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Geographical skills

‘Within geographical skills, pupils learn to interpret spatial representations, particularly maps, globes and atlases, and construct their own plans and maps. Pupils also draw on these skills to support their knowledge of environmental, physical and human systems and also to gain a sense of place. This aspect of geography is widening as governments and commerce recognise the value of it and technology advances.’

Ofsted research review geography, 2021

Topics on this page:

  • What is meant by geographical skills?
  • Geographical skills
  • General skills
  • Geographical practice
  • Planning the teaching of skills for geographical learning
  • Teaching skills
  • Reading

What is meant by geographical skills?

The skills students learn in geography include both general skills and specific geographical skills. Geographical skills are those which are taught almost uniquely within the geography curriculum. They include:

  • Map skills and spatial skills. This includes the skills to interpret maps, globes and atlases as well as aerial photography, satellite imagery and digital mapping. Students also develop the skills to construct their own plans and maps.
  • Graphs and charts. There are some that are specific to geography, such as cross sections and population pyramids. Students need to develop the skills to use these to describe, analyse and draw reasonable conclusions from data. See this useful summary from OCR exam board.
  • Geospatial skills that underpin using geographic information systems (GIS) which helps to develop students’ spatial ‘literacy’.
  • Geographical enquiry skills that are necessary to undertake the procedure of a geographical enquiry; to identify geographical questions and issues; to collect, interpret and analyse geographical data; to interpret the data, draw conclusions and present these to others; to identify further questions to investigate.
  • Geography fieldwork skills which include specific techniques for data collection, including observation, photography, sketching, interviewing, as well as skills of analysis and presentation that are used in connection with fieldwork.

The knowledge of how to use geographical skills is referred to as procedural knowledge. It should be planned as part of the geography curriculum in the same way as substantive content knowledge.

General skills that students learn through geography include:

  • Literacy skills
  • Numeracy skills
  • Information processing skills
  • Critical thinking skills.

In the past education prioritised the ‘3 Rs’ but in recent years a greater range of skills has been emphasised and employers and politicians speak about the skills that students should learn for the twenty-first-century and the importance of ‘life skills’. Public examinations refer to the skills expected of students.

Read Roberts (2023) p 22 and see Figure 2.2 about skills taught in geography and Figure 2.3: Examples of broader aims of education: skills and qualities.

The 2014 National Curriculum is usually seen as a ‘knowledge-based’ rather than ‘skills-based’ curriculum but it includes the requirement that every state-funded school in England prepares students for the ‘opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life’. 

Schools interpret this in different ways, but literacy, numeracy and information processing are commonly seen as key skills. Others include skills of communication, reasoning and problem solving, working with others, evaluation and creative thinking.

This 2007 curriculum list of skills provides a good summary of the most important geographical skills used at key stage 3. But you also need to consider, as the opening quote illustrates, that geographical skills are important to prepare students to make decisions that will be important in their adult lives.

All of the skills identified here should be part of integrated into the geography curriculum so that repeated practice improves students’ fluency and accuracy.

Research by Hammond and Healy (2022) found that undergraduate geography students valued the development of skills. These included skills related to research, data analysis, statistics and critical thinking. They noted that ‘such skills are important not only to engaging with, and progressing in, geography but are also likely to be transferable and valuable in other elements of life and further studies or careers‘ (p 141).

Geographical practice

Geographical practice is about how geographers find out and make sense of the world and encompasses geographical and general skills. It includes both practical skills and those that involve thinking and argumentation. Geographical practices are cross-curricular and draw on methodologies from the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities. 

The practices become distinctively geographical once applied to geographical questions. Students need to undertake geographical practice themselves both in the field and in the classroom, to become competent in the skills of working in a geographical way.

While it is important for students to learn about geographical practice, they should also be learning through geographical practice. Working like a geographer involves undertaking the processes of enquiry and investigation–asking questions, collecting data, gathering evidence, examining and analysing, interpreting, evaluating, problem solving, decision-making, drawing conclusions and making judgements.

Geographical practices draw both quantitative and qualitative methodologies. Quantitative tend to focus on hypothesis testing and theory building and include taking measurements, using digital data, statistical analysis and applying predictive models. Qualitative methods include case studies, interviews and analysing text of various kinds. Learners develop deeper understanding when they apply practices of enquiry, argumentation and values analysis to the topics they are exploring.

Fieldwork is an essential component of the geography in school where students can apply practice. It involves pupils applying a wide range of the skills and methods themselves, out in the real-world. Students should be taught these skills and enabled to develop competence in practice initially with support but gradually independently.

  • Read Rawling (2022) section 4 on Geographical practice.

Focus on a specific skill or group of skills that are being taught.

  • What precise skills are being taught e.g. ‘interpreting data from a climate graph’?
  • Does the teacher expect the students to have the necessary skill already – or is it being taught for the first time?
  • Did the teacher – model the skill? Use I-We-You? Set examples for practice?
  • How proficient are the students in using the skill – what do they find difficult?
  • Do students help each other with the skill?
  • Does the teacher help specific students with the skill – how do they go about this?

Planning the teaching of skills for geographical learning

Geographical practice is part of the teaching of geographical content and concepts. It is necessary for geographical thinking. Roberts (2023) reminds us that many skills used in geography demand conceptual understanding to apply them critically, rather than mechanically.

In geography lessons, we often ask students to complete tasks that require an extensive range of skills; for example, a decision-making activity can involve generic skills such as literacy, numeracy and problem solving as well as map or GIS skills and also require students to use communication and/or IT skills to present their findings. With older students such activities will also involve higher-order skills, such as interpretation and synthesis of geographical information.

Some educationalists have promoted the idea that if students are taught ‘skills’ they can use them in whatever context they wish. This may be true for skills, such a literacy and numeracy, but it does not apply to specialist skills such as map interpretation or for higher-order skills such as evaluation and synthesis. 

Skills are content-related and need to be learned in context. For example, to think critically as a geographer, you need some geography content and context to think about. The skills for thinking critically are different in other subjects. Thinking critically means something different to an historian compared to a geographer.

The question becomes, therefore, how are students to be taught the skills they need? Should specific skills be taught separately, in dedicated lessons or a special curriculum unit, or should they be recognised as intrinsic part of learning in geography and integrated into the geography curriculum? There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, but more schools today are adopting the latter.

Ofsted (2023) reported that some schools began key stage 3 with a topic on ‘geographical skills’. They noted one problem with this was that students were taught a wide range of different geographical knowledge in their first term, but ‘they did not then have the opportunity to practise using it to develop fluency in it as a skill. They struggled to carry out the procedures in the future‘.

Separate teaching of skills does make sure that they have been taught and it can be efficient in use of resources, e.g. teaching GIS skills. However, if skills are taught out of context, students may not understand how to apply them. Without that understanding they cannot use them to access geographical knowledge.

It can be tempting for a teacher to ‘tick off’ that a skill has taught when the lesson or unit has been concluded – but has it been learned? Few skills are learned at ‘one sitting’. Roberts (2023) notes that ‘skills are mastered through practice and repeated use, otherwise what has been learnt is quickly forgotten‘. Most skills require repeated practice in varied contexts, for example those for interpreting OS maps. Only when students have achieved competence to a level where the skill becomes semi-automatic can students draw on it when they need to for a geography task.

Ofsted (2023) also noted that some teachers included procedural knowledge in lessons as and when they thought they could include it. Inspectors were critical of such an approach because there was no overall plan to build students’ procedural knowledge over time.

Inspectors commented that a better approach is to treat procedural knowledge in a similar way to substantive knowledge in the curriculum. Teachers should consider what students needed to know, when best to teach it and when to return to it. They reported that where the teaching of procedural knowledge was strong, students had been taught procedural knowledge in the context of different places or geographical processes. ‘For example, they had studied map skills when looking at rivers, or created and analysed scatter graphs when studying development indicators.’ They should also consider when students would have the opportunity to practise becoming more skilled in using it.

When skills are taught in an integrated way within the curriculum, it is easier to provide opportunities for repetitive practice and application of the skill in different contexts. But sufficient time and attention must be given to teaching the skill thoroughly in the first instance; it cannot be rushed. Follow-up opportunities for applying and using it must also be in place so they can practise it to fluency. This can be disruptive to the flow of geographical learning in a topic, unless it is planned carefully.

Curriculum plans should clearly indicate where the initial teaching of a specific geographical skill occurs, and its progression should be tracked through different units. The repetitions should be spaced appropriately and the applications meaningful for accessing geographical knowledge; they should not be bolted-on. 

If skills are built up progressively in this way, it will ensure that students are equipped with a well-developed toolbox of geographical skills to deploy by the end of the secondary phase.

  • Read about ‘21st century skills’ in Roberts (2013) pp 21-3. This summarises the skills and competencies for learners as set out by the OECD and by other countries such as USA, Australia and Singapore.

Teaching skills

When you are teaching students a new skill, do it thoroughly. Plan it methodically and break down the process. Go through this with students step by step, using a modelling approach (see Modelling and demonstration) and work on it together using the I-We-You technique explained there. Make sure you give adequate time for practice to embed the skill securely.

  • See Enser, M. (2019) pp 51-2.

Enser explains how he teaches students to draw a climate graph, and follows this with practice with different examples. He gradually removes scaffolding support, but recognises that some students might still struggle and need more help. 

He reminds us that students will encounter new skills all the time in geography; these will be second nature to a geographer, but you need to consider it from the learner’s perspective in order to recognise the support that students will need when they come to that skill for the first time.

Some geographical skills can be inherently difficult for students particularly if it is similar to one they have learned in another context  In climate graphs, for example, the combination of the line and bar graph can be confusing for students because they do not draw graphs in the same way in mathematics. 

Other skills that students often find difficult is constructing a cross-section profile and drawing and interpreting choropleth maps.

Develop your own toolbox for the teaching of geographical skills that you can integrate into your curriculum. Gather together teaching ideas and resources from your lesson observations, discussions with teachers and your reading. Prepare support resources for students that you can use when you need to ‘top-up’ teaching or scaffold student learning of any skills during your lessons.

The detailed specification of skills in the current examination specifications (see download below) and the introduction of the non-examined independent investigation at A level has caused many geography departments to re-consider how they implement the progression and development of skills within their secondary geography curriculum. 

Schools have recognised that these requirements, such as for independent enquiry and statistical analysis, present a high level of challenge as the culmination of 13 years of geographical study. Students must build up their expertise over the secondary phase to prepare for this and should begin to develop the necessary skills from key stage 3.

Meet your geography mentor and/or other geography teachers to discuss skills in geography in the school curriculum. Talk to them about:

  • What do they understand by ‘21st-century skills’? How important do they think these are for geography? Is there a school policy about this?
  • What do they think are the most important skills to teach in geography, and why?
  • Do they teach any geographical skills as separate curriculum units? Why was this decided?
  • How do they incorporate teaching skills in the curriculum? How is this shown on curriculum plans? Can the development of specific skills be tracked?
  • How/where are OS map skills taught? – or discuss a different example.
  • What geographical skills do they think are most difficult; for key stage 3 students to master? For GCSE students to master?

Reading

  • Enser, M. (2019) Making Every Geography Lesson Count, Crown House Publishing.
  • Hammond, L. and Healy, G. (2022) ‘Engaging with undergraduate geography students’ perspectives on the value of geography to a person’s education’, Geography, Autumn.
  • Ofsted (2023) Getting our bearings: geography subject report, Ofsted, September.
  • Rawling, E. (2022) A framework for the school geography curriculum, Sheffield: Geographical Association, section 4.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association.