Keeping it real. Make geography relevant to your pupils

In its last two reports into the teaching of geography, Ofsted stated that a high proportion of students, particularly in KS3, don’t think that geography is relevant to them. 

As geography teachers, we probably find that hard to believe – Geography is everywhere, in their everyday lives, on their journeys to school, in the places they live.

Our challenge is to make the topics in our schemes of work and exam syllabuses as relevant to our students as we can, so that they can engage with the learning and maintain interest, enjoyment and motivation.

Stop thinking like a teacher!

…and start thinking more like your pupils. It is very easy to get caught up in the constant drive to cover a set amount of content in a given period of time, especially when there is an important test or exam at the end. Sometimes, we just follow the script.

But young people are interested in very different things. Find out what really switches on your pupils’ curiosity – try to understand what gets them talking. If you have children of your own you will know what occupies their time and conversation. Use that knowledge to create the hook that draws your pupils in to the geography lesson. Create GeoTweets – answers in fewer than 140 characters; try Placebook – making a profile of a place rather than a person. Remember to see things from their point of view.

Move with the times

GCSE examiners still comment on the number of papers they see with the eruption of Mt. St. Helens as a volcano case study. The pupils in your school are 21st century children – 1980 is History to them!

If you feel that you haven’t the time or resources to enable you to update your case studies use it as a learning opportunity. Ask the pupils to research recent examples. Use the 5Ws starting point: Where? When? What? Why? Who? Use follow up questions to explore more deeply as appropriate.

Encourage them to choose events that have meaning for them – some may have had holiday flights disrupted by Icelandic ash clouds or have relatives in countries that regularly experience earth movements e.g. in the Indian sub-continent, S.E. Asia, Eastern Europe.

Allow them a ‘menu choice’ in presenting their outcomes – some may enjoy presentations, others prefer to write, others want to make a travel leaflet, poster or information board.

Geography in the news

Definitely not a new idea but one that is really worth the effort. Make it a natural expectation of geography lessons that your pupils will bring interesting news items, unusual images, ask you challenging questions, keep up with local events and so on. If they catch you out, so much the better – kids like nothing better than beating their teachers at their own game!

Keep a news board. Better still get the pupils to keep a news board. Develop starters using a local picture or a YouTube clip of a news item. Role play a TV news broadcast of the effects of an event.

Have fun!

It doesn’t matter how young or how old you are, having fun while you are learning something new makes it so much easier to persevere. Ask your class which types of activity they enjoy doing most, which ones help them learn better, which ones they find a bit of a struggle. It is well known that there is a hierarchy of effective learning strategies:
• explaining something to others – the most effective
• a practical task
• group work
• demonstration
• audio visuals
• reading
• lecture/talk – the least effective

Note how the two we often use – teacher talk and reading a book or resource are the LEAST effective. Actually doing something, interacting, getting involved and even better, explaining how you worked it out to someone else, are the most effective.

Get to know your pupils as individuals

Even though you may teach dozens of different pupils during a timetable cycle, it is really important to try and get to know at least a little bit about each one because teachers who get to know their pupils are rewarded by increased engagement and motivation. And if you know things about their interests, their family, their talents/ strengths, you can often use it as an inroad to explaining a geographical idea.
A commonly used general example would be the use of sport to study place and location – look out for the Olympics in Rio next year, Grand Prix circuits, football stadia. But if you know that a pupil is a whizz at ICT, a poet, a great artist, a budding designer, a musical maestro, then use that knowledge of their strengths and interests to make working in Geography enjoyable, meaningful to them as individuals and successful.

Be out of the ordinary

Try to make your lessons surprising. Pupils should not know exactly what is going to happen every time they turn up for Geography – it just becomes too routine, even boring. Keep them guessing. Mix it up. Go outside. Take a risk with something YOU find challenging. There is a place for everything (including reading text books and writing notes from time to time) and everything in its correct place.

I hope that this post has given you some new ideas to try in your lessons. For more inspiration, the following courses would be perfect:

GCSE Geography: High Impact Teaching Ideas
Teaching the New Secondary Curriculum in Geography with Confidence and Creativity
Maximising Progress by Differentiating in Geography
Outstanding Learning in the New Primary Geography Curriculum

Written by Lynne Deacon
Lynne is a freelance trainer and education consultant. With over 30 years’ experience in teaching, she has been a Creative Education Associate since 2008 and delivers a wide range of courses including a selection from the PSHE portfolio.

Lynne has also been instrumental in developing and writing new training materials for a variety of subject areas such as Geography, Middle and Senior Leadership, Personal Organisation Skills, Coaching and Mentoring, Well-being and Resilience, Libraries/LRCs and courses for Support Staff.