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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
  • Locational knowledge
  • Teaching places
  • Teaching concepts and ideas
  • Teaching geographical processes
  • Teaching geography practice
  • Metacognitive knowledge
  • Reading

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.

In practical terms for day-to-day, a geography teacher identifies from their school’s curriculum, the core knowledge (sometimes referred to as the substantive knowledge) they consider it is most important for students to secure in their long-term memory (i.e. 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, process. What is most important, as Margaret Roberts has said, is that geography must be included in every geography lesson.

The key decision for the teacher to make 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 takes students beyond substantive knowledge and ensure they engage with geography disciplinary knowledge in lessons?

Your thinking 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, and should be reflecting on what you have read about thinking geographically, powerful pedagogy, the Future 3 curriculum, and GeoCapability. You should ask yourself, how am I going to tackle teaching disciplinary knowledge? 

Students’ learning of geographical knowledge

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, 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. This is much more than merely accumulating world factual knowledge.

Students’ geographical knowledge should be built up 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.

You will find guidance in the webpages on Teaching thematic geography and in Roberts (2023) Chapter 3.

Geographical knowledge gives students the capacity to spot similarities and differences, and make comparisons between places and processes. When students have a breadth and depth of geographical knowledge they can comprehend geographical texts, be affected by the geography around them, and can write and speak geographically.

Two factors that are important are that:

  • Wide-ranging opportunities are given to students to develop the depth and breadth of their geographical knowledge in different contexts.
  • Teachers identify significant knowledge and key concepts that are particularly important for students to learn, and ensure that they teach these explicitly.

When curriculum planning and teaching is good it can significantly influence what knowledge students learn. However, while a geography curriculum may specify what is to be taught, it 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.

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 it will have been gained from other experiences, from other school subjects and also from outside of school.

As experts in their subjects, geography teachers can help develop the depth and complexity of students’ mental models in geography. There are three aspects to teaching subject knowledge. Teachers will:

  • Add new information to address a lack of prior knowledge; to approach a topic that is new to a class you would carefully sequence content so that foundational concepts are fully embedded before moving on to more complex ideas.
  • Fill in the gaps in incomplete prior knowledge; this is what you do when you are revisiting a topic to ‘top up’ knowledge that was not learnt previously.
  • Correct misconceptions of existing but incorrect prior knowledge; this is very challenging, especially if the wrong idea is ingrained in the student’s long-term memory.

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

A reduction in 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 mis-information. 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.

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.

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.

As 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

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 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.

Procedural knowledge is never fully internalised after using it only once. Students have to use geographical enquiry skills and map skills regularly to gain familiarity with the procedures 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.


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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: An approach to teaching and learning in the secondary school, 2nd edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association.