Leading and Teaching Primary Geography for Non-Specialists

The challenges to the non-specialist faced with teaching the primary geography curriculum are not to be underestimated. Here are some ideas to help you with a few of the key issues faced.

The 2011 Ofsted report “Geography: learning to make a world of difference” [1] identified some strengths and weaknesses of geography teaching in 91 primary schools between 2007 and 2010. Only a third of geography lessons observed in the survey were good or outstanding, reflecting the facts that many primary teachers;

‘…were not confident in teaching geography and had had little or no opportunity recently to improve their knowledge of how to teach it.’

In addition, that;

‘…inexperienced subject leaders were a major hurdle to improving provision.’

Do these comments sound familiar? If so, you can be sure that you are not alone!

Why is geography teaching in primary schools so important? To quote from the purpose of study in the geography programmes of study for Key stages 1 and 2,

‘….geography education should inspire in pupils a curiosity and fascination about the world and its people that will remain with them for the rest of their lives.’

Surely, it is difficult to think of a better ambition for educators of pupils of any age?

So what are the specific benefits that geography brings to the primary curriculum? By asking questions about and learning the locations of places, pupils build up a useful world knowledge that will serve them well throughout their lives. Primary geography also offers some initial insights into the myriad interactions between human and natural processes, which influence our lives, now and will inform decisions as societies face future challenges.

And talking of futures, geography will also provide a blueprint for sustainable living in a world where environmental catastrophes feature in virtually every news bulletin. In multicultural Britain, primary geography offers superb opportunities to challenge cultural stereotypes and provide insights into living in a globalised society.

So in summary, an early geography education should fuel pupils’ curiosity about their world, provide valuable insights and offer some answers for the next generation of global citizens.

A common concern is how to find and teach the geography content within the topics taught in primary schools. Taking the common topic of Romans it is relatively easy to ascertain some links to the KS 1 and 2 Geography National Curriculum. (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Finding the geography content in a Romans topic.

Key Questions,Locational Knowledge (where places are),Place Knowledge (what places are like),Human and Physical Geography,Geographical Skills and Fieldwork
Where did the Romans come from?,Italy and Rome,Italy,Climate and Environmental regions,Atlas work; Direction; Scale
Why did the Romans come to Britain?,Europe,Comparison of Italy and Britain,Climate; Resources; Trade links,Enquiry question: “What did Britain offer the Romans?”; Map drawing
How far did the Romans get in Britain?,UK,Comparison of Scotland and England,Mountains and climate of Scotland,Atlas work; Map drawing; Direction; Scale
Why did the Romans build roads?,UK,-,Trade links,Ordnance Survey map work
Where did the Romans build their towns?,UK,-,Types of settlements: forts/ports/large towns,Map work (spotting Roman place names)

Another question to consider when designing the primary geography curriculum, is what does progression in geography learning look like? Fig. 2 lists the key elements of progression in a geography curriculum (no hierarchy is intended by the positioning of the statements).

The widening spiral motif represents progression from studying the local scale in KS1 to studying the global scale in KS2. It also represents ‘spiral learning’ in the geography curriculum, whereby learning is enhanced each time a topic is encountered throughout the key stages.

Figure 2. Progression in primary geography

Many primary non-specialists are mystified by the references to Geographical Information Systems in the geography programmes of study and they are further alarmed when it become apparent that GIS refers to the digitalisation of geographical data for both scrutiny and handling.

Schools purchase some very good, but costly GIS packages, but much can be achieved by pasting a Google Maps image onto a PowerPoint slide and then incorporating Excel charts, Clip Art and Draw functions to add pupil data to the map or aerial photograph (Fig 3). This process along with introducing pupils to the functions of Google Maps and Google Earth can provide a good introduction to GIS.

Low-cost GIS using Google Maps, PowerPoint, Excel, Clip Art and Draw
Figure 3

Some key issues remain for the non-specialist teacher, and these include: How to gain the required subject knowledge? What constitute effective teaching and assessment methods in classroom geography, and how do we deliver low-cost geography learning outdoors?

By booking your place on the course: Outstanding Learning in the Primary Geography Curriculum, these questions will be addressed through clear explanation, activities and a wealth of resources for you to try.


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/geography-learning-to-make-a-world-of-difference