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Teaching subject knowledge

“The what, the how and the why of teaching is always up for grabs. There is no one correct set of things that students should know, there is no one ‘proper’ way of learning; there are no ‘self-evident’ goals of education. Instead there are only ever choices about what to teach, how to teach and to what ends.”

Noel Castree, 2005

Topics on this page:

Students’ learning of geographical knowledge | Teaching geography knowledge | Locational knowledge | Teaching places | Teaching concepts and ideas | Teaching geographical processes | Teaching geography practice | Metacognitive knowledge | Knowledge organisers | How can you use knowledge organisers? | Reading

Introduction

The webpages Subject knowledge and Powerful geography knowledge show that there is considerable debate amongst geography educators about the definition and description of the subject knowledge that schools should teach.

Common terms abound to describe the knowledge to be taught e.g. factual knowledge, core knowledge, procedural knowledge, conceptual knowledge, powerful knowledge, substantive knowledge and disciplinary knowledge.  Geography teachers need to engage with all of these, create their own geography curriculum and set out clearly the geographical knowledge they intend to teach in each lesson.

Students’ learning of geographical knowledge

Willingham (2006) and other educationalists argue convincingly that learning knowledge is important because if we want our students to learn how to think critically, they must have something to think about. Willingham also says:

‘It’s true that knowledge gives students something to think about, but a reading of the research literature from cognitive science shows that knowledge does much more just help students hone their thinking skills: it actually makes learning easier. Knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more — the rich get richer. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes — the very ones that teachers target — operate. So, the more knowledge students accumulate, the smarter they become.’

Students are influenced by a wide range of prior knowledge that they have developed in a range of contexts. This will include knowledge from their geographical studies, but also knowledge from other experiences, other school subjects and outside of school.

Margaret Roberts reminds us that ‘students arrive in geography classrooms not as “empty buckets” but with personal geographies shaped by their direct and indirect experiences and by the cultural contexts in which they are growing up…The knowledge students bring to school can be used not only as a starting point but as a significant contribution to the geography curriculum.’ (2023, p 27.)

Students build up their substantive geographical knowledge gradually with both facts and information about the world. They begin to learn more abstract ideas so they understand significant geographical concepts such as place, space and environment. Learning geography is much more than merely accumulating factual knowledge.

In its ‘manifesto’, the Geographical Association (2009) used the metaphor of learning a language to explain how geographical learning operates in practice. Languages have vocabulary: this is needed to speak the language, but is not enough on its own. Languages also need grammar: rules, concepts and procedures which allow you to construct meanings. To speak a language you need both vocabulary and grammar, and to learn geography you need both core knowledge (vocabulary) and concepts (grammar).

Students’ geographical knowledge should be built layer upon layer alongside developing competence in geographical practice. They should learn to think and work like geographers. New geographical knowledge should be developed and applied in the context of different places, topics, issues and environments, using a wide variety of exemplars. In this way they will consolidate their understanding.

Making sense of new knowledge depends on students’ prior knowledge. Through geographical study they begin to develop a breadth and depth of geographical knowledge that allows them to spot similarities and differences and make comparisons between places and processes. When they have this knowledge at their fingertips they can assimilate new information, think geographically and begin to grapple with more complex geographical ideas, such as sustainable development.

In some subjects, teachers try to reduce the demands on students’ working memory by focusing on core content and removing material they do not consider essential for students to learn in a specific lesson. This sounds very plausible. However, great care must be taken when using this approach in geography.

Reducing the amount of detailed information could appear to make the knowledge easier for students to learn, but it can be counterproductive. Oversimplification can result in misinformation. Very often, new geographical knowledge can only make sense to students when it is in context and they can understand it in relation to other geographical ideas. This means that certain detailed information is often essential to the learning process and cannot be left out.

Teaching geography knowledge

Ofsted (2023) reminds teachers when they plan that they need to ‘identify both the content (substantive knowledge) to be taught and the knowledge of relationships that enable pupils to understand how ideas are connected (disciplinary knowledge).’ They also need to identify ‘when to teach different aspects of procedural knowledge or how pupils would have the opportunity to practise using it to become more skilled in applying it‘.

From day-to-day a geography teacher identifies from their school’s curriculum the substantive knowledge they consider most important foe students to learn in a particular lesson or topic. This could be any one or more type of knowledge for a specific lesson e.g. locational knowledge, concept or process.

What is most important, as Margaret Roberts has said, is that geography must be included in every geography lesson.

A key decision for the teacher is exactly what geographical knowledge they want the students to learn and how they teach it. Beyond that, you must see the way you teach each lesson in the broader context of your purpose as a geography teacher. How are you going to take students beyond substantive knowledge and ensure that they engage with geography disciplinary knowledge in lessons? How are you going to teach your students the procedural knowledge they need?

 

Geography teaching should increase students’ knowledge of a range of geographical topics and ensure that they have sufficient depth of knowledge to reach sophisticated conclusions; they should do this on a range of subjects: local, regional, national and international. It is of vital importance that teachers help students to build geography schema because once students have internalised information, they can start to see connections and develop the understanding that is essential for thinking geographically. Therefore, facts are important in geography teaching, but they only become knowledge when connected to form part of a system. See Making connections for geographical learning.

It is best to think of a good geography curriculum as knowledge-rich rather than knowledge-based. The latter can be interpreted as memorising lots of facts e.g. the names of river tributaries. This might help students win pub quizzes later in life, but little else! The point of factual knowledge is using it to think. As Roberts (2023) explains:

‘Geographical facts are meaningless unless they are “put into relation with other facts”. They become part of a pattern created by geographers in their attempt to make sense of the world.’ (p 19.)

You cannot predict which geographical ‘facts’ students might need because the pool is too vast; geography teachers need to help students avoid accumulating disordered information. We must teach students to make sense of information and see coherence in it. We do that by supporting them to understand key geographical concepts, because it is conceptual knowledge that is necessary for geographical thinking.

By helping students to build up their geographical knowledge over time and mastering key geographical concepts, they will be able to use knowledge in a range of contexts and explain it to others.
 
To summarise, two important factors to remember are that teachers should:
  • Identify the significant knowledge and key concepts that are particularly important for students to learn, and they should teach these explicitly
  • Give students wide-ranging opportunities to develop depth and breadth of geographical knowledge in different contexts.
When you plan to teach subject knowledge in a lesson, bear in mind these three different aspects:
  • Introducing new information by carefully sequencing content so that foundational concepts are fully embedded before moving on to more complex ideas.
  • Revisiting a topic by ‘topping up’ knowledge that was not learned previously to fill in the gaps.
  • Correcting misconceptions of existing but incorrect prior knowledge; this can be very challenging, especially if the wrong idea is ingrained in the student’s long-term memory (see Misconceptions in geography).
A word of warning: good curriculum planning and teaching can significantly influence what knowledge students learn. However, while a teacher may specify what is to be taught, they cannot guarantee the precise knowledge that students will acquire! When a student learns new material in geography, the knowledge that they draw on to do so might not be obvious or as intended by the teacher.
 
Your thinking about teaching subject knowledge should be influenced by the writings of geography educators such as Roberts, Lambert, Biddulph and Bustin. You will find many references to their writing in these pages, as well as others; you should reflect on what you have read about thinking geographically, powerful pedagogy, the Future 3 curriculum and GeoCapability. In particular, you should think about how you are going to tackle teaching disciplinary knowledge.
 
You will find guidance on teaching many different aspects of subject knowledge in the pages on Teaching thematic geography and in Roberts (2023) chapter 3.

Locational knowledge

Locational knowledge provides an important framework for geographical study. The 2014 National Curriculum identifies countries, climatic zones and vegetation belts as part of this essential knowledge framework.

In 2011 Ofsted found that some students at Key Stage 3 lacked such a framework; they reported that, ‘their mental images of places and the world around them were often confused and lacked spatial coherence.’ (Ofsted, 2011, p. 6). If students do not develop a coherent framework of locational knowledge, they are less able to understand geographical processes.

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 relationship between locational knowledge, place knowledge, knowledge of human and physical processes and geographical skills.

Roberts (2011) explains how she thinks this essential aspect of geography could be taught.

‘I think that what is studied in geography lessons should be located and placed within a wider context. Places, regions, countries and continents do not exist in isolation but are interconnected; the location of what is studied in relation to other places is significant. The contrast between the way that TV news programmes and the geography lessons I have observed is striking. TV news programmes always locate the places which are being reported, starting with the globe, then moving in closer and then closer still. For example, reports of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami were first located on the globe, then within Asia and the Pacific Ocean, then within Japan. The location of Japan was significant not only for possible effects of the tsunami around the Pacific Ocean but also for possible effects of radiation leaks. I have never seen geography teachers use PowerPoint to zoom in like this to what they are studying, to place it in relation to other places or comment on the significance of a place’s location. I rarely see atlases, globes or wall maps used. Locational knowledge of continents, oceans, countries, cities, deserts, etc, enables us to place new information into a wider context. I would not argue for the rote learning of this information but students can be expected to know the locations of places they are studying and its significance. If this done for every unit of work, they will gradually build up meaningful contextual knowledge.’

Booth (2019) supports this approach and argues that building a student’s knowledge of countries and continents should form a cornerstone of a geography; he gives suggestions of how this can be approached in a geography classroom today.

Counsell (2017) has written about the importance of ‘fingertip knowledge’ in history; she sees this as temporary, detailed substantive working knowledge necessary to hold in ready memory when working on a topic. It would seem that this is equally appropriate in geography. For example, students may require specific locational knowledge at their ‘fingertips’, to enable thinking and analysis, without overburdening their working memory.

Geography teachers should consider carefully the essential locational knowledge students may require to study a topic when they are planning their teaching. It might not be necessary for students to remember all the detailed information beyond that topic, but Counsell has theorised that, over the longer duration, it may leave a ‘residue’ of wider knowledge. If this were the case in geography, it would enable students to accumulate a broader locational knowledge over time.

Teaching places

Teaching about places IS geography as most people see it. However, teaching place and places is more than conveying descriptive knowledge. You should choose particular places to study carefully to present different geographical perspectives. Information about places should not be conveyed via rote learning.

Ofsted, in the 2023 report Getting our bearings, explains that teachers should:

‘Make sure that pupils learn about places in an appropriately nuanced and complex way. They should encounter the same places at different times and in different contexts, or look at place through a range of geographical lenses. Pupils should have some opportunities for regional as well as thematic studies.’

Freeman (2017) explains, ‘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’. She proposes the use of the three lamps model to teach about different perspectives of places.

As well as teaching knowledge about places in its own right, places are also used as a context for developing geographical ideas. When students develop their understanding of substantive concepts in a place context, it can significantly reduce the abstraction for them, and meaningful contexts make new information more familiar and easier to learn. But the selection of the place study has to be planned carefully with this in mind.

For example, as Lowe (2016) illustrates, it might be difficult for GCSE pupils to grasp the significance of The rise of the BRICS in the global economy. However, a case study of India and its globally-recognised companies in both manufacturing and services, especially information technology services and customer call centres, can be much more meaningful for them.

It is also important when teaching about countries such as India to avoid stereotyping or telling a single story, such as one of acute poverty in rural areas. Carefully chosen case studies can show India differently: a very youthful population, with a reputation for innovation and entrepreneurialism; cities that have attracted jobs and investment, largely due to their educated and IT-literate workforce; a population age-structure that indicates a healthy demographic profile for decades to come and potential for fast economic growth.

Teaching concepts and ideas

As Ofsted (2023) says, ‘concepts are important in geography because they draw out the links between processes and ideas.‘ Ofsted exemplifies geographical concepts using the list in the GA’s curriculum framework (Rawling, 2022) and explains that to develop understanding of each of these students need to learn the range of relevant knowledge and skills. It states that ‘it is critical to break down the content of the curriculum into component parts (or chunks) so that pupils can first understand these in their own right. The components can then be combined so that pupils gain a fuller appreciation of geographical concepts.

Roberts (2011) emphasises the importance of conceptual geographical knowledge.

‘I think that every geography lesson should introduce students to some geographical ideas. Geographers make sense of the world through their ideas, through generalisations, concepts and theories. The big ideas of geography include place, space, physical and human processes, interdependence etc. (Jackson, 2006, Taylor, 2008) and one or more of these big ideas might underpin a unit of work. A lesson might introduce students to particular concepts, e.g. erosion, deposition, relief, migration, poverty, inequality, trade. It might introduce students to theories, e.g. the theory of plate tectonics or different theories of development.’

Geographical concepts are best learned through meeting them repeatedly in specific, meaningful contexts. It is not enough to simply teach ‘definitions’ of important terms.  Students need to understand that a geographical concept has a particular meaning in different contexts and places. For example, a ‘village’ means one thing to people in rural England, something different to those living in the Gambia and something different again to those living in an ‘urban village’ development in New York.

To secure students’ progress in understanding conceptual knowledge, priority should be given to developing knowledge of the key concepts that will have the maximum impact on their capacity to learn geography. This might include, some pre-teaching of concepts, intervention to address gaps or misconceptions and specific assessments to check students’ security with these concepts.

Teaching geographical processes

Students should be taught how and why environments, places and societies differ, how they are changing and the social, economic, physical and environmental processes that help explain why. Understanding physical and human processes, and in particular the interaction between them for a better understanding of the environment, is a significant element of geographical subject knowledge and a major focus for many geography lessons.

Explanation, demonstration and modelling are important teaching strategies to help students understand geographical processes. Teachers also can use ‘models’ in geography to aid their understanding.

Again, contextual information is an important part of teaching a geographical process. Roberts (2011) is horrified by:

‘I have observed many lessons in which there have been no representations of the world for students to study, no geographical data, indeed no evidence. Instead, I have seen classes presented with generalisations of various kinds e.g. lists of advantages/disadvantages, lists of push factors and pull factors, but without any data or actual case studies to which they might be applied. I have seen lessons based on quotations from imaginary people or information about hypothetical places, instead of being based on real people and real case studies.’

Geographical processes must be taught in context and to ensure students fully understand the process, teachers need to teach it explicitly and subsequently revisit processes they have taught previously to illustrate how they operate in different contexts. By such reinforcement a teacher can introduce students to new and more complex knowledge and deepen their understanding.

Teaching geography practice

Refer to Subject knowledge and to Rawling (2022) Figure 2 which sets out how disciplinary knowledge in geography encompasses three elements.

  1. Geographical concepts
  2. Geographical practice
  3. Geographical application
 

All of these are essential to the subject of geography as a discipline. In order to develop their geographical practice with fluency, students need to experience repeated opportunities to use and apply geographical concepts, undertake enquiries, use different fieldwork techniques and use spatial skills in a range of contexts. 

Procedural knowledge is the knowledge of how to use geographical practice and skills. Ofsted (2023) recommends that teachers should plan their teaching of different aspects of procedural knowledge in the same way as for substantive knowledge. Students require opportunities to practise using their newly acquired procedural knowledge so they become skilled in applying it.

Procedural knowledge is never fully internalised after using it only once. Students have to use geographical enquiry skills and maps skills regularly to gain familiarity with these practices so that they become second-nature and they turn to them automatically in geography lessons.

It is important that teaching ‘skills’ in geography lessons should never be content free.  As Roberts says,

‘I think that every geography lesson should contain some geographical data … For the most part, students are going to study the world through representations of the world in various forms of secondary data. Compared with other subjects, geography teachers are fortunate in the variety of forms of secondary data that they can use and that are readily available, e.g. maps, visual data of all kinds, statistics, graphs, text, etc. This secondary data can be presented in textbooks, on resource sheets, on PowerPoint presentations or it can be accessed through the Internet. I see secondary geographical data as the ‘real stuff’ of the subject.’

Metacognitive knowledge

This is another type of knowledge taught through geography. A teacher helps students to monitor their own thinking and identify what they do and do not know and analyse how they learn. This can play a critical role in effective learning.

Knowledge organisers

A knowledge organiser is a one-page document that contains a summary of the most important and useful knowledge for a topic. They have become popular in schools in response to the focus on a knowledge-rich curriculum. Some schools insist that every subject uses knowledge organisers; new teachers should explore the policy in their school.

Knowledge organisers can be useful for geography topics that require students to master basic facts on which they can build understanding. They are good for making explicit the substantive knowledge within a topic. They help teachers to specify the core knowledge when planning a lesson and ensure the key information is taught over a sequence of lessons.

Knowledge organisers are not a replacement for a well-mapped curriculum that details the concepts, aspects and disciplinary knowledge that you intend students to learn over time. However, for complicated topics it can be beneficial to have the essential knowledge, clear diagrams, explanations and key terms on one document. Knowledge organisers are only effective at helping students to learn when they pay attention to sequencing knowledge and linking to previous and later learning, and this should be built into the curriculum plan.

Putting everything students need to know about a topic on a single page knowledge organiser will necessarily lead to simplification and compromise. But it can also help a teacher to focus on what is most important. There are lots of bad examples of knowledge organisers, but there are thoughtful approaches too.

Discuss with your teachers why and how they use knowledge organisers, and what they see as the pros and cons. If you’ve been given a poorly-designed one to use, discuss with them how it could be made better.

In some schools, knowledge organises are given to all pupils at the start of each unit to set out clearly in advance what they’re learning and help them to remember it. The intention is that teachers can use them to recap quickly and easily in lessons and students continually revisit and retrieve prior learning using it. They are very useful for revision.

The choice of content for a knowledge organiser is paramount. It should be based on cultural capital and identify the geographical knowledge you would want a student to remember in ten years’ time. It is not all about passing exams! Knowledge organisers should include key vocabulary or technical terms and their meanings. They should include quality images such as maps, diagrams and photographs, and the text should be laid out in easily digestible chunks.

Explore some examples of knowledge organisers online, for example from:

Good knowledge organisers are designed in a way that makes them mechanisms to use for retrieval practice, explicit vocabulary instruction and metacognitive learning in lessons and at home.

While in geography most knowledge organisers focus on developing students’ substantive knowledge, they do not have to. For examples of those designed to develop disciplinary knowledge, refer to organisers on A level Geography specialised concepts – knowledge organisers.

How can you use knowledge organisers?

They can be used at the start of a topic to encourage discussion, research and retrieval of knowledge from previous learning. They are a good stimulus for talk — what sparks your students’ interest and what questions do they want to ask?

A common use is a tool for retrieval alongside low-stakes quizzes. They can be used to identify gaps in students’ knowledge through a topic and to find out what they have understood and where more work is needed.

Knowledge organisers can provide a handy spelling and vocabulary reminder and help students to use the proper terminology. Teach this explicitly in lessons and help them to make links between knowledge organisers to help students understand how their learning connects.

Use them as a tool but not as an end in themselves. The body of knowledge that students learn should be deeper and wider than what is set out in the knowledge organiser.

You should ensure that students make effective use of knowledge organisers to support metacognitive learning and identify gaps in their understanding. They should not simply copy out the information!

 

 Reading

  • 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.
  • Booth, A. (2019) ‘The importance of locational knowledge’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Bustin, R. (2019) ‘Geography Education’s Potential and the Capabilities Approach: GeoCapabilities and Schools’, Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Castree, N. (2005) Nature, London: Routledge.
  • Counsell, C. (2017) ‘The fertility of substantive knowledge: in search of its hidden generative power’, in ‘Debates in history teaching’, edited by I Davies, 2nd edition, Routledge, pages 80 to 99.
  • Enser, M. (2021) Powerful Geography, Crown House Publishing.
  • Freeman, D. and Morgan, A. ‘Place and locational knowledge’ in Jones, M. (ed) (2017) The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Geographical Association (2009) ‘A Different View’, The GA Manifesto.
  • Kinder, A. and Lambert, D. (2011) ‘The National Curriculum Review: what geography should we teach?’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Lowe, P. (2016) The rise of the BRICS in the global economy’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Ofsted (2011) Geography: learning to make a world of difference, Ofsted, February.
  • Ofsted (2023) Getting our bearings: geography subject report, Ofsted, September.
  • Rawling, E. (2022) A framework for the school geography curriculum, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Roberts, M. (2011) What makes a geography lesson good?, A paper based on a lecture given at the 2011 GA Annual Conference.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Willingham, D. (2006) ‘How Knowledge Helps‘, American Educator.