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Learning theories and geography

“There is a mutually supportive relationship between educational theory and the practical work of teaching and learning.”

Bill Marsden, 1995

Topics on this page:

  • Why should a geography teacher know about learning theories?
  • Behaviourism
  • Cognitivism and constructivism
  • Social constructivism
  • Jerome Bruner
  • Lev Vygotsky
  • Learning through language
  • Jean Piaget’s stages in child development
  • Benjamin Bloom
  • Mastery learning
  • Kolb and Experiential learning
  • References

Why should a geography teacher know about learning theories?

Some of the important teaching approaches that are outlined on these web pages, such as geographical enquiry, classroom talk, thinking through geography and conceptual learning, have their roots in learning theory. You should be aware of some of the important learning theories and how they influence geography teaching as well as students’ misunderstanding and misconceptions in geography.

We summarise some of the more important ones and indicate how they are relevant to geography teaching. Focus on each theory in more depth when it is relevant to the aspect of geography teaching you are working on and follow up the readings that are listed.

  • Refer to Table 4.1. in 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. This table summarises important ideas linked with it four important learning theories: behaviourism, cognition, constructivism and social constructivism.

It is part of the DfE requirements for new teachers that you:

  • Know that professional debate, and learning from educational research, is also likely to support improvement
  • Engage critically with research and using evidence to critique practice.


Behaviourism came from the work of pedagogical research by Thorndike (1911), Pavlov (1927) and Skinner (1957). It is based on the idea that all behaviours are learned through interaction with the environment as a reaction to stimuli. 

The theory is based on a stimulus–response model and positive and negative reinforcement are seen as motivators for students. Learners are receivers and processors of information and considered passive in the learning process.

Broadly speaking, behaviourism supports teacher-centred approaches and classroom practice centres on what the teacher does to impact on and influence their students. The theory went out of favour in the second half of the 20th century but has seen a recent revival has made significant contributions to pedagogy.

How is this important for learning geography?

Behaviour theory underpins ideas of repetition, reinforcement and practice. Therefore, the use of guided and independent practice are supported by behaviourism, as too are stimulus-response in the form of teacher-led questioning. 

Regular review is seen as important to go back over material and give positive reinforcement to lead to retention of learning. The idea of being ‘teacher centred’ would be supported by the theory behind behaviourism, as would the knowledge-led curriculum.

Cognitivism and constructivism

These approaches are concerned with how students think and process information. Based especially on the work of Piaget (1896-1980), constructivism sees the mind as structured to develop concepts and acquire language. Learning happens as a result of reflecting on, thinking about and making connections to prior knowledge. We learn through what we already know.

If a student says ‘that makes no sense to me’ it means that they have no mental framework or experience to interpret it. Therefore, they cannot understand what is being taught. The teachers’ mantra to start where the students are is about constructivism. 

Constructivism focuses on how individual experiences affect learning and insists that students’ varying perspectives will mean that they approach new knowledge in different ways. Knowledge cannot be transmitted to us ‘ready-made’; the learner must be actively involved.

How is this important for learning geography?

In geography lessons students must be given the opportunity, and time, to explore new information and relate it to what they already know. They must be cognitively engaged in constructing geographical knowledge through learning activities.

David Leat (1998) developed Thinking through geography; this was a ‘cognitive acceleration programme’ inspired by developments in science (CASE). It built upon the theories of cognitive science and social constructivism. In thinking activities students are encouraged first to access their existing knowledge and understanding and are taught any new vocabulary. This is called the concrete preparation phase.

They are then challenged to go beyond their current thinking by the thinking activity which introduces them to new information and evidence; this is described as the construction zone. Leat describes how students experience cognitive conflict when there is a mismatch between the incoming knowledge and what they already know. It is resolved when they form new concepts. Leat comments, ‘we get a small window on this happening for a student when they might say with feeling ‘Ahh – I get it!’.

Leat recognised debriefing as a very significant activity for consolidating new learning and concepts. He saw the metacognition (developing and understanding of their own thinking) and bridging (transfer of concepts to other contexts) as two key roles of debriefing. For further information refer to Thinking through geography.

Margaret Roberts explains how learning through enquiry is related to constructivism in ‘What are the implications of a constructivist approach to learning geography?’ in Roberts (2023) pp. 20-1. She emphasises that teachers need to take students’ existing knowledge into account and give them time to explore new information and relate it to what they already know. Teachers also need to provide opportunities for students to reshape and reconstruct their existing knowledge in the light of new information, and to make them aware of different ways of seeing things.

  • Leat, D. (1998) Thinking through geography, London: Chris Kington Publishing, pp 157-9.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association.

Social constructivism

Social constructivism sees knowledge as socially constructed and learning as essentially a social, collaborative process. Learning happens through a shared experience of social interaction and language use. Teachers should guide students development through tasks and activities designed to bridge the gap between what is already known and can be done, and what is new, unfamiliar and to be learned.

How is this important for learning geography?

Pedagogic practices consistent with social constructivist theory prioritise student-teacher or student-student interaction e.g. small-group, pair and whole-class interactive work, extended dialogue with individuals, higher order questioning, teacher modelling and co-operative learning. 

Social constructivists believe that all students have their own ‘personal geographies’ that they bring into the classroom. Students should be made aware that geography knowledge has been constructed by people at particular times and in particular places.

  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, 2nd edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association, pp 20-21.

Jerome Bruner

Bruner, a psychologist, believed that information should be structured so that complex ideas could be taught at a simplified level first, and then re-visited at more complex levels later on. This is known as a spiral curriculum. To achieve progression in learning, teachers should plan to revisit, reinforce and refine students’ thinking.

Bruner also believed that teachers should give children respect for their own powers of thinking. He constructed a course of study based on the ‘discovery method’ of learning. Bruner planned activities that posed students questions and promoted speculation. 

He valued learners using sources of evidence, engaging in open ended discussions and reflecting on what they had learned. He saw the teacher as a resource rather than the ‘authority’. A good teacher will design lessons that help students discover the relationship between different information. To do this a teacher must give students the information they need, but without organizing it for them.

Bruner distinguished between different ways concepts could be represented to children: enactive – through activities; iconic – visual representation; and symbolic – the use of language and number. He argues that the easiest form of representation for learners is through activity and that the most difficult is symbolic. 

He also argued that if we want to make numbers easier to understand we can enact them – active numbers (Bruner, 1966).

How is this important for learning geography?
  1. Sequences of lessons and geography curriculum should be planned with the spiral curriculum in mind. Students should revisit key aspects of geography over time, to develop their understanding at a progressively higher level e.g., in learning map skills and understanding physical processes.
  2. Bruner introduced the notion of enquiry that values understanding and applying fundamental concepts rather than memorising facts. This is the basis of geographical enquiry.
  3. Bruner’s ideas of representation are very relevant to geography. We should seek ways to use enact learning – e.g., House et al. (2012) ‘Risky fieldwork’ in Teaching Geography, Summer, outlines how students can display data while they are still ‘in the field’ using ‘human graphs. We should use opportunities to use visual representations whenever we can (e.g. diagrams, photos, maps) because students find concepts easier to understand when taught in this way compared to symbolic representation in words and numbers.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association, p 53 on Bruner’s ideas on accessing data.
  • Roberts, M. (2003) Learning through enquiry: Making sense of geography in the key stage 3 classroom, Sheffield: Geographical Association, pp 23-4 and page 105 for active numbers.

Lev Vygotsky

Vygotsky identified the difference between what learners can do without help and what they can do with help which is called the zone of proximal development. It is an important idea in social constructivism. 

If learners are given some support, they can be assisted to develop their conceptual thinking and they achieve a higher level. This is the basis for scaffolding learning. If the task is beyond their zone of proximal development, it will be beyond what they are capable of achieving even with support.

Vygotsky saw interaction with peers as an effective way of developing skills and strategies. He suggested that teachers use cooperative learning exercises where less competent children develop with help from their more skilful peers, working within the zone of proximal development.

  • Read Roberts (2023) Fig. 2.1, Vygotsky’s zone of proximal/potential development (ZPD)
How is this important for learning geography?

When planning geography activities, the challenges presented to students should be just beyond what they can do without help. Students need the intervention of the teacher and their support to assist their learning – this is often described as scaffolding. 

‘Scaffolding’ is based on Vygotsky’s ideas that students should be given ‘light assistance’ to handle problems they cannot solve on their own. In geography this means asking students a leading question, suggesting, correcting – so they can find the answer for themselves. It does not mean telling them!

To use scaffolding well a teacher must have a precise knowledge of the characteristics and starting point of the learner. It aims to enable learners to attain higher levels of understanding than they could on their own so they ultimately achieve independence. 

A large part of teaching involves successfully deploying scaffolding in the classroom, for example when designing a worksheet, structuring a task or setting up an activity.

  • Bustin, R. (2017) ‘Teaching a good geography lesson’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Sheffield: Geographical AssociationChapter 11 pp 140-1.
  • Leat, D. (1998) Thinking through geography, London: Chris Kington Publishing, pp 159-160.
  • Roberts, M. (2003) Learning through enquiry: Making sense of geography in the key stage 3 classroom, Sheffield: Geographical Association, pp 28-31.
  • Roberts, M. (2011) What makes a geography lesson good?, A paper based on a lecture given at the 2011 GA Annual Conference.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association, p 21.

Learning through language

Vygotsky believed we need to provide students with the opportunities to use language, particularly talk, to shape their thoughts. Later research by Barnes (1992) showed how students exchange ideas through talk in the classroom to build up ‘common knowledge’. Exploratory talk is important according to Mercer (1995/2000) this is where students engage critically but constructively with each other’s ideas.

How is this important for learning geography?

The use of language – speaking, writing, reading and listening – is central to the development of students’ thinking and learning in geography. Literacy is a vehicle to develop subject knowledge and understanding because it helps students to structure thoughts, reason arguments and sift information..

Geography teachers must provide students with the opportunities to use language to shape their thinking through discussion and through writing. They should make good use of purposeful, small group discussions that actively involve all students so that they can clarify and develop ideas through both talking and writing.

They should encourage them to be tentative and exploratory in their discussions in geography lessons, and not always look for them to give ‘right’ answers. Personal and expressive forms of language, both oral and written, reveal what students feel, believe and think in geography and give the teacher essential insights into their understanding.

  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association, Chapters 2 and 11.

Jean Piaget’s stages in child development

Piaget saw cognitive development as a progressive reorganization of mental processes as a result of both biological maturation and environmental experience. Children construct an understanding of the world around them. They experience discrepancies between what they already know and what they discover in their environment. 

Before Piaget’s (1936) work, the common assumption in psychology was that children are merely less competent thinkers than adults. Piaget showed that children think in strikingly different ways compared to adults.

Piaget (1994) considered that ‘readiness’ was important; students should not be taught certain concepts until they have reached the appropriate stage of cognitive development.

The two stages, most relevant to key stage 3 are:

  1. Concrete thinkers: younger children cannot think abstractly and better understand what they can see and hear and experienceThey find it difficult to hypothesise, handle several variables or make links between factors.
  2. Formal operational thinkers can handle more complex relationships. Piaget thought this begins around age 11 when children develop the ability to think about abstract concepts, and logically test hypotheses.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was credited as first to create a cognitive development theory which included schemas.

How is this important for learning geography?

Students in early key stage 3 are making the transition between these two stages. Geography teachers need to be aware that concrete thinkers will often descriptive accounts that concentrate on what happens, but not why things happen. Therefore, teachers need to consider how to accelerate the move from concrete to formal operational thinking if students are to make progress in geographical understanding.

Building on their experiences is important, so is the use of visual material and fieldwork. Thinking strategies have been developed to help this (see Why thinking through geography is so important?). 

It is worth considering these ideas when developing ‘starters’ for lessons, so that the content of these is ‘concrete’ and something the students can readily relate to. Later in the lesson you can introduce more complex, conceptual ideas and develop these through discussion.

Benjamin Bloom

Bloom contributed two key ideas to learning theory. He identified three ‘domains’ of learning:

  • Cognitive: most often referred to: knowledge, comprehension, analysis, evaluation
  • Affective: relates to dealing with things emotionally, such as interest, feelings, values, appreciation, enthusiasms, motivations, and attitudes. Teaching about places and fieldwork can make a significant contribution to affective learning in geography
  • Psychomotor: focuses on motor skills and physical coordination.

He also devised Bloom’s Taxonomy (a classification) of educational objectives that have become a key tool in structuring and evaluating learning. It was created as a tool for categorising the level of cognitive challenge in test items and to help discuss assessment with greater precision. It also was designed to promote higher levels of thinking, such as analysing and evaluating concepts, processes, procedures, and principles. 

This conceptual taxonomy was presented as a hierarchy, meaning that learning at the higher levels is dependent on having attained the lower levels and there is an expectation of increasing complexity and competence; the lowest level requires remembering facts (rote learning).

The lowest level is the retention and retrieval (memorisation) of facts and recall of these. Comprehension and understanding meaning and being able to describe a problem in your own words is the next level, followed by application i.e., the ability to use a concept in a new situation. 

Level four is analysis to make connections between ideas and the fifth level is synthesis – to build parts together to form a whole or to build a structure, pattern or new theory. Finally, evaluation involves making judgements about the value of ideas or material.

The taxonomy has been reinterpreted and revised on several occasions e.g. by Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) who add creativity at the highest level.

How is this important for learning geography?

In geography there are few explanations that are simple cause and effect. More often explanations are complex and require the synthesis of different aspects of knowledge and understanding, or even speculation regarding possible causation. 

Geographical learning involves applying new information to different contexts and requires analysis and understanding. Evaluation is another high order thinking skill that is important in geography when considering evidence and ideas. See Bloom’s Taxonomy (adapted) for an example of how it can be applied to geographical thinking and skills.

Bloom’s ideas are widely used by teachers to write objectives in geography with increasing cognitive demands because it acknowledges that higher level thinking requires much more than mere recall or comprehension. 

Refer to Figure 4 on p 43 in Jones (2017) to see how the taxonomy can be used to evaluate the level of cognitive challenge of learning objectives for a scheme of work. If all fall into the left-hand boxes, there is a lack of challenge and they need to fall further right in the table to achieve a greater degree of analysis, evaluation and creative opportunity.

However, Roberts (2023, p 94) urges caution in the application of the Bloom’s taxonomy to high order and low order geography questions. She suggests that geography teachers should use professional judgement to distinguish specific questions depending on the subject matter.

Mastery learning

Bloom proposed that students should demonstrate ‘mastery’ of knowledge before they move on to learn new knowledge and he believed that all students are capable of learning anything if presented in the right way. But be wary of the idea of ‘mastery’ in a complex subject such as geography, where interconnections between different aspects of the subject are of key importance for understanding.

Learning in geography is not linear but occurs more in a spiral as students return to ideas and concepts they have learnt earlier and develop their understanding further. Therefore it is not easy to say when a student has fully ‘mastered’ a concept; to be sure you may have to wait to see if they can apply their understanding to a different context.

However, there are instances in geography subject matter, particularly in relation to physical and human geography where certain ideas and concepts must be ‘mastered’ before students can understand more complex processes. For example, to understand whey climate change is happening, students need first to understand the underlying physical processes that influence weather and climate.

  • Bokhove, C and Campbell, R. (2020) ‘Revising opinions about Bloom’s taxonomy‘, Impact (Chartered College of Teaching). January.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association, Chapter 10 pp. 94-95 and Chapter 15.

Kolb and experiential learning

Kolb developed a perspective on learning that he called experiential to emphasise the central role of experience in the learning process. This developed from constructivist ideas and Kolb created a model called the Experiential Learning Cycle (ELC) (see diagram).

He believes that ideas are formed and re-formed through experience. He suggests that learning is a process and takes place through a cycle of concrete experiences, followed reflective observation and abstract conceptualization, when links are made to abstract concepts.

The final stage for Kolb is active experimentation to see how it might be applied (Kolb, 1984). Kolb defines learning as ‘the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience’.

How is this important for learning geography?

ELC is most applicable to field work in which students having the opportunity to experience what geographers do to make knowledge. Kolb’s cycle is usually adapted in schools in that students starting with the abstract theories they will be investigating and then test the theories in active experimentation.

Participating in fieldwork very much support Kolb’s ideas that students cannot learn by simply watching or reading about it, they must actually do it. Therefore, the concrete experience of collecting data collection is essential. 

Finally, they reflect by stepping back from ‘doing and reviewing what they have learnt. Kolb argues this should help students to grasp the ideas being introduced by linking concrete examples to abstract concepts. He also argues that planning of active experimentation and reflection transforms their understanding (Kolb, 1984).

When undertaking geographical enquiries students directly experience working like geographers to seek answers to a key question, make sense of information to do so and reach conclusions. Activities such as decision-making and role-play also ask students to ‘experience’ a real-world scenario. In all these activities reflecting on the experience and learning from it are of key importance.

 References for learning theories

  • Anderson, L. W. and Krathwohl, D. R., et al (Eds.) (2001) A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Allyn & Bacon. Boston, MA (Pearson Education Group).
  • Bruner, J. S. (1966) Toward a theory of instruction, Cambridge, Belkapp Press.
  • Barnes, D. (1992) The role of talk in learning. In K. Norman (ed) Thinking Voices, London: Hodder and Stoughton.
  • Kolb, D. (1984) Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hal.
  • Marsden, W. (1995) Geography 11–16: Rekindling Good Practice, London: Routledge.
  • Mercer, N. (1995/2000) The Guided Construction of Knowledge. Talk amongst teachers and learners, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
  • Piaget J (1994) Cognitive Development in children: Piaget Development and Learning, J. Res. In Sci.  Teaching, 1964, 2:  176- 186.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association.