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Teaching human geography

“Human Geography is about ‘societies, communities and the human processes involved in understanding work, home, consumption and leisure – and how places are made.”

A Different View, Geographical Association, 2009

Topics on this page:

Human geography – an academic perspective | Teaching human geography | Changes in human geography | Using ‘models’ in teaching human geography | Teaching about population and migration | Teaching about health and disease | Teaching about settlements and urban geography | Teaching about economic geography

Human geography – an academic perspective

Before you begin to plan to teach lessons in human geography you should think deeply about the conceptual underpinning of this aspect of the subject as well as its substantive content. Professor Peter Jackson’s chapter in The Handbook of Secondary Geography should challenge you to think about this because, as he points out, the diversity of human geography can seem perplexing.

Key Reading

  • Jackson, P. (2017) ‘Human geography’ in Jones, M. (ed) in The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, Chapter 7.

Teaching human geography

In England teachers have the responsibility to select the precise content they teach. Let’s take the example of ‘cities’ at key stage 3 to illustrate some of the decisions they take. The National Curriculum states students should be taught ‘the key processes in human geography relating to population and urbanisation’. So, a teacher must consider questions such as:

  • What aspects of cities to teach?
  • Which case studies are best to exemplify urban processes?
  • Do students in school need to learn about the Burgess and Hoyt models – why?
  • How are cities experienced by different groups?
  • What effect do connections with other places have on cities?
  • Which cities are relevant for young people to study, in which parts of the world?

All these questions are matters to consider and there is no consensus on the answers.

There are several different perspectives that you should think about when deciding what to teach in human geography, for example:

  • relevance to students’ lives
  • concern with ‘real world’ issues’
  • moral and ethical dimensions
  • spatial distributions
  • using data as evidence.

Think about this statement and what you read by Peter Jackson. Can you encompass this in your geography teaching?

  • How can you encourage students to ‘make connections’ between their lives and geography lessons? 
  • How can you help students to think across geographical scales and see relationships, similarities and differences between places?  
  • How can you get students to engage with moral and ethical issues?
  • If you experienced the ‘vitality of human geography’ during your university study, can you include some of these ideas in your lessons?
  • How can you help students to think about questions of ‘truly global significance’?
  • How will you use real world data?
  • Download Running free as an example. How would you teach about urban spaces?

Changes in human geography

Human geography is concerned with understanding the dynamics of cultures, societies and economies. In the last thirty years, human geography in higher education has altered dramatically and the notions of ‘place’ and ‘culture’ have become commonplace. Increasingly it has focused on how life is experienced by different groups, in what has been described as ‘the cultural turn’.

This puts an emphasis on multiple, dynamic cultures and reflects the wide range of ‘local’ geographies that exist. Translated into schools it means a greater focus on the learner, as we see in Geography for young people. The earlier absence of ‘place’ and ‘culture’ in A level geography has, to some extent, been addressed by the 2016 revisions

Reading about changes in human geography

  • Cloke, P., Crang, P. and Goodwin, M. (2005) Introducing Human Geography (2nd edition). London: Hodder Arnold.
  • Rawling, E. (2007) ‘Taking a cultural turn’, Teaching Geography, Spring. This looks at the implications of modern geography for schools. The pilot GCSE syllabus used for illustration in this article is no longer used, but the ideas are appropriate more widely.
  • Speake, J. and Fox, V. (2000) ‘Investigating culturally-led regeneration’, Teaching Geography, April.

Using ‘models’ in teaching human geography

A question that has recently been hotly debated in geography education is the role of models in teaching human geography. Models such as the Burgess model of urban land use and Christaller’s central place theory are simplifications of the real world. Read the Teaching Geography articles which have different perspectives as to whether we should include these models in our lessons.

Ofsted (2023) reported that teachers can use geographical models to approach the teaching of disciplinary knowledge. Students should be taught not only what these models are, but how they were formed and what their limitations are. It is stressed that models such as the Burgess model or the demographic transition model should be presented critically.

Charles Rawding argues we should not be teaching the Burgess model anymore as it is outdated and wrong. Steve Puttick feels that the Burgess model still has relevance in the classroom. Other geography teachers added to this debate on Twitter (published in Teaching Geography, Spring 2020). Richard Bustin explores the teaching of Christaller’s central place theory.

Read the following three articles on ‘models’:

  • Bustin, R. (2020)‘From the archive: Christaller’s central place theory’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Puttick, S. (2020) ‘Raising Issues: Taking Burgess out of the bin’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Rawding, C. (2019) ‘Putting Burgess in the bin’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
Walt Whitman Rostow’s stages of economic growth theory continues to appear in geography curricula and textbooks on development geography despite being originally published in 1960 and being criticised for its Eurocentrism. Read Willis (2023) for an overview of Rostow’s ideas and their influence and why she believes that the model does still have a place in the curriculum six decades on.
  • Wills, K. (2023) ‘Development as modernisation: Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth’, Geography, Spring.

Teaching about population and migration

While this is only one aspect of human geography, its content is very broad, including the geography of disease, demography and diversity. Topics are also linked with teaching physical geography, for example people’s response to natural hazards. 

Teaching some topics, such as immigration, can be considered ‘difficult’ and you should refer to Values and controversial issues for more information on how to approach these. There are also new themes such as health issues which are now finding a place in the pre-16 geography curriculum.

Migration is an interesting topic to teach and one that can be approached from different perspectives. Mitchell et al (2021) write about how teachers were keen to look at migration in different ways to develop student’s ‘powerful disciplinary knowledge’. 

One wanted to turn around the notion of migration as being always into the UK, to look at emigration out of the UK. Another was keen to challenge the stereotype of migration as single long journeys from poor countries to rich countries, by using the concepts of complexity and interdependence. Read their accounts in the article below.

Key Reading

    • Hall, R. (2015) ‘Population and the future’, Geography, Spring. This article will update your subject knowledge about population projections over the next 90 years and the demographic pressures and global challenges of population change in the 21st century.
    • Mitchell, D., Whittall, D., Dickinson, F. and Eyre, G. (2021) ‘Re-engaging with the discipline – teaching migration with a GeoCapabilities approach’ Teaching Geography, Summer.

Teaching ideas and resources about population and migration

  • From the Geographical Association

Teaching about health and disease

COVID-19 has provided catalyst for teachers to review the importance of teaching health geography. This area of geographical study is included in examination specifications and is now also included in the key stage 3 curriculum. COVID-19 provides excellent case study materials for health and disease and the context has been directly experienced by students.

There is scope to embed health geography into topics such as population pressures; urbanisation; migration, globalisation and sustainable development. The articles below offer different geographical perspectives, such as the study of disease spread and inequalities and how health topics can provide students of all ages with opportunities to explore large data sets and develop their analytical skills in geography. The reading list provides earlier reference to other health and disease study.

Davies-Craine (2021) discusses the scheme of work he had devised using enquiry questions and how the topic of ‘health’ could be used as a vehicle for teaching a wide range of geographical concepts and ideas such as climate change, sustainable development and air pollution.

For a case study of how the use of geospatial technology has been used to inform public health decision-making in the city of Chennai in south-east India see Lazaruset al (2023).

Key Reading

  • Davies-Craine, (2021) ‘Geography of health for key stage 3’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Gatrell, T. (2021) ‘The COVID-19 pandemic: geography matters’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Huckle, J. (2021) ‘Critical School Geography and the post COVID-19 recovery curriculum’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Lazarus, B.E, Sanjeevi Prasad, S and Selvan, I. (2023) ‘The contribution of geographical science and technology to address public health problems: the example of dengue in Chennai, India’, Geography, Spring.
  • Sittner, T. (2021) ‘A case for the curriculum: health geography’, Teaching Geography, Spring.

Teaching ideas and resources about health and disease

  • From the Geographical Association

Teaching about settlements and urban geography

In geography students will study cities and settlements from across the world in geography, but a good place to start teaching about urban geography is to focus on familiar places and involve students in enquiry fieldwork. This gives them opportunities to express their own views based on evidence they have collected about the places they live in.

You may be able to involve the local planning office, because planning legislation requires the inclusion of young people’s views. The GA has worked on several projects that look at settlements from different perspectives, particularly through the eyes of the learners themselves.

At A level, students need to understand the processes and power relations shaping urban environments. Whittal and Rose (2023) explore the topic of financialisation and state-led gentrification in A level geography being taught ‘in place’ through guided urban walking and fieldwork.

  • Read Whittal, D. and Rose, I. (2023) ‘Fieldwork in the financialised city: exploring Manchester’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.

Teaching ideas and resources about settlement geography

  • From the Geographical Association

Teaching ideas and resources about cities

  • From the Geographical Association
  • BBC Urban Planet – a BBC special report on the urban explosion, including interactive maps of urban growth, case studies of cities and migration stories
  • Tide Global Learning: Birmingham a global city

Teaching about economic geography

Economic activities are another aspect of human geography with a wide ranging and diverse content which are subsumed in a brief description in the geography National Curriculum – ‘economic activity in the primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary sectors; and the use of natural resources’. This again leaves teachers space for interpretation and selection. 

Good teachers are influenced in their selection by what they understand to be important in economic geography, the social context in which they are teaching and the lives of their students.

  • Read what John Morgan has written about different geography teachers’ approaches to teaching economic geography. Discuss his comment with geography teachers and your geography mentor. What different approaches to economic geography do they adopt? How has this influenced how economic geography is taught in your school? Where do you stand?

Teaching ideas and resources about economic geography

  • From the Geographical Association