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Planning for geographical enquiry

“Enquiry is not simply about finding information to answer questions; it is about developing understanding. In order to do this, students need to do something with the information they have gathered. They need to examine the data, to relate it to what they already know, to see relations between different bits of information, to make all kinds of connections and to develop their understanding of what they are studying.”

Margaret Roberts, 2003

Topics on this page:

  • Where to start?
  • What is different about planning for geographical enquiry?
  • Creating a need to know
  • Start to plan an enquiry
  • Using data as evidence
  • Making sense
  • Presenting findings
  • Reflecting on learning
  • Teacher assessment within enquiries
  • Public examinations and enquiry
  • Some examples of geographical enquiries
  • Planning your own enquiry
  • Reflection on enquiry lessons
  • Reading

Where to start?

Before you start to plan a geographical enquiry, it is important that you have a very clear understanding of what you are setting out to do. It is with no apology, therefore, that there are many reading references for you to follow up as you work through this page. You must be secure in your understanding of the real purpose of geographical enquiry and what good practice means in this context.

Geographical enquiry is an active, questioning approach to teaching and learning. It encourages students to act as geographers: to ask questions about real issues; to search for answers using a wide range of skills and information; and to think critically about geography rather than accept passively the conclusions, research and opinions of others.

Key reading

  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography through Enquiry: An approach to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Roberts, M. (2017) ‘Planning for Enquiry’ in Jones, M. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook, Sheffield: Geographical Association.

What is different about planning for geographical enquiry?

In many geography lessons a common approach is for the teacher to start the lesson by introducing the lesson objectives that define for the students what they will learn. This is objective-led planning. In this approach students expect to learn the information that is taught to them. In contrast, an enquiry approach starts with a question to frame what will be studied.

The teacher promotes geographical curiosity and expects students to ask, and find the answers to, questions. This does not mean, of course, that the teacher has not planned what they want the students to learn; teachers must have a clear idea of the geographical knowledge, concepts, skills and values they are looking for students to have learnt through their enquiry lessons.

Although you can plan for a single enquiry-based lesson, most geographical enquiries will take a series of lessons. For successful enquiries students must get used to working in an open-ended, investigative way in geography. They must ask questions, think for themselves and critically evaluate what they find out. For this to happen the teacher must create a ‘culture of enquiry’ in the classroom.

Refer to these frameworks for enquiries used in geography:

  • Framework for learning through enquiry. This has four essential aspects: creating a need to know; using data; making sense; reflecting on learning.
  • Route for enquiry. This is an enquiry sequence with questions at each stage. The exam Awarding Organisations have defined the route to enquiry that they use. See Fieldwork through enquiry.
  • An Enquiry Framework designed for primary schools.
You might also find this GA enquiry template useful for linking enquiry questions to concepts and key skills.

 Creating a need to know

Geographical enquiries usually have an enquiry or ‘big’ question as their focus. Margaret Roberts explains it is important for students that the key question framing a unit of work becomes their own and that the questions in an enquiry are not all ‘given’ by the teacher.

The teacher has to decide how these questions are presented to students, or how they will be encouraged to ask their own.

The essential starting point for any enquiry work is a stimulus, which a teacher uses to raise interest and curiosity and provoke geographical questions. The range of stimulus can be very wide from photos to music, from a mystery to a newspaper article (see Roberts (2023) Figure 5.1, p 46). The stimulus should engage the students with the topic and generate a need to know so that the enquiry has purpose.

Davidson (2006) gives examples of lesson beginnings that have engaged students and generated enquiry questions. You may think that a ‘stimulus’ for an enquiry is the same as a ‘starter’. But a stimulus is chosen carefully to set the scene for the geographical enquiry, while ‘starters’ are activities to get lessons going. Roberts (2023 pp. 45-46) explains what distinguishes stimulus material form ‘starters’.

An interesting way to launch an enquiry is through speculation, as described by Roberts (2023) pp. 47-48. Invite students to speculate how something was formed, how it is investigated or why it is there. There are other ways of creating a need to know such as the stance taken by the teacher in the classroom (see Roberts (2023) pp. 44-45), students choosing their own investigation questions or providing a context in which students have to present findings to others.

  • For plenty of ideas and information about creating a need to know for your enquiry, read Davidson (2006); Roberts (2017) pp 50-3; Harris (2017) Chapter 7; Roberts (2023) Chapter 5.
  • See PowerPoint stimulus ideas for enquiries – from past GA Conferences.

Discuss and brainstorm ideas with another geographer (it could be your mentor, a class teacher or a fellow trainee). Use the figures in Roberts (2017) to guide your discussion. Identify an enquiry unit and begin to plan.

  • Brainstorm ideas about the geography you could include
  • Think about the teacher role
  • Consider students’ prior knowledge
  • Create a key enquiry question
  • Find a stimulus for the ‘need to know’ and consider if it will:
    • capture students’ imagination?
    • put some geographical thinking into students’ minds?
    • result in lively, substantial, enquiry activities so students can genuinely answer the question?
  • Identify the key concepts that will underpin the enquiry and decide which are new for these students
  • Devise some classroom activities to encourage students to ask sub-questions.

Using data as evidence

Margaret Roberts describes geographical data, the evidence used to make generalisations and judgements, as the ‘real stuff’ of the subject. The amount of ‘data’ that is available today is virtually limitless. 

Geography teachers use their subject knowledge and professional skills to select data for students to work with so that they can develop their geographical knowledge, skills and understanding. Data should be interpreted in its widest sense; for example, including images, maps and people’s testimonies as well as statistics, graphs and tables. See Roberts (2023) Fig 6.1 for the wide variety of data sources available.

Geography teachers use both primary and secondary data. Primary data is collected by students first-hand to investigate specific questions. It could include field observations and measurements or surveys. Secondary data has been collected by others and includes large data sets such as climate data, census data and World Bank data. The internet gives access to large amounts of free data, which is very useful in geography.

The key role for the teacher is to identify what sources of geographical information they want students to use. Decide whether you will ask students to find the data themselves or provide the sources and expect them to select relevant information. Often an important consideration in selecting the information to use is whether you can provide students with access to different viewpoints.

  • Read about the use of data in Roberts (2003) Chapter 6 and carefully consider the advantages and disadvantages of primary and secondary data in the classroom. Heed the practical advice Roberts provides about the use of data with students and making it accessible for them.

Refer to the GA’s classroom practice page Using more objective data, which outlines some of the things that need to be considered about using data in geography teaching.

  • Refer to Resources for further teaching ideas and data resources.

For the enquiry unit you are planning the data sources used must be relevant to the enquiry question/s and the key concepts that underpin the unit. Bear in mind:

  • What criteria will you use to select the data you ask your students to use?
  • Will the students already have the skills they need to collect and use the data, or will these skills need to be taught as part of your enquiry unit of work?
  • Is the data accessible for all students? Consider literacy and numeracy.
  • Decide whether you will ask students to find the data themselves, provide the sources and expect them to select relevant information from it, or summarise information from the data.
  • In an issue-based enquiry, how will you provide them with geographical data that includes different viewpoints?
  • Should you consider including some spurious information – one of the key skills of a geographer is to select relevant information!
  • Is the data sufficiently ‘unprocessed’ so that students have the opportunity to make sense of it for themselves, rather than just picking out the ‘answers’?
  • How are you going to get students to examine the data? Five Key Points is a good strategy – read about this in Roberts (2023) Chapter 16.
  • Can the Layers of inference strategy help students make sense of the data? (See Roberts (2017) p 55).

Finally, be open minded about where students want to source their information. You may have some clear views, but listen to their ideas. Consider the ‘ Bridging the information gap’ activity in Cannell, et al (2018) p 37.

When you observe an enquiry lesson, study the response of the students carefully and consider these questions:

  • Were students able to access/understand the data? What problems did they face?
  • Where was the data from – teacher provided or student research?
  • Was the data appropriate for the enquiry?
  • Were the skills they needed taught before this lesson, or where they using them for the first time?
  • How do they make use of the data?
  • How do they make sense of it?
  • Do they share ideas with other students?
  • Would you have made the same interpretation as the students did?
  • What role does data play in their geographical enquiry?
  • Would any different sources have been better in this context?

Making sense

It is often the case, in many geography lessons, that the teacher explains information to students and make links for them to what they have learned in previous lessons; the students’ role is as passive recipients of information. However, in geographical enquiries students are expected to use the geographical data they have collected, make sense of it and interrogate it; they are active participants in constructing geographical knowledge themselves.

In geographical enquiry the teacher plans tasks that help students to make sense of their findings and move forward their geographical understanding. Students are required to engage with, and making meaning out of, the data; this will advance their understanding. They are more actively involved because they are required to do more than just transferring information from the data source to their notes.

In geographical enquiry the teacher has to plan tasks that actively involve students in:

  • Looking for relationships between aspects of the data,
  • Making connections between their prior knowledge/experience and the new information,
  • Reasoning and developing arguments.

Activities to help students make sense of the data are integral parts of the enquiry. There are many activities that can be used to do this. Figure 6 in Roberts (2017) identified several and there are further ideas in Roberts (2023) Chapter 6. Students can create maps of information or draw graphs to help them interpret data.

Concept mapping helps students to see connections between aspects of data. Teachers should make good use of discussion, both with the whole  class and in small groups because dialogue helps students to see meaning and gain understandings that contribute to answering the enquiry question/s.

Making sense and exercising reasoning is at the heart of learning geography, and students need to learn how to reason and develop arguments. This is not only for older students, but can be successfully be used with key stage 3 students particularly in the context of a role play.

  • Read Roberts (2023) Chapter 8 about reasoning and argumentation in geography lessons.
  • Refer to Argument in geography.

Plan sufficient time for students to do this ‘making sense’ stage of the enquiry. There should be plentiful opportunity for talk, both in groups and as a whole class, so they can talk about what they have found out. A teacher’s role is to support students as they develop their understanding, intervening with direct questions that make them think and linking their learning to the overarching enquiry question.

  • Read more about Making sense of data in Roberts (2017) pp. 54-6 and Roberts (2023) Chapter 6.

Presenting findings

Students are expected to use the geographical data they have collected and interrogated to answer the overarching enquiry question. Their conclusions are then presented to an audience. Very often the audience is the teacher who receives their written work, but it can be more motivating if the enquiry concludes with a presentation to others, such as: their peers, a visitor, parents, or another class.

Findings can be presented orally through role-play or debate, or visually such as in displays or video. Written work can be in the form of a report, essay, newspaper page – there are many options. Harris (2017) in Chapter 7 describes a range of types of presentation methods that his students have used from storyboards, to movies, podcasts and dioramas. He encourages students to consider alternatives if they always opt for PowerPoint!

Reflecting on learning

At the end of the enquiry unit you should evaluate what students have learnt. You could use  the headings suggested on page 56 of Roberts (2017) to do this. However, an essential aspect of geographical enquiries is for students to reflect on what has been learnt and how it has been learnt. 

This element needs to feature explicitly in your enquiry planning because it will not happen by chance. Debriefing is an important part of an enquiry and Margaret Roberts suggests that you could allow a whole lesson for it.

To reflect on the learning that has taken place, return to the question/s that framed the enquiry and explore with the class how far they have been answered. Reflection involves asking critical questions about the enquiry topic itself, the data, and the way in which the enquiry was conducted. You need to try to understand what has gone on in the students’ minds and what sense they have made of the information.

To do this you must be a good listener, using short prompts and giving the students plenty of opportunity to think about what they did and express it in their own words. You might well find that you had not anticipated some of the outcomes students tell you.

Finally, students need to reflect on what they have learnt from the enquiry. There are good opportunities for developing metacognitive learners here (see Metacognition). Students can reflect on the extent to which they have answered or explored the questions posed at the outset, whether they could have acted differently and what went well.

Was there sufficient evidence or were their analysis techniques not good enough? Could they improve on this? Did they have indisputable evidence to reach a conclusion, or are there further questions to investigate? In particular they need to reflect on what they will take forward to work on in their next geographical enquiry.

Ask students questions such as:

  • Have you answered the ‘big question’?
  • How did you go about finding that out?
  • Did you have enough evidence?
  • How did you analyse and use it? Could you have done any more?
  • Are you happy that your conclusions are supported by evidence?
  • Did you find out things that you did not know before?
  • Was there anything else you had hoped to explore?
  • If you did the enquiry again, what would you do differently – and why?
  • How might you use what you have learnt in future enquires?

Particularly when the enquiry is a long one that spans several lessons, all this reflection should not be left to the end. Teachers should encourage students to evaluate their approach and learning while the enquiry is ongoing and ask them to continually reflect on their knowledge and learning.

One interesting strategy that you could use to help students to organise their thoughts and ideas for reflection is Plus Minus Interesting (PMI). This involves using a framework for students to categorise and examine ideas, concepts and experiences to encourage them to look at things from more than one perspective. See Cannell et al (2018) p 31 for an outline of how PMI works.

  • Refer to Roberts (2023) Chapter 22, which suggests ways in which teachers can encourage students to reflect on what and how they are learning geography.

Margaret Roberts has put together a list of what is involved in planning a web enquiry (2013, p 186). However, she points out that when a web-based enquiry is very tightly structured, the students have few choices. They could focus too much on following the directions rather than getting involved with the subject matter they are investigating.

Students need to learn how to search for appropriate information themselves so they can move from tightly structured use of web research to more independent investigation. This can be done by allowing students to search for websites themselves over time as part of enquiries.

Teacher assessment within enquiries

When you are developing an enquiry sequence of lessons, thinking how to plan assessment should be central to the process. The nature of enquiry learning provides good opportunities for assessment for learning. 

At the start of the enquiry, you would naturally find out prior learning and the starting point of students. When introducing the enquiry questions and purpose you can prepare students to understand the criteria that will later be the basis for assessment.

  • Read Martin (2004) which provides a useful case study of how an assessment was planned for an year 8 enquiry so that it was integral to the teaching unit.

Enquiry activities should give plenty of opportunity for interactions and formative feedback, between students as well as from teacher to student. Devise activities where you can listen to and observe students learning. You could use this opportunity to make notes to contribute to your own assessment records of individual students.

When you intervene, with groups or individuals, you should probe their learning to check for any particular understandings, or misunderstandings, they have. You might consider using Socratic questioning

You could introduce peer or self-assessment part way through the enquiry to encourage students to reflect on their interim findings and consider how to develop the enquiry further. Enquiries that culminate in presentations, give further opportunities for assessment.

Enquiries often culminate in an outcome for summative assessment, such as a fieldwork report, a piece of extended writing or display. This does not mean it will not have a formative purpose; the teacher feedback should provide comments for the student to take forward to the next enquiry. It is important for the teacher to note these so they are not forgotten about, so a recording system needs to be considered.

Public examinations and enquiry

The geography GCSE subject content makes clear that students are expected to understand ‘the kinds of questions capable of being investigated through fieldwork and an understanding of the geographical enquiry processes appropriate to investigate these’ (DfE, 2014 p. 8).

  • Read Roberts (2018) which focuses on how different GCSE specifications interpret enquiry and how this influences teaching.

At A level, 20% of the assessment is a teacher-assessed independent investigation which incorporates fieldwork and research.

Some examples of geographical enquiries

Enquiries come in many different forms – short and long, physical or human topics or both – and it is often helpful to explore several examples of different schemes of work before you write one for yourself. Look at some of these:

  • Pole to pole for an example of year 7 short enquiry which involves students choosing their own investigation questions.
  • The hurricane enquiry as outlined in Roberts (2023), p 43.
  • GA’s Toolkit Series. These are enquiry-based text for key stage and each title focuses on an enquiry. The texts each include a medium-term plan. See KS3 and GCSE.
  • Amis, K. (2015) ‘An enquiry-based approach to teaching about Russia’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Broad, J. and Phillips, W. (2009) ‘Disaster Timeline: An independent learning activity’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Caudrey, G. (2010) ‘Hazards of enquiry learning’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Fry, W. (2018) ‘Teaching controversial issues’ Teaching Geography, Autumn. He uses enquiries into energy issues (a real-world debate) with year 9 and year 13 students.
  • Habib, B. (2023) ‘Using authentic voices in the geography classroom through project-based learning’, Teaching Geography, Summer. This article explores how enquiry-based learning can be used to teach about fast fashion and give students a sense of ownership over their learning. The enquiry gave students the opportunity to voice their ideas and work on a project that made a difference to local people’s lives.
  • Imagined places: a scheme of work planned around enquiry.
  • Picton, O. (2010) ‘Shrinking world? Globalisation at key stage 3’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Uneven Development. An enquiry from King Edward VI Five Ways School, Birmingham.
  • Where will I live? An enquiry scheme for year 9.
  • Roberts, M. (2003) Learning through enquiry: Making sense of geography in the key stage 3 classroom. Sheffield: Geographical Association. Chapter 16. (Year 8 Natural Hazards Project).

Planning your own enquiry

Now you should be able to develop a full teaching unit for a geographical enquiry to use with a class. You might want to continue to develop the unit you started to plan earlier.

  • Refer to Appendix 2 Planning an enquiry-based unit of work (Roberts, 2013). This is a particularly helpful checklist of things to consider when you plan enquiries. It is not intended as a planning sequence.
  • Work through the 10 questions set out in Roberts (2017) as you do your planning.
  • Pay particular attention to Figure 6 in Roberts (2017) when you are thinking about possible activities to include in your enquiry.
  • Refer to Biddulph et al (2021) pp 48-52.
  • Plan assessment as integral to the enquiry, perhaps with a summative assessment as a concluding activity.
  • Geographical Information Systems (GIS) can be a powerful tool to help students in geographical enquiries. See Geospatial technologies (including GIS).

When you have finished working with students on an enquiry unit of work, reflect on your planning, the materials and data and the students’ learning. In particular you should consider:

  • Was the enquiry stimulus and key question well chosen?
  • Was there a ‘culture of enquiry’ in the classroom?
  • Did I play an effective role during the enquiry lessons to ensure that students were advancing their geographical learning?
  • Was the selection of the data appropriate and was the data used well by the students?
  • Were the learning activities within the enquiry ‘fit for purpose’?
  • How well were enquiry skills and techniques used by the students?
  • How successful was the enquiry debriefing?
  • What was the geographical value of what students learned?
  • In what ways might the enquiry be improved?
  • Could the enquiry be developed further?


  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. London: Routledge pp. 48-51.
  • Cannell, J., Hopkin, J. and Kitchen, B. (2018) Critical thinking in practice, Geographical Association.
  • Davidson, G. (2006) ‘Start at the beginning’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher, Routledge. Chapter 7.
  • Martin, F. (2004) ‘It’s a crime’, Teaching Geography, January.
  • Rawlings Smith, E. (2017) ‘Post-16 geography’  in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association. Chapter 19.
  • Roberts, M. (2017) ‘Planning for Enquiry’ in Jones, M. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Roberts, M. (2018) ‘Do the new GCSEs promote ‘sound enquiry and investigative approaches’ to learning geography’, Geography, Spring.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association, Chapter 22.

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