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Geospatial technologies (including GIS)

“GIS allows us to view, understand, question, interpret, and visualize data in many ways that reveal relationships, patterns, and trends in the form of maps, globes, reports, and charts.”

Ordnance Survey

Topics on this page:

  • What are geospatial technologies?
  • What do I need to know about GIS?
  • Getting started with GIS in the classroom
  • GIS and learning geography
  • Progression in GIS
  • GIS in enquiries and fieldwork
  • What do teachers say about using GIS and enquiry?
  • Further reading

What are geospatial technologies?

Geospatial technologies are the modern way to produce and use maps in commerce, industry and government. It includes global positioning systems (GPS), remote sensing (RS) and geographical information systems (GIS). A GIS is any system that captures, stores, analyses, manages and presents data linked to location; simply, it is the merging of cartography, statistical analysis and database technology.

GIS systems are used widely in real world applications from cartography to utility management and from urban planners to emergency services. Since more and more businesses and the public sector are using digital mapping and GIS for day-to-day decisions, it is every student’s entitlement, as part of a good geographical education, to know about and use GIS.

A GIS has three elements: a digital map, digital data (displayed on the map) and GIS software that links the two and carries out both the mapping and analysis of the data. These ‘real-world’ tools can support students to use maps for geographical analysis. GIS helps students to visualise spatial and place-based information in all areas of the geography curriculum from local to global scales.

Key reading

  • Fargher, M. (2017) ‘GIS and other geospatial technologies’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 18.
  • Refer to the figures on page 245 in Fargher (2017) for an overview of geospatial technologies.
  • Read information sheet from the GA, which describes the key features of GIS.

Reading on geospatial technologies

  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 3rd edition. London: Routledge. pp. 177-182.
  • Parkinson, A. (2021) ‘I know where I’m going – teaching map and GIS skills’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Walshe, N. (2018) ‘Spotlight on … Geographical information systems for school geography’, Geography, 103 (1), pp. 46–49.

What do I need to know about GIS?

You may have studied GIS during your degree and/or had experience of using a professional GIS. If not, you will not be alone; many experienced teachers who completed their degree some years ago are in the same position.

However, if this is the case you should seriously consider developing your subject knowledge of GIS so that you can use it in your teaching. To embed the technology effectively in your lessons, you will need to develop both an understanding of GIS and how it can contribute to students’ geographical understanding.

The GA provides Support and guidance on GIS, which considers a number of different tools for fulfilling the curriculum requirements of using GIS. It has several entry levels and the pages have plenty of information to help you to embed the use of GIS into your lessons in a way that enables progression for both you and your students.

You might benefit from some face-to-face training. These are run from time to time by the GA, the RGS and by higher education institutions. Check what is available in your area.

Getting started with GIS in the classroom

When you use geospatial technologies, you will be building on and extending the skills that students have developed with paper-based maps. Young people are often familiar, through personal use, with internet resources such as Google Earth and Bing Maps and teachers can use these experiences positively in lessons.

The main geospatial technologies used in geography teaching are:

  • Earth viewers, such as Google Earth
  • digital mappers, such as the Ordnance Survey’s ‘Digimap for Schools’
  • web-based mapping platforms, such as ArcGIS Online
  • Google Earth is a powerful visual tool for helping students develop their spatial literacy. While it is not a full GIS system, it can introduce students to some principles of GIS before they use full GIS software.

You should aim to get experience of using GIS with different age groups. Begin with Google Earth or similar software in your lessons and then plan and teach some lessons incorporating GIS, using a package such ArcGIS Online.

If you are not confident about GIS, take heed of what David Mitchell says,

You need only the most basic IT skills to use GIS effectively in a lesson. If you can do no more than find a website on the internet, you can still have your students exploring places at a range of scales, in plan, profile and oblique views…

Read these articles from teachers who have recently introduced GIS into their teaching. Both advise you to start small and not to be overambitious. One recommends using GIS in short lesson sequences, the other that you explore some ‘oven-ready’ GIS platforms to familiarise yourself with navigating interfaces and interpreting spatial datasets. Both articles offer practical suggestions to integrate the use of this powerful resource into your regular teaching.

Reading for Google Earth

  • Allaway, R., Hong, C. and Jin, D. (2006) ‘Using Google Earth’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Mitchell, L. (2010) ‘Why use GIS’, Teaching Geography, A new teacher writes about how she used a Google Earth enquiry with year 7 students studying rivers.
  • Tooth, S. (2015) ‘Spotlight on… Google Earth as a Resource’, Geography,

Digimap provides online mapping for schools. Bailey (2018) explains how you can use Digimap to get started with GIS and provides example activities that can be adapted for use with your own key stage 3 students. For further information and resources on Digimap see Ordnance Survey maps. Find out if your school has a subscription to give you full access to Digimap resources.

Reading for Digimap

  • Bailey, D. (2018) ‘Digimap for Schools – what is it and what can you do with it?’ Teaching Geography, Summer.

ArcGIS Online is freely available to schools. You will need to spend time familiarising yourself with the package before you can use it in the classroom, but it is worth the investment of time.

Students can use this online resource to investigate relationships, patterns and trends as part of a geographical enquiry. It also helps students to explore and compare places in depth, visualise landscapes or display data spatially. Look at these two references for inspiration about ways in which you can use ArcGIS Online.

Reading for ArcGIS

  • Using ArcGIS Online, which includes a short video on how Dover Grammar School for Boys school use ArcGIS.
  • West, H. and Horswell, M. (2018) ‘GIS has changed! Exploring the potential of ArcGIS Online’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Reflect on the benefits and challenges of geospatial technologies and GIS as outlined by Fargher (2017) in Figure 2 on page 245.
  • Decide which of the forms of geospatial technology indicated is most appropriate for you.
  • Check what is it available in your school.
  • Discuss your ideas with your geography mentor and plan how you might use GIS.

GIS and learning geography

  • See GIS in the geography curriculum from the GA website. This shows the important role that GIS has in today’s geography curriculum for mapping and analysing geographical digital information.

As the opening quote at the top of the page shows, GIS and digital mapping resources have the potential to develop students’ spatial literacy and ‘revolutionise and extend’ students’ geographical experiences.

Some of the benefits that GIS can bring to geographical learning are:

  • Overcoming the ‘mechanical’ aspects of map drawing so that all students can produce a professional result
  • High quality images that help students visualise the landscape, e.g. through aerial overlays on maps, 3D imagery and ‘fly-throughs’
  • Combining information from different data sources to create ‘new maps’ using a technique known as ‘mashups’
  • Giving students access to up-to-date mapping and locational data
  • Allowing students to experiment with cartography by choosing colours, graphical techniques and methods of selecting and presenting data on maps
  • That it makes students the decision-makers about what data to display and the questions to ask
  • Allowing more time for interpretation and higher level thinking because the GIS handles and displays the data.

For GIS work, regardless of the software package that is being used, students need to be taught how to:

  • Draw or import a base map
  • Create layers of data identified by points, lines or areas and give individual map codes to these features
  • Enter data into a matrix/spreadsheet
  • Link the data to the map codes for the points, lines or areas
  • Map the data
  • Use the query and measuring tools.

The geographical skills developed using GIS are an extension of skills using paper-based maps. The use of GIS should not be confined to older students. In key stage 3 (or even in primary schools), students can begin to experiment with different cartographic techniques without the need for time-consuming mapping by hand. 

They should re-use the skills regularly in different contexts so that they can use the GIS software effectively and have more time for higher-level thinking, analysing data through maps and finding answers to geographical questions.

One approach to using GIS is through storymaps, which allow teachers to share webmaps with both narrative and media content included. Esri ArcGIS StoryMaps are often seen as a way to bring images, maps and text together with interactive elements. Davies et al (2021) show how the Antarctic StoryMap Collection can be used in key stage 3 and 4 geography when teaching topics such as Antarctica, glaciers and climate change. Duan (2023) discusses using story maps in case studies.

It is freely available and provides opportunities to introduce students to key GIS skills and satellite imagery interpretation, with support resources from Antarctic experts.

Progression in GIS

In England, there are the following curriculum expectations for GIS:

  • Key stage 3: to use Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to view, analyse and interpret places and data
  • Key stage 4: to use GIS to obtain, illustrate, analyse and evaluate geographical information
  • Key stage 5: to understand the nature of geospatial technologies that are used to collect, analyse and present geographical data and demonstrate an ability to collect and use digital, geo-located data.

O’Connor (2007) recognises three conceptual areas as the cornerstone of all GIS work that show a progression in levels of GIS difficulty:

  • Presenting spatial data: this can be quite a basic GIS skill yet it can still offer opportunities for quite complex geographical analysis
  • Processing and analysing spatial data: these require more GIS understanding, but it enables students to ask and answer more difficult geographical questions
  • Data input and editing of spatial data: this involves more advanced skills and is necessary to support the use of GIS in applications such as fieldwork.
  • Read O’Connor, P. (2007) ‘Progressive GIS’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.

Hickman (2021) uses the learning line proposed by Zwartjes et al (2017), which suggests four levels for assessing students’ spatial thinking. This is a useful framework to consider when planning progression in GIS learning. Hickman also recognised the range of knowledge components that are involved, which he describes as the TPACK framework (technical pedagogical content knowledge).

A key component of this is to make connections between ideas using real world data. He found high levels of success in students’ spatial thinking skills when they used GIS. Moreover, these skills helped them to think geographically more generally.

  • Read Hickman (2021) for information about the TPACK framework.

Reading for GIS: teaching and curriculum

Complete the task Using technology in your geography teaching in Biddulph et al (2021) on p. 181 Task 6.4 (3) and (4).

Afterwards, evaluate your lessons paying particular attention to:

a) the quality of students’ learning with GIS

b) how it helped their geographical understanding.

GIS in enquiries and fieldwork

GIS can help students do better at geography, particularly through geographical enquiry and fieldwork. It can help to plan enquiry questions by exploring secondary data to find topics and places to investigate. GIS can help students to practise hypothesising.

  • Explore the datasets published by the Consumer Data Research Centre available on this online GIS portal. These show the potential of GIS to develop geographical skills and introduce spatial analysis. Learners from key stage 2 upwards can access information, describe spatial patterns and speculate on why they see what they do. The datasets use a very wide range of indices from ‘age of housing’ to ‘multiple deprivation’, and ‘proximity to fast food’!
  • Read Heath, R. (2015) ‘A world-wide geographical investigation using online GIS’, Teaching Geography, Autumn, which demonstrates how GIS enhances geographical investigations and promotes collaborative projects.

Since GIS data is tied to particular locations, this can help students to identify where and how to collect data. GIS can also provide a framework for data collection, with data tables linked to points, lines and areas on maps. The range of tools available within GIS software can be used to quickly draw a range of maps, carry out calculations and present data.

This allows students to identify spatial patterns and relationships. They can decide the most appropriate maps and what data to present, so they can make sense of the data they have collected. 

GIS has great potential because of its flexibility in handling the data to assist students to draw conclusions and make links between different places and different results. Facilities such as overlaying data sets on different base maps can make exploring relationships and comparisons much easier for them. It is also an excellent presentation tool for reporting findings.

Reading for GIS: fieldwork

The Field Studies Council provides some excellent guidance for using GIS in fieldwork and their website will provide you with plenty of support in ways to use GIS for data collection, presentation and analysis. It has video tutorials and examples of how to embed GIS into all stages of geographical enquiries and to support skill building for independent investigations.

  • Using GIS in geographical enquiry from OCR and the Field Studies Council.
  • Trafford, R. (2017) ‘Seizing the opportunity for a new era of fieldwork’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Morgan, D. Using GIS in geographical enquiry, Field Studies Council (FSC). This is a guide for secondary Geography students.

What do teachers say about using GIS and enquiry?

Tom Biebrach was part of a GA project Spatially Speaking in 2006/7 and writes about his own experience of using GIS:

‘… students can ask geographical questions, state hypotheses, select information and receive an almost instant response. A Level students in my class hypothesised on the location of a north south divide in Italy, selected appropriate data and created a series of choropleth maps. This gave them an almost instant output. More time could then be spent on analysing and explaining the results. Students could synthesise information by compiling it in different ways and evaluate their hypotheses in the light of this analysis. This was clear evidence of higher-level cognitive understanding.’

However, he points out that GIS in itself will not develop genuine enquiry-based learning, but that it creates an environment that allows the teacher to promote enquiry-based learning. A common mistake is to focus on the later stages of enquiry – analysis, presentation and communication – without paying enough attention to identifying appropriate questions in the earlier stages of the enquiry. He describes how:

‘A group of AS students were using GIS to explore the links between population movement and socio-economic status in Cardiff. Almost as soon as they were sat in front of the computer a number of students had created choropleth maps showing a range of different variables. (…) they were experienced users of GIS and knew what they had to do to create a visual output, but had failed to engage in the initial enquiry phase. As a consequence the students were unable to form the conceptual links between population movement and levels of socio-economic status. When revisiting this task with a different group the importance of asking questions and stating the hypothesis was emphasised and helped the enquiry process move on more effectively.’

Refer to these teacher commentaries about GIS:

  • Walshe, N. (2018) ‘Geographical information systems for school geography’, Geography, Spring.
  • Healy, G. and Walshe, N. (2019) ‘Real-world geographers and GIS: relevance, inspiration and developing geographical knowledge’, Teaching Geography, Summer.

Further reading

  • Bednarz, S. (n.d.) Thinking Spatially explores what she sees as the potential and actual role of GIS in geography education.
  • Fargher, M. (2018) Using geographic information in Jones, M. and Lambert D. (eds) Debates in Geography Education, 2nd edition. London: Routledge.
  • Fargher, M. and Healy, G. (2021) ‘Empowering geography teachers and students with geographical knowledge: Epistemic access through GIS’ in Walshe, N. and Healy, G. (eds) Geography Education in the Digital World. Abingdon, Routledge
  • Hickman, J. (2021) ‘Developing and assessing students’ spatial thinking skills when using GIS’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Pike, S. (2021) ‘GIS for young people’s participatory geography’ in Walshe, N. and Healy, G. (eds) Geography Education in the Digital World. London: Routledge, pp. 117–128.