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Misconceptions in geography

“Within the geography classroom, textbooks and other geographical resources, teacher knowledge and geography conventions and vocabulary can all give rise to misconceptions.”

Jane Dove, Geography, 2016

Topics on this page:

Common misconceptions in geography | Why do misconceptions happen? | Look out for inaccuracies | How to counter misconceptions | Can you respond to these misconceptions? | Managing misconceptions | Planning to avoid misunderstandings | Planning lessons to avoid misconceptions | Reading

Common misconceptions in geography

A misconception is an idea that is wrong or inaccurate because a student has failed to understand a concept. One of the Teachers’ Standards requires you to ‘address misunderstandings’. A teacher should always be on the alert for this: when students respond to their questions; when they ‘listen in’ to students talking to each other; and when they review and mark work.

Never let a misunderstanding pass by. Think ahead to consider how your teaching could prevent misunderstandings happening. New teachers should build up, from experience, examples where misunderstandings are likely to occur so they can take steps to avoid them.

Because geography involves the understanding of complex processes, patterns and relationships, students often have misunderstandings. Consider the image about typical river misconceptions.

Typical misunderstanding and misconceptions – Rivers (G Healy, GA conference, 2020)

Would you have considered all these possible misconceptions about rivers? Discuss with your mentor how you can ensure such misconceptions are avoided.

Students may be inexact in their descriptions, such as using the terms ‘weather’ and ‘climate’ interchangeably because they do not understand the precise meaning of each. They might not appreciate the scale and size of a geographical feature they see in a photograph or on a map.

They may use terms incorrectly and carelessly, such as referring to Africa as a country. They may make comments that are wrong through ignorance, such as saying that all deserts are hot and sandy, or because they have a stereotypical image of a place. In such a content-rich subject there will be many occasions when students express ideas and give descriptions that are incorrect; you must be alert for these and help students to clarify their thinking.

Ofsted in their 2023 report Getting our bearings points out:

The most frequent misconceptions that pupils had related to places and the people who live in them. This was most common in schools where leaders had not considered the dangers of teaching single stories about places in their curriculum. Pupils also often had misconceptions about:

  • tectonic processes (the causes of earthquakes, volcanoes and the movement of plates)
  • climate change — for example, they often mentioned the hole in the ozone layer as the cause of human-induced climate change
  • weather — this was particularly in relation to high-  and low-pressure systems.‘ 

Browse the Readings section below and explore the many examples of misconceptions in geography. Begin to make a record of common geography misconceptions you come across in lessons, reading and discussing with teachers.

Why do misconceptions happen?

Misconceptions can originate from students’ ideas or inferences, or from inaccurate explanation in the past (which may include teachers). The Ofsted Research Review notes:

‘researchers cite numerous examples in physical geography where pupils demonstrate misconceptions drawn from their own experiences, such as the belief that the sun moves across the sky or that humid air has greater density than drier air. It is noted that myths, superstitions, children’s fiction and news reports influence pupils’ thinking. Furthermore, research highlights stereotypical, out-of-date or overly simplistic representations of processes or their impact in textbooks and ‘imperfections’ in teachers’ knowledge.’

They can also arise from mis-information. Social media can provide explanations and information that students believe and form misconceptions as a result. There is also biased and inaccurate or prejudiced information that students obtain from listening to others.

Dove (2016) found that ‘misconceptions which are particularly resilient to change are those that are founded on repetitive everyday experiences and whereby students find it particularly difficult to forge meaningful links between any new and existing knowledge‘ (p 52). She also noted that textbooks and imperfections in teacher knowledge could contribute to the development of misconceptions.

However misconceptions happen, it is for teachers to correct them. As Ofsted points out in the geography Research Review:

‘In exploring the here and now of the world’s people, places and environments, geography teaching has a specific responsibility to tackle misconceptions that pupils may hold about people’s lives, in the United Kingdom and across the world.’

Look out for inaccuracies

The role of the teacher is to tackle misconceptions or errors so that students can properly understand the geography they are studying. It is, therefore, essential that a teacher’s knowledge is secure.

You must always try to be well-informed and accurate in your own geography and try to avoid using information that is incorrect. Check for this carefully in the sources that you are using in lessons. Sometimes the inaccuracies can occur in the most surprising places. 

Simon Catling and Steve Rawlinson, in a paper written for the DfE geography expert group in June 2014, pick out some inaccuracies expressed in the Geography National Curriculum requirements:

A statement in the key stage 3 requirements is thoughtless. Locational knowledge refers to a: “…focus on Africa, Russia, Asia (including China and India) and the Middle East…”. We know what it means, but this is casual sequencing of continents, regions and countries: placing Russia between Africa and Asia muddles continents and countries. It ought to be: “Africa and Asia, the region of the Middle East, and including the countries of Russia, China and India”. It is an example of some of the casual muddling of countries and continents by others such as newspaper and TV journalists and commentators who refer at times to “Africa”, implying the continent is uniform when they mean a region of or country within the continent’.

Such carelessness can arise from students’ informal learning outside school and confuse them about places. You should challenge students if they show such inaccuracies in lessons. Encourage them to be well-informed and accurate in their geography references and to critique any instances of such casualness they come across.

Roberts (2023) stresses the importance of teachers being aware of common misconceptions held by students about topics that they teach. But she also notes that this is not enough on its own, and comments that ‘in order to help their own students, they need to become aware of the misconceptions held by the students they teach’ (p 30). She also points out that stereotypical images are a form of misconception that teachers must address.

Good activities to help teachers uncover misconceptions held by students include the use of spider diagrams, concept maps and word association activities (see Roberts (2023) Figure 3.3 p 31).

Asking students to speculate about something can be very revealing about what they know and any misconceptions they have. For example, invite speculation about how a physical feature was formed, or on which country has the lowest life expectancy.

It is the responsibility of the geography teacher to critically evaluate resources, such as textbooks, for inaccuracies and stereotypes that can lead to misunderstandings.

 How to counter misconceptions

Once a misconception is learned it can become embedded in a student’s thinking and they assume it to be true. It can be difficult to shift a misconception, so it is best to try to prevent them forming in the first place or, at least, to correct any errors before a misconception takes root. 

However, when a misconception does occur it is important that the teacher finds out the exact misunderstanding in a student’s mind. This is necessary to establish how best to correct errors in their thinking.

One of the best ways to avoid misunderstandings is through your clarity of geographical explanations. Make sure you explicitly address aspects that could create misconceptions when you explain a new idea. Follow effective teacher instruction practice such as breaking content into manageable steps, using modelling to narrate your thought processes, or using diagrams and images to support your explanation. All of these can reduce the chances of new knowledge being misunderstood.

Look at the table of aspects in physical and environmental geography that students often find problematic to understand at key stage 3 and key stage 4. Can you provide an explanation for each that would avoid misunderstandings?

Can you explain these ideas in a way that students can understand?
the difference between weathering and erosiondifferences between rocks
atmospheric pressure and interpreting isobarsthe scale of features such as corries and drumlins
water vapournot all deserts are hot and have sand dunes
air pressure decreases with altitudethe poles have low precipitation
rivers do not flow ‘faster’ in mountainscontours and isolines
mountain peaks are not always ‘sharp’ozone depletion
the difference between carbonation and ‘acid rain’the greenhouse effect

In order to give clear explanations, you need good subject knowledge about the topic. You must fully understand what you are explaining to students. The most effective teachers address misunderstanding by anticipating students’ problems and warning them about possible errors, so you need to build up your knowledge about the most common ones. 

Look out for students’ misunderstandings as you observe lessons and in your own lessons. Discuss these with your geography mentor to find out if you have identified commonly recognised problems and ask how your mentor deals with them.

When planning to introduce a new idea or concept, ask yourself:

  • What have students already learnt that the new concept follows on from?
  • How will students who lack the necessary prior knowledge interpret the new information? Will they ‘misinterpret’, and how can I avoid this?
  • What misconceptions often arise with this concept? (Seek advice from your mentor if you cannot answer this.)

When you introduce a new topic and are exploring students’ prior understanding and experience, be alert to misunderstandings, stereotyping or bias. This will help you to anticipate problems as you teach the topic and adjust your planning to tackle misconceptions.

Sometimes students’ misunderstandings can be confounded by poor explanations they hear from fellow students. Be alert to student answers that are misjudged, often in an attempt to simplify processes and ideas in their own minds, because they can confuse their peers. If this becomes apparent you can ask another pupil to elucidate, or you can give the correct information or explanation yourself.

Some misunderstandings occur because an individual student has misheard or mis-remembered. Encourage students to share any points of confusion they have. You should be continually looking for misconceptions in students’ prior and emerging knowledge so you can address them. The best time to pick up errors and misconceptions is when you check students’ work, ask questions or listen in on discussions.

Look out for errors that need immediate correction so you can intervene appropriately. Do not let misconceptions pass without comment. As appropriate, talk to individuals or discuss with the whole class to correct any misunderstanding. 

If a student tells you this, how will you respond?

  • The soil in the rainforest is very fertile.
  • Rising sea levels are caused by the melting of sea ice.
  • Rivers start at the sea.
  • Migration is driven by the climate or by tourist attractions.
  • People in low-income countries (LICs) are able to just move and build homes closer to the water supply.
  • Printing more money will make countries wealthier.

School students can be strongly influenced by others into believing inaccuracies. Alcock (2019) draws our attention to misconceptions about the state of the world. He asked students whether the world was getting better; less than a quarter said ‘yes’ although statistics suggest differently.

Students often take on board the beliefs and misconceptions of their peers and parents and absorb the overwhelmingly negative output of the mass media. People are generally biased towards information that confirms what they already believe and focus on the negative. Alcock suggest that a susceptibility to stereotyping and a desire to imitate the majority leads students to mistaken beliefs and misconceptions.

To counter this Alcock suggest that we should teach more positive messages, cultivate scepticism and study trends, rather than extreme examples, to give students a better grasp of reality.

If a misconception is widely held by a group of students, you need to tackle it through re-teaching. Go back to first principles and explain it again, giving different examples or analogies to help students through their misunderstanding. 

As was explained in Consolidating geographical learning, it is not easy to repair misconceptions, but there are some suggestions given there to try. You will need to take time and be patient. A good way forward can be to ask the whole group to investigate the idea and produce responses to some carefully targeted questions.

Managing misconceptions

Despite the challenge, effective teachers make a habit of managing pupil misconceptions. In the Early Career Framework, it states the value of ‘structuring tasks and questions to enable the identification of knowledge gaps and misconceptions’.

As Dr Niki Kaiser exemplifies, the isolation and correction of misconceptions is a crucial part of a teacher’s daily practice.

To address emerging misconceptions she suggests a three-stage approach.

1) Research and anticipate misconceptions: What do the students think? How can I build on, or correct, those ideas?

2) Diagnose and address those misconceptions: What do the students think? How can I build on, or correct, those ideas?

3) Assess and review ideas: Students might not remember ideas correctly or be able to link them to other ideas.

Once new knowledge has been taught, teachers use assessment to gain insights into how well their students have understood. It is important to unearth specific misconceptions and provide feedback to address errors. This is most likely to be effective when the feedback gives a clear explanation of the nature of the misconception.

Despite the challenge, effective teachers make it a habit to manage student misconceptions. They structure tasks and questions to enable the identification of knowledge gaps and misconceptions. They help students to review their understanding of key concepts, and explicitly prompt them to make links between ideas.

Children and young people bring such a broad range of experiences and preconceptions with them to the classroom. Teachers can never fully predict or comprehend the multitude of ways in which new information is received, and so, probing pupils’ prior knowledge and addressing their misconceptions is essential. Also, be prepared for students to ask some very difficult questions! Rex Walford has compiled a list of some examples of these.

  • See Walford, R. (1998) ‘The questions they ask’, Teaching Geography, July. Can you give answers to these questions?
  • Read Enser, M. (2019) chapter 2.

Planning to avoid misunderstandings

Anticipating common misconceptions in geography is an important aspect of curriculum knowledge and you should take every opportunity, when working with geography colleagues, to develop an understanding of likely misconceptions in different geography topics. As your subject knowledge deepens, you will be better equipped to anticipate for yourself where misconceptions might arise.

The more carefully you plan teaching activities the more likely you are to avoid misconceptions. Thinking about sequencing of content to build students’ knowledge progressively and securely will prevent misconceptions getting a foothold. Make sure you plan sufficient time for students to consolidate their understanding of new concepts. This is critical to avoid misconceptions.

The best defence against misconceptions is a geography teacher with secure subject knowledge who always presents information clearly and accurately to students.  

Bear in mind these points as you plan and teach lessons and discuss them with your mentor:

  • Are there areas of potential conceptual difficulty in the topic you are planning? Seek your mentor’s advice if you are not sure.
  • When you are finding out about their prior understanding at the start of the topic, how might you explore whether students have any misunderstandings?
  • As you prepare you teacher explanations to develop new understanding, consider how to avoid, rather than compound, any previous misunderstandings. Discuss with your mentor, or other geography teachers, strategies and analogies to use.
  • What are the best tasks/activities to use in lessons to support students to use and think about new concepts and avoid misconceptions?
  • Think in advance about the teacher interventions and formative assessments you will use to check for misunderstandings as the lesson unfolds. Ask your mentor what strategies they recommend to identify whether students hold misconceptions about a particular topic.
  • How you are going to deal with any misconceptions you uncover?
  • How can you make checking for misconceptions a key focus in lesson plenaries?

Reading

The following readings give examples of misconceptions and misunderstandings in geography and some strategies to deal with them.

  • Alcock, D. (2019) ‘Optimism, progress and geography – celebration and calibration’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Bowden, K. (2020) ‘Using the danger of a single story as a curriculum artefact to challenge misconceptions about Africa’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Dove, J. (1999) Theory into Practice: Immaculate Misconceptions, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Dove, J. (2005) ‘Between the lines’, Teaching Geography, Summer – this discusses students’ interpolation and interpretation of isolines and contours and ways to aid understanding.
  • Dove, J. (2000) ‘Conceptions of rainforests’, Teaching Geography, January.
  • Dove, J. (2011) ‘Explaining students’ mistakes using concepts from psychology’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Dove, J. (2016) ‘Exploring student ideas about deserts’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Dove, J. (2014) ‘Exploring students’ ideas about the Arctic’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Dove, J. (2016) ‘Reasons for misconceptions in physical geography’, Geography, Summer.
  • England, R. (2015) ‘Countering stereotypes through global learning’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Enser, M. (2019) Making Every Geography Lesson Count. Crown House Publishing, chapter 2.
  • Jackson, J. (2005) ‘Sharing places’, Teaching Geography, Spring – this asks if Russia is part of Europe and considers student misconceptions about the Europe/Asia boundary.
  • Minton, M. (2014) ‘Challenging student misconceptions of immigration in the UK’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Ofsted (2023) Getting our bearings: geography subject report, Ofsted, September.
  • Pyle, C. (2007) ‘Teaching the Time: Physical geography in four dimensions’, Teaching Geography, Autumn – discusses ways of making timescales accessible.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Walshe, N. (2007) ‘Year 8 Students’ Conceptions of Sustainability’, Teaching Geography, Autumn – discusses students’ difficulties in understanding this abstract concept.
  • Walshe, N. (2010) ‘Enough for everyone forever? Considering sustainability of resource consumption with year 10 students’, Teaching Geography, Summer – describes lessons developed for students to get to grips with sustainability.