“…understanding how pupils learn geography is an important aspect of learning to teach; it can help you to better develop lessons that will enable pupils to make progress in their geographical understanding, and it can also ensure you are mindful of the factors that shape pupils’ learning.”
Biddulph, Lambert and Balderstone, 2021
Topics on this page:
- Learning theories
- Discussion with experienced teachers
- Cognitive science and learning
- Observations of students’ learning
- Focus on students’ learning (activities)
It is very important for teachers to understand how students learn geography. You will do this in three main ways, by:
- Reading about the theories that lay behind how students learn, and explore how these ideas can be applied in your classroom.
- Discussing how students learn in different aspects of geography with experienced geography teachers.
- Closely observing students as they are learning in classrooms, and talking to them about their learning.
Refer to the DfE requirements for training for new teachers: Standard 2 How Pupils Learn (Standard 2 – Promote good progress) which sets out what your training should include.
You should be aware that learning differs between subjects, which is why you should discuss aspects of learning with geography specialists. In some subjects, such as mathematics and languages, learning is linear i.e. a student masters one aspect of learning and then builds on the next. This is not the case in geography, where learning is more of a ‘spiral’ as learners build up their knowledge in different aspects of the subject. Read more about the ‘spiral’ curriculum in Planning for continuity and progression.
Knowing about research and the theories that underpin learning is an important aspect of learning to teach. But you cannot become an expert overnight. You can find out about some of the main learning theories and their influence on teaching from general education texts, but beyond that it is a good idea to approach this on a ‘need to know’ basis.
If you have observed something in your classroom, or are surprised by student responses, whether positive or negative, you should be asking yourself ‘why this is the case?’. That is the time to delve more deeply into background theory to find out.
- Read more about how Learning theories influence geographical learning.
While you should know about different learning theories, do not think that you must blindly follow all of them. This is not possible anyway because sometimes they conflict! But you must always consider the origins of a theory, the validity of the research and if it is applicable to your students, in your school, and your geography curriculum.
It is part of your professional role as a teacher to make judgements such as this. Good teachers do not just follow the latest teaching theory, they find out about it, ask questions and then find out how it works in their classroom.
Discussions with experienced teachers
You should discuss with your mentor and other experienced teachers, different learning theories and their application to geography teaching. They can draw on their experience to guide you to the most important things to explore. There are waves of different educational ideas that influence teaching and teachers. Not all of them bring the learning improvements they claim. Expert teachers in your school will have experienced different teaching theories; some will have proved valuable for geographical learning but some have proved to be ‘fads’ without impact. They can discuss their experiences with you.
- Discuss with teachers what theories they draw on in their teaching and what has been most influential for them in recent years.
- Read Biddulph et al (2021) Chapter 4 for an overview of students’ learning.
One recent idea was the notion of ‘learning styles’ that gained credence in many schools, and was promoted by the Department for Education and Skills in the 2000s as part of a drive for ‘personalised learning’. You might come across references to the ‘VAK model’ which divides students into visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners; those who like to look, those who like to listen and those who learn best through physical activity.
Teachers were encouraged to plan their lessons with these learning styles in mind. But subsequently gains in learning were not proven by research into VAK and the approach has been abandoned. Indeed, the current DfE frameworks include a statement that new teachers should learn that:
There is a common misconception that pupils have distinct and identifiable learning styles. This is not supported by evidence and attempting to tailor lessons to learning styles is unlikely to be beneficial.
You can see from this example, that teachers need to approach new ideas about learning with some scepticism until there is clear evidence of its worth for learners, and geography learners in particular.
Cognitive science and learning
Recently, teachers have been encouraged to look to cognitive science for insights into how students learn and use this to plan their teaching. The Ofsted inspection framework (2019) takes account of this.
The DfE frameworks for new teachers also incorporate approaches from cognitive science and expect you, as a new teacher, to learn about for example long-term memory, working memory, overloaded memory, retrieval practice, spacing practice, worked examples and meta-cognitive processes.
However, these ideas are not yet fully proven as effective in all teaching situations. Ofsted (2019) points out:
...we can draw on a growing evidence base from the ‘learning sciences’. Learning sciences is a relatively new interdisciplinary field that seeks to apply understanding generated by cognitive science to classroom practice. While more evaluations in English schools would be valuable, this field is increasingly generating moderate to strong evidence of practices that can be used to enhance learning across phases and remits.
Recently the Education Endowment Foundation, that has a role of generating new evidence of ‘what works’ to improve teaching and learning reported in Cognitive Science in the Classroom that:
…while cognitive science approaches can have a meaningful impact on pupil learning, the evidence around how they can be applied successfully in classrooms remains limited. In particular, research into how they ought to be used in different year groups and subject areas is lacking. More information is needed to support teachers in bridging the gap between the theory that underpins cognitive science approaches and implementing them well in their daily practice.
The value of cognitive science approach is still undergoing evaluation and this needs to be borne in mind. You should discuss with experienced teachers in your school their views based on their practical classroom experience in geography.
Observations of students’ learning
When you observe experienced geography teachers teaching lessons, take the opportunity to closely observe how students are learning. You should also talk to students about their learning. You can find out from them whether they have different ways of learning in different subjects and their views on this.
Ask students questions such as: What helps them to learn? What motivates them to learn? What do they find difficult or easy? As you observe students and how they approach learning, look for differences between contrasting students, for example one who is flourishing and another who is less motivated.
Carry out these activities and discuss your findings with your geography tutor/your mentor/the geography teachers in your school. Gather as many views and ideas as you can about how students learn geography.
Carry out the task in Biddulph et al (2021) p103 Task 4.1.
- Focus your observation on a small group of students. Record how students a) tackle a task and b) interact with their peers. Within groups there will be different types of learners with their own needs and their preferred ways of learning. For example, some work fast, others take their time; some ask questions, others reflect. What differences do you notice between pupils in this group?
- Discuss with the your mentor, or the teacher who taught the lesson, what you observed and what made the learning activity successful for which students. How will this be built on in subsequent lessons? How could the task be adapted for other students?
Students have views on how they learn best and it is important to hear their ‘voice’.
- Explore in depth their understanding of a particular task or concept they were taught in a recent geography lesson.
- What did they learn about xx in the lesson?
- How did they learn this?
- Is this important to know?
- Have they learnt about this topic before? What did they remember from the last time they were taught it?
- Discuss with the group what activities they think are best at helping them to learn – and why?
- What activities do they think do not help them to learn – and why?
- 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. Chapter 4.
- Ofsted (2019) Education inspection framework: Overview of research: Ofsted.
- Perry, T., Lea, R., Jørgensen, C. R., Cordingley, P., Shapiro, K., & Youdell, D. (2021) Cognitive Science in the Classroom. London: Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).