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Thinking through geography

‘Teaching strategies that make students think through appropriately challenging problems or issues, and solving or resolving these challenges involves mental effort. This is ‘cognitive conflict’.’

Adam Nicholls, 2006

Topics on this page:

  • What is ‘thinking through geography’?
  • The research behind ‘thinking through geography’
  • Managing thinking activities in geography
  • Why is the debriefing so important in thinking activities?
  • Using thinking skills activities
  • Thinking through geography activities in geography
  • Reading

What is ‘thinking through geography’?

Thinking through geography arrived on the geography scene in the 1990s, developed by a team of classroom teachers in North East England who were working with David Leat at Newcastle University. These teachers wanted to make geography lessons more interesting and to make geography activities more challenging.

The students engaged with the activities enthusiastically; it made them think and they began to ask more questions. More teachers took on the ideas and they became enthusiastic too; they realised that debriefing following the ‘thinking’ activity was the most important part of the teaching if the activities were going to make students better learners.

Thinking strategies in geography became widely adopted across the UK and have become embedded in the geography curriculum of most schools, although their origins in David Leat’s project are not always credited. More recently ‘thinking through geography’ has been rekindled by ideas of critical thinking (see Critical thinking).

  • See Figure 4: The dynamic process of learning in Rawlings Smith (2017) which shows how geographical thinking is at the centre of the process.

The research behind ‘thinking through geography’

David Leat (1988) acknowledges that:

‘many of these strategies started life with no theoretical basis at all but were developed to make lessons more interesting…… over time, as we have thought and read more, ….. we have learned not only why they work, but also how to make better use of their potential for promoting learning.’

When the activities were developed in the 1990s, teachers tended to give any thought about the theoretical underpinning for teaching strategies a wide berth. Today it is different and new teachers are explicitly expected to explore this. 

Looking back to the approach adopted by Leat’s project in the 1990s, it is interesting to note that, having established that these thinking activities worked when they were used in the classroom, the teachers researched to find out why.

This pragmatic approach led Thinking through geography to build on its initial success and develop further strategies that were more deeply rooted in research findings. In particular the project built on the findings of the Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education (CASE) programme developed at King’s College, London to improve students’ abilities to reason and think.

David Leat worked hard through the 1990s, and beyond, to convince geography teachers it was important to understand the theoretical principles that underpinned the use of thinking strategies in geography because ‘the key to the really effective deployment of this approach lies in understanding and being able to use this theory’ (Leat, 1998, p 157).

David Leat’s text is very readable and informative and shows how his work became firmly rooted in research. It is much more that a book about activities to get students thinking about geography. 

In his text he explains how an understanding of constructivism and cognition are important to the effective use of thinking strategies in the classroom. He explains the role that schema play and why a recognition of cognitive conflict is important.

He tells teachers not to fear metacognition but to embrace it and explains the importance of scaffolding and talk, drawing on the research of Vygotsky and the ‘National Oracy Project’ respectively. He also looks to research in the discussion of pedagogy such as managing groupwork and the use of big concepts.

The thinking through geography project also contributed the ways in which geography teachers used debriefing to develop metacognition, and how the teachers themselves reflected on their lessons. 

The first-hand teacher’s reflections in Nichols and Kinninment (2001) are informative about the different activities, but they also provide good role models for you to emulate.

Key Reading

  • Leat, D. (1998) Thinking through geography. Cambridge: Chris Kington Publishing.
  • Nichols, A. and Kinninment, D (2001) More Thinking through geography, Chris Kington Publishing.

Arrange to observe a lesson in which one of the thinking skills strategies is being used to promote thinking through geography. During the observation record:

  • What strategies, tasks and questions are used in the introduction to establish what the students already know and understand about the topic?
  • What existing knowledge, concepts and technical vocabulary are identified?
  • What activity provides the ‘cognitive conflict’ in the lesson? What planning and preparation was necessary for this? How was the activity introduced?
  • What strategies are used by different groups of students to carry out the activity or solve the problems posed?
  • What interventions does the teacher make? Does the teacher allow time for the students to solve problems themselves first? What scaffolding is used?
  • What strategies/questions does the teacher use in the debrief to help the students review their thinking and learning (metacognition) and to apply what they have learnt to other geographical contexts?

Managing thinking activities in geography

The following guidance and sequence is recommended for using Thinking through geography activities. For further advice on using the strategies, see the key texts above.

  • Preparation: The thinking activity must match the learning objectives for the lesson and resources should be adapted your students and geography theme, as necessary. Think about where in the lesson you will use the activity; what do you want students to learn through using the activity?
  • Launching: This term was used by David Leat – an analogy with a boat. What explanation will you give? Will instructions be verbal, displayed on the board/screen or on resource sheet?
  • Managing the activity: What steps are needed to organise the activity. A main reason for using thinking activities is to develop the students as learners, so you must provide just enough support to encourage them to engage and learn, but not so much that they use you as a crutch and learn nothing. Consider how, and when, you will intervene to bring about learning. (Leat notes that if a class are using the activity for the first time, you may need to persuade them to accept the different demands it makes. Some students can feel threatened with unfamiliar activities.)
  • DebriefingThis is when students should reflect on their learning and is the hardest part to get right but is the most crucial. Leave enough time for it and know what questions you will ask. Think about how you will respond to what students say. See Debriefing in geography.
  • Follow up: Set the students some follow-up work to consolidate their learning, often this can be some form of extended writing.

Why is the debriefing so important in thinking activities?

The debriefing of thinking activities should give students plenty of time to reflect on what they have learnt – and also how they have learned it. 

The rationale behind debriefing, as explained by David Leat, is that by understanding their own thinking (metacognition) students can apply what they have learned to other situations. 

He also talks about bridging, where students transfer ideas and reasoning to other geographical concepts. You can see how to use a thinking strategy without a debrief would miss the point!

Using thinking skills activities

It is best to begin with a simple thinking skills activity. Try a card sorting activity such as Odd one out or Most likely to, which can be used in most contexts. 

Living graphs is another excellent activity and can be adapted for a range of topics with a little imagination as the references on the living geography page show! Or try Reading photographs.

Then move on to use a more ambitious strategy, such as Maps from Memory or a Mystery.

  • Identify an appropriate topic and class and discuss your plans with your mentor.
  • Consider the organisational aspects of the lesson as well as the geographical content carefully. Focus on the debriefing and plan this part of your lesson carefully. Refer to Debriefing in geography.
  • Ask your geography mentor to observe your lesson and possibly co-teach it with you.
  • After the lesson, write a detailed evaluation of the thinking activity and the debriefing. Evaluate how effective the approach is, paying particularly attention to the learning of different groups of students and what you learned from it. Discuss this with your geography mentor.

Thinking through Geography activities in geography

Activity References
5WsNichols and Kinninment (2001) p53
ClassificationLeat (1998) p 113
Concept mappingNichols and Kinninment (2001) p 107
Fact or opinionLeat (1998) p 97
Layered decision making

Nichols and Kinninment (2001) p 83

Biddulph et al (2021) p81

Enser (2019) Chap 3

Avanessian (2008) Teaching Geography, Spring

Living graphsLeat (1998)  p 23
Making animals

Nichols and Kinninment (2001) p 33

Leat and McGrane (2000) Teaching Geography, January

Maps from memoryNichols and Kinninment (2001) p 21
Mind moviesLeat (1998) p 39
Most likely toNichols and Kinninment (2001) p 9

Leat (1998) p 51

Rawding (2015) Teaching Geography, Spring

Wright (2004) Teaching Geography, October

Odd one out

Critical thinking and fieldwork

Leat (1998) p 9

Cannell et al (2018)

Predicting with videoNichols and Kinninment (2001) p 129
Reading photographsLeat (1998) p 135
Story tellingLeat (1998) p 77
TabooNichols and Kinninment (2001) p 71


The following references will provide you with good insights into how different teachers have used thinking activities. Bustin (2017) pp 142-3 includes a useful summary of some of the most frequently used thinking activities. 

Ward (2004) considers maps from memory, mysteries and concept mapping. Holbrey and Parkhurst (2020) review a trainee teacher’s use of two thinking activities in their teaching.

Since many of the thinking activities have been subsumed into more recent critical thinking initiatives, you will find further examples referenced in Critical thinking.

  • Bustin, R. (2017) ‘Teaching a good geography lesson’, in Jones, M. (ed) (2017) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association. Chapter 11.
  • Holbrey, C. and Parkhurst, L. (2020) ‘ Can engaging teaching survive the knowledge revolution?, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Leat, D. and Nichols, A. (1999) Mysteries make you think, Sheffield: Geographical Association (Theory into Practice series).
  • Mawdsley, G. (2019) ‘Critical thinking for achievement CPD’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Nichols, A. (2006) ‘Thinking Skills and the role of debriefing’ in Balderstone, D. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Rawlings Smith, E. (2017) ‘Post-16 geography’  in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association. Chapter 19.
  • Thomas, S. and McGahan, H. (1997) ‘Geography – it makes you think’, Teaching Geography, July.
  • Ward, R. (2004) ‘Mind friendly learning in geography’, Teaching Geography, October.