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Teaching physical geography

“Physical Geography is about ‘the land, water, air and ecological system; landscapes; and the processes that bring them about and change them.”

A Different View, Geographical Association, 2009

Topics on this page:

Physical geography in the school curriculum | Checking the accuracy of physical geography sources | Teaching about weather and climate | Teaching about global ecosystems and biodiversity | Teaching about landscapes | Practical learning in physical geography | Explore links with science | Using speculation in teaching physical geography | What aspects of physical geography should I experience during my ITT training? | Meeting the challenge of teaching physical geography | GA resources for physical geography | References for improving your subject knowledge of physical geography | Reading

Introduction

As stated in the quotation, physical geography is concerned with understanding the physical world and the characteristics and dynamics of landscapes and the environment. It is also concerned with important issues that face us in the world today, such as environmental and resource sustainability, climate change, extreme weather events, and natural hazards; all of these offer excellent opportunities to engage young people with geography.

Most geography graduates specialise in specific aspects of geography when they study for a degree, but teaching geography in school means developing an appreciation for both human and physical geography. Before you begin to plan to teach lessons in physical geography, think deeply about the science perspectives of the subject and how it is a complex blend of various sub-disciplines.

Read the chapter by Clifford and Standish (2017) which considers the new disciplinary directions of physical geography in universities and developments in schools in the last few decades and demonstrates that physical geography is an ever changing subject.

Increasingly in universities its place is in departments of environmental or earth sciences and there are direct links between aspects of physical geography with different sciences, such as ecosystems with biology, climate with physics and tectonics with geology. Reading the chapter might help you to identify any aspects of physical geography where you need to update, or develop, your subject knowledge to keep abreast of recent changes.

Key readings
  • Clifford, N. and Standish, A(2017) ‘‘Physical geography’ in Jones, M. (ed.) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association Chapter 6.
  • Knight, P. (2017) ‘Physical Geography: Learning and teaching in a discipline so dynamic that textbooks can’t keep up!’, Geography, Spring.
An excellent resource for subject knowledge in geoscience is ‘Exploring Geoscience–across the Globe’ which is a textbook written by Professor Chris King and freely available to use as a core text for geography teachers to produce a textbook for their own area.

Refer to these resources from the RGS:

Physical geography in the school curriculum

As you will have seen from Clifford and Standish (2017), physical geography has been marginalised in some school’s geography curricula for the past few decades. There has been a decline in the teaching of discrete areas, such as soils, vegetation, climatology and geomorphology and a rise of issue-based topics such as natural hazards and global warming.

Reasons that are offered for this shift are that students do not find learning about physical processes sufficiently engaging and prefer learning about the geography of topics such as hazards. Many geography teachers would dispute this, yet departments often teach a unit about tectonic activity just prior to the time when GCSE options are decided!

Study Physical geography in the school curriculum which provides an overview of the content of the English National Curriculum, GCSE and A level examinations. Compared to earlier versions, more emphasis is given to learning about processes in physical geography in specific areas, e.g. in soils and glaciation at key stage 3.

Physical geography now has a balanced role with human geography at GCSE and A level, which was not the case in previous examinations. It is also important to note that physical geography should be taught at all scales – local, regional and global. 

The interrelationship of physical and human geographies in the context of place is an essential aspect of the geography in the school curriculum. Also, there is an emphasis on ‘landscapes’ rather than ‘landforms’ i.e. teaching physical geography systems and processes rather than teaching single features such as a waterfall or meander.

Central to students’ understanding of physical geography is the concept of earth systems. Studying physical geography should give students awareness of the processes and cycles of earth systems that support life on the planet (e.g. carbon cycle, water cycle). They should study these and how they operate in different environments and in different places. 

Students need to investigate a range of landforms and landscapes, both in the classroom and in the field, so that they become aware of processes such as weathering, erosion and deposition and how they influence landscapes and human activity.

There are many teachers who think that physical geography is ‘harder’ than other aspects of geography. Some new sections of A level geography require more theoretical understandings than previously.

A strength of physical geography (as compared to a pure ‘science’) is that big geographical questions involving knowledge of physical geography processes are applied in the wider geographical context. 

It is important that the requisite subject knowledge is taught well to underpin answers to these big questions, yet this is often the missing ingredient. The example of flooding (see p 69 in Clifford and Standish (2017)) shows how the geography of such ‘events’ cannot be understood without knowledge of the underlying processes.

When you plan lessons, consider the specific physical geography subject knowledge that you need to teach. Review carefully teaching resources for topics such as natural hazards and global warming to check whether the physical geography is oversimplified and the human geography gets all the attention.

  • Read Otto (2021) who argues that geological knowledge is fundamental and offers some practical teaching ideas.
  • Consider how you can make use of ‘models’. Refer to Hawley, D. (2023) ‘Are you a model geographer?’, GA Conference Presentation, April, to reflect on using models to teach physical geography.

Checking the accuracy of physical geography sources

We have noted that physical geography is a dynamic discipline and while this makes it exciting to teach it can also pose problems for teachers to keep up to date with new theories and choose reliable teaching resources. 

Issues such as global warming, the retreat of the world’s glaciers and the rise of global sea levels feature almost daily in the press and on the television news, but the physical geography or science lying behind these events is not always accurately represented.

Look at the blog from the GA’s Physical Geography Special Interest Group which aims to provide updates to subject knowledge and teaching approaches. You can subscribe to receive half-termly updates.

Also use articles in Teaching Geography and Geography to stay up to date with developments in understanding physical geography. For example the recent article by Hamill (2023).

Some academics in physical geography are also critical of inaccurate and out-of-date information or oversimplifications that are found in some widely used school texts and other teaching materials. 

Read Knight (2017) about how it is possible to turn a failing into a teaching opportunity! Check resources in recent reputable references, and with other geography teachers, if you have concerns over the validity of materials you are looking to use in the classroom.

A useful activity to undertake with post-16 students is Assessing reliability of sources on the topic of the potential impacts of future climate change on glaciers.

Check out these resources (downloads), all from reputable sources

  • The plate tectonic story includes some of the recent evidence in understanding plate tectonics and the key concepts to be taught from year 7 to year 13 with suggested approaches to teaching the abstract concepts. It also helps teachers develop students’ critical sense of ‘the plate tectonic story’ as compared to media accounts.
  • Rainforest refresher – This gives insights into the physical geography of tropical rainforests and shows how the latest understanding linking to diversity, landforms and the water cycle can be incorporated into teaching.
  • Glaciers and Climate Change explains links between glacier recession and climate change, including sea level rise, water resources, hazards.
  • Flooding in England – This explores past, present and future flooding and coastal surges and how recent flood experience and climate projections show the current risks we face as a nation and how we must change how we deal with flooding and coastal change.
  • Rivers and the Water Cycle – Rivers is a popular topic in school geography and key stage 3 rivers teaching needs to be mindful of what will follow later in their students’ geography career to avoid repetition of content but also to lay some key foundations of studying physical geography.
  • Geological timescales – An understanding of geological timescales enables students to appreciate the forces and processes that have shaped the planet over billions of years, and see how they continue to shape the contemporary world.
  • Subglacial bedforms – Chris Clark is a professor of Palaeoglaciology at the University of Sheffield. His research interest is glacial geomorphology (the landforms that glaciers and ice sheets produce), which he discusses in this series of videos.
  • Glacier recession, the carbon cycle and microbial release – This resource will focus on how the glacial system is changing the Alps.

Teaching about weather and climate

Students study changing weather and climate at key stage 3 and GCSE and the water and carbon cycles at A level. You need to ensure that your subject knowledge is secure to teach these topics. The Royal Meteorological Society has an active education programme for teachers and provides extensive support for subject knowledge and teaching resources.

The Society believes that all students should leave school with basic weather literacy and basic climate literacy and that an understanding of weather and climate is fundamental to an understanding of climate change. 

  • Can you explain these common misconceptions: ‘we are not currently in an Ice Age’, ‘high air pressure occurs because descending air is pushing down on the ground’, ‘the wind blows from high to low pressure’ and ‘different parts of the UK experience different air masses’?
  • Browse MetLinkthe educational website of the Royal Meteorological Society. Here you will find information about subject knowledge CPD and teaching materials for all key stages and A level. The website has practical ideas for experiments and demonstrations to use in your weather and climate teaching. It includes instructions on how to make weather instruments and you can borrow instruments to use with you class.
  • Roberts (2023) p 155 provides an excellent example of using the teaching strategy Five Key Points to help students interpret climate graphs.

Key resources  

  • Weather and Climate: A Teacher’s Guide (available free at Metlink)
  • FutureLearn: Come Rain or Shine is free Weather and Climate subject knowledge CPD for secondary geography teachers. The course takes approximately three hours per week.
  • Weather and climate events: Frequency, duration and impact is a PowerPoint that could be used as a starter activity or homework research activity for key stage 3 students. It highlights that the duration of events can be very different from their frequency, or how often they occur. Resource by Dr Sylvia Knight, at the Royal Meteorological Society.
  • Knight, S. (2023) ‘Visualising, demonstrating and understanding atmospheric pressure’, GA Conference Presentation, April.

Teaching about global ecosystems and biodiversity

At GCSE students have to study the distribution and characteristics of large scale natural global ecosystems. They have to study case studies of ecosystems looking at interdependence of climate, soil, water, plants, animals and humans; the processes and interactions that operate within them at different scales; and issues related to biodiversity and to their sustainable use and management.

Teaching about landscapes

There are many different interpretations of the term ‘landscape’, but in physical geography students area often asked to identify individual landforms rather than looking at the landscape as a whole.

  • Refer to Landscape which is a GA resource that will help you can consider the range of teaching opportunities that this topic offers for geography lessons: landscape interpretation, human interaction with the landscape, what makes UK landscapes distinctive?

Practical learning in physical geography

Physical geography should be taught through a wide range of methods, in the classroom, the laboratory and in the field. As in science, practical work is particularly important. 

However, laboratory work in physical geography is underdeveloped in schools, although there are many opportunities where it could be useful, e.g. using a wave tank to understand processes of erosion or demonstrating a chemical process.

  • As a starting point look at Making the world come to life in the classroom devised by members of the GA’s physical geography special interest group. Geography teachers are often very inventive as Tom Inman’s reading shows (see below).
  • Look at these activities which were part of the Making Physical Geography accessible presentation (see above). Unlocking the secrets of what happens beneath moving iceGrinding and gouging, and Ice-thickness from scratch.
  • Read the article by Brady et al (2023) which discusses how the use of models enables students to acquire hands-on experience of how water behaves in a river catchment and at the coast. The learning resources discussed are freely available as downloads from the JBA Trust website and YouTube channel.
  • Read the article by Chris Skinner in Teaching Geography Spring 2018 about a Flash Flood simulation using read-world data.
  • Read Reesink (2022) who uses physical models in the classroom and shares his expertise with a homemade sandbox to teach rivers at GCSE.
  • Read Samingpai (2023), who used physical modelling as a tool to help students understand key concepts and processes in the formation of coastal features. This article was written by a trainee teacher and shows the importance of debriefing and teacher reflection for the successful use of modelling.
  • Read the article by Lucy Fryer in Teaching Geography Summer 2022 about how to create a river fieldwork simulation in the classroom.
  • Read the blog article Does this place rock? by Ketith Hicks.
As Samingpai (2023) says, ‘students are likely to find the physical modelling engaging and enjoyable, but they need to understand the purpose of the activities‘. He also explains that ‘debriefing at the end of each activity is essential to ensure that the students have understood the intention of the activity, how it can help them with their geographical learning journey and for any misconceptions to be addressed‘.

Explore links with science

  • Refer to the Science National Curriculum to identify areas which overlap with geography topics, particularly in the content listed under ‘Earth and atmosphere’. Discuss with science teachers how they teach these topics.

Fieldwork is important in the teaching of physical geography. Many teachers lead fieldwork to ‘classic’ environments where physical processes and landscapes are most marked such as the karst scenery in Malham, glaciated features in the Lake District or North Wales and coastal features in Dorset or Yorkshire.

In such environments very different from their local area, physical geography often comes vividly alive to students and can inspire ‘awe and wonder’. Of course field visits are not practical to all environments, but visual materials can give students an encounter with an ice landscape, a tropical rainforest, or a limestone cavern.

As you plan lessons for physical geography topics look for ways to involve students actively in learning. Most geography activities (see Independent practice: learning activities for geography classrooms) are applicable to physical topics. Make effective use of visual resources (see Using visual images in geography) to help students to see the landscapes you are teaching about.

  • Geographical enquiry is a good active approach for physical geography topics and can give students the opportunity to consider and ask their own questions. Simple enquiries can be found in Roberts (2003): weathering walk (p 139), East African Rift Valley (p 130-2); and in the Inman (2006): ‘How might ‘Old Harry’ have been formed?’ (p 269).
  • Trend (2008) offers good ideas for enquiries and for small, teacher-presented demonstrations.
  • Inman (2006) suggests some imaginative teaching strategies involving enquiry, sequencing, process/form linkages.
  • Refer to Hawley (2020) which encourages teachers to help students to make sense of physical geography. He explores how geography teachers can go beyond the emotional response of ‘awe and wonder’ to landscapes and develop in students new ways of thinking about rocks and physical landscapes. He argues that it is important when teaching physical geography to provide a more enduring learning experience by developing students’ ‘powerful knowledge’.

Teaching about water cycle management is a topic that spans geography and science. The water cycle is taught across the key stages in geography but Fryer (2021) writes about her teaching about SuDS (sustainable drainage systems) at different levels and in units of work about the water cycle, urban development and climate change.

Using speculation in teaching physical geography

Roberts (2023) discusses the use of speculation and conjecture to get students to draw on their existing knowledge while opening up a topic to uncertainty. It can be a good approach with physical geography topics to stimulate curiosity and generate questions. The teacher can ask a class to guess how something was formed or speculate on how to investigate a process.

  • Read Roberts (2023) p 47 for physical geography examples e.g. sandpit formation and others appropriate for investigation.

What aspects of physical geography should I experience during my ITT training?

In a year’s training you will not cover everything, but look for opportunities during your initial training to teach a range of different topics in physical geography: geomorphology processes, natural hazards, weather and climate, ecosystems.

Also try to gain experience of using different teaching strategies, for example: lessons that focus on understanding physical processes: enquiry with a physical geography theme; physical geography fieldwork; a teaching unit on a topic illustrating physical-human inter-relationships; a ‘science’ approach involving, for example, demonstration, experimentation, investigation, data analysis. Take opportunities to observe experienced teachers using these different approaches before you try them for yourself.

Meeting the challenge of teaching physical geography

Bear these points in mind as you prepare lessons in physical geography:

  • Students find some physical geography processes challenging to understand. Avoid oversimplification, which can mislead students and give them inaccurate information which is difficult to rectify later on.
  • Use talk to aid students’ understanding. Sharing explanations, working out causation, and describing processes to others are important for exploring ideas and consolidating learning.
  • Refer to Roger Trend’s ThinkPiece on physical geography where he recommends developing conceptual understanding using the learners’ own language because particularly unfamiliar and/or long words can be a barrier to understanding.

Consider these key stage 3 topics: river flooding; glacial processes; weathering and soils.

  1. Write a list of concepts that you would expect students to learn in a unit of work on each
  2. Classify the concepts into abstract and concrete and try to arrange them in a hierarchy.
  3. Draw a concept map for each of these topics and discuss these with your geography mentor.
  4. Repeat the activity for a physical geography topic at GCSE or A Level.

Consider these (randomly selected) examples of physical geography concepts: ecological succession; lapse rate; infiltration; water table; abrasion; longshore drift; greenhouse effect; air mass; old/warm/occluded front; metamorphic rock.

It can be easy to ‘hide behind’ the specialist terms when teaching new concepts, so try this:

  • Prepare a lesson episode to teach three of these to a GCSE group, BUT do not use the pivotal specialist terminology until very late in the process, and not before the concepts are likely to be well understood by students.

Teach this episode using everyday language to your mentor and evaluate together if this is an effective approach to help students understand the concept before using the specialist language. (Idea from Roger Trend)

  • Trend (2008) also offers good advice to be alert to potential misconceptions (see Misconceptions in geography). Make sure you are well-informed and routinely listen to students to check they understand correctly so that you can rectify misconceptions immediately. Look at this PowerPoint presentation which asks some true-false questions about cold climates.
  • Read this article on Misconceiving Physical Geography.
  • Students can fail to realise the scale of physical features. Use appropriate visual resources, map activities and fieldwork to help them.
  • Organise learning in building blocks and ensure that students have a good grasp of fundamental concepts (e.g. condensation, erosion) before you teach more complex ideas (e.g. types of rainfall, glaciation).
  • When planning a learning sequence, Trend (2008) suggests that it pays learning dividends in physical geography is to allow pupils to start with the evidence rather than the final theory or explanation. See the Thinkpiece for examples. One approach is to use a learning activity in which abundant evidence is readily made available (cards, maps, prose, video, newspapers) but in which the explanatory model is not presented. Students are required to suggest possible explanations for the observed phenomena.

One of the big challenges facing teachers is to teach students ‘ways of seeing’ the physical landscape and developing their understanding of the underlying concepts and associated vocabulary.

  • Read Hawley, D. (2014) ‘Looking into the physical future’, Teaching Geography, This article outlines activities designed to encourage students to examine photographs analytically. The article is accompanied by a downloadable resource listing sources of images you could use.

GA resources for physical geography

The Physical Geography Special Interest Group has a blog–Teaching Physical Geography. The blog discusses aspects of physical geography and its place in the curriculum. 

It also offers evaluative pieces on resources, ideas and pedagogies that can support and develop teachers’ confidence in teaching high-quality physical geography in the classroom or through fieldwork.

References for improving your subject knowledge of physical geography

Reading

  • Fryer, L. (2021) ‘Spotlight on SuDS’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Hawley, D. (2020) ‘Beyond awe and wonder: using powerful knowledge to release ‘hidden’ physical geography’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Inman, T. (2006) ‘Let’s get physical‘, in Balderstone, D. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook, Sheffield: Geographical Association
  • Otto, K. (2021) ‘Making geology visible in the school geography curriculum’ Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Reesink, A. (2022) ‘Using a physical experiment to teach river systems’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Roberts, M. (2003) Learning through enquiry: Making sense of geography in the key stage 3 classroom, Sheffield: Geographical Association (see specific page references above).
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapters 1-6.
  • Samingpai, B. (2023) ‘Modelling the coastline: using physical models to aid student understanding’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Skinner, C. (2018) ‘Riding the (flood) wave: the Flash Flood! desktop application’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Trend, R. (2008) Think Piece – Physical geography, Geographical Association online.

Download Reading list for physical geography for information on teaching ideas, case studies and reading to improve subject knowledge.