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Subject knowledge

The national curriculum provides students with an introduction to the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces students to the best that has been thought and said.

The National Curriculum in England, DfE, 2013

Topics on this page:

What is geographical knowledge? | What do students know? | What knowledge should students learn? | Building on students’ prior knowledge | Using students’ knowledge as a resource in geography | Substantive and disciplinary knowledge in geography | The National Framework for geography | Core knowledge | Taking subject knowledge forward | Discussion about geographical knowledge | Reading

What is geographical knowledge?

Roberts (2023) answers this question as follows:

‘Geographical knowledge is a construction rather than something existing “out there” simply to be found. What we know about the world geographically has been constructed by geographers in response to questions that have interested them; questions provoked by what they have encountered through their experience, discussion and reading. These questions are influenced by thinking at the time, within both the academic subject of geography and the wider cultural and academic contexts. The questions that geographers ask create a lens through which they examine the world and which influences the kind of data collected.’ (p 18)

The questions that geographers ask are not static. They change as the world and society changes, and so does the geography they have constructed. Whereas traditionally geography was concerned with questions of what, where and why, geographers today ask more complex questions that reflect the challenges facing the planet, including what ought and what might. Geographers also work with other disciplines, such as science, economics and sociology, to understand the world.

Discuss what is meant by ‘geographical knowledge’ with your mentor and other geography teachers. What do they understand ‘geography’ to be in the contemporary world? have their ideas about the subject changed during their career and what has influenced their thinking?

What do students know?

Students do not enter the geography classroom as ’empty buckets’. They bring with them existing knowledge from their direct and indirect experiences, and this is shaped by the cultural contexts in which they have grown up.

In a media-rich, high-tech world it might be expected that young people would have an extensive geographical knowledge. But this is not the case, particularly in relation to place knowledge. In 2011 Ofsted reported:

‘All but the best students interviewed were spatially naïve. The mental images they held of the world were often confused and they were not able to locate countries, key mountain ranges or other features with any degree of confidence. For example, they understood about development issues in Kenya but had little or no idea of where Kenya was in Africa.’

(Ofsted (2011) Geography – learning to make a world of difference. paragraph 36)

Students do, however, bring with them into the classroom plenty of experience and information related to geography. Read more about this in Personal geographies in Geography for young people. If you have visited a primary school, you may have some understanding of the geography that pupils will have been taught prior to entering secondary school. For more information refer to Geography in the primary school.

  • Carry out this Student interview activity to find out what the year 7 students in your school know about the geography of the local area, Britain and the world. The purpose of this activity is not to test locational knowledge, but to learn about the students’ personal geographies. After you have completed the interviews, you could read about the outcomes from similar interviews with year 7 students in Sheffield in Roberts (2023) p 34.

What knowledge should students learn?

  • Do you agree that it’s not unreasonable to expect students to learn a basic knowledge and understanding of the world in geography lessons?
  • How would you reply to a deputy headteacher who said there was no need to teach geography because you can ‘Google’ what you need?

Geography is a content-rich subject, but to study geography is about developing a deeper understanding of the world. Geographical knowledge is much more than facts. Facts are the lowest level in the hierarchy of knowledge. It is also important to remember that geographical facts are not always as clear cut as it might seem; they can be contested and are liable to change over time.

Building on students’ prior knowledge

Teachers need to take account of students’ existing knowledge when they are planning and teaching the geography curriculum. Building on a student’s prior knowledge is a key element emphasised in the Teachers’ Standards and DfE core curriculum. However, Roberts (2023) points out that it is not clear in these official documents whether this is building on what has already been taught or their own experiences. Both are important to consider when you plan your teaching.

Roberts (2023) explains how the works of Young, Lambert and Morgan recognise the importance of using prior knowledge and experiences as a resource but with a different emphasis.

  • Read ‘Why is it important to make connections between everyday and disciplinary knowledge?’ in Roberts (2003) pp. 29-30.
To build on prior knowledge a teacher must first access the existing knowledge and understanding of all their students. This is not a simple task because in any class of students there will be a wide range of knowledge and experience, and they may already have some misconceptions.
Ways to elicit prior knowledge include:
  • questions to the whole class and to individual students
  • setting tasks to find out about existing knowledge (see some examples in Roberts Figure 3.1, p 31)
  • observing students and ‘listening in’ to discussions between students to find out their prior understanding
  • probing the thinking of students by the use of well-targeted questions.
This must be done at the start of a unit of work or at the beginning of the lesson so that teaching responds to the identified needs. Careful thought should be given to the type of questions you use so that your questions are related to the type of prior knowledge that you need to find out about.
Margaret Roberts explains that focusing on:
  • What will seek factual knowledge.
  • Where can elicit students’ thinking about spatial distributions, inequalities or place.
  • How and why will probe understanding and reasoning.
  • Who and what ought will seek understanding about human agency, decision-making, policies and opinions.
Read Roberts (2023) pp. 30-1 to find out more on ‘How to elicit students’ existing knowledge and understanding.’
Read about the strategy of intelligent guesswork in Roberts (2023) chapter 15. This is a way of eliciting students’ prior knowledge and understanding, which they need to do to make their ‘guesses’.
Refer to the section on ‘Linking to prior knowledge’ in Making connections for learning to find out how students use prior knowledge to help them make sense of new material.

Using students’ knowledge as a resource in geography

It is important to remember that the prior knowledge and experiences of students offer an important resource for teachers. These can be shared and discussed with the whole class, enabling students to explain what they know to their peers. For example, many schools have students who have experienced migration because they have lived in a different UK town or in another country. Their first-hand experiences can be a rich resource in geography lessons. It is important for teachers to value the knowledge and lived experience of all members of the classroom as part of the construction of knowledge.

  • Read Sinclair, D. (2022) ‘How getting your students to teach can increase their success and support decolonising your classroom’, Decolonising Geography blog and ‘Pedagogies for diverse classrooms: why should geography matter to me?’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Read Roberts (2023) ‘How can students’ knowledge be used as a resource in the geography classroom?’, pp. 31-3, which includes several examples of practice.

Substantive and disciplinary knowledge 

In school geography students develop different forms of geographical knowledge. These are:
  • Substantive knowledge, which includes factual knowledge of the world around us (e.g. locational knowledge of places); as well as knowledge about geographical phenomena (e.g. physical processes and economic systems). Substantive knowledge is established fact that is not open to debate.
  • Disciplinary knowledge, which is described by Ofsted (2023) as the ‘knowledge of how geographical knowledge is formed, debated and contested’. It is knowledge about the discipline of geography, and it is through disciplinary knowledge that students learn the practices of geographers. These include:
  • knowing how geographers think; students need to know the key geographical concepts and conceptual frameworks that help us to make sense of the world and generate new geographical ideas (Refer to Concepts and Thinking geographically)
  • knowing how geographers work and find out; students need to know about working ‘like a geographer’ as well as developing their own capabilities through practice (Refer to Geographical practice). This includes skills and techniques such as using maps and graphicacy, critical thinking and argumentation, geographical enquiry and both qualitative and quantitative fieldwork methods. The term procedural knowledge is often used to describe the knowledge and skills required ‘to do geography’ and carry out geographical practices
  • knowing how to make use of geography; this is the application of geographical knowledge and understanding to everyday experiences and real world issues. Geographical application involves applying conceptual understanding, holistic thinking, analysing situations, making judgements and arguing a case (Refer to Teaching thematic geography for different contextual examples).
The school geography curriculum comprises all of the above forms of knowledge. Rawling (2022) Figure 2 illustrates how substantive and disciplinary knowledge are interrelated.
The Ofsted Research review report for Geography (2021) distinguishes between substantive and disciplinary knowledge and expects students to be taught both. In recent years, Ofsted has set its standards higher with regard to the depth of substantive subject knowledge that is looked for in knowledge-rich curricula. There are also expectations that geography teachers will engage students with disciplinary knowledge in geography and learn about how geographical knowledge is established, its degree of certainty and how it continues to be revised.

The graphic below, taken from the Ofsted Research Review: Geography 2021, identifies each form of geographical knowledge and the relationships between them.

Subject knowledge diagram

In summary, geographical knowledge is not just the accumulation of factual information but involves knowing about how geographers think, work and apply geographical ideas to contemporary, real world issues. Ofsted (2023) describes students’ combined appreciation of both substantive and disciplinary knowledge as geographical understanding.

  • Refer again to Rawling (2022) Figure 2 and read section 2 of this Framework. Clarify your understanding of substantive and disciplinary knowledge in geography in discussion with your mentor. 
  • Refer to Powerful knowledge and Thinking geographically, which are both aspects of disciplinary knowledge.
A further type of knowledge is metacognitive knowledge, which refers to individual learners’ knowledge of the strategies they use to learn, including the application of thinking; this has been described as ‘thinking about thinking’. For further information see Metacognition.

The National Framework for geography

Taken together, the Geography National Curriculum and the examination specifications are described as the National Framework, setting out what students should learn in England. This was revised between 2014-6 to use the same broad headings for subject content: locational knowledge, place, physical geography, human geography, people-environment, geographical skills and fieldwork. These headings appear implicitly in key stages 2 and 3 and explicitly (in some form) at GCSE and AS/A level. The aims and purpose statements in individual documents make it clear that the specific and detailed knowledge of locations, places, processes and environments, at all scales from local to global, are not just facts to be learned but are a basis for developing an understanding of geography.

The examination specifications identify in detail the subject knowledge to be taught at GCSE. There are some options and differences between the awarding bodies, but the knowledge content is broadly similar because it is set by the DfE.

The A level content presents a challenging geography curriculum at post-16. The core content introduced requires students to study a balance of human and physical geography, with more emphasis on the application of knowledge rather than knowledge itself. Core content comprises two human and two physical themes. The human themes are Global Systems and Global Governance, and Changing Place, Changing Places. The physical themes are Water and Carbon Cycles, and Landscape Systems.

However, while post-14 specifications spell out the knowledge content in detail, the National Curriculum for 11-14 is a concise document limited to setting out the core knowledge and understanding that all students should be expected to acquire. It does not set out a curriculum at all, since it does not arrange or sequence content, nor specify the level of detail to be taught. It identifies the criteria for a minimum entitlement on which teachers should build their school geography curriculum.

Core knowledge

The idea of ‘core knowledge’ and what it means in geography is strongly debated. While it implies that it is the essential knowledge to be taught, the definition is not easy. Many schools identify some key concepts and a locational and place framework as the ‘core content’ for its curriculum.

Kinder and Lambert (2011) also set out very clearly (see the shaded box within the article) what core geography knowledge is, what it is not and what it means to teach it. Their article was written before the current National Curriculum was finalised, but there have been no significant changes since they wrote this. The separate article by David Lambert (2011) was written around the same time. This provides an excellent analysis of background to geographical subject knowledge, including a historical perspective of developments, interpretations of ‘core knowledge’ and the views that influenced the government as they wrote the Geography National Curriculum.

  • Read Kinder and Lambert (2011) and Lambert (2011) pp. 243-64, who identify the different kinds of knowledge that are taught in geography.
  • Discuss the idea of core geography knowledge with your mentor.
  • Listen to this video of David Lambert arguing for high quality geographical knowledge in the school curriculum. He suggests that the Geography National Curriculum provides teachers with a great opportunity if they use it as a framework and make their own curriculum for high quality geography.

Biddulph et al (2021) conclude that core knowledge might be seen as the ‘knowing that’ of geography. But equally important, in their view, is a large measure of ‘know how’. This includes how to investigate enquiry questions and how material is linked conceptually.

  • Discuss with geography teachers in your school what is included within geography ‘core’ knowledge in their school curriculum.

Taking subject knowledge forward

Biddulph et al (2021) stress that the acquisition of knowledge is far more extensive than a list of ‘facts’. They discuss the distinctions and definitions that have been put forward by geographers at different times for the four different elements of learning: knowledge, understanding, skills and values. It is important to get your head around this ‘knotty problem’ as they describe it. They write, ‘we are in the knowledge business, and this is the main reason that teaching geography is so exciting’.

More ideas about subject knowledge are developed in the text of Biddulph et al (2021) and in these webpages. As you train to be a geography teacher and during your induction you should consider the following questions.

  • What is the relationship between the school subject and the academic discipline?
  • Is there conceptual coherence of the domain of knowledge called geography?
  • What is the relationship between the subject geography and students’ personal experiences?
  • What is the place of ‘core knowledge’ in school geography?
  • What do we understand by geography, and thinking geographically?
  • What constitutes geographical knowledge?
  • How do we select what knowledge to teach?
  • What is a locational framework?

All of these are important questions and they are not things to make snap judgements about. You should consider the implications for you and your teaching. Come back to the questions as you gain more experience and can reflect on the different choices you have as a geography teacher and what each of them mean for your practice.

  • Read The knotty question of what to teach in school geography in Biddulph et al (2021) pp. 9-12.

Find out how geography teachers and your mentor view teaching subject knowledge by discussing these questions with them.

  • Does students’ lack of place knowledge concern them? What do they do to improve this?
  • How do they respond to John Hopkin’s view about an educated person?
  • Do they believe in a knowledge-based curriculum as outlined by David Lambert in the video clip?
  • Do they use the ‘elements’ of learning as a structure for curriculum and lesson planning?
  • Do they adopt the four kinds of knowledge in the Kinder and Lambert framework in their curriculum plan?
  • Do they believe in ‘core knowledge’? If so, what do they define to be core knowledge?
  • How do they understand the distinction between substantive and disciplinary knowledge?
  • Do they agree with Biddulph et al. that ‘we are in the knowledge business‘?
  • Have they changed how they do this in view subject knowledge in response to recent changes in the National Curriculum and/or examination requirements?
  • A couple of final thoughts to mull over.

Is knowledge enough on its own? David Hicks in a Teaching Geography article in Spring 2019 said:

‘I have a problem with the notion that education should prioritise knowledge above all else. An educated person equally needs to be emotionally literate, capable of clear discernment and able to work co-operatively and effectively in their community. It was poet T.S. Eliot (1973) who asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”’

Are places geographical? Biddulph et al (2021) write

‘Maybe there is nothing intrinsically “geographical” about place names or rivers or mountains. It is the purpose we have to study such material that gives it geographical and explanatory meaning, for instance, using the question sequence: What? Where? When? Why there? How? and Who cares? It is this kind of sequence – or procedure – that begins to build geographical understanding through the development of explanatory concepts such as interaction, agglomeration, environment, friction of distance (and many more).’ (p. 12)

  • Rawling, E. (2022) A framework for the school geography curriculum, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Roberts, M. (2003) Learning through enquiry: Making sense of geography in the Key Stage 3 classroom. Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association.