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Becoming a reflective geography teacher

‘Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.’

Dylan Wiliam

Topics on this page:

  • What is a reflective teacher? Why is it important?
  • Reflection in practice
  • Using research and practitioner enquiry
  • Reading

What is a reflective teacher? Why is it important?

Becoming a teacher is a professional, thoughtful and intellectual endeavour and you will learn from research as well as other sources of knowledge. But above all you will learn through reflecting on your direct experience.

To become a competent and confident professional you must look closely at what you do in the classroom, think about why you do it, and think about if it works. If there is one thing all good teachers have in common it is that they reflect, and they aren’t afraid to make changes where they see the need. As Dylan Wiliam points out in the opening quote, all teachers can be even better.

Biddulph et al (2021) p 284 explains that reflection requires ‘tough’ thinking. It means more than simple self-evaluation and jumping to conclusions about why things are happening. Reflective teaching implies a systematic process of collecting, recording and analysing your thoughts and observations and then going on to making changes. Reflection must be analytical, honest and thorough if it is to make a difference.

First you must identify your goals. You need to be clear in your own mind about what outstanding teaching looks like and to have this as your goal. Refer to Good geography teaching: high expectations and read Harris (2017). He stresses that it is more than teaching one ‘outstanding’ lesson and you should look towards consistently well-planned lessons in which your students make clear progress in learning geography.

During your initial training you will be constantly challenged by your geography tutor and mentors. They will be expecting you to reflect on the subject content you teach, your practice, your assessment and how you ensure your students learn geography. If they were to leave you just to practise your teaching skills, you would develop bad habits and not improve. Embrace the constructive criticism they give you.

However, you need to develop the capacity to be self-critical yourself and not rely on your mentor to challenge you. If you are a reflective teacher you will continue to challenge yourself to improve throughout your career. Good teachers never cease learning.

Reflection in practice

Reflective teaching begins in your classroom. To become a ‘reflective practitioner’ you must reflect while teaching is in action as well as looking back on action. Your aim should be to consider how you can improve your teaching for the benefit of students, so it is important to consider what is happening in the present as well as looking back on the past.

Think carefully about what you are reflecting on. It can be obvious to think about the how of teaching – pedagogy, classroom management and resources – but it is also important to focus on what is taught i.e. the curriculum. Your reflection must be concerned with the nature of what you are teaching and how this contributes to your educational geography goals.

Reflection must be evaluative and judgemental. It is about looking back at your teaching after it has been completed and making judgements about the extent to which you achieved what you set out to achieve.

You should also reflect critically on your teaching. This means that you go beyond evaluating whether the teaching has been successful and probe assumptions underpinning what was taught and how you taught it. For example: Did you fail to ask important questions? Did you follow up opportunities resulting from students’ responses? Were students enabled to think for themselves?

As a trainee teacher you will have become competent in Evaluating lessons and every so often you should critically evaluate your geography teaching ‘in the round’ taking into consideration a series of lessons, not just evaluating a single lesson.

Here we are suggesting that you take this further, to dig deeper into how effective your teaching is. Focus on a specific group, topic and series of lessons and set up for yourself a mini-research activity to reflect on your practice in these three steps.

1. Gather data

The first step is to gather information. Some ways you could do this are:

  • Keep a diary – to note what happened in lessons. Your diary should not replicate your lesson evaluations, it should be a more personal reflection of your reactions and feelings. You may want to keep this private.
  • Review books to look at the results of students’ learning and their responses and record notes about what this tells you about your teaching and the curriculum.
  • Peer observation. Ask your geography mentor, or a fellow teacher, to collect information about your lesson in relation to an aspect you identify to reflect upon. For example, you might ask them to focus on the students that contribute most during the lesson, or how you deal with students’ misconceptions.
  • Using video or audio recordings. These are particularly useful to focus on how much you talk, or whether your explanations are clear, or whether you encourage student talk? Look at Videoing a lesson.
  • Students’ feedback. You can find out students’ opinions and perceptions to get their perspective with questionnaires or students’ learning diaries (Look at Walshe, 2012).
  • Facilitated observations of practice. This means that you engage in a shared lesson observation with a mentor/experienced teacher and have a professional dialogue afterwards to explore the implications noted from observation. You should subsequently discuss how you could use this observation and discussion to develop your classroom practice.
2. Analyse and use the information

What do you do with the information you have gathered?

  • Identify patterns in your teaching, or things you were unaware of. Are you surprised by students’ feedback?
  • Talk about what you have discovered, to your mentor or another teacher. Listen to their ideas and see if you can come up with ideas for how to do things differently.
  • Read and find out about alternative teaching ideas that other geographers have tried.
3. What next?

As a result of your reflection you may decide to do something in a different way (or you may not!). Don’t worry if you find this challenging – it is meant to be. Think about ways to implement changes and take it one step at a time. Then begin the reflective cycle again:

  • What are you doing?
  • Why are you doing it?
  • How effective is it?
  • How are the students responding?
  • How can it be better?

It is most important to be open-minded through the process. If you are, you can confidently expect to improve your professional competence.

Some examples of reflection on geography practice

  • Bustin, R. (2011) ‘Thirdspace: exploring the ‘lived space’ of cultural ‘others’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Edwards, S. and McGrath, A. (2019) ‘Planning for progression in geography: an approach to Changing Places and geographical enquiry at key stage 3’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Kennedy, C. (2011) ‘Imagining distant places: changing representations of Egypt’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Owen, C. (2001) ‘Developing literacy through key stage 3 geography’, Teaching Geography ,October.
  • Whittall, D. (2019) ‘Learning powerful knowledge successfully: Perspectives from sixth form geography students’, Impact, (Chartered College of Teaching), February.

Using research and practitioner enquiry

You can do more than just reflect on your own teaching. You should also be proactive and think ahead about what you need to know and how you can find out about it. Your teaching should draw upon what others have found and you should be informed by the best available educational research. See Using research evidence about practice.

You should also consider how you can investigate something in your classroom that is not working as well as you would like. It could be a teaching strategy you do not think you are implementing well. It could be the response you are getting from students.

One way to look deeply into an aspect of practice is through a practitioner enquiry. This is an investigation that enables you to examine your own teaching and develop your understanding of the context. It will help you to develop as a teacher. It does not have to be a major research project; it can be small scale but effective for you.

Another approach you can use is lesson study which is a form of collaborative teacher enquiry that focuses on learning as a way of developing classroom practice. It involves a group of teachers agreeing a specific element of geographical learning to focus on. They design a ‘research’ lesson collaboratively that is taught by one teacher while the rest observe the learning of selected students (see Lesson study for guidance).


  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to teach geography in the secondary school: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. London: Routledge, pp 284-6.
  • Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher, Routledge. Chapter 1.
  • Walshe, N. (2012) ‘Dialogic diaries: having conversations to develop students’ geographical learning’, Teaching Geography, Spring.