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Using visual images in geography

“Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”

Arthur Brisbane, editor of the New York Evening Journal in 1911

Topics on this page:

Introduction to images | Using photographs in geography lessons | Good practice in using visual images | Photo interpretation and analysis skills | Discussion: Planning to teach photo interpretation skills | Photographs and place | Try out a vision frame | Reading | Plan the use of photographs in a lesson | Involving students in taking or selecting photographs | Other visual resources | Aerial photographs and remote sensing (satellite) images | Cartoons | Whiteboards | Classroom display

Introduction to images

Images are essential to bring reality into the classroom and are a ‘bread and butter’ resource for the geography teacher. Look at The promise of geography in education by David Lambert. This provides an excellent example of how a geographer can ‘read’ and interpret a photograph. You need to be able to do this in order to use a photograph effectively as a teaching resource.

A wide range of visual images are used as a stimulus in geography lessons. Although we start with photographic images, do not ignore the value of other images, including remote sensing, aerial photographs, diagrams, cartoons, advertisements, sketches and drawings. These are discussed on this webpage.

The web gives us easy access to many more images than were available previously, which can provide varied perspectives. YouTube films, online photographs, articles and newspapers, produced by people from countries all over the world, can transform and enrich the way we see and understand places and help us guard against stereotyping and othering. But all representations must be open to analysis, evaluation and critical scrutiny, because they could be partial or misleading.

  • See The Geographical Association Magazine, Spring 2020, p.32, for a focus on images and some useful hints on how to take, share, edit and use them, whether for use in the classroom or on fieldwork.
  • Look at the PowerPoint Evaluating the educational benefits of immersive imagery at KS4 in which Amy Vigus and Dr Richard Waller explore the long and rich tradition in the use of different types of imagery in geographical education and the possibilities offered by new technology.

Using photographs in geography lessons

The main uses of photographs in geography lessons are to:

  • Teach photo interpretation skills
  • To help students to find out about people, places and geographical features
  • To encourage students to explore their own values and attitudes about people and places
  • Be a stimulus for geographical enquiry.

To use a photograph in your teaching you need to know:

  • The learning skills that can be developed through photographs and how students learn to ‘read’ and ‘interpret’ an image
  • How visual images help students acquire knowledge, and perceptions, about people and places
  • Different strategies for using photographic material in your lessons.

Good practice in using visual images

Bear these points in mind when you are planning to use photographs and images in your lessons:

  • Have the learning objectives clearly in mind when you select the photographs to use.
  • Use good quality images and make sure all students in the class can see them clearly e.g. projected onto a whiteboard.
  • Allow students time to study an image and do not use too many in one lesson.
  • Plan activities that make students look at images carefully and analyse what they see.
  • Check whether students have basic photo interpretation skills before you ask them to use an image.
  • Use images to challenge (not reinforce) stereotypes.

Key Reading

  • Hoare, C. (2019) ‘Using visuals to develop independent learning’, Teaching Geography, Spring. (This discusses using visuals with current technology in today’s GCSE geography classroom).
  • Rayner, D. (2017) ‘Resources’ in Jones, M. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association. Chapter 12 pp 155-7 and Figure 3 for a comparison of the advantages and disadvantage of methods of displaying and using images.
  • Roberts, M. (1998) ‘Using slide images to promote active learning’, Teaching Geography, January. (This is essential reading. Ignore the reference to slides, the techniques discussed can be used with modern technology).

Consider how you are going to source and manage all the digital visual materials you use in your lessons. (You must be aware of the copyright issues of using images from the internet.) Most teachers today use software such as PowerPoint to present images to students in lessons.

The GA resource page Visual geography provides a set of base resources for PowerPoint or interactive whiteboards. The teacher supplies the images they want to use in their sequence of lessons. You need to download the PowerPoint files to access the links.

Photo interpretation and analysis skills

Students need to learn how to make sense of photographic evidence in geography and their photographic interpretation skills develop gradually.

  • Refer to Biddulph, et al (2021) 169 for a list of learning skills that can be developed using photographic material.

Consider this four-stage progression to develop students’ photo interpretation and analysis skills:

  1. Description: Encourage students to look at photographs carefully and describe what they can see before they begin interpretation. To do this consider:
  • Activities that label geographical features or write descriptions of what students see in images. Bateman and Papper (2007) describe the use of text boxes (or call outs).
  • ‘Modelling’ techniques with the whole class using a projected image so students understand what is expected before they create labels or describe photographs themselves.
  • Activities such as ‘observations’, ‘sketching’, ‘captions’, and ‘spot the difference’ (see 21 photograph activities) to develop observation skills.
  1. Explanation: Students develop explanations of what they observe. Consider:
  • Using prompts such as, ‘What does this picture show?’, ‘Where in the world do you think it is?’, ‘Why?’. Bateman and Papper (2007) show how a simple use of callouts (textboxes) in PowerPoint can aid the development of explanation skills.
  • The Development compass rose as a framework to analyse an image from social, economic, environmental and political perspectives.
  1. Deduction: A further level of difficulty is for students to deduce the geography from the evidence of this image. Consider:
  • Harris (2017) Figure 4.6 used a question matrix to analyse a photograph of flooding.
  • Hawley (2014) suggests some strategies and learning activities to help students to engage with an image of a physical landscape and to talk about its past, present and likely future. Students often struggle with this.
  • Riley’s prompt sheet for Reading an image geographically, from the 2016 GA Conference.
  • Thompson (1999) suggests students are asked, ‘Why it is as it is’, or ‘what might it be like in the future?’ using clues from the photograph.
  1. Critical analysis; This is the highest skill with respect to studying an image. Consider:
  • Roberts (1998) argues that students should think about what might have been omitted from an image and why?
  • The list of questions to use with students to engage them in a critical analysis of an image on p169 in Biddulph et al (2021).
  • Using ideas from Media literacy.
  • Look at The power of geographical thinking. This videocast by Professor Peter Jackson illustrates how a 1750s image can be interpreted by geographers.
Refer to Roberts (2023) pp. 159-60, which gives an example of using the layers of inference framework with a photograph to develop skills of questioning.

Discuss with your geography mentor different ways to use photographs to develop students’ skills of observation and analysis. 

Review lessons you have taught, or observed, and discuss how successful the activities were in developing students’ skills. How can the students move on to the next stage using the sequence suggested above in Biddulph et al (2021)? How can you incorporate this in your lesson planning?

Photographs and place

Photographs are particularly important in teaching about the geography of place and analysing students’ own and others’ perceptions of people and places. Students should understand that we interpret photographs in different ways depending on our own experiences and how the image was selected or created. 

Bermingham et al (1999) and Halocha (2008) discuss a range of techniques that can be used with photographs of place and how images can convey powerful and, sometimes, controversial messages.

  • See This book’s rubbish for an example of a stimulating activity where students are asked to ‘read’ and respond to some unsettling images.
  • See Discussions with photographs for a range of ideas that you can use to encourage students to discuss photographs of places.

For more ideas:

  • Rayner (2017) p 157-8 Figure 6: Sources of photos and Figure 7:Activities using photographs and images.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Thinking activities often use images such as 5Ws and Reading photographs.
  • Before and after photos – comparing photos of a place at different times.
  • Landscape bingo – Biddulph et al (2021) p 170.
  • Using Transects photos to a sequence e.gRawding and Halliwell, D (2004).
  • In the picture – a PowerPoint file that includes different frames you can adapt to use with your own images.

A vision frame is when a photo is put in the centre of a large piece of sugar paper. Students discuss in groups what they see and write their conclusions in boxes around the ‘frame’. They should be given question prompts such as:

  • Describe exactly what you can see.
  • What do you think the people are feeling/thinking?
  • What do you think is the relationship between the people and the place?
  • How do you respond to this image?
  • What is it about this image that makes you feel this way?
  • What questions would you like to ask about this image?

Reading

Ignore that some of the articles listed below may refer to out-of-date technology. The teaching strategies discussed will work equally well, or even better, with modern digital images projected onto a screen or whiteboard.

  • Bateman, D. and Papper, R. (2007) ‘Image Sequences for Learning’, Teaching Geography Spring.
  • 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 168-170.
  • Halocha, J. (2008) ‘Geography in the Frame: using photographs’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher, Routledge, Chapter 4.
  • Hawley, D. (2014) ‘Looking into the physical future’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Rawding, C. and Halliwell, D. (2004) ‘Accessing land use through digital images’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Thompson, P. (1999) ‘Photographic enquiry and the geographical detective’, Teaching Geography, July. This discusses progression and an ‘incline of tasks’ for using photographs. It also provides interesting examples and analyses of different students’ responses.
  • Plan a series of lessons to develop some of the learning skills using photographic material using ideas from the readings above.
  • Devise a lesson to engage students in a critical analysis of ONE image. Using questions such as those in Biddulph et al (2021) p 169.
  • Use In the frame (see above) and adapt it to use in your own lessons with your own images.

Involving students in taking or selecting photographs

The pictures do not always have to be selected by the teacher. Consider these approaches:

  • Students taking photographs using digital cameras or smartphones. Refer to Fox, P. (2003) ‘Putting you in the picture’, Teaching Geography, July.
  • Students selecting photographs: e.g. from the web to illustrate a geographical topic and write an analysis of them. Refer to Urban landscapes and visual literacy: Imagining places from the GA’s KS4 ICT project which outlines a lesson which explicitly teaches some of the skills involved in the selection and analysis of photos.
  • Read Brown, A. (2021) ‘Walk and click: photography as a conduit for connecting with a place’, Teaching Geography, Summer. The author shares research she undertook with year 9 geographers to use photography to engage with a place.

Other visual resources

Other forms of visual images can support learning. They can help teachers to emphasise essential information they wish to convey to students or summarise information and provide an overview of a process which can make it easier for student to remember. 

Many of the learning activities suggested for photos can also be used with other forms of other forms of static visual images.

  • Read Caviglioli, O. (2018) ‘Six ways visuals help learning’, Impact (Chartered College of Teaching), February.

Aerial photographs and remote sensing (satellite) images

Aerial imagery is now readily available digitally which makes is more easily accessible. This is the same for satellite (or remotely sensed) imagery. Students need to be introduced to the use of false colours to represent different phenomena in remotely sensed images so they can decode and interpret and analyse them.

It is noted in the Ofsted Research Review: Geography (2021) that regular use of aerial and satellite imagery improves students’ knowledge of and fluency in interpreting such resources.

Make sure you have the skills to analyse each of both aerial photographs and remote sensing images, because they should be integral to students’ study because it helps them to visualise both physical or human phenomena. The requirements for GCSE geography include the use of:

  • Aerial photographs (oblique and vertical)
  • Images from weather satellites
  • LANDSAT remote sensing images.
  • Refer to Biddulph et al. (2021) pp 166-8 for further information about using aerial photographs and remote sensing images in the geography classroom, including information on progression in the development of interpretation skills.
  • To help students to interpret aerial photos it is useful to display images and OS maps side by side. The Juicy Geography website has suggestions for classroom activities.
  • The Met Office has weather data, including satellite imagery, for every continent of the world.

Cartoons

Cartoons often reflect topical issues in newspapers and magazines and are widely used in textbooks as illustrations. The power of the cartoon image as a teaching tool lies in their ability to present complex issues, events and social trends in a simplified and accessible form.

They often require considerable interpretation and a knowledge of the context to which the cartoon alludes, so care is needed to ensure they are used appropriately. They often work best with more able, older and analytical students. You should be alert to stereotyping when you use cartoons as a resource.

Some of the benefits to using carefully selected cartoons are that they can:

  • They can arouse interest to help students to engage with a key teaching point
  • Give an insight into the world around us and help students think ‘outside the box’
  • Encourage students to use their imagination
  • Help interpret meaning that is otherwise difficult to explain
  • Help students to retain information through a memorable stimulus
  • Be used to develop students’ ability to think critically about geographical issues.

You can use cartoons:

  • To introduce a new concept
  • To reinforce a specific idea
  • To initiate classroom discussion and debate
  • To encourage students to speculate on the message being conveyed
  • To ask students to create their own caption.

Reading about cartoons

  • Bermingham, S., Slater, F., and Yangopoulos, S. (1999) ‘Multiple texts, alternative texts, multiple readings, alternative readings’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Biddulph et al (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. Abingdon: Routledge. p 174.
  • Cartoon interpretation about Japan’s Natural Hazard Profile.
  • Hunt, P. (2018) ‘A critical pedagogy approach to the use of images in the geography classroom’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Jenkins, P. (2003) ‘Cartoons with a message’, Teaching Geography, January.

Whiteboards

Do not ignore this basic classroom resource and its role to support your oral explanation with the visual (often called dual coding). It is particularly useful for scaffolding learning by using notes, diagrams and sketches. 

As you explain an idea make notes on the white board or draw a flow diagram or sketch to illustrate the key points. In this way you are acting as a model of note taking as well providing a reminder of what has been said.

Classroom display

Rayner (2017) notes that, ‘In the most effective classrooms, there are always high-quality displays of students’ work that not only celebrate achievement but also act as a resource for revision and information for visitors’.

Good geographical displays have several purposes. They make the classroom a pleasant environment for teaching and also provide a useful resource. Displays can also promote students’ use of maps, photos and diagrams. When you are a trainee teacher, you must obtain the permission of the class teacher before you begin making a display.

You should also ensure high quality presentation, carefully mounting the materials and using clear text to ensure the whole display is pleasing on the eye. Consider how you can involve students in the creation of displays so they have a sense of ‘ownership’.

See this Powerpoint, The impact of display in a geography classroom, from a trainee teacher using examples from their placement school experience.

Reading about classroom display

  • Cawley, R. (1997) ‘Display – the forgotten teaching method’, Teaching Geography, January.
  • Grant, R. and Talbot, P. (2000) ‘Wall posters from fieldwork’, Teaching Geography, April.
  • Rayner, D. (2017) ‘Resources’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association Chapter 12 for information on word walls (p162) and hotboards and work displays (p163).