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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?
  • Planning for conceptual understanding 
  • How do you know whether a student understands a concept?
  • Teaching space, place and scale
  • 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) p 84 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 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?

Teaching to explicitly develop knowledge of key concepts is particularly important. Students need a secure knowledge of several substantive concepts in geography. If they do not, it will be a barrier to their comprehension of new material and there will be gaps in their geographical knowledge. This will limit further learning.

Students will learn some concepts incidentally, without explicit teaching or emphasis. But in most cases a teacher will need to specifically teach concepts to students. Developing a conceptual understanding in geography takes time. Students need to consolidate their understanding of a concept by exploring different examples in different contexts or places.

A concept cannot just be memorised, it has to be understood. They cannot be learned by rote (i.e. constant) definition and repetition. This would result in superficial learning, where students can recite a definition but have no proper understanding of the underlying concept. For example, from rote learning a student might be able to give the OS symbol for a parish boundary without any idea of what a parish is.

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

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.

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

  • Read Bennetts (2005) who discusses the relationships between experiences, mental processes and ideas.
As students’ geographical understanding develops over time, through repeated encounters with different concepts and meaningful examples, they will develop more secure and sophisticated schema. They will also have greater capacity to learn new concepts more readily; it has a snowball effect. For example, a student who already knows about tropical rainforests will have some of the knowledge structures in place to learn more easily about Taiga.
 
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.

 

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 changes since the start of the millennium.

  • Read Roberts (2023) pp. 84-7 ‘Why is developing geographical conceptual understanding difficult?’
As Roberts explains, some geographical concepts are more difficult to understand than others. Study the examples she provides and discuss these with your mentor. Together, analyse a current topic you are teaching and identify the likely difficulties students might face in understanding both concrete and abstract concepts in that topic.

 

As you explore 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 focusing on in the lesson?
  • ‘key’ 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 students to consolidate understanding of the concept(s)?
Choose a topic 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.

Planning for conceptual understanding

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

  • Refer to Rawling (2022) p 12, Figure 6. This shows how key and organising concepts work together to help planning for learning.
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. Don’t expect to teach a concept only once.
 
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 misunderstanding. This is referred to as liminal space. During this time, students are in transition between understanding a concept and not.
 
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 ‘learning is both affective and cognitive and that it involves identity shifts which can entail troublesome, unsafe journeys‘.
 
Any piece of geographical study will address more than one concept, and the key concepts you will focus on need to be identified clearly in your planning. Think about any difficulties your students might face with specific concepts.
 
Plan lesson sequences carefully to build up conceptual understanding over several lessons so that the students gain awareness of the different meanings attached to a concept and its nuances. Continually check students’ progress in understanding the concepts you have identified as they work through the unit.

 

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. Teachers should make sure they incorporate appropriate vocabulary to support students in developing new conceptual knowledge.

You should 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.

  • Read Roberts (2023) p 87 ‘What can be done within an enquiry approach to support conceptual development?’

Study Roberts’ twelve points and discuss these with your mentor. Agree with them how you can incorporate some of these points in your current planning to develop your teaching of specific concepts.

 

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.

  • See Roberts (2023) p 88 Figure 9.9 for activities that support the development of conceptual understanding; also see Independent practice: learning activities for geography classrooms.
  • Refer to the shaded box in Rawling (2022) p 13-4, 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).

Teaching space, place and scale

Space, place and scale are widely regarded as the fundamental overarching idea that give the discipline its distinctive character, and are considered by many geography educators as the three significant concepts that should be present in all units of geographical work.

The understanding of these three key concepts of space, place and scale will build gradually throughout years of geographical education. For example, to teach the concept of place in geography we might start with primary children and teach them about different instances of places, but in doing so we would begin to build up an abstract, more conceptual, knowledge of place as a key concept in secondary years. But it might not be until post-16 that we would ask students to explicitly reflect on place as a concept and the different ways that groups of people might construct and understand that concept.

 

Read Maude (2020) who outlines the use of concepts to think in new ways and make generalisations and apply them to new contexts. He discusses the importance of concepts in developing powerful knowledge.

 

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.

Reading

  • Bennetts, T. (2005) ‘The links between understanding, progression and assessment in the secondary school curriculum’, Geography, Summer.
  • Cousin, G. (2006) An introduction to threshold concepts, Planet, 17:1, 4-5.
  • Lambert, D. (2007) ‘Key Stage 3 Review Special: The Changes Ahead’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Maude, A. (2020) ‘The role of geography’s concepts and powerful knowledge in a future 3 curriculum’, International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 29 (3), pp. 232-43.
  • 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, Second 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.