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Teaching about places

“Geographers do not just see a place as an “objective thing” in the world that can be described and explained as they build up geographical knowledge. “Place” is also experienced on a personal and deeply emotional level.”

Eleanor Rawling, 2008

Refer to Place in geography and Teaching place knowledge if you have not already done so.

Topics on this page:

  • Teaching about places is complex
  • Questions to ask when you teach about places
  • Changing places
  • Questions for a place enquiry
  • Comparing places
  • Awe and wonder of places
  • Using your personal experiences of places
  • Developing a ‘Sense of place’
  • My place: encouraging students to think about where they live
  • Reflection questions on places
  • Exploring the local area in which you teach
  • Using a personal geography topic
  • Representing local places and Britain
  • Reading

Teaching about places is complex

There are many things to consider when teaching about places and there are several different teaching approaches you could adopt. Here we consider some of them and suggest teaching resources for you to explore.

Mary Biddulph, in the Autumn 2010 editorial of Teaching Geography, reminds us that ‘while place is at the core of our thinking as geographers, the study of place and places is necessarily complex, messy and always open to question.’ 

She puts forward these questions that you should reflect on when you teach about places in geography lessons.

What are we trying to achieve?

  • Do we want young people to merely extend their place knowledge?
  • Are we trying to develop in young people ‘a sense of place’?
  • What do we mean by a ‘sense’ of place?
  • Whose places are included in and excluded from the geography we teach?
  • Are we aiming to challenge students’ misconceptions of places near and far?
  • Are we trying to develop a sense of responsibility to places now and in the future?

Freeman (2020) provides a useful model for planning a place study that reflects different perspectives:

  • The natural science/positivist: location, physical environment, regional/global context, climate, landscape and geomorphological challenges.
  • Social science: economic/social development, processes that shape a nation, colonial links, post-colonial influences such as transnational corporations (TNCs), industrialisation and exploitation of child labour.
  • Students’ lived experience: what do they know about the country? how do they know it?
  • Humanistic: a video diary case study of a teenager in the country or photographs of a teacher to represent two views of life.

Refer to Freeman (2020).

Changing places

The introduction of the Changing Places topic in the A level specifications in 2016 has influenced the approach geography teachers are taking to teaching about place in key stages 3 and 4. Places as an abstract concept has not been taught to those key stages, but teachers have realised that a good understanding of place needs to be established during the lower school curriculum as a foundation for later study.

Hannah Finch Noyes, in Dawson et al. (2022), outlines how she tackles ideas such as insider/outsider perspective, placelessness and sense of place in her lower school geography curriculum. She also undertakes fieldwork in the school grounds to answer the question ‘What factors shape our school’s sense of place?’. Refer to the article to find out more.

Places are dynamic; they have not always been like they are today. This is important for students to understand this, as well as the future potential of places. Charles Rawding (2009) writes:

Place needs to be considered not only as a physical setting within which social, economic, cultural, personal and political interactions take place, but also as a significant influence on how those interactions unfold over time… Locations evolve continuously, responding to changing situations while at the same time influencing the changes that occur both within and between them.’

Rawding encourages us to consider place as a process. He uses the notion of a palimpsest, a canvas which has been created by layer upon layer being added, with some previous layers being obliterated and some remaining.

  • Read Hammond and Rashidi (2018) and Marvell and Simm (2016) for further information and examples of the geographical palimpsest in London and Barcelona.

Many geography teachers use geographical enquiries to study places and how they are changing. Ask questions such as:

  • What is this place?
  • Where is it?
  • What is this place like?
  • How did it get like this?
  • How is this place linked to other places?
  • How is this place similar/different to other places?
  • How is this place changing?
  • What would it be like to live in this place?

It can be useful to consider some of the key processes driving change in different places and how they shape its identity, e.g. urbanisation, globalisation, migration and mobility. Use this table, prepared by Emma Rawlings Smith for a GA CPD event, to consider drivers for change when exploring place studies in different types of locations.Teaching about places table

Another approach that can be used to teach about changing places is Massey’s (2005) concept of ‘a global sense of place’. She describes the ways in which places are being made and remade in the age of globalisation and accelerated mobility. 

Massey sees change contributing to the ‘accumulated history of a place’ and how places are being reshaped through local and distant connections. She illustrates this in her picture of Kilburn, a place in north London which includes significant communities of Irish and Asian heritage.

  • See Kilburn High Street as described by Professor Doreen Massey (2005). This extract was part of the GA CPD on changing places and has interesting suggestions for activities linking Kilburn and the world.
  • For an example of a key stage 3 enquiry into a changing place see Dodsworth (2010).
  • Explore Sheffield case study on the GA website, which is a set of materials explicitly linked to the GCSE and A level specifications that use Sheffield as a backdrop but can be adapted for other places. The case study is divided into two main sections; the first focusing on Place and the second focusing on Sheffield.

Comparing places

A common geography task at key stage 3 is to ask students to compare a distant place with the UK. This could be an appropriate topic for a piece of extended writing.

  • Refer to the example in Enser (2019) ,chapter 3. Enser models writing on How does India compare to the UK? for his year 7 class before he asks them to write their own piece of extended writing comparing Uganda with the UK.

Awe and wonder of places

A dimension that is sometimes missing in teaching about places is ‘awe and wonder’.

‘The concept of “awe and wonder” can be defined as “experiencing an appreciation of place beyond its immediate measurable components”. It is about feelings, impressions and experiences, about “being” in a landscape and feeling part of it, and ultimately it should lead to a greater understanding of our true sense of place in the world. It is the “wow” factor that we experience when being confronted by a deep chasm, a waterfall… ’ (Ross, 2001)

It has been argued that this aspect of geography contributes to students’ spiritual development – marvelling at the grandeur of the Rockies, the icy wastes of Antarctica or the colours of Earth as seen from space.

  • Refer to Ross (2001) and Hawley (2020) for examples of ‘awe and wonder’.

A good way to introduce ‘awe and wonder’ is to draw on your own first-hand experience, perhaps illustrated with photographs you have taken of places. Never underestimate the value of using your own personal experiences in lessons.

Audit your own first-hand experiences of places – where have you lived or visited? Collect together photos and artefacts from these places that you could use as teaching resources. When you plan your teaching of places, use your own insights of places you know well. This gives you an opportunity to inspire students with your enthusiasm about different places and your first-hand knowledge.

Developing students’ ‘Sense of place’

A ‘sense of place’ is a personal appreciation and a unique perspective on a place, so it cannot be taught directly, but students should be given an opportunity to think about and develop it. We should ask students in geography lessons to think about the meanings that places have for them

The articles by Cook (2010), Moncrieff (2008) and Selmes and Wallace (2014) should inspire you to include a ‘sense of place’ as an aspect of your fieldwork. Also read Taylor (2004) and about using eight-way thinking to build up a sense of place on the GA website.

When you consider what is distinctive about a place and think about the ‘sense of place’ that can be conveyed, do not forget how others have expressed their ‘sense of place’ through literature and art. You could work with an English teacher to plan some lessons on ‘sense of place’ in literature. Also consider encouraging students to express their emotional responses to place by writing prose or poetry (see Creativity in the geography classroom).

  • Read Rawling (2010) and consider how to get your students to reflect on how their lives are ‘intertwined with places and the landscapes they inhabit’ and how they can be introduced to ‘personal responses to places’. Discuss your ideas with teachers of English and/or art.

My place: encouraging students to think about where they live

When students join secondary school they come from several different primary schools and have a variety of geographical backgrounds. They will have had different experiences and a concept such as place will carry a diversity and complexity of associations for each individual student. In this context, a good starting point for the geography curriculum early on in secondary school is a place study for the area local to where the students live.

  • See pages 126-9 and Figure 4 in Freeman and Morgan (2017). Study this example of a scheme of work on the local area for year 7.

This scheme illustrates many good practice elements. The year 7 students are first asked to reflect upon the term ‘place’. Their responses are interesting, and you might try the same activity with your students and compare results. Although the scheme focused on the local area, places at different scales are also considered, enabling comparisons to be made and so that students build up ideas about place gradually

Students’ own experiences and local knowledge are put at the heart of the learning (memory map activity). The scheme also develops the use of map skills and gives students the opportunity to research a local issue.

Liz Taylor reminds us of the enormous variety and richness of places and how we relate to place in our everyday lives. She describes a geographer’s view of a visit to a city.

‘On arriving at the city, we carefully obey signs telling us where and how to park then go shopping – the cosmopolitan nature of the market may happily remind us of the way this place is linked with many others and a shop selling fair trade goods prompts us to think about the equality of those links. Time for a bit of sightseeing – maybe we experience a sense of awe on wandering around an ancient place of worship, or feel like we are travelling back in time looking at the castle dungeons. Finally, we return home, hopefully a place of safety and security (though sadly not for all) where we may reconsider our visit’. (Teaching Geography, Spring 2005)

She asks:

  • How many different interactions and reactions to place did we have in that day?
  • How did the ways in which we chose to relate to place reflect what we feel about who we are?
  • How did those interactions reinforce and shape who we are and will be?

It is important to consider questions such as these that require students to think about personal views of places and how places affect them. These are important considerations when we are teaching the concepts of place.

  • Read Taylor (2005).
  • How can I ascertain students’ current perceptions (and any misconceptions they hold) about this place?
  • How might I nurture and develop students’ natural curiosity about places?
  • What differences and similarities should I prompt them to look for?
  • Am I developing both breadth and depth in their understanding about this place?
  • Should I encourage them to think critically about how people view this place?
  • What questions should I ask? What questions should I encourage them to ask?

There have been several GA projects on local area themes which provide many teaching ideas. The project Where will I live? asked questions such as the ones above. It set out to avoid teaching a simplified, descriptive representation of place and to promote a more creative, critical approach using geographical enquiry and open-ended questions. 

A teacher participating in the project commented, ‘The pupils have been encouraged to think in new ways about the built environment, to look at it through both their own and others’ eyes and to realise that they have a stake in its future development’.                  

Another GA project had a focus on ‘Valuing places’ and the Spring 2005 issue of Teaching Geography includes articles related to the themes of space, place, identity and interconnectedness.

  • Also see the starter activities from the GA project ‘Making my place in the world’.
  • Look at this PowerPoint presentation from the ‘Making my place in the world’ project showing how Aston Academy in Sheffield taught a series of lessons to year 9 pupils (starting their GCSE course) to increase their sense of awareness about their own environment and community.

In your lessons it would be good to draw on your students’ own knowledge and experience of the localities where they live. To do this effectively you will need to be familiar with the area around the school in which you are teaching.

  • Explore the local environment. Walk in the immediate vicinity of the school and talk with other teachers (not necessarily geographers) who live locally.
  • Read the local newspaper – what are the local issues?
  • Engage in discussion with different age students (perhaps in tutor time) to get a perspective on how they engage with their local environment. What are the important features and localities for them in this area?
 Using a personal geography topic

Think about using an enquiry with an emphasis on the students’ personal geographies. Students should ask questions such as:

  • What is the place where I live like?
  • How does it look?
  • How do I feel about it?
  • How is it changing?
  • How do I want it to change? Can I influence this?

Students will attach significantly different meanings to places in comparison with adults and geography teachers. It is important to tease out the multiple meanings they have of places.

Students could draw mental maps or affective maps of where they live (see Teaching with maps). This can give you an insight about what is important to students in their local area. One of the teachers in a GA project wrote:

‘The mental maps that students drew of their local area were fascinating. They were asked to draw a map on a sheet of A4 paper, with their house in the middle. They were then to map the area within a 5-minute walking radius of their house. None of the students were able to complete this task – they focused exclusively on the sector of the map which showed their route from home to school. The vast majority placed their house in the corner of the page and did not consider the land use in all directions that really mattered. (Amanda Alderton ‘Where will I live project’, 2006)

Collect some images of local places, which could be postcards or promotional brochures. Ask the students:

  • How are they represented?
  • To what extent do I relate to these representations?
  • How would I represent my local area differently?

Then ask students to take their own photographs to represent the identity of the area.

A similar activity could be done to explore representations of Britain. Use examples from tourist brochures, advertisements and photographs in geography textbooks. Ask the students:

  • How is the country I live in represented?
  • Do I identify with this country?
  • Do I identify with these images?
  • Why do they think these particular images have been chosen?
  • What images would I select of local/regional/national region?

Reading

  • Roberts, M. (2003) ‘A fair view of England’ pp. 184–7 for further examples of activities for this topic.
  • Morgan, J. ‘Britishness’, geography and education’, Teaching Geography, Spring 2005. This explores issues surrounding the teaching of the ‘geographies of Britain’.

Reading

  • Cook, V. (2010) ‘Exploring students’ personal experiences of geography fieldwork’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Dawson, G., Finch Noyes, H., Hunt, P. and Norman, M. (2022) ‘The danger in primary geography’ by Simon Catling – a response, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Dodsworth, T. (2010) ‘Investigating change in the Dearne Valley’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Freeman, D. (2020) ‘Illuminating places’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Freeman, D. and Morgan, (2017) ‘Place and locational knowledge’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Hammond, L. and El Rashidi, S. (2018) ‘Layers of London – a rich geographical palimpest’, Geography, Spring.
  • Hawley, D. (2020) ‘Beyond awe and wonder: using powerful knowledge to release ‘hidden’ physical geography’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Marvell, A. and Simm, D. (2016) ‘Unravelling the geographical palimpsest through fieldwork: discovering a sense of place’, Geography, Autumn.
  • Moncrieff, D. (2008) ‘Fieldwork: “Placing” people’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Rawding, C. (2012) ‘Teaching urban change using the local area’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Rawding, C. (2009) ‘Teaching place as a process’, Teaching Geography, Summer. This has a series of examples taken from different places in Britain.
  • Rawling, E. (2010) ‘The Severn was brown, and the Severn was blue – A place for poetry in school geography?’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Ross, S. (2001) ‘The geography of awe and wonder’, Teaching Geography, April.
  • Selmes, I. and Wallace, A. (2014) ‘The fieldwork of place’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Taylor, L. (2004) Representing geography. Cambridge: Chris Kington Publishing.
  • Taylor, L. (2005) ‘Place: an exploration’, Teaching Geography, Spring.

Reference

  • Massey, D, (1994) Space, Place and Gender. Cambridge: Polity Press.