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Thinking geographically

“Thinking geographically is not everyday thinking. If we thought these were the same, there would be little point in having geography lessons, or specialist geography teachers who are grounded in the discipline.”

Geographical Association, 2012

Topics on this page:

  • What is meant by thinking geographically?
  • Geographical application
  • The Anthropocene
  • Geographical thinking and school geography
  • Discussions with geography teachers
  • Reading

The Ofsted Research review notes that the phrase to ‘think like a geographer’ has been in use a long while. It draws on the concept of interconnection and students asking questions such as ‘where is this place?’, ‘why is it here and not there?’, ‘what is it like?’ and ‘how did it get like this?’ The review comments:

These are questions that geographers are best placed to answer. And so, it is important that the curriculum gives pupils the knowledge they need to habitually ask these geographical questions and learn how geographers reach their answers. In doing so, the curriculum goes some way to reveal the ways of geographers to pupils.

What is meant by thinking geographically?

Professor Peter Jackson (2006) argues that geography: ‘enables a unique way of seeing the world, of understanding complex problems and thinking about inter-connections at a variety of scales (from the global to the local)’. He describes this as thinking geographically.

  • Read Jackson’s paper, from Geography, Autumn 2006. It provides a convincing rationale for the value of learning geography in school.

The Geographical Association describes how ‘thinking geographically’ involves active intellectual effort:

‘Learning geography requires students to engage mentally with questions about people, society, environment and the planet. This means they identify, assimilate, analyse and communicate data of various kinds, and learn the skills to do so productively. This will often entail using information technology – manipulating maps, diagrams, graphs and images (sometimes referred to collectively as ‘graphicacy’) – structured talk and debate and writing for a variety of audiences’.

(Geographical Association 2011).

Key reading

David Lambert (2017) makes the distinction between geography’s vocabulary – the extensive, factual basis of the ‘world subject’ – and its grammar – the concepts and theories that help us make sense of all those facts. 

Thinking geographically helps us to make links between the two and apply ideas to new and changing settings. Lambert describes how geographers make sense of the world around them by viewing it through a geographical lens. They synthesise information from different sources and use their geographical skills to enquire about and interpret what they find.  

Two of the most important characteristics of thinking geographically are:

  • An appreciation of how places evolve and are linked
  • holistic understanding of the world.

Thinking geographically is a key element of disciplinary knowledge. It encompasses all three elements of geographical concepts, geographical practice and geographical application.

Thinking geographically requires a holistic sense of the subject. As Rawding (2014) says geography is more than a ‘loosely connected list of topics, many of which could be taught under alternative subject headings‘.

Studying geographical interconnections at a range of scales (including the global) underpins geographical thinking. When studying geography, students should be guided to identify the connections between different aspects of the subject to develop a coherent sense of places, economic activities and natural earth processes and to recognise that different people use and perceive their worlds differently. 

In effective geography teaching the physical environment, human contexts and activities, and geographical skills are integrated and balanced. Teaching geography is more than telling a ‘single story’. Thinking geographically requires us to examine several ‘stories’ about, for example, a place, people’s lives, or an environmental concern.

An important aspect of geography teaching is to help students understand how geographical thinking can be applied to understanding the world around us and then to help them to apply their growing geographical understanding to their own lives. Thinking geographically about the challenges facing people and the planet and considering possible solutions is an important element of geography teaching.

Watch Geographical connections. In this three-minute video, Professor Peter Jackson explains how geographic thinking can be used to find connections in the world which are not immediately apparent. For example, areas that many people see as separate (the global north and the global south, or urban and rural areas) are in fact connected. 

This video would be an excellent introduction to A level thinking about connections, and begin a discussion on how factors like demography, food production and energy production are truly global systems.

Read Wall and Manger (2015) which explains how the SOLO technique can help students to link ideas in geography to enhance their learning and teaching.

Geographical application

Thinking geographically is all about knowing how to apply geographical knowledge and make use of it. Since the discipline draws across both physical and human worlds, the application of geographical knowledge helps us to understand the world around us, recognise the challenges facing people and the planet and consider potential solutions. 

In geography lessons we expect students to learn how to think about and apply geographical knowledge and we also expect them to apply it for themselves in their everyday experiences.

  • Read Rawling (2022) section 5 for a discussion on Considering Geographical Application.

The Anthropocene

Another big geographical idea in recent years has been the Anthropocene – the ‘human impact epoch’ of planet Earth’s geological history (Rawding, 2018). This involves ways of thinking about human–environmental relations that appreciate the systematicity of interrelated physical, chemical, biological and human processes. Biddulph et al (2021) writes

If we imagine an educated public who can (among other things) ‘think geographically’, we may at least have a public which is a little more prepared for living in the human epoch than those who cannot.’

Blackwell (2022) outlines how he taught the Anthropocene to his year 9 students. He argues that a fundamental principle of education is to prepare students for the future they are likely to face. He admits he was anxious in case the concept would be too abstruse or abstract for students to grasp. 

But he concludes ‘Evidently not all the students in the class could give me an irreproachable definition of the Anthropocene, but the majority could. This has enabled them to formulate a better understanding of Earth as a complex, interconnected, yet  ultimately fragile system.’

  • Refer to the article and associated downloadable resources to explore this lesson.
  • Read the references by Rawding (2014) and (2018).

Explore further ideas about thinking geography by looking at the GA’s Manifesto ‘A Different View’.

  • Try Task 1.1 A rationale for teaching geography in Biddulph et al (2021) p7.

Geographical thinking and school geography

As you will have read, David Lambert concludes his chapter in the Handbook of Secondary Geography by outlining a structure, based on Jackson’s concepts, for ‘thinking geography’ that is appropriate for schools. This structure emphasises relational thinking viz:

  • Space and place: Although places are unique they are not isolated but are connected to other places. The flows between places and through places are important.
  • Scale and connection: This is the ‘zoom lens’ of geography. Decisions and events at a local level can have global consequences; and global processes can have different effects locally.
  • Proximity and distance: This is not just physical distance (i.e. Km) but perceptions of distance as well. In the digital age, geographers have had to adopt more flexible understandings of distance.
  • People and environment: Geographers like to link the physical and human world and keep the world ‘whole’. This is challenging in a world of diversity and difference, but it is important to try.

Talk to geography teachers, your mentor and your tutor about Lambert’s view of thinking geographically for schools. Do they agree that:

  • there is something unique about thinking geographically?
  • it helps us to think about teaching the subject if we distinguish between its ‘grammar’ and its ‘vocabulary’?
  • geographers should think about viewing the world through a geographical lens.
  • thinking geographically is different from ‘thinking historically’ or ‘thinking scientifically’?
  • Discuss with the teachers in your school how they feel their geography curriculum helps students to think geographically. In what ways does their geography curriculum reflect the four pairs of concepts that Lambert has outlined?
  • Do they agree that holistic geographies avoid geography appearing as a ‘loosely connected list of topics’?
  • What distinctive contribution does geography make to the school curriculum?   

Rawlings Smith (2017) discusses thinking geographically in depth. Her chapter provides advice and guidance to use with post-16 students to help them think geographically.

Lapthorn (2018) summarises what thinking geography means for teachers and for students:

‘As geographers we know the subject has much to offer: it combines physical, human, political, social, cultural, and economic dimensions in a way that no other subject does. It provides us with the tools to look to the past to explain what we can see today, but also gives us the vision to imagine different futures. As educators we are able to gift this vision to those who choose to look more deeply. Whether they call themselves geographers or not, it endows these individuals with a rich, inquisitive perspective on the world around them.’

Reading

  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021), Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition, Abingdon: Routledge, pp 4-8.
  • Blackwell, M. (2022) ‘Teaching the Anthropocene to year 9 students’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Jackson, P. (2006) ‘Thinking geographically’, Geography, Autumn.
  • Lambert, D, (2017) ‘Thinking geographically’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Sheffield: Geographical Association, Chapter 2.
  • Lapthorn, N. (2018) ‘Geography – a subject for life’ Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Morgan, J. (2018) ‘Are we thinking geographically?’, in ‘Debates in geography education’, edited by Jones, M and Lambert, D. 2nd edition, Routledge.
  • Rawding, C. (2018) The Anthropocene and the global. In Jones, M. and Lambert, D. (eds) Debates in Geography Education. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Rawding, C. (2014) ‘The importance of teaching “holistic” geographies’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Rawling, E. (2022) A framework for the school geography curriculum, Sheffield: Geographical Association, Section 5.
  • Rawlings Smith, E. (2017) ‘Post-16 geography’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association. Chapter 19.
  • Wall, S. and Manger, R. (2015) ‘Going SOLO to enhance learning and teaching’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.