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Teaching place knowledge

“Students should be given opportunities to undertake individual and collaborative place-based geographical enquiries through which teachers can promote a more critical, reflective and multidimensional understanding of places.”

Denise Freeman and Alun Morgan, 2017

Refer to Place in geography if you have not already read this.

Topics on this page:

  • Place in the school curriculum
  • Teaching locational knowledge
  • How to teach locational knowledge
  • Teaching ideas for locational knowledge
  • Place knowledge in the National Curriculum
  • Progression in the conceptual understanding of place
  • Progression from year 7 to year 13
  • Reading

Place in the school curriculum

For many years, place was interpreted in the National Curriculum and examination specifications as mainly locational knowledge. However, the current curriculum has a broader interpretation. In the 2014 National Curriculum a distinction is made between locational knowledge and place knowledge

The latter is concerned with knowing about the characteristics of the places studied and the forces that shape them. If students are to build good understanding of both ‘location’ and ‘place’, they are best taught together in the curriculum.

Ofsted, in the 2023 report Getting our bearings, points out that teachers should consider the breadth of the body of knowledge that students should learn and give due consideration in their planning to the interrelationship between locational knowledge, place knowledge, knowledge of human and physical processes and geographical skills.

Key reading

  • Freeman, D. and Morgan, A. (2017) ‘Place and locational knowledge’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 10.

Teaching locational knowledge

Locational knowledge is the foundation upon which geographical understanding is built. It may be gleaned from the information in maps and globes. It is important for students to know:

  • Where specific places are (locational facts) so that they have a firm grounding in the basics of local, national and world geography.
  • How to find the location of places using maps and atlas maps, which involves the use of contents, index, latitude and longitude etc. and recognition of symbols and different scales.

Teaching about the location of specific features and how to find them on a map has a long tradition in school geography. This has been described as the ‘capes and bays’ approach to the subject – a ‘gazetteer’ knowledge of countries, cities, rivers and other features. 

It is important for young people to develop the skills to use maps and atlases to locate places and it should become second nature for students to always look up the location of a place when they come across somewhere they do not know.

Acquiring an extensive locational knowledge of the world may seem at first to be a low level and trivial activity that is more akin to knowledge for a pub quiz than an academic subject. However, students need a locational framework as a context for thinking geographically. Therefore, to learn ‘locational’ knowledge means more than simply memorising where places are or looking them up.

Geography students need to acquire a firm grounding in the basics of local, national and world geography so that it contributes to a contextual understanding of place. 

Catling points out that throughout nine school years of statutory geography education, teachers should help students to develop locational knowledge effectively: students should know where the places are that they have studied and know about the world, not just a few bits of it.

Bustin (2019) explains that acquiring world knowledge does not simply mean learning a list of capital cities. It involves the teacher revealing the world to their pupils ‘through the way they frame and recontextualise knowledge’. He points out that whereas other subjects may use places to locate knowledge, only in geography are students involved in deep exploration of those locations.

Ofsted (2023) points out that where locational knowledge has been specifically taught, students had a more secure knowledge of location. They could describe locations accurately, knew what made a good description of location and could use this to locate places in the world.

Improving students’ locational knowledge gives them the opportunity to ground abstract geographical content in a specific context and this helps them to develop a broader conceptual understanding. 

According to Bednarz et al (2016), if students bridge the divide between content and concepts they will develop a more holistic understanding of geography. Global locational knowledge also contributes to students’ deeper understanding of their role as global citizens.

  • Read Booth, A. (2019) ‘The importance of locational knowledge’, Teaching Geography, Summer.

How to teach locational knowledge

Catling’s paper makes it clear that students’ locational knowledge builds throughout their schooling. The GA, in its 2009 manifesto, likens locational knowledge to the ‘vocabulary’ of the subject. 

The geographical information and facts contained in maps and other sources only become knowledge of any lasting value when they become connected and part of a system i.e. when students are able to give them meaning. Therefore, learning about the location of a place is related to deeper learning about that place.

In Ofsted’s 2023 report, it was reported that:

At times, pupils did not understand location well, which resulted in them struggling to understand the processes occurring in different places. In one school, pupils did not know how the latitude of a country affected its climate, or what its neighbouring countries were.

Atlas work should form a regular and important part of your teaching. Do not confine this to just locating specific countries, cities, rivers etc, but extend this and ask students to interpret what other information they can deduce from the atlas. For example, Patrick Wiegand gives suggestions for using an atlas in an introductory lesson on Brazil:

‘You may want your students to understand that Brazil is more than 30 times the size of the UK and that a flight from Sao Paulo to Manaus is likely to take 4 or more hours. Rio and Sao Paulo look close on the map but they are actually 226 miles apart (i.e. as far as from our school to … … ?). Cities like Recife and Salvador have a large settlement symbol. The legend shows that more than 1 million people live there. The mouth of the Amazon lies on the equator. What does that tell you about the climate? Follow the course of the Amazon on the map. Assuming you have a topographic map, what does the map colour tell you about land height in the Amazon basin? What does map colour tell you about the height of the Brazilian Highlands? Is there anywhere in the UK as high as this? If you have chosen a thematic map, what do the colours and symbols represent? Can students match symbols and word meaning with pictures of the land use or environment or economic activity that the maps describe?’ (Source Thinkpiece Maps and atlases, 2009)

This illustrates how a teacher can use the atlas for more than mere location. It can be used to widen students’ geographical thinking about a place.

Booth (2019) believes that locational knowledge should be the cornerstone of a geography education. He discusses his response to a GCSE geography class who said they did not know where ‘anything in the world is’. This article provides a good reflection by a teacher of his own practice in this area.

Take care to always be meticulous and accurate when you use place names and locations in your teaching. Look at this statement taken from the 2014 National Curriculum – ‘using maps of the world to focus on Africa, Russia, Asia (including China and India), and the Middle East…’ This is a poorly presented statement because it muddles continents, regions and countries; would you be as careless as this? Make sure your students understand such distinctions and refer to place names accurately.

Teaching ideas for locational knowledge

Place knowledge in the National Curriculum

Key reading

  • Rawling, E. (2018) ‘Reflections on ‘place’, Teaching Geography, Summer.

Rawling (2018) takes Cresswell’s threefold approach to the study of place – descriptive, social constructionist, phenomenological – and illustrates how the national requirements for geography reflect a fragmented approach. Figure 2 in this article clearly shows that the National Curriculum requirements give a strong emphasis to descriptive, regional approaches and place knowledge.

However, there is an opportunity to examine processes in physical and human geography in relation to place through exemplars and to examine links between places. For more humanistic approaches, teachers have to look hard for opportunities to pick up these aspects via fieldwork and interpreting data sources, rather than find them explicitly in the requirements for place study.

Denise Freeman and Alun Morgan note that locational and place knowledge should be taught together. They write:

To be an effective tool in the study of places, locational knowledge needs to be embedded into a broader curriculum. It is essential to know where a place is and how it fits into the wider world, but as in academic geography, school geography needs to draw upon the work of humanistic, social and cultural geographers to help students develop a deeper understanding of the natural, built and social environment. As well as knowing where places are, students need to understand the forces at work in shaping places, both now and in the past.

The National Curriculum for geography does not include a definitive list of places that students should know at certain ages and stages. It does include a range of places at different scales in specific key stages to help them to create a functioning mental map of the world.

We can see that, generally, there is a move away from the UK over the key stages: from a focus on the UK in key stage 1 and on Europe and the Americas in key stage 2. The National Curriculum requirement at key stage 3 is for students to:

‘Extend their locational knowledge and deepen their spatial awareness of the world’s countries using maps of the world to focus on Africa, Russia, Asia (including China and India), and the Middle East, focusing on their environmental regions, including polar and hot deserts, key physical and human characteristics, countries and major cities.’

The key stage 3 statement should not be interpreted as an exclusive requirement. For example, there is no specific mention of Australasia and Antarctica in the National Curriculum but this does not prevent teachers using materials about these places or the Americas, for example, at key stage 3.

There is a general progression in scale, with a move away from places being studied in a small local area at key stage 1, to wider, more distant, regions, such as a region within Africa at key stage 3. But the National Curriculum does not indicate the detail, breadth or depth of study of the places named. It is for the teacher to decide on this. 

However, if you read the National Curriculum key stage 3 statement carefully, you will see that it sets a rigorous expectation for locational knowledge in that students should ‘deepen their spatial awareness of the world’s countries‘ and use ‘maps of the world to focus on …‘.

The National Curriculum expects knowledge of environmental regions, countries and major cities. A geographical region is generally referred to as a large area of land with distinguishing geographical, ecological, cultural or political characteristics that set it apart from other areas and may exist within one country or be spread over several.

In Getting our bearings, Ofsted (2023) notes that although all schools claimed to follow the national curriculum, some schools had significant gaps compared with the scope and ambition of the national curriculum. For example, some schools did not teach anything about the geography of Russia or of the Middle East.

When a geography teacher is creating the curriculum they should look for links and connections between the places specified. Teachers should look at how they could embed physical and human geography topics within the context of places (or the other way around!). 

Gersmehl (2009) suggests that the best way to teach the subject is to move between the two so that students will develop an understanding of synthesis and spatial variation.

  • Read this paper from the expert subject advisory group for geography. It gives many examples to show how Russia and the Middle East can be used for teaching physical and human geography. It also discusses the concept of a ‘region’.

Progression in the conceptual understanding of place

There is no set progression for students to follow in developing a conceptual understanding of place. Progress in achieving breadth and depth is related to experiences. Rawling (2022) sees progression as a set of terraces each of which should be explored horizontally before the next step. 

This is shown in Rawling (2022) Fig 7 which illustrates how encounters with a wider range of examples and case studies build up a student’s substantive place knowledge. The examples should cover different scales, times, contexts and viewpoints.

Ofsted (2023) reported that where students’ knowledge of places was strong, they could ‘demonstrate a nuanced appreciation of the places they had studied. They connected their knowledge of places to their knowledge of geographical processes and their knowledge of location‘. In contrast, they stated that where their knowledge of places was weaker, they had ‘learned a disconnected list of facts about a place. They were not able to connect information or to answer wider questions about those places‘.

Progression from year 7 to year 13

Rawling (2016) has described a clear progression in teaching location and place knowledge.

  • Track this progression in place in this overview of the content of the English National Curriculum, GCSE and A level examinations and in this table of locational knowledge and place from Rawling (2016).

In the National Curriculum, students are expected to explore localities at different scales in specific key stages. The are expected to understand similarities and differences of places as a locale and by key stage 3 are beginning to appreciate ‘a sense of place’.

GCSE requirements have a broad statement about extending the locational knowledge and contextual knowledge built up by students at key stages 1–3. You should not ignore the importance of locational knowledge when you are teaching post-14 students and be continually building up students’ breadth and depth of locational knowledge.

GCSE geography requires a focus on ‘the geography of the UK’ as a means of developing a more mature understanding of processes and relationships within and between places. This involves a study of the UK in its own right, and through some in-depth case studies of thematic geography. 

Students need to develop a deeper understanding of the various influences that create a place like the UK, including its landscapes, environmental challenges, social and economic relationships.

They should also begin to further develop their ‘sense of place’. Thus, by the time students study GCSE, all the different meanings of place in geography are touched upon. However, Rawling (2018) notes that current specifications approach the UK study through distinct themes rather than developing students deeper understanding of the complexity of place. This case study approach at GCSE contrasts with the National Curriculum that identifies continents and regions for study.

  • See Minton, M. (2018) Living in the UK: A study of contemporary geography, Geographical Association. This is an example of teaching UK as a place and is one of the GSCE Geography Teachers’ Toolkit series.

At A level there is no specific requirement for locational knowledge, but a suggestion that study will build on previous knowledge. In the Changing places section of A level Geography, the concept of place significantly progresses upon GCSE understandings of this term, and anticipates higher education.

The place study requirements are more detailed and there is an explicit focus on the idea of place and its meaning and representations, which requires a more theoretical understanding of place than was the case in earlier A level examinations. Students are required to revisit the idea of the local place and extend this at different scales to understand the dynamics of place.

They must also study a unit on Changing place; changing places and consider relationships and connections between place and people, the economy, society and the environment. The expectations in the current A level specification reflect some of the developments in the field of cultural geography taking place in universities.

Geo Resources from the GA about the UK

 Reading

  • Bednarz, S.W., Acheson, G. and Bednarz, R.S. (2006) ‘Maps and map learning in social studies’, Social Education, 70, 7.
  • Booth, A. (2019) ‘The importance of locational knowledge’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Bustin, R. (2019) Geography Education’s Potential and the Capabilities Approach. Palgrave Macmillan, p. 122
  • Freeman, D. and Morgan, A. (2017) ‘Place and locational knowledge’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 10.
  • Gersmehl, P. (2009) Teaching Geography (second edition). New York: Guildford Press.
  • Ofsted (2023) Getting our bearings: geography subject report, Ofsted, September.
  • Rawling, E. (2016) ‘The geography curriculum 5-19: What does it all mean?’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Rawling, E. (2018) ‘Place in geography: Change and challenge’ in Jones, M. and Lambert, D. (eds) Debates in Geography Education. London: Routledge.
  • Rawling, E. (2018) ‘Reflections on ‘place’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Rawling, E. (2022) A framework for the school geography curriculum, Sheffield: Geographical Association.