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Subject knowledge for geography teaching

All teachers must:

“• have a secure knowledge of the relevant subject(s) and curriculum areas, foster and maintain students’ interest in the subject, and address misunderstandings”

• demonstrate a critical understanding of developments in the subject and curriculum areas, and promote the value of scholarship.”

Teachers’ Standards, DfE, 2012

Topics on this page:

  • Forms of subject knowledge
  • Is having a geography degree enough?
  • What subject content knowledge do I need?
  • How to improve and develop subject content knowledge
  • Maintaining and developing disciplinary knowledge
  • Ways to develop your subject knowledge: some ideas
  • Sources for developing your subject knowledge
  • Making the most of your subject knowledge
  • Observing the use of subject knowledge
  • Reading

Teaching requires content. Students must be taught about something. Therefore the subject matter is important and a teacher’s knowledge of that subject is particularly important.

Influential educationalists stress the importance of teachers’ subject knowledge (see Classroom practice in geography). Professor Robert Coe et al.(2014) in What makes great teaching? wrote:

‘The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning. As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions.’(p. 2)

Like Coe’s work, Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction recognised the importance of excellent subject knowledge. One of the defining characteristics of effective teaching he identified was the ability to provide detailed explanations of the material they were teaching. This requires secure understanding of the subject.

Forms of subject knowledge

Teachers must have good subject knowledge to teach well. If a teacher has limited knowledge of geography, their teaching will lack depth and breadth and their communication of geographical facts, principles and ideas may be partial or inaccurate. They may not know how to respond to questions or difficulties students encounter.In such cases, the curriculum experienced by learners will be limited and lack direction. It is likely to be perceived by students as dull and dreary, or even worthless.

Subject knowledge comprises of both disciplinary knowledge and substantive knowledgeDisciplinary geographical knowledge includes the big concepts and conceptual frameworks that are essential to the subject, as well as a geographer’s methods and ways of thinking and working. 

Substantitive knowledge refers to specific content knowledge of the world around us. It includes the key factual information, concepts, vocabulary, skills and topics that make up geographical content.

A teacher without a good disciplinary understanding of geography will not be able to plan and organise their subject curriculum around appropriate geographical concepts, issues or questions and cannot translate subject knowledge into pedagogical action.

In the opening quote to this page, the DfE sets out the subject knowledge requirements in the Teaching Standards. These cover two distinct aspects of subject knowledge, which are usually described as:

  • Subject content knowledge: which includes both disciplinary and substantive knowledge
  • Subject knowledge for teaching or pedagogic content knowledge (PCK): the knowledge of how to teach geography.

Subject knowledge for teaching is very wide ranging. It includes:

  • Understanding how learners make progress in geography and their common misunderstandings
  • Understanding what makes the learning of specific geographical concepts easy or difficult
  • Knowing about the preconceptions that students of different ages and backgrounds bring with them to their geographical learning
  • Developing expertise in geography curricular knowledge, such as the way geography material is ordered, structured and assessed so that students learn
  • Understanding and developing expertise in teaching strategies that are specific to geography, such as geographical enquiry, fieldwork and teaching map skills
  • Knowing the most powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations and demonstrations, i.e. how to represent the subject so that it is comprehensible to their students
  • Understanding how to assess whether geographical learning has been achieved.

It is important to understand the breadth of knowledge and understanding that is required to be a successful geography teacher. Pedagogic content knowledge is about turning geography subject knowledge into valuable and appropriate activities that help students to learn. Teachers need both subject knowledge and PCK, and more things besides, such as knowledge of how children learn.

Lambert (2011) adds another factor that he describes as ‘synoptic capacity’. He explains that a teacher is required to know what it is about their subject that is easier or more difficult to learn and how to make it accessible. Synoptic capacity is also about helping learners to make the links within a subject and see the ‘big picture’.

In your everyday teaching you will learn how the subject and pedagogy intersect and inform each other as the subject content is adapted and re-presented for teaching. If you want to explore further the tension geography teachers can experience in this, and how they resolve it, read Brooks (2006). 

Geography teachers bring together both of these forms of subject knowledge, alongside students’ own experiences, through a creative process that the GA describes as ‘Curriculum making.

  • Read Biddulph et al (2021) chapter 3 about Pedagogy.

There are no short cuts for acquiring pedagogical content knowledge. Initially you will learn from mentors and tutors and by observing experienced geography practitioners. Later you will develop greater awareness through discussions with expert teachers, reading widely and reflecting on your own and others’ practice. 

You will acquire a language for talking about geography teaching and you might find it helpful to refer to this glossary for some the professional language in the field of geography curriculum you will come across.

Is having a geography degree enough?

Knowing geography and having a geography degree is not enough on its own to become a geography teacher. Your degree may be quite outdated if you have spent time in another career before you decided to teach or you may have a very specialised degree. 

Most initial teacher training courses start by asking you to audit your geography learning and you may find that you have to re-engage with learning new developments, new material and new topics that are part of the school curriculum.

Having a degree is no guarantee that you know what to teach, to whom, in what sequence and by which methods. The challenge facing a new geography teacher is to take their geographical knowledge and present it to students so they can make sense of it and learn to think geographically. 

This is what you will learn through your initial training and develop further during your induction. You will find that there is a lot of work to do transforming the subject matter you know into a form that is accessible and stimulating to young people.

Lambert argues that, ‘Even recent graduates have a lot of work to do transforming the subject matter into a form that is accessible and stimulating to young people.’ He discusses the ‘scholarship of teaching’ because it is an intellectual activity as much as it is practical. 

He also points out that a teacher requires ‘synoptic capacity’ to know what it is about their subject that is easier or more difficult to learn and how to make it accessible to students. He urges new teachers not to lose sight of the ‘big picture’ and sets out what he considers to be the six elements that comprise this big picture for geography.

What subject content knowledge do I need?

Start by using a geography subject audit (use the one provided for your training, or this example). This is a starting point and gives you the ‘headlines’ of topics that you need to know about. 

Go back to this audit regularly through your training to record how well your subject knowledge is developing in the age range you are preparing to teach. If you are aware of any shortcomings, or they are pointed out to you, you are responsible for taking steps to improve these areas through self-study before you teach that topic to your classes.

You need to know the depth and breadth of knowledge required, as it were what comes below the headlines. Without knowing this you cannot identify the key concepts to teach, plan sequential learning for lessons or select case studies and examples to use. Talking with experienced geography teachers about the content of geographical topics is the best way for you to gauge the level of knowledge you require.

Geographical knowledge is not static. A geography teacher will always be learning new subject knowledge throughout their career. Don’t panic if you identify shortcomings in your subject knowledge, but methodically take steps to improve it and keep abreast of current developments and ideas in the subject.

If you are teaching post-16, refer to Rawlings Smith (2017). She points out that, ‘Many of the challenges of teaching post-16 geography, particularly for new teachers, stem from a lack of detailed knowledge of human and physical geography’ and sets out some suggestions in Figure 12 on page 274 for activities you can engage in that will refresh and develop your own subject knowledge.

How to improve and develop subject content knowledge

Be proactive in developing your subject knowledge; it is part of the ongoing professional responsibility of being a teacher. Do an honest self-audit, but do not panic if you identify some gaps; methodically take steps to improve. Draw on the experience of your geography departmental colleagues, especially for guidance on identifying the key concepts in a topic and students’ common misconceptions and confusions.

Take opportunities to discuss with them the geographical content you are teaching and ask where they source new material and how they keep up-to-date with new information and curriculum ideas. You will also have subject knowledge to pass on, perhaps from a specialism you studied at university. You can all learn from each other’s strengths.

  • Outside of school there may be opportunities for you to attend some subject-specific CPD training sessions. Some schools work as part of a geography hub and pool resources for INSET of this type. You should also look for other opportunities such as CPD courses run by the GA, the PTI and examination awarding bodies, and the GA Conference. In addition, you should continue to read journal articles in Geography and Teaching Geography. Look at Time for geography (knowledge booster videos).

 Maintaining and developing disciplinary knowledge

You should try hard to stay on top of your subject knowledge throughout your career and to keep abreast of developments in academic geography in universities so you can draw from these aspects to enrich your geography teaching. A good example of how to do this is in an article about ‘place’ by Liz Taylor.

  • Read Taylor (2005).

Reflect on this article and consider how you could emulate what she recommends:

‘engagement with ideas at this level is empowering; the process of reading geography, thinking about it, selecting what is useful and using it to create stimulating geographical learning activities is the real stuff of professionals – geography teachers who are in touch with changes in their subject and have the confidence to create a varied and relevant curriculum for their students.’

While Liz Taylor was writing from the perspective of a geography educator working in a university, Grace Healy writes as a practising geography teacher who recognises the importance of keeping up-to-date with geography disciplinary practice. She writes:

‘As a geography teacher I know that I need to be prepared to engage with how disciplinary practices work and ensure I teach with attentiveness to the nature of geographical knowledge, so that my students can fully appreciate that geographical knowledge is not something given, but is a product of scholarly research and critique. Without this disciplinary dimension, I fear we have immediately diminished the power of geography education for all our students. This also about the intellectual endeavour – as a geographer and geography teacher, I want to remain engaged with the disciplinary resource of geography. I do not want to merely be guided by exam board specifications.’

  • Read Healy (2018).

You should recognise the importance of attending conferences, reading books and articles about geography and make an effort to set time aside regularly to do this.

 
  • From the Geography National Curriculum and the KS3 curriculum in your school, list any topics of which you are unsure. Discuss these with your geography mentor and ask for guidance on reading to bring your subject knowledge up to scratch.
  • Look at GCSE/A level specifications and exam papers. Identify any topics in which your subject knowledge is weak or dubious. Write a model answer to an examination question. Ask your geography mentor to mark your answer.
  • Plan a sequence of lessons in a geography topic in which you lack confidence. Focus on developing your knowledge and understanding to do this. Ask your geography mentor to let you teach the lessons if they approve of your plans.
  • Co-plan or co-teach a lesson with your mentor to help develop subject knowledge and curriculum understanding.
  • Research for and develop resources for the department in an area in which your subject knowledge is weak.
  • Identify a topic that you are unsure about in geography. Research it and then teach this to other geography trainees/geography colleagues.
  • Attend geography meetings and conferences about topics you want to know more about.

The Teachers’ Standards require you to demonstrate that you are fully aware of the need to extend and update subject, curriculum and pedagogical knowledge and know how to employ appropriate professional development strategies to further develop these in your early career. 

Twitter can be useful for keeping up-to-date with current events that impinge on geography. Start with @GA and @RGS_IBG and build up contacts to follow.

  • Read Biddulph et al (2021) 283.
  • Read Enser (2018), who gives sage advice to new teachers about developing their subject knowledge. He recommends planning in time for it in your schedule, joining a subject association and looking for a wider community to join.
  • The GA’s Learning to Teach Geography web materials provide many references to read on all aspects of geography subject content and geography teaching. Revisit the webpages frequently and follow up the recommended reading to develop your knowledge.
  • The GA’s Secondary Geography Handbookespecially the chapters where you know that you need to improve your subject knowledge.
  • The GA website and publications, including journals. There is a growing collection of videos that provide short subject updates in the Online Teaching Resources section. Browse the GA catalogue for professional development support or look for specific topics in the on-line shopGeography Education Online has been recently launched to support KS4/5 students; explore the live events tab.
  • The Royal Geographical Society Resources for Schools web pages cover a wide range of topics including cartographic, statistical and mathematical skills.
  • The Royal Metrological Society’s MetLink website provides support for teachers who are less confident teaching weather and climate. There is also free access to the online CPD MOOC ‘Come Rain or Shine: Understanding the Weather’.
  • Time for geography contains a range of open-access geography educational videos including ‘knowledge boosters’ covering a wide range of topics and is particularly strong for physical geography.
  • Refer to Subject knowledge enhancement (SKE) for geography teaching for more resources.

Making the most of your subject knowledge

Do not just concern yourself with deficits in your knowledge. Remember that you have considerable geographical expertise from your geographical education and experiences and from places you know and have visited. Do not ignore these in your teaching; the best lessons often result from teachers’ own personal experiences and areas of expertise.

Clare Brooks (2009) writes that the challenge for the geography teacher is to take their academic subject knowledge and present it to students so that they can make sense of it. She uses the analogy of a bridge to visualise this process. One side is what is to be learned and the other side is what the student already knows.

In her research she observed teachers using three strategies to generate these bridges. The teachers:

  • made connections with other geographical knowledge or experiences
  • tuned in to the students’ personal geographies
  • used their own geographical experiences as an example or a story.

As you observe geography lessons, look at the different ways teachers ‘bridge’ their geographical knowledge to help their students to understand. Can you find examples of the three ways Clare identified from her research? Also look for:

  • metaphors or analogies to help explain new geographical ideas or concepts
  • questions that help students to make the ‘bridge’ between prior and new knowledge
  • encouragement for students to consider a topic from different perspectives or viewpoints
  • the use of frameworks to help students, such as when analysing a photograph
  • the use of an analogy, such as a balloon for showing differences in air pressure.

One of the skills you will have developed through your study of geography in higher education is your ‘synoptic capacity’ – the ability to draw strands together to provide coherence and meaning in your understanding of a place and make connections between the known and unknown.

You know how to use and apply your geographical knowledge to new situations. You know how to think geographically. As a geography teacher you will be drawing on these synoptic skills to plan lessons and the curriculum for your students. You will also be planning how to develop your students’ synoptic capacity as geographers.

As you will be aware from your geography degree, there is a plurality of geographies in academic study and a broad range of traditions on thinking geographically. These different geographies are not always easy to reconcile with geography, as expressed in the National Curriculum and taught in secondary schools. This is discussed by Firth and Biddulph (2008) in their paper on Fantastic Geographies.

You should explore these ideas as an ECT and draw on your academic study as well as your own passion and enthusiasm for geography as you teach your lessons. Look at the idea for ‘Fantastic Geographies’ in Good geography teaching.

  • Try completing Task 1.3 Fantastic geographies in Biddulph et al (2021) pp. 18.

Reading