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Being a geography teacher

“Geography is not a narrow academic subject for the few. It is fundamental for everyone. It starts very early, when a young child encounters and begins to discover the world. Geography can nourish and enrich a whole lifetime of learning.”

A Different View, Geographical Association, 2009

Topics on this page:

What sort of geographer are you? | What is ‘geography’? | Reading | Discussions | What does it mean to teach geography today? | Who studies geography? | For the early career teacher | Further reading

What sort of geographer are you?

Before you begin to teach students, consider your own geographical identity. What sort of geographer are you and why do you want to be a geography teacher?

Think about these questions:

  • Why is geography important to you?
  • How has your school and university education influenced the sort of geographer you are?
  • Which geographers have influenced your thinking?
  • How can you apply your interest and enthusiasm for geography to a secondary school context?

Write a short personal statement (300 words) about the geography teaching you have experienced and what you believe are the characteristics of a good geography teacher and good geography teaching. 

Show this to your geography tutor or mentor and discuss it with them. You can return to this statement at the end of the training to see if your views have changed!

What is ‘geography’?

In the introduction to The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Mark Jones writes: ‘If we are to consider more critically the complexities of what, and how, to teach geography we must engage with the very purpose of geography’.

A geography tutor who runs a PGCE geography course recounts that when he asks prospective geography teachers to define the discipline they are applying to teach, a surprisingly common answer is ‘geography is everything’. 

What answer would you give to this question: What is geography? Were you asked this question at interview? What answer did you give? You should have a convincing answer to this question if you are going to be a good teacher of the subject, so clarify your thoughts now. This page suggests some readings that should stimulate your thought processes.

But first, let’s consider what students do in school when they study geography, the ‘world subject’. In geography lessons, students learn how to observe, describe and seek explanations for why the world around us is as it is. They study the earth’s surface, which includes the landforms, landscapes, settlements and the peoples that live on it. They study the interactions and connections between these that affect our lives. They explore the rapidly changing environmental and social challenges facing us and how we should tackle them.

Geography studies include diverse topics that range across the physical and human worlds. It is a unique subject that bridges the social and natural sciences. Geography helps students to think more intelligently about complicated and unresolved issues: global warming, international population movements, natural hazards, food security or where to build new homes. It positively encourages them to imagine possible futures. 

Ways of finding out are as important to geography as what is being studied. The subject is concerned with making sense of the world first hand, or ‘in the field’. Geographical thinking is distinctive and in geography students study real problems and are put in decision making roles. They use data, examine preferences and prejudices, argue value positions, draw and communicate conclusions: i.e. they undertake geographical enquiries. 

A very special aspect of geography is that it studies both the physical and human worlds. Gill Miller (2020) explains: ‘What makes geography special is its holistic nature. We are the only discipline to draw together all these perspectives into a coherent understanding of people and environment, Earth and society, at local, regional, national and global scales. Uniquely, geography combines depth and breadth of knowledge and understanding with analytical and practical skills.’

But back to the question ‘What is geography?’.

Reading

In order to engage with the purpose of the subject you are going to teach, read and reflect on each of the texts below. These are all written from different perspectives; yet they all emphasise the importance of geography in the contemporary world.

  • An academic’s view: Bonnett, A. (2017) ‘What is geography’ in Jones, M. (ed) (2017) The Handbook of Secondary GeographySheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 1.
  • A geography teacher educator’s view: Lambert, D. (2013) ‘Arguing for geography in schools’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • A geography teacher’s view in the 1990sThe value of geography, an extract from Day, A. (1995) ‘Geography: Challenges for its next century’, Teaching Geography, April.
  • A geography teacher’s view 20 years on: Kerrigan, K. (2013) ‘Educating earth readers: An argument for geography’s contribution to a young person’s education’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • A view from the mediaGuardian extract on Geography.
  • The view of 11 year old students: Kitchen, R. (2013) ‘What is geography? The view from year 7’, Teaching Geography, Spring.

Discussions

Discuss with geography teachers, your geography tutor/mentor what geography is and why students should study the subject. Is there a consensus? Do they agree with the views presented in these readings? What is your own view?

  • Do you believe that ‘geography is the world discipline’?
  • Does its holistic nature make it special?
  • How do you feel about Alastair Bonnet’s comment that: ‘Its wide sweep, its long history and its curiosity about the raw world outside the window, make geography a potentially awkward discipline both for schools and school students’?
  • Do you agree with David Lambert that geography ‘contributes to our capabilities as individuals’?
  • Should the value of subjects such as geography be promoted in schools over ‘the beguiling merits of generic learning skills’? (Lambert)
  • Long after the exercise books have been stowed away in the loft, these young people will be using their geographical skills in their adult lives’ (Kelly). What legacy do you hope your student will take forward from your geography lessons?
  • What surprised you about the views of the year 7 students?
  • How would you talk about the ‘value’ of the geography to parents after reading the extracts from Andrew Day and the Guardian?
  • Is geography an essential component of a ‘good’ education?

What does it mean to teach geography today?

(This section refers to the English National Curriculum. Refer to the government websites for other parks of the UK; and for Wales read the article Robinson, S. (2022) ‘Curriculum for Wales – where are we now?’, Teaching Geography, Summer.)

Search www.gov.uk for these official documents about geography in school. Keep a file of key documents so you have them to hand when you need to refer to them.

  • Geography in the National Curriculum (published 2013)
  • Geography in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc)
  • GCSE subject content for geography
  • GCE AS and A level subject content for geography.
  • Read Rawling, E. (2016) ‘The geography curriculum 5-19: What does it all mean?’, Teaching Geography, Spring. This analyses the National Curriculum, GCSE and AS/A level geography to show the conceptual structure and coherence of the subject.
  • Read the Purpose of Study and Aims in the Geography National Curriculum. Is there an overlap between this and the ‘importance of geography’ as reflected in what you read by Bonnett and Lambert?

While the geography content taught in schools is derived from the documents you have researched, there is much more to school geography than this. The national guidelines are not statements of exactly what to teach. 

Geography teachers are responsible for designing their school curricula and the pedagogy they use. They are ultimately in control of the quality of educational experience their students receive in geography.

  • Read these five items. They discuss teaching geography in a way that is relevant to the world today and the types of work that students will go on to do when they leave school. As you read, consider whether this represents the type of lively and stimulating geography that you want to teach:
  • Geographical Association (2009) The GA Manifesto ‘A Different View’.
  • Kinder, A. (2017) ‘The power of geography’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Miller, G. (2020) ‘Geography really matters!’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Pollard, G. and Hesslewood, A. (2015) ‘A more “authentic” geographical education’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Scoffham, S. (2019) ‘Celebrating geography’, Teaching Geography, Summer.

As a geography teacher, you cannot just be concerned with the present but you should look to the future.  Read this article by Alastair Bonnett in the Geographical Association magazine, Spring 2004.  He encourages us to think about astrogeography, virtual and AI geographies, diverse geographies and survival and the four big changes that are coming our way.

Who studies geography?

Consider the views of students as they explore the role that geography can play in addressing a range of challenges in the world today. Talk to young people about geography in and out of school. What concerns them in the world today? What excites them? If they had the chance to travel, where would they head for?

  • Read Gillman, R. (2018) ‘Where are we going? Reflections on the future of geography: Part 1: students’ views’, Teaching Geography, Summer. This reports the views of students as they explore the role that geography can play in addressing a range of challenges in the world today.

The number of students studying geography at school have been increasing in recent years. The number of pupils entering the GCSE has risen sharply as the 2019 report for the RGS showed.

Between 2010 and 2019 there was an increase of nearly 50%, even though the number of 16-year-olds fell by 9% in the same period. There is a clear link between this rise and the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), which is a performance measure that includes geography or history.

The number of students taking geography at A level has also risen but at a much less marked rate. Geography is a popular subject at A level. In a world where 80% of jobs require no specific degree, a geography education gives young people equal access to the worlds of art and science and an opportunity to develop essential life skills.

However, geography attracts a disproportionately low number of disadvantaged pupils and those from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds and those with lower prior attainment. Compared to other subjects, geography is one of the most gender balanced. In 2018, 43% of boys and 39.4% of girls took geography GCSE.

Devise a way of gathering students’ ideas and views about the aims and purposes of geography lessons: Ask them questions such as:

  • What do they like and dislike about the subject?
  • What do they see as its purpose?
  • What would they like to study in geography lessons and why? 
  • Read this report for more data on school geography from the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) (2020) Geography of geography: the evidence base.
  • Read Parkinson, A. Why Study Geography? London Publishing.

For the early career teacher (ECT)

During your induction, return to the question of ‘What is geography?’ and re-read some of these references and look at some of the references listed below. 

Think about the question in greater depth in the light of your training and your teaching experience. Do not lose sight of the ‘big picture’. Revisit your personal statement – have your views changed?

Also think deeply about the big picture’ of why you are teaching geography and what you want your students to learn.

David Preece writes:  

‘In Geography we want our students to be mindful of their positionality within the world. Where do they sit compared to other people? How does their experience – how does their status in terms of social position, in terms of education, in terms of economic ranking, how does who they are – compare with the rest of the world?’  

This is found in a chapter about geography in Myatt, M. and Tomsett, (2021) J. Huh: Curriculum conversations between subject and senior leaders, John Catt Educational.  

Kate Stockings recommends this geography book as follows: ‘In just ten pages, he discusses everything from the problems with geography’s stereotypes to the value of the subject associations. He summarises his ideas on the big three ideas of geography before posing multiple questions that you would want to ask of your curriculum. The breadth of issues discussed make it an excellent read and the chapter would be a fantastic starting point for anyone interested in curriculum design in geography- from those at the start of their careers to the very most experienced.  This is not a jargon-filled piece of academic literature about our discipline but rather an accessible discussion about the beauty of teaching geography. 

Oher good reads for geography ECTs are: 

  • Parkinson, (2020) A. Why Study Geography? London: London Publishing Partnership 
  • Enser, M. (2019) Teach Like Nobody’s Watching,  Crown House  

Further reading