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Teaching with maps

“Maps are popular with children. They maintain their appeal as an intriguing form of communication that offers children opportunities for systematic learning as well as for imagination and fantasy. Map reading and interpretation, at whatever level, are readily seen by children as skills worth having.”

Patrick Wiegand, 2006

Topics on this page:

The importance of maps and map skills | What does a geography teacher need to know? | Types of maps to use in teaching | Different types of map resources | Map drawing | Maps from memory | Mental maps | Affective maps | Reading

The importance of maps and map skills

Maps are the geographer’s most important tool. They help students to access geographical ideas and develop spatial thinking. Understanding maps is an important life skill, not just to aid navigation but to understand the world  and how maps can present a particular worldview. Many students learn best when accessing data and information that is presented visually – and in geography this can be a map.

Maps are important in all areas of life, as Mike Parker, a self-confessed map addict writes:

‘Maps not only show the world, they lubricate its easy movement. On an average day, we will consult them dozens of times, often almost unconsciously: checking the A-Z, the road atlas or the sat nav, scanning the tube or bus map, doing a quick Google online, flying over a virtual Earth, navigating around a retail behemoth, on the hunt for a branch of Boots, watching the weather forecast, planning a walk or a trip, catching up on the news, booking a holiday or hotel. Maps pepper books, brochures, advertisements, web pages and newspaper and magazine articles: we barely notice them because they do their job so well’

Mike Parker, 2009 Map Addict

The Ofsted Research Review for geography (2021) makes it clear that a high-quality geography curriculum should introduce pupils to different types of mapping, including topological and thematic mapping. 

It notes that the more proficient that students are in using maps, the stronger their ability to relate to geographical concepts. Ofsted also notes that the geography curriculum should include sufficient opportunity for pupils to practise:

  • Decoding information from maps
  • Constructing (or encoding) maps
  • Analysing distributions and relationships
  • Route-finding
  • Interpreting the information to draw conclusions.

What does a geography teacher need to know?

Are you enthusiastic about maps, if not quite an addict? This is an important characteristic for a geography teacher, because maps are so important for the subject.

Check your own subject knowledge about maps.

If you need to look up something, use Wiegand (2006). This is an excellent reference text for answers to the checklist questions and for insights into students’ learning with and about maps.

  • Thirdly, geography teachers need to be able to teach students how to:
  • Create a good map
  • Use different types of maps
  • Use world maps, globes, atlases
  • Interpret maps and spatial patterns
  • Use geospatial technologies (including GIS).

Good geography teaching includes the frequent use of maps at a variety of scales and ensuring that students develop the understanding to interpret what they show.

  • Read Wiegand (2006) Learning and Teaching with Maps. This is a good text that will not only give you the answers to the checklist questions and more, it will give you excellent insights into students’ learning with and about maps.
  • Refer to Mackintosh, Collis and Bustin (2020).

Types of maps to use in teaching

The table below shows the maps that candidates are expected to study for one GCSE examination (OCR)

Maps to be studied:
Atlas maps
OS maps (1:50 000 and 1:25 000 scales)
Base maps
Choropleth maps
Isoline maps
Flow line maps
Desire-line maps
Sphere of influence maps
Thematic maps
Route maps
Sketch maps

As Mike Parker shows in the quote above, there are lots of different types maps and all of these can have a role to play in geography teaching. Particularly useful, for example, are:

  • commercial maps produced for different purposes, such as tourist maps or railway network maps, used for displaying and communicating information
  • distribution maps to show patterns and relationships of specific information, e.g. choropleth maps
  • weather maps or synoptic charts, which summarise weather conditions
  • route and location maps, which convey specific information on how to find a specific place or route.

All of these communicate information, spatially and pictorially, about a particular area and can be used as teaching resources, but students must be taught how to interpret them. Most students find a small cluttered map difficult to use. When you select maps to use in class, take into account why the map was produced, because the information may be limited or biased. Maps can be quite complex to use as sources of information.

  • Refer to Roberts (2023) pp. 55-6 for a discussion of some issues that can arise when using maps as data.

Similarly, Purnell et al. (1991) looked at the ‘split-attention’ effect where students were using both maps and diagrams together and were splitting their attention between information in the diagram or map and the associated key or descriptors. 

They concluded that split attention can cause heavy cognitive load and impair learning. Care needs to be taken when you are asking students to use these information-rich resources, particularly to ensure that students are correctly interpreting the key.

Talk to a small group of Y7 pupils about their understanding of maps. Ask students:

  • what they think maps are and what they are used for
  • how they and their families use maps
  • if they have an atlas at home or in the car
  • what they find difficult about maps.

Prepare some examples of thematic maps to discuss how they interpret what they show them. Ask students if they have ever drawn a map, and if yes, what it showed. Ask if they enjoy using maps.

Different types of map resources

Explore some of these map resources:

  • Weather maps on the Metlink.
  • Collect examples of local tourist, transport or route maps that you could use for teaching. Think about learning activities you could use with these maps and any potential difficulties students could have when using them.
  • See Reasoning with maps from the GA’s project Where will I live?. Maps are often used in activities like these undertaken in this project. Could you use some of these ideas in your teaching?
  • See the presentation You might as well face it, you’re addicted to maps from the 2016 GA Conference, which has some creative ideas for using maps.
  • The RGS has useful on-line resources on Mapping London, which uses several different types of maps to study the city.
  • Evaluate the schemes of work in your school to establish the range of maps students use in geography lessons and the purposes they use them for. Create a table to record your findings using the headings ‘topic and year’ and ‘ description of activity using maps’.
  • Use Developing Maps to audit the purposes for using the different maps that are mentioned.
  • Observe some lessons where teachers use different types of maps with students, such as commercial maps or distribution maps. How do they introduce the use of this map? Do the students find the map easy or difficult to use? Do you observe any problems with the ‘split-attention’ effect?

Map drawing

There is considerable learning potential in students creating their own maps. But using it as a ‘time filler’ is not good practice. Fred Martin warned about this in the GA’s Secondary Handbook in 2006:

Map drawing in schools can give geography a bad name. At worst, it may be a little more than a time consuming colouring activity. Assessing the quality of a student’s map can hinge on individual perceptions of neatness and aesthetics, rather than the application of criteria that identify the student’s level of competence to produce a map that is both accurate and technically proficient.’

He referred to the student-drawn map shown here. Note the teacher comment ‘good map skills’, but Fred Martin questioned whether this is the technical quality one ought to expect from a year 9 student.

Map drawing is a very worthwhile activity if it has a clear purpose to progress geographical learning. Making a map should involve a student doing several of the following:

  • Collecting data from primary or secondary sources to create the content
  • Selecting and processing data to display on the map
  • Drawing the map using appropriate mapping techniques, and following conventions such as including a compass point, key and scale
  • Interpreting the completed map to extract meaning from the patterns.
  • Find out whether your geography department has guidelines for ‘good’ maps that are used with students. Discuss with your mentor and teachers in your school what they expect a ‘good’ map drawn by a student to look lik.
  • What criteria would you use to assess the quality of students’ maps? Look at What makes a good map? These criteria were devised by year 9 students in Staffordshire after they looked at their own and a variety of published maps. Discuss your ideas with your geography mentor.
  • Look for opportunities in your lessons where you can ask students to draw a map, for example, an annotated sketch map, a population distribution map or a ‘mental map’ of a route. Evaluate student outcomes and consider carefully what makes for success in such tasks.
  • See Classroom activities from the GA’s Making my Place in the World Consider the activity Draw a map of your place and the questions that arose from students. How would you build on these questions in your classroom? Try out the activity in one of your lessons.

Maps from memory

Getting a class to create sketch maps from memory is a way to get students to consider distances, scale, and location and these in relation to places and landmarks. 

Students must look at the map and symbols carefully and how they are represented. All these are important geographical skills. It is a good introductory activity for drawing annotated maps.

Mental maps

We all have mental maps of places we know. These ‘maps in the mind’ provide us with an essential means of making sense of the world and of storing and recalling information about physical and human features. 

Mental maps are drawn without the help of a published map, whether online or in print. They enable a student to show their knowledge of an area. Students can be asked to focus attention on particular features e.g. open spaces or a journey to a place.

They are also a mix of objective knowledge and subjective perceptions: precise knowledge about the location of geographic features as well as impressions of places, rough estimates of size and location, and a general sense of the connections between places.

All students possess their own individual personal geographies and have ‘mental maps’ of places. Students develop and refine their mental maps through learning from teachers, the media and through personal experience. 

They move from simple to more complex levels of completeness and accuracy. They continue to add layers of information to their mental maps to reflect a growing understanding of a changing world and use this information in problem-solving and decision-making.

A teacher can use mental maps to give themselves an awareness of a student’s spatial knowledge. Ask students to draw a freehand mental map. This can tell you a great deal about their perceptions of a place and their ability to represent it as a conventional map.

Choose something with which students are familiar; their journey to school is often used, but check they have not done this activity already at primary school. If so, find something appropriate to the local area that all students know their way to. 

They should ‘use’ their maps – to discuss with each other or to take home and look more closely at what else they pass which could be included to improve their map.

Evaluate their maps as to their success in showing orientation and scale and use of map symbols. Of course, the longer their journey, the more complex the task.

Affective maps

A particular type of mental map is affective mapping, which plots on maps the feelings that particular places evoke. It helps teachers to evaluate how the socio-environmental experiences of students can influence what they perceive and represent.

Give students an accurate outline map of a place they know: the school grounds, their neighbourhood, the town centre. Ask them to invent symbols to indicate their feelings about different places.

  • Read Roberts (2023) pp. 31-2 for information on mental and affective mapping.

To help you see how affective mapping might have a role in your teaching, look at these ideas from some GA Projects:


  • 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. 160-6.
  • Freeman, D. and Morgan, A. (2017) ‘Place and locational knowledge’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, pp. 125, 127, 130.
  • Mackintosh, M., Collis, S. and Bustin, R. (2020) KnowHow: Maps: Projections, locations and grid references, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Parker, M. (2009) Map Addict, Collins.
  • Purnell, K.N. and Solman, R.T. (1991) ‘The influence of technical illustrations on students’ comprehension in geography’, Reading Research Quarterly, pp. 277-299.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography through Enquiry: An approach to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 6: Using geographical resources: an evidence-based approach.
  • Wiegand, P. (2006) Learning and Teaching with Maps. London: Routledge.