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Good geography teaching – high expectations

“Making quality time for informed and considered reflection and thorough lesson preparation should be at the centre of what teachers do. Good geography teachers prioritise lesson preparation, and find opportunities for collaborative critical reflection on the geography that is being taught, and how.”

Bustin, 2017

Topics on this page:

Explore the four principles that will help you to become a geography teacher with high expectations:

  • Principle 1 – Be a knowledgeable and enthusiastic geographer
    • Use your ‘passion’ for the subject
    • What is your rationale for teaching geography?
  • Principle 2 – Understand geography pedagogy
    • Different views about geography teaching
    • Powerful pedagogy for geography
  • Principle 3 – Create a good geography classroom environment
  • Principle 4 – Set high expectations
    • Geography ‘Inside the Black Box’
    • Setting out expectations for students.
    • Are you a good geography teacher with high expectations

 Principle 1 – Be a knowledgeable and enthusiastic geographer

This is the first and most important principal for a good geography teacher. You must have a passion for the subject, be confident and secure in your geography knowledge and have a desire to go on learning and developing your geographical knowledge. Geography is a dynamic subject and the content is always shifting, so you must be committed to on-going learning.

Use your ‘passion’ for the subject

What was the interest and ‘passion’ that led you to study the discipline at university? How can you pass this on to your students?

  • Read about fantastic geographies in Biddulph et al (2021) pp. 19-20. This encourages you to think about the extent to which your experience as an undergraduate or postgraduate geographer can contribute to the geography you teach in schools.

Express your passion for the subject in your lessons. A good teacher is an enthusiastic one who brings the subject alive and grabs the interest of the students. They may use the unusual and even the quirky to bring interest into a lesson – although there is a risk that students might remember the oddity and forget the geography you were trying to convey, so do not lose the geography! 

There are excellent visuals available via the internet that can generate students’ ‘awe and wonder’ at amazing geographical phenomena.

A vividly-told anecdote or story from personal experience can be more accessible and motivating than any bought resource. As Roberts (2013) says:

‘Many geography teachers have travelled widely. Some have experienced earthquakes, have seen volcanoes erupt, have crossed glaciers, have walked in tropical rain-forest’. (p38)

Have you? Then use this first-hand experience in your teaching. The students will be impressed!

What is your rationale for teaching geography?

Teachers are professionals and should use their subject knowledge and expertise to make their curriculum. The Geography National Curriculum does not encompass everything to be taught, nor does it specify how it is to be taught, the case studies and examples to use or the geographical issues you will debate with students. 

Ofsted expects schools to have a clear rationale for the geography curriculum they teach. Therefore, there is a lot of in-built freedom here, and you should use it.

It is never too early to start thinking about your rationale for teaching geography. Begin now and refine your ideas as you gain more teaching experience, do more reading and discuss geography curricula with teachers. Decide what you want your students to learn from your geography teaching. It is, as Bonnett says, a fascinating subject and it is your role to convey this to your students.

You might think that these are the sort of things that are important to include in your rationale:

Geography should help students to:

  • develop the knowledge and skills to make sense of a complex and changing world and their place in it
  • understand the processes that shape our world in both natural and built environments
  • develop an awareness of the connections between people and places
  • think spatially and explore the ways in which features are arranged on the Earth’s surface
  • investigate real and relevant contemporary geographical issues that affect them and explore the perspectives of others concerning these issues
  • recognise their responsibilities in relation to other people, the environment and the long-term sustainability of the planet
  • have a sense of wonder about the world.
  • Do you agree or disagree with this list?
  • If you could only have five points, which would you include?
  • Look at the curriculum rationale for geography for your school – do your ideas overlap?
  • Discuss ideas for a geography rationale with your mentor and teachers in your geography department.
Principle 2 – Understand geography pedagogy

An important part of learning to teach geography is developing your pedagogic subject knowledge, or subject knowledge for teaching. This is about how to teach geography. This is different to learning how to teach mathematics, English or physical education. You are learning how to teach students to think geographically.

Pedagogy is often confused with curriculum. Ofsted describes pedagogy as the method and practice of teaching, while curriculum refers to the material being taught. In Geography subject teaching and curriculum, both pedagogy and curriculum are discussed in relation to geography. It is important to see pedagogy, the method and practice of teaching, in relation to the material that is taught. The geography content matters.

The subject should always be at the forefront of your mind when you are deciding the pedagogy to use. The subject content and subject concepts you are teaching will influence the pedagogy you adopt. Never lose sight of your priority, which is to teach your students how to be a geographer, i.e. to act like a geographer and think geographically.

Geography pedagogy has a wide repertoire of strategies that are addressed in this section. Follow the links to explore the pedagogy to promote map skills, decision making or teaching place, for example. Others use numeracy, visual materials and technology such as GIS. Fieldwork is another context where different pedagogies can be applied.

Different views about geography teaching

In educational circles there is considerable debate about the best way to teach subjects and you will read many contradictory views on this. Some people emphasise the importance of a knowledge-based curriculum. Others believe teachers should concentrate on developing students’ competencies and skills to prepare them for the workplace. Some look towards students finding out as much as they can through ‘investigation’, while others base their teaching around students’ interests and experiences. 

As with many things, all these have validity in particular contexts. But effective teaching is a mixture of different approaches and will include all of these things when they are appropriate for students’ learning. There is no single way of teaching geography. As you read and observe different geography pedagogies, keep an open mind.

A diverse range of approaches to teaching geography is discussed in the following pages. Explore all of them during your early years of teaching – in different contexts, with different students and with different content. Talk to geography teachers, read about applications in books and journals and critically evaluate research evidence, but above all try things out in your own classroom and make up your own mind. It is only a successful and effective strategy for geography teaching if it works for you and your students.

One popular idea about teaching geography that is often touted in the media needs to be unpicked – that students no longer have to know things in geography because they can just ‘Google it’. This comment shows a serious lack of understanding about teaching geography and how learning occurs. To search the internet or to use an atlas, for example, requires some prior knowledge to both find the information and interpret what is found. Having the information without a frame of reference to interpret it is meaningless. 

The popular idea to rely on Google is flawed anyway because of the limits of working memory. If a learner has to remember all the items they research before thinking about a new idea, they would reach cognitive overload. Nor could a student build a schema from this new information unless they had some prior experience or knowledge to link to it.

Powerful pedagogy for geography

Two particularly powerful pedagogies used in geography are the enquiry approach and ‘dialogic teaching’, which focuses on the power of talk. Biddulph et al (2021) describe the enquiry approach in geography as ‘powerful pedagogy’. They believe geographical enquiry is powerful because students can actively make sense of the world for themselves. They continue:

The key word here is ‘actively’. We are talking here about cognitive activity stimulated by appropriate learning activities…. An enquiry lesson is full of rich questions that challenge students’ thinking, rather than require them to merely recall content.’ They also discusspedagogic strategies are founded on what we call “dialogic pedagogies” where pupils discuss and deliberate their ideas, construct arguments and understand bias and perspectives’.

  • Read Biddulph et al (2021) pp. 67-70.

Principle 3 – Create a good geography classroom environment

The classroom environment in this context means more than the room where geography is taught – it means the environment for learning. Although good geography teachers do use classroom displays effectively too (see Using visual images in geography).

In this case, the principle refers to the culture that you create in your geography classroom. It is within your control to influence this, and you should look for a classroom climate of mutual trust and respect where different views and opinions can be shared and listened to and all students have a voice. These important aspects relate to expectations and classroom management and you must discuss these with your mentor in your early days in the school. 

You need to understand the school context – the students, their cultures, the local communities – and also the school’s policies. You may well have your moral compass clear in your mind, but it must operate within the context you are teaching in. This is an important discussion.

Geography teaching has a repertoire of teaching strategies that can help you to create a positive and enjoyable classroom environment for learners and help you to motivate students and raise expectations. Active learning activities such as those to promote problem-solving and explore issues or involve creative and critical thinking are examples. Fieldwork is a different context where individual students can respond differently than when in the classroom, and positive responses need to be fostered.

Seek to always value young people’ experiences and curiosity and encourage students to support each other’s learning, for example when participating in group activities. Try to create an environment where making mistakes and learning from those mistakes is the norm so that all students are willing to contribute, share ideas and ask questions. 

The ‘right answer’ culture in some schools can make students reluctant to write down or say what might be wrong, which is why small group activities can be less threatening. As a teacher you want to know what they misunderstand, as well as what they understand, so you need to create a classroom culture where voicing misunderstandings is as acceptable as giving right answers.

The subject matter of geography, particularly human geography, can involve topics with a strong ‘values’ dimension – and the geography teacher is in a role where they can strongly influence students views, opinions, attitudes and values. You have a moral responsibility to carry out your role carefully here. 

These matters are explored in detail in Values and controversial issues. Cultural diversity will also be part of the geography you teach, and you need to be sensitive as to how you deal witc3wh issues such as race and religion with your students.

Principle 4 – High expectations

The first of the Teachers’ Standards and the opening section of the DfE frameworks for both ITT trainees and early career teachers is about high expectations. What does this really mean and how is this translated into the geography context?

Three statements from this first standard in the DfE frameworks are of prime importance for achieving high expectations and we consider here what these mean for geography teachers.

  • Teachers are key role models who can influence the attitudes, values and behaviours of their pupils.
  • Teacher expectations can affect pupil outcomes; setting goals that challenge and stretch pupils is essential.
  • A culture of mutual trust and respect supports effective relationships.

Teachers are key role models. They set the ‘tone’ for learning in their classroom and can influence students’ attitudes and motivation. Be a role model to illustrate how to ‘think like a geographer’. Look at The promise of geography in education for an excellent model of what a geographer can ‘see’ in a photograph. This could be used with older students before asking them to interpret other images in this way. Inspire students by letting them see you moved by ‘awe and wonder’ when looking at a view or landscape.

As a teacher you should model high expectations. You can model a skill such as annotating a sketch map or writing an essay by creating your model live in front of the class. Think aloud as you do this, explaining your thought processes so that students can see what lies behind what you are doing and why you are doing it. You can also be a role model in aspects such as caring for the environment and sustainability by your actions as well as your words. Do you reduce waste, save energy and recycle in your geography classroom?

Teacher expectations can affect pupil outcomes

It is important for teachers to set goals that challenge and stretch students. Teachers do students a disservice if they do not strive to ensure that all achieve the highest level they are capable of reaching.

Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) conducted research which showed that the higher the expectations you have of students, the better they perform. This became known as the Pygmalion Effect, i.e. that reality can be positively or negatively influenced by other people’s expectations. The opposite is the Golem Effect, i.e. if we expect our students to perform badly, the chances are that they will.

Questioning is a powerful pedagogy in the geography classroom. Challenging questions generate a learning environment that has high expectations for all students, regardless of their ability. Probing for more detail, challenging incorrect or partially formed answers, using wait time so students shape their responses and cold calling are all strategies that challenge students (see Questions in the geography classroom).

Teachers who have high expectations always ‘stretch’ their students. In other words, a sequence of questions does not end with a right answer, but there are follow-up questions that extend knowledge or search for alternative ideas.

Good geography teachers set high expectation of their students for their geographical knowledge and understanding, the quality of their work and their behaviour. You should insist that students have high expectations of themselves and set aspirational goals.

Encourage students to believe that they can get better at geography if they work hard and challenge them to do so. Expect them to be resilient and not give up easily when they face difficulties. Encourage them to support each other to succeed and to value feedback and advice about their work and use it to help them improve.

This means that you must be aware of the standards that you should be expecting in geography. This comes with experience, of course, and in your early days of teaching it is not a weakness to admit you do not know at what level you should ‘pitch’ the work and the goals you should be looking for students to achieve.

Ask your mentor or head of department’s advice to find out about the standards you should be setting. Look at some previous student work and discuss expectations in the light of this. Ask your mentor about the students you are teaching. There may be barriers to learning that might not be obvious to you, but need to be considered.

A good geography teacher is aware of their students’ own aspirations and ensures that they are not underestimating what they are capable of achieving. Positive teaching and appropriate support can have a long-term effect on a student’s life chances and help them to achieve their academic potential in geography.

Biddulph et al (2021) clearly set out their position:

‘In our work as teacher educators, we rightly ban the use of the phrase “you can’t do that with the pupils in this school”. This is not to deny the influence of particular contexts on how we teach or the autonomy of teachers to decide what happens in their classrooms. Rather it is a recognition that using such a phrase conveys low expectations of what these pupils can achieve and, as such, is likely to reinforce a climate of underachievement.’

Michael Young’s motives for promoting powerful knowledge (see Powerful geography knowledge) were to take students beyond their own experiences. If you focus on teaching powerful geography you will not just be increasing students’ knowledge of a range of topics, but will ensure that they know them in enough depth and in a range of scales – local, regional, national and international – and can reach sophisticated conclusions. To do this students need to be equipped with a well-developed toolbox of geographical skills and apply themselves to deep geographical learning.

To achieve high expectations of students, you need good pedagogical content knowledge. Do you understand the ways students think about geography? Can you anticipate possible misconceptions? Do you know how to build students’ knowledge and conceptual development?

How to create that sense of challenge
  • Read Woolliscroft (2016), Rawding (2013) and Enser’s (2019) chapter on Challenge.

A culture of mutual trust and respect is the third aspect we are considering here. Set the tone in your classroom with a very careful selection of the content of the geography you teach and the exemplars you use, particularly with respect to racism, equality and social deprivation.

Good teachers continually give positive feedback to students to highlight their successes and encourage them to persevere and make an effort when they are faced with problems. Encourage students to learn from mistakes and not see this negatively. Give all students a chance to succeed in your lessons. But at the same time, make clear to students that getting it wrong is OK.

If you pose a question and a student gives a half-formed or inaccurate answer, leave that student for a moment and question others. Treating the student sensitively and allowing them time to reflect, rethink and listen to other students might be all they need. If not, expect students to give each other mutual support and pool ideas for answers.

Geography ‘Inside the Black Box’

Weeden and Lambert (2006) identified four good principles for geography teachers to follow if they wanted students to engage with geographical ideas and concepts and achieve high expectations. These broadly are:

  1. Start from where the student is. Give learners opportunities to connect their personal experiences of the world around them with their geographical schemata and thus reconstruct and develop their understanding.
  2. Students take an active part in learning. Students need opportunities to make sense of geographical information, relate new ideas to existing knowledge and reflect on and clarify any inconsistencies they identify in doing so. Teachers should identify learning activities that do this, require students to think hard about the information and apply the new knowledge or skill in another context.
  3. Students know what they are trying to achieve. Students cannot learn in a vacuum. They need to have goals, be aware of the expectations being asked of them and know what to do to achieve this. Only if students know the criteria on which success is based can they take responsibility for their own learning.
  4. Students talk about geographical ideas. Language is very important for exploring ideas and developing understanding and good teachers encourage all students to participate in dialogue and discussion. The teachers’ language is also important to consistently promote challenge and aspiration.

Prioritise these four aspects of good teaching. You will recognise that they encompass the key features of the powerful geography described by Biddulph et al (2021) – they involve activity, enquiry and talk.

Setting out expectations for students

In every activity your students engage in, be clear about and share your expectations with them. Explicitly discuss what a very good response looks like and you will secure much better work. If you have examples of excellence that you can share with students, it will help to set the standards you expect.

Modelling, or providing exemplars, can prove very helpful. Students needs to see what success looks like, if they are to achieve it. Use classroom displays or keep a digital portfolio of work to show students e.g. student projects, annotated sketch maps. It is helpful to unpick the good features of the ‘model’ piece with students in a whole-class, interactive discussion to draw attention to what makes it good geography.

Make explicit to students the details of what you expect, e.g. in terms of content and quantity, in advance of the start of a task, Make clear things such as:

  • How much you expect them to write and in what form
  • How you want it to be presented
  • How many questions they should complete from a worksheet
  • What vocabulary you want them to include
  • What common errors they should avoid.

So, if you are to have high expectations, what characteristics should you aspire to in the early stages of your career? What should you know about and do? Use this checklist to evaluate if you have high expectations. Add to it as you gain more experience and raise your game.

  • Focus your teaching on ensuring that your students achieve good understanding of the key concepts, knowledge and skills of geography
  • Teach a challenging geography curriculum and set learning activities that stretch students to think hard, but are achievable for them
  • Enable students to think critically and geographically
  • Create a positive learning environment where students support each other’s learning and making mistakes and learning from them is the norm
  • Expect students to be good geographers and global citizens and always use accurate geographical terminology
  • Encourage students to be effective geography learners who monitor their knowledge and their thinking, and use this to make judgements about how to direct their learning efforts (metacognition)
  • Consider yourself to be a geography professional who is an active member of the geography community
  • Reflect critically and constructively on your teaching and continually strive to develop your skills and knowledge and improve the quality and effectiveness of your teaching?
Teach challenging geography

Your training as a new geography teacher should prepare you to believe in the academic potential of all the students you teach and set them learning tasks that stretch them, but at the same time are achievable. You should teach your students a challenging curriculum and strive to create thinking geographers that will open up the world for them in their future lives.

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
  • Bonnett A. (2008) What is Geography?, London: Sage.
  • Enser, M. (2019) Making Every Geography Lesson Count. Crown House Publishing, chapter 1 Challenge.
  • Rawding, C. (2013) Challenging assumptions: the importance of teaching holistic geographies, Geography, 98(3):157–159.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Weeden, P. and Lambert, D. (2006) Geography Inside the Black Box. Sheffield: Geographical Association/NfER Nelson.
  • Woolliscroft, C. (2016) ‘Stretch and challenge, for students and teachers’, Teaching Geography, 41, 2, pp. 72–73.

 Reference

  • Rosenthal, R and Jacobsen, L. (1968) Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.