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Teaching secondary geography
Teaching secondary geography

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1 How do young people learn about geography?

If you asked a selection of adults or young people to tell you what ‘learning geography’ involves what do you think they would say?

Many people see geography as a subject concerned with remembering the names of places and landforms, and learning about human and physical processes responsible for the world around us. There is a common perception that geographers learn ‘the facts’, present them in maps, hydrographs, pie charts and ‘do fieldwork’. Many will restrict their comments to what is taught in school. Think for a moment of all the ‘out-of-school geography’ that students will have encountered over the last few weeks.

Activity 1 Views of geography

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes
  • Ask young people and some adults what they think learning geography involves.
  • Ask adults about their views of geography now, as well as when they were learning it at school. What has led to their views?
  • What are the most common responses?
  • Were you surprised by any of the responses? Why?

Within the geography community there has long been a lively debate about the nature of geographical knowledge with views including, for example, those of:

  • positivists (reality exists independently of what anyone knows, thinks or believes, fitting with many stereotypes of what learning geography involves)
  • social constructivists (all geographical knowledge is constructed)
  • social realists (some objective ‘facts’ about the world exist and some knowledge is constructed).

Positivists argue for a ‘traditional’ content-driven, socially conservative curriculum in which knowledge is fixed and the objective is to induct the learner into the dominant knowledge traditions (Firth, 2013, p. 64). By contrast, what vexes constructivists and realists is how best to help learners to develop structures and processes so that they can effectively make sense of the massive amount of geographical information available to them, pose questions, investigate issues, generate their own data and formulate and articulate their own opinions. Your view of geography matters in terms of what and how you teach. Furthermore the opinions of students will affect what and how they learn.

Teaching approaches such as conceptual learning and thinking through geography, geographical enquiry, supporting creativity and classroom talk are influenced by learning theories. If you are unfamiliar with learning theories, a brief explanation of four learning theories can be found within this OpenLearn course, Exploring children’s learning [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , and a longer exploration in this OpenLearn course, Secondary learning . Reflecting upon how students learn geography and how they can ‘think geographically’ will help you to plan your teaching and to support their learning.