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Powerful geography knowledge

“There is a need to identify both the content (substantive knowledge) that is to be taught and the knowledge of relationships that allow students to understand the connections between ideas (disciplinary knowledge). Students’ combined appreciation of both substantive and disciplinary knowledge can be described as geographical understanding.”

Ofsted Research Review: Geography, 2021

Topics on this page:

Powerful disciplinary knowledge (PDK) | Reading guidance | What is ‘powerful knowledge’? | The Three Futures scenarios | Powerful knowledge or powerful pedagogy? | Teaching powerful disciplinary knowledge | Reading about powerful knowledge

Powerful disciplinary knowledge (PDK)

The Ofsted Research review (2021) states:

Teachers need to consider how students gain an insight into the discipline when planning the curriculum…one way of doing this is through the “powerful knowledge” approach. This approach emphasises students’ need to learn about disciplinary knowledge, in particular that knowledge is “open to debate, challenge and discussion by subject experts.” Through building from students’ personal and “everyday” geographies in “dialogue with the academic”, there can be “the possibility of the creation of new knowledge that can give learners a sense of social and environmental agency”‘.

However, in the 2023 report, Ofsted noted that ‘disciplinary knowledge (the knowledge of how geographical knowledge is formed, debated and contested) was a weaker area of curriculum thinking in both primary and secondary schools.’

The term ‘powerful disciplinary knowledge’ (PDK) is often used to emphasise the connections between the academic discipline and the school subject. PDK enables geographical thought and allows students to understand the purposes of geography. It is about how geographers think, the methods geographers use to create insights about the world and the range of ideas and perspectives that make geography a subject.

It is important that school students develop their thinking about geography and go beyond their everyday experiences to gain insights and understandings of the subject. Students should be taught explicitly about how geographical knowledge is gained. Students should develop an understanding of the interconnectedness within the subject and take a holistic view of subject content. Students also need to recognise that geography is a dynamic subject where thinking and viewpoints change.

PDK is closely related to thinking geographically and is about students learning how to question and explain the world. They should appreciate what it means to be a geographer by asking geographical questions such as ‘why is this place like this?’, ‘how is this place changing?’ and ‘how are other places affected?’. Disciplinary knowledge involves students engaging deeply with such questions to establish their validity, the methods used to investigate them and the conclusions arrived at.

Using geographical enquiry can be effective in developing students’ disciplinary geography knowledge. When undertaking enquiries students learn how geographers identify questions, collect, present and analyse data, and then reach and evaluate their conclusions.

Ofsted (2023) reported that ‘schools often approached disciplinary knowledge through the use of geographical models. Where disciplinary thinking was clearest, pupils were taught not only what these models are but how they are formed and what their limitations are’. (See using models in Teaching human geography.)

Reading guidance

There are many references about ‘powerful geography’ listed on these pages, so some suggestion of where to start might be welcomed! The references related to practical teaching are grouped so that you can identify them, and they are a good place to obtain an understanding of how these ideas translate into practice.

 

Enser (2021), a text written by an at-the-time practicing teacher, is very readable and contains a good deal of practical advice. Biddulph et al (2021) provides a comprehensive overview of the whole area.

You should delve into some of the writings that further elucidate the thinking underpinning powerful geography, and should certainly read some of David Lambert’s work (his 2017 paper is available online) and Maude’s article in Geography. Come back and read further when you have tried out some ideas and want to find out some more.

The articles below in recent issues of Teaching Geography suggest some ways in which disciplinary knowledge has an important role to play in teaching subject knowledge to students and encouraging them to see different connections and engage deeply with geographical questions.

  • Bustin, R. (2022) ‘Teaching the geographies of the homeless: a GeoCapabilities approach’, Geography, Spring.
  • Gillman, R. (2019) ‘Raising issues: questions about population growth’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Hesslewood, A. (2017) ‘Geography against learning’ Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Kinder, A. (2017) ‘The power of geography’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Puttick, S. (2017) ‘Trust me, I’m a teacher’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Rawding, C. (2014) ‘The importance of teaching ‘holistic’ geographies’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Roberts, M. (2017) ‘Geographical education is powerful if…’, Teaching Geography, Spring.

What is ‘powerful knowledge’?

Gardner (2021) comments that ‘It is vital to grasp what is meant by ‘powerful knowledge’ – and what it doesn’t mean – because it is the kind of term that can end up meaning whatever you want, which is profoundly unhelpful.’ Powerful knowledge embraces all four kinds of knowledge described in Subject knowledge. These are factual, conceptual, procedural and meta-cognitive.

The idea of powerful knowledge was introduced into school education over a decade ago by Michael Young (2008), a British sociologist of education. He contends that the main purpose of schools is to teach knowledge that enables students to understand and think beyond the limits of their own experience and describes such knowledge as ‘powerful’. He writes:

‘The idea of “powerful knowledge” refers to what makes some knowledge powerful and what it can do for those who have access to it. Knowledge is “powerful” if it predicts, if it explains, if it enables people to envisage alternatives, if it helps people to think in new ways.’

Powerful knowledge describes specialist knowledge developed within academic disciplines. It is the knowledge that students would not have access to at home and that takes them beyond their experiences. Young distinguishes between this ‘powerful’ knowledge and their ‘everyday’ knowledge and recognises that powerful knowledge produces capabilities in students. He argues that the school curriculum should be built from powerful knowledge because otherwise students would be denied access to it.

It is a compelling idea that specialist geographical knowledge takes students beyond their everyday experiences and allows them to understand that the world is powerful. A good way to think about what it offers students is:

  • The power to think in new ways
  • The power to make generalisations and think beyond particular contexts.

David Lambert and others have developed this thinking about powerful geographical knowledge to make it central to the idea of GeoCapabilities (see below).

There are some immediate differences you will see between ‘core’ knowledge, as discussed earlier, and the notion of powerful knowledge. Core knowledge can be at a fairly superficial level of accumulation of information, while powerful knowledge involves the development of students’ deeper understanding.

Powerful knowledge is created in specialist disciplinary communities. It is not static, but it is dynamic and continually being developed and revised. It cannot be acquired by learners at home or from the internet.

Powerful knowledge is the type of knowledge that students in today’s schools will need as they take their place as informed adults in the modern world of work, particularly in what is the ‘knowledge society’. David Lambert (2017) has described it as:

  • Evidence-based
  • Abstract and theoretical, i.e. conceptual
  • Part of a system of thought
  • Dynamic, evolving, changing – but reliable (‘testable’ and open to challenge)
  • Sometimes counter-intuitive
  • Exists outside the direct experience of the teacher and the learner
  • Discipline-based.

 The Three Futures scenarios

The notion of powerful subject knowledge is very much part of how the curriculum is seen and taught. In developing their ideas about powerful knowledge, Young and Muller (2010) identified three alternative future curriculum ‘scenarios’. You can follow through the details in the references, but in summary:

  • Future 1 is a ‘traditional’, fact-based curriculum in which the teacher ‘delivers’ the prescribed content of ‘core knowledge’.
  • Future 2 is a constructivist approach with a curriculum that focuses on skills and competences. In this approach students ‘learn to learn’.
  • Future 3 is concerned with powerful disciplinary knowledge that is very different to the ‘facts’ of the Future 1 Future 3 is also concerned with active pedagogies and engaging students with dynamic geographical knowledge; this also distinguishes it from the skills-based Future 2.
  • See Gardner (2021) Figure 2.3, which provides a good analysis of the characteristics of each of these Futures.
  • Read Part 1 of Enser (2021) and then consider the reflection in the textbox.

Consider the conclusions drawn by Enser (2021) at the end of Part 1 of his Powerful Geography text, as set out here. Do you agree with these ideas? Discuss this with as many different geography teachers as you can.

In geography, the distinctive big ideas include:

  • space and place
  • scale and connection
  • proximity and distance
  • relational thinking.

Teaching geography should give pupils the capability to:

  • discover new ways of thinking
  • better explain and understand the natural and social worlds
  • think about alternative futures and what they could do to influence them
  • have some power over their own knowledge
  • be able to engage in current debates of significance
  • go beyond the limits of their personal experience.

Powerful knowledge or powerful pedagogy?

The idea of ‘powerful knowledge’ is not without its critics and this is explored in detail by Winter et al (2024).  They conclude that, when viewed through a decolonial lens, ‘ “powerful knowledge” marginalises the everyday knowledge of people globally and glosses over their “hidden” geographies and histories in ways that sustain racialised global inequalities’.

Margaret Roberts (2014) disagrees with Young when he says that the curriculum should not include student experiences. 

She argues that students need to bring their own knowledge, skills and understandings of the world, acquired through direct and indirect experiences, into the geography classroom. She believes that, in order to achieve appropriate subject understandings, their ‘personal geographies’ of place, space and environment are important to build upon.

It is her view that geography teaching can take students far beyond their everyday experience – for example, through the introduction of concepts that are more general (e.g. settlements), more abstract (e.g. urbanisation) and beyond their direct experience (e.g. volcanoes and earthquakes). This supports the ideas based on both cognitive science and constructivism that students learn by relating new ideas to their prior learning and experiences.

While Roberts believes that Young raises some important issues about curriculum and pedagogy, she questions the direct applicability of his concept of powerful knowledge to a geography education that excludes students’ own experiences. She would prefer that powerful pedagogy was given more emphasis alongside powerful knowledge.

Roberts (2017) states that geographical education could be powerful by:

  • Enabling students to make connections between their everyday knowledge and school geography
  • Transforming the ways in which students understand the world
  • Enabling students to be aware of the values dimension of decisions that affect local, national and world geography
  • Equipping students with the skills needed to deal with the complexity of geographical knowledge and to develop understanding
  • Encouraging students to take an active part in learning.

Her argument is that geography is powerful only if the transformative effects of geographical education on students’ thinking endure beyond school into adult life, which she believes depends on a powerful pedagogy. This gives more prominence to promoting thinking, critical understanding and active involvement. 

Roberts believes that investigative approaches and dialogic pedagogies are vital in the construction of geographical knowledge and understanding. She concludes that school geography might not always meet the criteria for powerful knowledge, but powerful pedagogies provide ways of looking at the world through the questions it asks, and the ways it investigates these questions.

  • Watch this debate: Powerful Knowledge (Michael Young). Professor Michael Young was invited to talk to an audience of about 50 geography teachers and educationists on May 15, 2013. His task was to explain his concept of ‘powerful knowledge’. The audience is curious as to how, or even whether, this idea applies to the school geography curriculum. Margaret Roberts was invited to respond to Michael Young’s argument concerning ‘powerful knowledge’.

Teaching powerful disciplinary knowledge

This typology is adapted from Maude (2016) and clearly sets out how you can think of powerful disciplinary knowledge in the context of your teaching. You should feel comfortable with the types of knowledge he identifies if you are teaching the subject. It is worth noting that much of what is included, such as world knowledge and big ideas, are usually found in the geography curriculum of forward-looking geography departments.

Read Hesslewood (2023) which discusses how one department unpicks different types of PDK in their curriculum plans in line with Maude’s typology categories. Their key purpose of identifying PDK is to draw out the links between them so they can help students to retrieve key geographical ideas when learning new ones. This aids students’ knowledge building and geographical thinking.

Some of the powerful ways of analysing and explaining can be identified in some of the newer elements required at A level, such as Changing Places and Global Governance. They also arise from the application of new technologies, such as GIS, that provide many opportunities for new forms of analysis. What remains outside most school geography as yet is the epistemic aspect of ‘how do you know?’.

  • Read Biddulph et al (2021) Is Geography knowledge powerful knowledge?, 13-16. Then try Task 1.2, Thinking about geographical knowledge.

The GeoCapabilities project has been developed from these ideas with the impetus to find a way to help geography teachers think more powerfully about the aims and purposes of what they teach. The project has been developing approaches that can help geography teachers reassess the roles of geography as a subject, and of geographical knowledge, in their classroom teaching. The project argues that acquiring ‘powerful’ geographical knowledge is fundamental to developing students’ capability.

Teaching powerful geography is also about the precision of geographical language and information and avoiding popular terms or descriptions that may be widely used but are not accurate representations of academic discipline. For example, Puttick et al (2018) explains that disasters arising from hazardous events are not natural and we should therefore avoid using the term ‘natural disaster’.

Whittall (2019) discusses sixth form students’ perceptions of powerful subject knowledge. He notes that they recognise that its power lay in thinking about new ways of understanding the world and being provided with the tools to join in with topical discussions and debates. They also acknowledge the importance of teacher explanation in acquiring this knowledge.

 Reading: case studies for teaching powerful knowledge

  • Bustin, R., Butler, K. and Hawley, D. (2017) ‘GeoCapabilities: teachers as curriculum leaders’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Hawley, D. (2020) ‘Beyond awe and wonder: using powerful knowledge to release ‘hidden’ physical geography’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Mitchell, D., Whittall, D., Dickinson,F. and Eyre, G. (2021) ‘Re-engaging with the discipline – teaching migration with a GeoCapabilities approach’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Puttick, S., Bosher, L. and Chmutina, K. (2018) ‘Disasters are not natural’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Uhlenwinkel, A., Beneker, T., Bladh, G., Tani, S. and Lambert, D. (2016) ‘GeoCapabilities and curriculum leadership: balancing the priorities of aim-based and knowledge-led curriculum thinking in schools’, International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 26 (4) pp. 327-341.

Reading about powerful knowledge

  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. London: Routledge.
  • Bustin, R. (2019) Geography Education’s Potential and the Capabilities Approach: GeoCapabilities and Schools. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Enser, M. (2021) Powerful Geography. Crown House Publishing.
  • Firth R (2014) ‘What constitutes knowledge in Geography?’ in Lambert, D. and Jones, M. (eds) Debates in Geography Education. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Gardner, D. (2021) Planning your coherent 11–16 geography curriculum: a design toolkit. Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Hesslewood, A. (2023) ‘Evaluating curriculum impact: using powerful disciplinary knowledge as “waypoints”‘, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Lambert, D. (2014) ‘Subject teachers in knowledge-led schools’ in Young, M., Lambert, D., Roberts, C. et al. (eds) Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Lambert, D. (2015) ‘Powerful knowledge in geography: IRGEE editors interview Professor David Lambert’, London Institute of Education, October 2014. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education 24(1): 1–5.
  • Lambert, D. (2017) ‘Who thinks what in geography classrooms? Powerful disciplinary knowledge and curriculum futures’, The New Geography, 65 (3).
  • Maude, A. (2016) ‘What might powerful geographical knowledge look like?’ Geography, Summer.
  • Morgan, J. (2011) ‘Knowledge and the school geography curriculum: a rough guide for teachers’, Teaching Geography, 36, 3, pp. 90–92.
  • Ofsted, (2021) Ofsted Research Review: Geography, Ofsted.
  • Ofsted (2023) Getting our bearings: geography subject report, Ofsted, September.
  • Roberts, M. (2014) ‘Powerful Knowledge and geographical education’, The Curriculum Journal, Vol 25 (2) pp.187-209.
  • Roberts, M. (2017) ‘Geographical education is powerful if…’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Slater, F., Graves, N. and Lambert, D. (2015) Geography and Powerful Knowledge and a responseIRGEE, Vol 24, February.
  • Whittall, D. (2019) ‘Learning powerful knowledge successfully: Perspectives from sixth form geography students’, Impact. Chartered College of Teaching, February.
  • Young, M. (2008) Bringing Knowledge Back In: From Social Constructivism to Social Realism in the Sociology of Education. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Young, M. and Lambert, D. (with Roberts, C. and Roberts, M.) (2014) Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Young, M. and Muller, J. (2010) ‘Three educational scenarios for the future: lessons from the sociology of knowledge’, European Journal of Education, 45(1): 1–27.
  • Winter, C., Kasuji, S., Poh, C., Robinson, R. and Whittall, D. (2024) ‘Critiquing ‘powerful knowledge’ in school geography through a decolonial lens’, Geography, Summer.