical concepts but also generic concepts e.g. the DfE criteria for geography include references to systems, feedback, inequality, globalisation, interdependence and sustainability.

  • Refer to Rawlings Smith (2017) pp. 264-5 who discusses how teaching concepts can be approached at post-16. 

Are concepts fixed in geography?

There is no fixed list of ‘key concepts’ within the discipline, and with a dynamic subject such as geography there can’t be. Geographical concepts develop and change and always will do. The inclusion of concepts such as sustainability and Anthropocene are examples of newer concepts taught as part of ‘environment’ in current geography curricula.

  • Read Castree et al (2023) who make a case that ‘power’ should be included as a concept in geographical education.

As you gain more experience of planning teaching sequences you should read different geography educators ideas about key geographical concepts. 

  • Read Roberts (2023) pp. 80-4 for an overview of different geography educators who have contributed to ideas about geographical concepts.

Although there is no common consensus about a current definitive list of key concepts, there is much commonality amongst geography educators in their suggested lists of important concepts– see Table 1 in the Thinkpiece on Concepts. 

Jackson (2006) uses the distinction between the vocabulary of geography (the facts), which he describes as ‘a virtually endless list of place-names’; and the grammar of geography which he sees as the concepts and theories that connect and make sense of those geographical facts. His ‘grammar of geography’ begins with ‘space and place’ and continues with other important concepts, including scale and connection, proximity and distance, and relational thinking. 

Taylor (2008)  discusses the importance of key concepts and medium term planning’ and also introduces the idea of second order concepts, which are similar to organising concepts. The Think Piece – Concepts in Geography discusses these in detail and illustrates how they can be used to plan an enquiry unit of work on the Amazon. 

David Lambert (2017) identifies the main organising concepts of geography to be place, space and environment. These are high-level ideas that can be applied right across the subject. Beneath these, Lambert recognises a multitude of substantive concepts, e.g. ‘from river basin to glacial ice; from city to rural fringe; from production to consumption’. 

  • Read about how David Lambert (2017) sees these three ‘big’ organising concepts and how they define geographical thinking in The Handbook of Secondary Geography, 26-7. 
  • Refer to Teaching about development and globalisation where the key concepts: scale, interdependence, development and globalisation are discussed further 

Brooks (2018) gives a useful review of how concepts have been used and understood in geography education, and are as a powerful mechanism to support and develop geographical understanding. 

Take your time to read closely what geography educators and teachers have written about geographical concepts and their role in learning, so that you are ready to use them in your planning and teaching (see readings below). Come back to this from time to time to refresh your thinking, particularly when you are embarking on curriculum making.

Now you have read the thoughts of several geography educators about big geographical concepts, what is your view? 

Download Concepts and refer to Rawling (2022) Figure 4 which brings various lists of concepts together and up to date.

  • Are key concepts identified for the curriculum in the school in which you are teaching?
  • Do they overlap with any of the lists identified in the concepts paper of Figure 4 of Rawling (2022)?
  • Are there concepts that you think are particularly important to include for students who will be living into the second half of this century?
  • Discuss your thoughts with other geography teachers, and then create your own list!
  • Did you agree with the Rawling suggested table? What did you add or remove?

A new model for geographical concepts

Concepts in geography model

This model was devised by Jankell et al (2021) to focus on enquiry-based teaching of concepts. It provides an analytical framework that can be used by both students and teachers. It invites students to ask questions. 

The model has an inner core of the concepts of place, space and scale, but on the next ring are the second order concepts of change, processes, connections and relations (human-nature). Finally, the outermost ring introduces outcomes – patterns, systems and perspectives and values. Thus, the model can be subdivided to include some of the concepts in each of the three rings to provide a framework around which to pose questions that challenge students. 

The example of studying cities (Bangkok and Stockholm) through the concepts of place (inner ring), change (middle ring) and patterns (outer ring) provides an excellent way to construct questions for students within an enquiry-based approach to learning.

Reading and references

  • Bennetts, T. (2010) ‘Whatever has happened to “understanding” in geographical education?’ Geography, Spring.
  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 38-41.
  • Brooks, C. (2018) ‘Understanding conceptual development’, in Jones, M. and Lambert, D, (Eds), ‘Debates in geography education’, 2nd edition, Routledge.
  • Castree, N., Oakes, S. and Sinclair, D. (2023) ‘Exploring “power” as a concept in geographical education’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Hawley, D. (2023) ‘Are you a model geographer?’, GA Conference presentation, April.
  • Jackson, P. (2006) ‘Thinking geographically’, Geography, Autumn.
  • Jankell, L.D., Sandahl, J. and Örbring, D. (2021) ‘ Organising concepts in geography education: a model’, Geography, Summer.
  • Lambert, D. (2017) ‘Thinking geographically’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary GeographySheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 2.
  • Rawding, C. (2019) ‘Putting Burgess in the bin’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Rawling, E. (2022) A framework for the school geography curriculum, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Rawlings Smith, E. (2017) ‘Post-16 geography’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 19.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, 2nd edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 9.
  • Taylor, L. (2009) Think Piece – Concepts in Geography, Geographical Association on-line.
  • Taylor, L. (2008) ‘Key concepts and medium term planning’, Teaching Geography, Summer.