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What is geographical enquiry

In school geography, the use of enquiry-based approaches to learning can give students access to powerful ways of geographical thinking, by helping students understand the nature of geographical knowledge and develop the skills needed to make sense of it.”

Margaret Roberts

Topics on this page:

Why is enquiry important for geography? | Observing geographical enquiry lessons | Why should a geography teacher adopt an enquiry approach? | More ideas about geographical enquiry and a research study | Reading


Geographical enquiry is a ‘student-centred’ approach to learning that involves students in making sense of new information and constructing geographical knowledge. It expects students to think and study like a geographer, and to:

  • Be actively engaged in investigating geographical questions and issues
  • Collect, interpret, analyse geographical data of all kinds as evidence and present and evaluate it
  • Make sense of information for themselves in order to develop understanding
  • Develop well-evidence geographical arguments and reflect on their learning.

It is important for you to incorporate geographical enquiry into you pedagogical repertoire. It is an approach to learning, where students are encouraged to pose and investigate their own questions, extending their geographical knowledge and learn skills as they do so. When they undertake geographical enquiries, students build on their personal geographies and what they have already learned and know.

Enquiry is rooted in theories about how children learn by Vygotsky, Piaget and Bruner and the constructivist idea that children can actively make sense of the world for themselves.

It is an active and collaborative pedagogy where students and teachers work together to seek answers to geographical questions (for more information about different approaches see Geography teaching styles).

Why is enquiry important for geography?

In 2015 Ofsted published a report, Key stage 3: the wasted years? in which was reported:

‘Inspectors observed MFL, history and geography lessons at key stage 3 in 51 routine inspections carried out during June and July 2015. Inspectors reported significant weaknesses in all three subjects. Too often, inspectors found teaching that failed to challenge and engage pupils’ (p5)

Gill Davidson (2008) comments that the wider promotion of geographical enquiry would go some way to addressing the problems of student engagement that Ofsted subsequently reported ten years later. She wrote

There is no doubt that students who are involved in geographical enquiry will be developing essential skills and qualities for learning. In its broader sense, however, enquiry also involves students in the construction of geographical knowledge. There is general agreement that this implies an active approach to learning geography which encourages students to ask questions about real issues, to search for answers using a wide range of skills and information and to think critically about issues rather than accept passively the conclusions, research and opinion of others.’ (Davidson, 2006)

Margaret Roberts (2023) describes enquiry-based learning (EBL) as ‘a pedagogic approach that encourages students to be actively engaged in investigating issues, studying evidence and making sense of geographical ideas‘; Roberts (2017) justifies an enquiry approach in these ways:

  • It acknowledges that geographical knowledge is not ‘out there’ as some absolute reality but that it has been constructed by geographers. When students are learning geography through enquiry they are learning about the nature of geographical knowledge and how it is the type of questions that are asked that is important.
  • It involves students in making sense of new information for themselves. When students learn something new, they have to engage with it to incorporate it into what they already know; an enquiry approach can help them do this.
  • Learning geography through enquiry can develop ‘21st-century skills’. It includes using information presented in different forms, media and digital literacies, problem solving, collaborating and communicating. It can also help students to see, understand and appreciate the world differently by encouraging them to think critically about geographical information.
  • Geography enquiries are required by public examinations. At GCSE students have to show an understanding of geographical enquiry processes and at A level it is mandatory for all students to complete an independent investigation.
There are several common misconceptions of geographical enquiry which Roberts (2023) explains on p 17.


Ofsted (2023) is critical of schools where ‘geographical enquiry meant that pupils would find things out for themselves. This usually resulted in pupils searching on the internet for information about a place, and then copying what they had found into a table or other document. Very little was then done with what they had found, and their knowledge of geography was weaker than that of pupils in schools where a different approach was taken‘.

For more detailed information, read ‘What is Geographical Enquiry’, Roberts (2023) chapters 1 and 2.

Try to observe lessons involving students undertaking geographical enquiries across different key stages. Pay particular attention to these questions:

  • How does the teacher establish a ‘culture of enquiry’ in the classroom?
  • Does the enquiry expect students to think critically about an issue?
  • Are students actively engaged in investigating geographical questions?
  • Are there signs that students are engaged and interested in the enquiry?
  • What geographical data are they using? (text; maps; statistics, graphs; photographs film?) How are they using it? Do they collect, interpret, analyse, present and evaluate?
  • Are students developing ‘21st-century skills’ through their geographical enquiry?
  • How does the enquiry build on students’ personal geographies and the geography they have already learned in school?
  • Were the students developing well-evidence geographical arguments?
  • How effectively do students communicate their conclusions?
  • Were the students ‘thinking geographically’ in the lesson/s?

Why should a geography teacher adopt an enquiry approach?

An enquiry approach helps students to think geographically and make connections: between existing knowledge and new ideas; between different pieces of information; between different concepts. It helps students to develop a questioning attitude to geographical knowledge and investigate it critically.

By undertaking geographical enquiries students become aware of the kinds of questions geographers ask and how geographers interpret and analyse geographical data presented in different ways: text; maps; statistics, graphs; photographs and film. Geographical enquiries are a powerful way to help young people to understand contentious issues: they help students evaluate information, empathise and respect the views of others.

To teach geography through enquiry a teacher establishes a culture of enquiry in the classroom. This means that students are encouraged to question, to examine geographical sources critically and to think geographically for themselves. 

An investigative approach needs to permeate everything a geography teacher does in the classroom, from introducing and debriefing activities, discussion with students and how they respond to what students write (see Geographical enquiry: the teacher’s role).

Margaret Roberts explains how she sees an enquiry approach in geography to be all pervading:

‘I think that what students learn and how they learn are inextricably related; I do not think that curriculum can be separated from pedagogy. How students learn influences what they learn. When we plan an enquiry-based unit of work, we have to focus on both what is being investigated and how it is to be investigated.’

Discuss geographical enquiry with as many different geography teachers as you can, including your mentor and others in your school to gather as many views as you can.

Talk with them about some of these issues:

  • Do they think enquiry is an important approach for geography and why?
  • How and when do they use it? For what topics?
  • Do they feel it helps to address problems of student engagement at key stage 3?
  • Do they think enquiry helps students to learn about the nature of geographical knowledge? How important is this?
  • Can students develop ‘21st-century skills’ though geographical enquiry?
  • Do they feel that the newer examinations give more emphasis to geographical enquiry? How has this changed their geography curriculum?
  • Is geographical enquiry essential for ‘good geography’?
  • What guidance and advice can they give you about setting up your own geographical enquiry?

More ideas about geographical enquiry and a research study

When you have had some experience of geographical enquiries from observing lessons and teaching enquiries yourself, you should explore these texts and which take further the  discussion of different aspects of geographical enquiry.

  • Read Davidson (2008) and Ferretti (2017).

Both of these writers express disappointment in the ‘take up’ of good geographical enquiry in schools. This reflects the findings of a small research study undertaken by Margaret Roberts. You can read her findings in:

  • Roberts, M. (2003) Learning through EnquiryMaking sense of geography in the key stage 3 classroom, Sheffield: Geographical Association page 15.
  • Roberts, M. (1998) ‘The nature of geographical enquiry at key stage 3’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • QCA (1998) Geographical Enquiry at Key Stages 1-3: A discussion paper. London: QCA.
Refer to Roberts (2023) chapter 1 to read about other forms of enquiry-based learning (EBL) in geography, including outside the UK. These give emphasis to different aspects of enquiry. Find out about geographical enquiry as a ‘signature pedagogy’ in Singapore, the Road Map for 21st Century Geography Education Project in the USA and problem-based learning (PBL) used at the British International School in Istanbul, Turkiye (Habib 2023). Also refer to the GeoCapabilities project and the Critical Thinking for Achievement Project that are both closely linked to enquiry-based learning.

Investigate the extent to which ‘enquiry’ is included in geography and other subjects in one school’s curriculum. Identify similarities and differences in understanding and practice within and between departments. Data could be collected through questionnaires, semi-structured interviews and curriculum documents e.g. schemes of work and through lesson observation (Roberts 2013).


  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition, Abingdon: Routledge, pp 48-51.
  • Davidson, G. (2008) Think Piece – Geographical Enquiry, Geographical Association on-line.
  • Ferretti , J. (2017) ‘ The enquiry approach in geography’  in Jones, M. and Lambert, D. (eds) Debates in Geography Education 2nd edition. Oxon: Routledge.
  • Habib, B. (2023) ‘Using authentic voices in the geography classroom through project-based learning’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Ofsted (2023) Getting our bearings: geography subject report, Oftsed, September.
  • Roberts, M. (2010) ‘Geographical enquiry’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association, Chapters 1, 2.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography through Enquiry: An approach to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second editionSheffield: Geographical Association, Chapters 1, 2.

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