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Teaching geographical concepts

“To learn to think like geographers, students need to be able to use its vast conceptual language. We cannot think or communicate with each other without using its concepts.” 

Margaret Roberts, 2023, p. 84

Topics on this page:

  • Where to start?
  • How do I help students to learn geographical concepts?
  • How do you know whether a student understands a concept?
  • The challenge of developing conceptual understanding
  • Exploring geographical concepts in lesson observations and discussions with teachers
  • Threshold concepts
  • Reading

Where to start?

Firstly, get it clear in your own mind why it is important to develop your students’ conceptual understanding in geography. Without it they will not be able to think geographically. Roberts (2023) identifies the need for concepts in these four reasons, to:

  • Generalise and categorise
  • Relate facts and ideas to each other
  • Develop explanations
  • Think abstractly.

Secondly, decide for yourself what you consider are the main key concepts to drive your geography teaching. You may stick with the list of seven as identified in the 2008 National Curriculum, or those suggested by the GA in Rawling (2022), or you may have a variation of your own (see What are your big concepts for geography? on the Concepts in geography).

Thirdly, before you can teach a geographical concept successfully, you must understand it thoroughly yourself. So, get up to speed with your own geographical knowledge and understanding of the concept if it is a bit rusty, or if there are aspects that you are unsure about.

Do some research and background reading, and look at academic writing and journal articles to find out about recent ideas about the concept – you should not just rely on school-level texts for your background reading. As you undertake your research, look for examples of different geographical contexts that you could use to illustrate the meaning of the concepts to your students.

How do I help students to learn geographical concepts?

Remember what you know about building schema (see Making connections for learning). As students learn new geographical concepts, they link them to existing knowledge. Therefore, consider how you can make connections with everyday concepts or previous geographical topics they have studied.

Key concepts cannot be taught directly or learned by constant definition and repetition of the term. It is important to avoid superficial learning, where students can recite a definition but have no proper understanding of the underlying concept. 

A concept cannot be memorised, it has to be understood. Think of an example of learning OS map symbols; a student might be able to recite what the parish boundary symbol is, without any idea of what a parish is.

To understand an abstract geographical concept a student needs to understand what it represents – they need to understand what it is not, as well as what it is. This is why linking the new idea with something they already know is a good place to start. Then they need to explore different examples in different contexts or places. 

It can sometimes help students to remember concepts if they are related to particular places. For example, the idea of a shanty town can be linked to a study of Brazilian favelas. However, they need to avoid stereotypes by subsequently learning how other examples might differ.

Students need to be introduced to how a concept is used in different contexts. Expect their understanding to develop gradually and realise that it cannot be rushed (see the comment below from Renshaw and Wood’s research (2011)). Don’t expect to teach an abstract concept once. The key concepts need to be gradually revealed to students.

Plan a lesson sequence carefully to build up understanding, often over several lessons, so that the students gain awareness of different meanings attached to a concept and its nuances. That is why you should identify clearly, for each unit of work, the key concepts that you will focus on and continually check students’ progress in understanding as they work through the unit.

Any piece of geographical study will address more than one big concept. The best way for students to learn concepts is through using and applying them in the geography classroom, particularly through discussion. It is through talk that students refine their understanding of the concepts they are learning about.

Activities such as Odd one out can help students to classify concepts. Tasks that require them to explain a concept to other students, or to apply it in a different context, help them to get a new idea into their minds and think about it. 

Learning activities that involve card sorting or creating diagrams that link ideas together can be useful aids to learning. Refer to Roberts (2023) p. 88 Figure 9.9 for activities that support the development of conceptual understanding.

  • Refer to the shaded box in Rawling (2022) p.13/14 which provides examples of how to help students understand the key concepts of place, space earth systems and environments.

How do you know whether a student understands a concept?

This is a very important question that you must ask repeatedly. As it takes a while for a student to learn a concept so they understand its different meanings, it will take more than one quick question for you to decide whether a student has fully grasped the meaning of a geographical concept. Here are three ways you can explore their conceptual understandings.

Listen in to discussion: Roberts stresses that teachers need to listen to students as much as talk to them in order to begin to understand their perspective on their learning. Some ways to do this are to ask them to explain a concept, or ask them to explain what they are doing and why, or to review what they have written. Some questions you could use are:

  • Can you write it in your own words?
  • What is the main idea?
  • Can you distinguish between…?
  • What are some of the non-essential characteristics of…?
  • Can you provide an example of…?

Apply the concept in a new context: Set students a written or oral task that requires them to demonstrate understanding of a concept in a new situation. This will give them an opportunity to show they can use it in a new context and can accurately use any new geographical vocabulary associated with it.

Concept mapping (see Concept mapping in geography) is a way of understanding the structures of students’ thinking. It is a useful technique for teachers to use when they need to know what their students understand at a specific point in time so that they can assist them to move forward. Walshe (2007) and Picton (2010) both used concept diagrams/maps to identify students’ understanding of the concepts of sustainability and globalisation. 

This approach enabled the teachers to analyse in depth the understanding of individual students of the respective concepts. Read the articles to find out the specific understanding that the teachers could identify in this way.

  • Read Thinking geographically – concept mapping, concept grids and writing frames in the context of post-16 teaching in Rawlings Smith (2017).

 The challenge of developing conceptual understanding

Students need a secure knowledge of a vast range of substantive concepts in geography. They will learn some of these incidentally, without explicit teaching or emphasis. As their geographical understanding develops over time, through repeated encounters with meaningful examples, students will develop more secure and sophisticated schema for such concepts. They also will have greater capacity to learn new concepts more readily; it has a snowball effect.

For example, a student who already knows about tropical rain forests will have some of the knowledge structures in place to learn more easily about ‘Taiga’. Teachers can increase these opportunities for incidental learning of concepts through appropriately challenging lessons. They should make sure they incorporate appropriately challenging vocabulary in their discussions with their classes to support students to develop new conceptual knowledge.

Students often find concrete concepts quite easy to grasp, but this is not always the case with something previously completely unknown or if the concept is abstract and complex. When you plan your geography lessons, carefully consider whether the key concepts you want to teach are likely to be within your students’ previous experience and think about what analogies or models you could use that might make the concept/s easier for them to grasp. 

You should also think of ways you could break down your explanation into steps or how to scaffold their learning, especially if you anticipate that some students might find the content too challenging without support.

  • Refer to Roberts (2023) pp. 84-7, which describes why some concepts are more difficult than others for students to understand.

Teaching key geographical concepts needs a systematic approach. Rawling (2022) describes how concepts need to be gradually ‘revealed’ to learners. Identify opportunities within the curriculum to develop students’ knowledge of a specific concept. 

If a student does not gain a secure understanding of key concepts, it will be a barrier to their comprehension of new material and there will be gaps in their knowledge. This, in turn, will limit further learning. Therefore, teaching to explicitly develop knowledge of key concepts is particularly important to build secure geographical learning.

  • Refer to Rawling (2022) p 12 Figure 6. This shows how key and organising concepts work together to help planning for learning.

Renshaw and Wood (2011) identify that an extended period of exposure to ‘difficult’ concepts is required for students so they have time and space to grapple with these and to develop conceptual understanding. This is referred to as ‘liminal space’. During this time, students are in transition between not understanding and understanding a concept. 

Cousin (2006) describes this as an ‘unstable space in which the learner may oscillate between old and emergent understandings’ and adds that we should remember that ‘learning is both affective and cognitive and that it involves identity shifts which can entail troublesome, unsafe journeys’

To add to the complexity, geography is a dynamic discipline and the meaning of concepts can evolve in response to changes in the world. Consider how the concepts of biodiversity, globalisation and sustainable development have changed since the start of the millennium.

As you observe some geography lessons, pay particular attention to how geographical concepts are used and taught: Can you identify:

  • everyday and theoretical (scientific/academic) concepts?
  • substantive and abstract concepts?
  • the key concepts that the teacher is focussing on in the lesson?
  • ‘big concepts’ or ‘organising’ concepts that are referred to in the lesson? In what context?

Note the following examples in the lesson:

  • How does the teacher introduce a new concept?
  • What different examples or contexts for this concept are used?
  • How does the teacher explicitly teach the concept? How do they make it transparent to students and help them to understand its meaning?
  • Does the teacher help students to understand a concept by making links to previous work or other contexts where it has been used?
  • How does the teacher check understanding of one or more concepts in the lesson?
  • Do students appear to understand the concept they have been taught and are they comfortable using it in different contexts?
  • If a student has not grasped the concept or demonstrates misunderstanding, what does the teacher do?
  • What activities does the teacher use for the students to consolidate understanding of the concept/s?

Choose a topic that you are planning to teach. Discuss with your mentor a list of key geographical concepts that you would expect to include in your teaching of this topic. Use Figure 6 in Rawling (2022) as a model and think about associated concepts and examples of experiences.

Threshold concepts

The idea of threshold concepts was suggested by Meyer and Land (2005) who recognised that it was often the same ideas/concepts that block students’ learning. These bits of ‘troublesome knowledge’ can open up, or shut down, learning in a topic. If the threshold concept is not fully understood, it can act as a barrier to students making further progress.

Therefore to make progress, students need to understand these ‘threshold concepts’. This can then open a door to a new way of thinking. Threshold concepts are transformative because, once understood, they change how the student sees the world. Threshold concepts are also seen as irreversible, because once grasped they are unlikely to be forgotten.

The importance of threshold concepts lies in that they can identify potentially powerful transformative points in students’ learning experience. Therefore, it is helpful to identify what they are in your curriculum and plan your work to allow time for students to transition the ‘liminal space’.

Three potential examples of threshold concepts in geography are, sustainability, globalisation and interdependence. Each of these are complex concepts for key stage 3 students to understand. But Walshe (2007) argues that until they understand sustainability they are unlikely to recognise the links between environmental, social and economic factors that influence an issue.

Understanding globalisation, according to Picton (2010), similarly opens up students’ thinking so that they make more links, such as between economic and socio-cultural aspects and begin to consider how they are involved and affected by the process. It also helps them to question the inevitability of the globalisation process and consider future alternative globalisations.

The third example, interdependence, was identified by Renshaw and Wood (2011) for a small research study because they recognised that students’ ability to understand this concept would enable them to see geography as an interconnected whole that could transform their view of the subject.

Try a mini research project to explore students’ understanding of a geographical concept. 

  • Read the articles by Walshe (2007) and Picton (2010) for inspiration and undertake a similar investigation in your school for a concept of your choice.


  • Cousin, G. (2006) An introduction to threshold concepts, Planet, 17:1, 4-5.
  • Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2005) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning, Higher Education, 49(3): 373–388.
  • Picton, O. (2010) ‘Shrinking World? Globalisation at key stage 3’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • 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.
  • Renshaw, S. and Wood, P. (2011) ‘Holistic understanding in geography education (HUGE): an alternative approach to curriculum development and learning at key stage 3’, Curriculum Journal, 22, 3, pp. 365–79.
  • 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.
  • Walshe, N. (2007) ‘Year 8 students’ conceptions of sustainability’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.