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Identifying good geography teaching

“Teaching a good geography lesson has to be the aim of a good teacher, but what exactly does a good geography lesson look like? How can teachers make their lessons good? And who decides what is “good”?”

Richard Bustin, 2017

Topics on this page:

  • Good teaching in effective geography departments
  • Discussion in the geography department
  • What makes great teaching?
  • Observing good geography lessons
  • Using the four principles of good teaching for lesson observations
  • Reading

All teachers are different. They bring their own individual style and personality to their teaching because the role relies on the relationship that is developed between the teacher and student to bring about learning. Therefore, there is no single form of ‘good teaching’. 

What you can ask yourself as you observe teachers in geography lessons is, what are the characteristics that make this teaching ‘good’ so that significant geographical learning is taking place?

  • Read Bustin (2017).

This chapter contains a good deal of information, and you will return to it again to consider aspects in greater depth and unpick the specific details about lesson planning and teaching. However, do look carefully now at Figure 7 on page 146 and the Characteristics of a good geography lesson. These are as described by teachers in one geography department and are not put forward as a definitive checklist, but for discussion.

You will find that this is the case about ‘good teaching’, there are many suggestions, but no absolute definition of ‘good teaching’. Good teaching can only be defined as the actions that create good learning – and that can be brought about in a myriad of different ways. So, on this page, we will focus on characteristics.

Good teaching in effective geography departments

The Ofsted report (2001) Good teaching, effective departments was written following an HMI survey of subject teaching in secondary schools. There was a detailed evaluation of subject teaching undertaken in order to explore some of the features of best practice. 

These instances of good practice provide the evidence on which the features of good teaching highlighted in the report are based. It was noted that the quality of work seen was not entirely even in quality and it is a fact that, even in good schools, achieving full consistency across lessons remains a considerable challenge.

Ofsted (2011) also observed that the best geography occurs in schools with strong professional development programmes, where geography is a specialist subject, where the school shares good practice in local networks, and where schools have built strong links with local universities to provide opportunities and activities to cross the school-university divide.

  • Read this extract from the report that focuses on geography departments.

This extract will give you a flavour of what HMI identify as good teaching, illustrated with examples from the teaching they observed. Ask your mentor and/or geography teacher colleagues to read this extract and discuss the good teaching described, using the questions in the text box as a starting point. Use this to understand the good teaching in your school.

  • Do you agree with HMI that good geography teaching is not primarily about the acquisition of information, but it guides and encourages students to develop skills of analysis and critical argument?
  • How important are dealing with real and often controversial issues and topicality to engage students’ interest?
  • HMI noted that factual content about people and places should be fully exploited for students to apply their wider geographical knowledge and deepen understanding. What examples are currently taught that demonstrate this?
  • The report comments that visual or sensory resources bring geography to life. What examples are currently taught that demonstrate this?
  • The extract illustrated how teachers were able to relate students’ own knowledge and experience when teaching about disparities between the rich and poor world, while avoiding stereotypical views. What similar opportunities are there in your curriculum? How is this taught?
  • HMI identify that three important outcomes of good teaching are: students having a better sense of place; understanding geographical issues in an informed way; and having a clearer appreciation of the values and views of others. Do you agree and what examples can you cite from your curriculum? 

What makes great teaching?

A report entitled What makes great teaching? published by the Sutton Trust (2017) reported on research to identify the elements of teaching with the strongest evidence of improving attainment. 

This research was not specific to geography but is, nevertheless, important to pay attention to. It identified six specific practices that contribute to great teaching. learning style’. 

The two factors with the strongest evidence of improving pupil attainment are:

  • teachers’ content knowledge, including their ability to understand how students think about a subject and identify common misconceptions
  • quality of instruction, which includes using strategies like effective questioning and the use of assessment.

Specific practices which have good evidence of improving attainment include:

  • challenging students to identify the reason why an activity is taking place in the lesson
  • asking a large number of questions and checking the responses of all students
  • spacing-out study or practice on a given topic, with gaps in between for forgetting
  • making students take tests or generate answers, even before they have been taught the material.

Common practices which are not supported by evidence include:

  • using praise lavishly
  • allowing learners to discover key ideas by themselves
  • grouping students by ability
  • presenting information to students based on their ‘preferred learning style’. 

You will at once recognise overlap with the four principles discussed earlier in the HMI report Good teaching, effective departments. 

The Sutton Trust (2017) also identifies some common practices they described as harmful to learning and having no grounding in research. One of these is ‘preferred learning style’, which was widely adopted a few years ago, but it is now specifically identified in the DfE Framework as having no value.

It is worth considering others that are considered not worthwhile in the report in a little more detail, because they cannot just be taken at face value.

  • Using praise lavishly: the report is not suggesting that praise is bad! It suggests that the wrong kind of praise is not helpful, e.g. where it affirms low expectations and therefore conveys the wrong message to the student.
  • Allowing learners to discover key ideas by themselves: this relates to ‘discovery learning’ in an unstructured way, where students are left to ‘do their own thing’. It is wrong to read into this that curiosity, engagement and real-world experiences are ‘bad’ and everything has to be ‘taught directly’. It is particularly important to note that geographical enquiry is NOT ‘discovery learning’ in the sense that is meant here. See What is geographical enquiry?
  • Grouping students by ability: this research indicated that evidence on the effects of grouping by ability, either by allocating students to different classes, or to within-class groups, suggests that it makes very little difference to learning outcomes. Others might not agree with them and you should discuss this with your mentor and others in your school.

Read the report to get the full picture of what their research revealed. Also, take note that research evidence in education is rarely uncontested and you should never just read the ‘headline’ of a research report and follow what appears in the recommendation without finding out more. 

The content and the context of the research is important. Always take time to read widely about what others in education say and make your own evaluation.

Great geography teaching is shown diagrammatically in the illustration from Kinder and Lambert (2011) (see below). It is about knowing the geography to teach (the subject discipline), effective pedagogy (choices and performances) and serving student needs (prior knowledge, learning needs, motivation). The diagram shows that great teachers hold these three elements in balance.

It also acknowledges the role of other competing factors, such as consideration of student progress, the choice of learning activities, what key concepts are being taught and whether students are being asked to think geographically. All of these aspects of great teaching are discussed in detail throughout these web pages. You will also recognise that the great teaching model is based on the ideas that lay behind curriculum making.

Observing good geography lessons

No teacher is perfect at everything. Some teachers are very, very good and may have been given the accolade of ‘outstanding’ in the past when Ofsted observed teachers and graded lessons. 

If there is such a teacher in your school, observe them and carefully note what stands out and makes them so successful. Is it their presentation skills? Their organisation? Their rapport with students? Their knowledge? Or something else?

The reality in schools is that teachers have different strengths, and to observe best practice you will need to observe a range of teachers. That is why you need to take any opportunities you are offered during training and induction to observe and work with as many different geography teachers as you can. 

If you know, or have been told, that a teacher has particular teaching strengths, and you are observing them for that specific reason, focus on why their strategies are so successful and ‘deconstruct’ this with them in discussion after you have observed their lessons.

Most of the time you will be observing an experienced teacher doing what they usually do. You can learn a good deal from observing them closely. The discussion afterwards with the teacher is an invaluable part of your training. 

It will help you to see how teachers use their knowledge and understanding of geography, teaching strategies, the learning process and their students. It will also help you to understand the decisions that teachers have to make about the planning and teaching of lessons. Observing lessons is an important way to develop your ability to analyse and evaluate professional practice.

Some trainee teachers feel that observing others teach is frustrating and a waste of time; they would rather ‘have a go’ themselves. It is understandable that you are keen to get on with teaching, but observation of good geography teachers is never wasted time if you go about it properly. 

This means you must prepare beforehand, focus on the specific aspects to observe, and discuss the lesson afterwards with the teacher so you can ask questions. Just sitting and watching a lesson without preparation and subsequent discussion is a wasted opportunity.

  • Using the four principles set out in Geography subject teaching: high expectations, observe some experienced teachers’ geography lessons using these prompts.

Use these questions on each of the principles that were outlined earlier when you observe geography lessons. Can you identify each of the principles in the ‘good teaching’ you are observing?

  • Is the teacher secure and confident in their subject knowledge and do they ensure that the students acquire new geographical knowledge and/or skills and make progress with their geographical learning?
  • How does the teacher use their specialist expertise in pedagogy to plan the lesson to be appropriate for the students’ needs and the geography to be taught? How does the teacher actively engage students in learning and thinking about geography?
  • Is the lesson taught in a well-ordered classroom in a climate of mutual trust and respect where different views and opinions are shared and listened to?
  • Does the teacher have high expectations of the learning they want the students to achieve and how does this influence students’ attitudes and motivation? Do they challenge students? Is the lesson a positive experience for both the teacher and students?
Observation tasks

Here are some further observation tasks that you could do in school in the early days of your initial training:

There are examples and questions for observations with different foci in several other trainee webpages:

Reading

  • Bustin, R. (2017) ‘Teaching a good geography lesson’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 11.
  • Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S. and Major, L. (2014) What makes great teaching? Review of the Underpinning Research. London: Sutton Trust.
  • Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher. Routledge, chapter 1.
  • Kinder, A. and Lambert, D. (2011) ‘The National Curriculum Review: what geography should we teach?’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • King, S. (2000) Theory into Practice: Into the Black Box: Observing Classrooms. Sheffield: Geographical Association

Reference

  • Ofsted (2011) Geography: Learning to make a world of difference. Ofsted.