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Progression in geographical learning

“Progression in geography is unlikely to be linear. It happens in fits and starts: light-bulb moments are followed by periods of consolidation before the next ‘spurt’.”

Paul Weeden, 2017

Topics on this page:

What does it mean to ‘progress’ in geographical learning? | Linking conceptual development and progress | Progress in geographical description and explanation | Bloom’s Taxonomy | Achievement and progress in geography | Activities to identify progression | Reading

Introduction

To consider progression in geography, you need to be clear about what is meant by ‘geographical knowledge’ and ‘geographical understanding’. (Read about these in Subject knowledge and refer to Bennett (2005), see Making connections for geographical learning, if you have not already done so).

 Learning involves a change in a student’s knowledge, understanding, skills. Progress is a change that moves in a positive direction.

Geography, unlike mathematics or languages, is not a subject that students learn in a linear fashion. This means that it is not possible to identify a smooth progression or simple, step-by-step ‘ladder of progress’ for geographical content. As Paul Weeden points out in the opening quote, progress happens in fits and starts. 

A student may make a different rate of progress in one aspect of the subject, such as understanding of human processes, than they do in another, such as interpreting spatial distributions and patterns. They may appear to make little progress in some lessons, whilst in others they may be making huge leaps forward in knowledge and understanding.

It is also important to note that in order to progress in geographical learning, students need to have the right opportunities and experiences to achieve the conceptual understanding and gain the competencies and skills expected by the geography curriculum. 

Teachers must carefully plan to enable this progression to happen (see Planning for progression and continuity). Progression takes place over a number of timescales: across a sequence of lessons; a year; a key stage. A teacher has to decide how to structure teaching and assessment over these timescales in order to support students’ progression in learning.

What does it mean to ‘progress’ in geographical learning?

Progress means that students are getting better at geography. They do this by broadening their experience and acquiring more knowledge and understanding by engaging with new ideas, applying the ideas to different contexts and consolidating this learning. In this way students develop their understanding of important geographical concepts and gradually build connections within their geographical schemas; in doing so they are making progress. 

Carefully planned experiences will help students to develop ways of thinking geographically and acquire skills with which they can interpret these experiences and geographical information. To help students make progress, teachers must have a clear understanding of the learning that they need to do, where they are now and how best to help them bridge the gap

Students do not progress in their geographical learning by simply accumulating geographical knowledge. Progression in geography is best seen in geography as a web of linked ideas. It involves development of geographical thinking, and showing the ability to identify geographical relationships and make connections between geographical phenomena. Progression is indicated by increasing student fluency of geographical understanding in different and more complex situations.

  • Refer to Taylor (2017) pp 41-2 where some of the social constructivist theories that underpin understanding of how students make progress in geography are discussed.

Linking conceptual development and progress

Making progress is closely linked to a student’s maturation and conceptual development as well as their experiences. At key stage 3 for example, many students will experience considerable intellectual development between the ages of 11 and 14 which will affect their style of reasoning and extend their abilities to form concepts and explore relationships. 

During key stage 3 most students move from being concrete thinkers to become formal operational thinkers. At first their thinking will, for the most part, be tied to concrete experiences and they need to relate their ideas to particular objects, events and situations which have reality for them.

Piaget found that from about age 12, a student will begin to think abstractly and reason about hypothetical problems. They begin to use deductive logic. 

This means they can make progress in geography by applying their understanding of abstract concepts to different situations and reason from general principles. They can begin to see multiple potential solutions to problems and think more deductively about the world around them. 

Nevertheless, the challenge to make progress in understanding concepts such as interdependence, development, sustainable development, should not be underestimated for a 14 year old student. Teachers must recognise that there are limits to how far it is reasonable to expect key stage 3 students to think in abstract terms.

As well as conceptual development, students mature in the affective domain. This is linked to the extent to which students are sensitive to the views of others; can engage in rational discussion; can diagnose issues and responses; and understand that solutions sometimes require compromise. 

As students mature they not only make gains in knowledge and understanding, but teachers will recognise changes in their enthusiasms, experience and interests.

 Progress in geographical description and explanation

The ability of students to describe and explain geographical phenomena (e.g. conditions, patterns, relationships changes) are aspects in which students are expected to make progress during key stage 3.

 This involves more than just identification, description and explanation of a geographical feature. The nature of the feature, and the quality of description and explanation are all relevant to demonstrating progress.

Students must have appropriate opportunities to develop the quality of their descriptions and explanations and to apply their understanding in increasingly sophisticated ways. Their progress is shown by their increasing understanding of geographical concepts and how they apply this to new situations. 

Their explanations reveal their understanding and reflect their knowledge and the sophistication of their reasoning. At key stage 3 teachers look for students’ to demonstrate progress by showing increasing capacity to give detailed descriptions and offering fuller and more sophisticated explanations.

Refer to the above diagrams that illustrate four-stage models of progression in geographical explanations and descriptions. These examples were written for students to use to evaluate and improve their own written descriptions and explanations. 

They indicate how progress can be analysed and also show that making progress in geographical understanding is complex. Because of this complexity, students’ progress in geography will not be visible in only one piece of work. Evidence needs to be gathered from a range of sources over a longer timescale.

  • Read more about these models and their application in George et al. (2002).

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Based on Bloom’s work, progress in geographical thinking has sometimes been seen in terms of a hierarchy known as Bloom’s Taxonomy. The first, and lowest tier, is ‘remembering’, which includes the recall of factual information and simple description. There is a general consensus amongst geography educators that this is the least demanding intellectually.

The next two tiers, understanding and applying, are often demonstrated together in geography; it is common for students to undertake a task where they are asked to make sense of information and then apply it in another context. One of these skills is not demonstrating ‘progress’ over the other.

The top three categories do indicate more rigour, greater intellectual capability and deeper geographical understanding than the previous three and these are often known as ‘higher-order’ skills. But there is no strict hierarchy apparent in geographical learning. 

None shows greater progress than the others because they will be applied to different contexts or tasks. So, although Bloom’s taxonomy can be useful for teachers when they plan a range of tasks and activities to develop different intellectual skills, it is not a helpful categorisation for students’ progress in geography.

Roberts (2023) pp. 94-5 discusses Bloom’s taxonomy in depth and points out that, although it is widely referenced in educational literature, it has its limitations.

Achievement and progress in geography

Refer to Guidance on progression and assessment in geography. This is available free for GA members.

    • The GA has identified three aspects of achievement or the ‘big objectives’ of teaching geography. These are the areas in which you must be looking for your students to progress during their geographical education and the GA leaflet sets out the progress that students should attain at age 11, 14 and 16.
  • Contextual world knowledge of locations, places and geographical features.
  • Understanding of the conditions, processes and interactions that explain features, distribution patterns, and changes over time and space.
  • Competence in geographical enquiry, and the application of skills in observing, collecting, analysing, evaluating and communicating geographical information.

The GA has also identified dimensions of progress in order to show what it means to get better at geography (see below). Consider the examples illustrated below in the context of the content of the geography National Curriculum.

  • Demonstrating greater fluency with world knowledge by drawing on increasing breadth and depth of content and contexts.
  • Extending from the familiar and concrete to the unfamiliar and abstract.
  • Making greater sense of the world by organising and connecting information and ideas about people, places, processes and environments.
  • Working with more complex information about the world, including the relevance of people’s attitudes, values and beliefs.
  • Increasing the range and accuracy of investigative skills, and advancing their ability to select and apply these with increasing independence to geographical enquiry.
 
Dimension of progressExamples
Demonstrating great fluency of world knowledge• broaden and deepen their knowledge about places and geographical themes (e.g. urban geography, hydrology)
• use an increasingly technical geographical vocabulary
Familiar to unfamiliar and concrete to abstract• using a range of scales from local to global
• from concrete concepts such as ‘farm’ to more abstract ideas such as ‘power’ and to a higher level of abstraction such as ‘space’
Making greater sense of the world• increasing synoptic and decision making capacity
• organising and connecting information and ideas to people, places, processes and environments
• links between places at different scales
Working with more complex information about the world • taking a more mature awareness of issues
• including different people’s attitudes, values and beliefs
Increasing the range and accuracy of investigative skills• developing and deploying skills appropriately
• using more sophisticated and precise geographical skills
• using geographical enquiry with increasing independence

Try some of these activities to find out about what progress in geography looks like:

  • look at some work from Year 7 and Year 9 students and use the Aspects of progression (click here) table to compare their work in similar aspects of geography. For example, can you see a difference in description/explanation of physical and human processes? Use the four-stage model of progression to analyse and compare their achievements
  • select three students from a Year 9 geography class – ask your mentor to identify students across the ability range. Look at some of their geography work over as long a time span as possible –they might have kept some work from key stage 3 in a portfolio. Analyse their work taking each of the Dimensions of progress. Can you see progress? Make notes of some of the indicators of progress you find and discuss these with your geography mentor
  • compare a Year 7 scheme of work with a Year 9 scheme of work from your school – choose schemes on a similar aspect of geography. Can you see how the demands placed on students in Year 9 help them to progress further in their learning that the demands for Year 7? Now compare with a scheme from GCSE.

Try the activities in the textbox and you will realise that identifying and planning for progress are not that easy! Questions should arise from these activities to discuss with your geography mentor. Once you have started to think about how progression is built into the work students do in lessons, you will realise how helpful it is to always consider dimensions of progress as you plan. 

If you do not give students adequate opportunities to make progress and demonstrate that they have done so, they might appear to be busy in your lessons but may be ‘treading water’. This is generally described by teachers as ‘coasting’ – and is to be avoided.

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, pp. 51-5.
  • George, J., Clarke, J., Davies, P. and Durbin, C. (2002) ‘Helping students to get better at geographical writing’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Hopkin, J., Gardner, D., Kinder, A. and Totterdell, R. (2020) A progression framework for geography, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Taylor, L. (2017) ‘Progression’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Chapter 4 pp. 40-2.