Putting Geography first – the original blog I’ve attempted to turn into a 10 minute TMGeogIcons talk today!

The location:   The hall

The event:       A whole staff meeting

The time:         Another after-school twilight! 

“The exams are done and Years 11and 13 have finally left the building so it’s time to start thinking about September.  We’ve come a long way this year.  Bootcamp with Year 7 made them experts at giving out resources and presenting work. Year 8 have looked at resilience in PSHE while Year 9 have had whole days focused on careers. Year 10 has been all about etymology of words and Year 11 have absolutely loved their knowledge organisers and the retrieval quizzes.  It’s worked so well we want to do them all with every year group and in every lesson so as you’re reviewing your schemes make sure you’ve got these in. It won’t take long.

Looking forward to next year, we’ve got a new Ofsted framework.  It’s all about the curriculum.  The latest thinking is knowledge-rich and we need your subject intent, implementation and impact statements ready next week and how your subject supports the Gatsby Benchmarks for the website.  There’s a proforma you need to follow.  We’ll also be launching a whole school initiative on developing oracy with speaking and listening activities needed in every lesson as part of our new character education charter.  Our CPD will all be about research-informed practice – those of you on Twitter may have seen the latest on direct instruction and that’s something we’ll be bringing in next year in every lesson too.

Oh and don’t forget our PiXL Associate is here on Friday if you’ve got any questions about PLCs, DTT or Smith proformas.

Lastly, just one more little thing, the staff wellbeing and workload reform group have finished their trials of feedback not marking so we’ll be doing that from September too. It’ll save us all hours!’

Sound familiar? Often feel like you leave meetings thinking ‘no one ever mentioned Geography’? 

It’s easy to think of all the (perceived?) problems and barriers that impact our ability to put Geography first in our teaching.  We are programmed to see the negatives but when we think about the reality and look beyond this, it’s not quite as bleak as we think…but I will concede Geography teachers seem to be a dying breed!

My starting argument is that we need to change the narrative.  We need to stop seeing things like whole school initiatives and whole school agendas as the enemy.  Where I teach we have 18 hours of Geography teaching in Year 7, 35 hours in Year 8, 50 hours in Year 9 and about 150 hours over KS4 (we do teach a 2 year GCSE again now). That’s not far off just 100 hours of ‘compulsory geography education’ and only 250 if they choose GCSE.  But Malcolm Gladwell argues it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something! We 1-2.5% of this!   We need to start embracing these whole school initiatives ( doing a quick search of my school inbox of ‘whole school priorities’ from this academic year, the big hits have been…

…) and use them to support Geographical learning during the relatively little time we have.

But how do we go about this? Somewhat conversely, the starting point is actually to ignore all these whole school initiatives completely and just focus not the Geography – bear with me and I hope it’ll all come together by the end of the post!

For me it started back in about 2010.  I was about to become a Subject Leader for Geography and I was inheriting a curriculum that hadn’t been touched in years (the volcano case study was the eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 which I hadn’t even been alive for let alone the students I was teaching!). We had a values and competences-based whole school approach to teaching and learning but Geography results weren’t great and there was a low uptake at GCSE.  Making Geography fun and engaging wasn’t working. Making in-flight entertainment videos about the climate and adaptions in the desert meant students remembered how to use the flip-camera but nothing about diurnal temperature ranges.  Mystery activities about Rosa doing Annie’s job wasn’t developing an understanding of issues with global trade – just that they remembered they all had a packet of different coloured cards!

So we stripped everything right back.  We talked about what we thought students needed to know about the world – the Geography we felt everyone should know (we felt it was a human right!) and then the Geography which we needed Year 9 to know to be able to move onto GCSE and we needed Year 11 to know before starting a level.  We talked about removing the ‘fun activities’ and just focusing on Geographical content.  We had conversations with colleagues and the common sense view was that there was something in what we were trying to do.

In 2013 Tim Cresswell put what we’d been talking about into much better words  – he talked about the overarching theoretical ideas that made Geography ‘Geography’ and should be at its heart– and in 2014 Daniel Levitin wrote about The Organized Mind – how our memories don’t always categorise information as we want them to, how our brains are always filtering out information and how we remember unique excitement more than the actual content of an event/experience/learning (ie dressing up for the video making and not the content about the desert).  It gave me hope there was something in this stripping back to focus on geographical knowledge based on developing what we saw as core Geographical concepts over time and by this time I was working in a school that embraced knowledge all the way.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the GCSE results kept going up!


Roll on a few years and we’re now in a place where talking about knowledge and the ideas of threshold concepts and ‘powerful knowledge’ are dominating the discussions about school education and the curriculum.  Cognitive load theory and the neuroscience behind learning is making inroads into teaching and learning and how we are thinking about what and how we teach.

It feels like the journey I started in 2010 is getting somewhere and over the years the ‘what makes a Geography lesson?’ and ‘what does our Geography curriculum look like?’ that I’ve been working with have gradually developed and morphed into what they look like for me today.  For my own thinking I’ve constructed an overview of how I see the different elements of the Geography curriculum and whole school initiatives like knowledge organisers and changes to assessment following ‘life beyond levels’ (I do currently work in a school that is a member of a large organisation so there is an acronym in there you may or may not know).  







Building from this I’ve also been working with our trainees and NQTs on medium term planning to look at how this must start from a strong basis of subject content/knowledge that is being taught.  Taking the strategies and planning tools by @leadinglearner and @teacherhead, we’ve worked with and come up with our own medium term planning format to move beyond individual lesson plans to focus on building up Geographical knowledge over time – ie how we enact our Geography curriculum in the classroom.  @leadinglearner and @teacherhead have explained the rationale behind their planning tools with far more eloquence than I could and I would strongly advice checking out their blogs and planning tools to see what works for you – ours, however, currently looks like this (it’s version 6!):








So you’re probably thinking ‘what has this got to do with whole school initiatives and putting Geography first?”!!  I’m hoping you can see that through this development in thinking about the Geography curriculum and long/medium term planning we’ve been putting the Geographical knowledge at the heart of what we’ve been doing.  Whole school initiatives and wider changes haven’t driven what and how we have been teaching Geography – the Geographical knowledge and content has been our driver.

Wider whole school initiatives have come in when we’ve then decided the best way to teach individual bits of content.  Because, returning to an earlier point, we only have around 100 hours to teach what we feel is life changing Geographical knowledge to our students so any way we can use a whole school initiative to support this is an absolute must – we milk them for everything they have got to maximise the Geographical learning of our students and contribute to the wider whole school agenda as we should be doing!

For example, by taking a whole school push on vocabulary learning as an opportunity to develop students’ tier one and tier two vocabulary through other subjects. Take the term ‘population’ – it’s a tier 2 word and comes up in Science, Maths and Geography but all with slightly different meanings. Science and Maths have more teaching time so when they teach this vocabulary if they are also mentioning the other meanings too it means we spend less lesson time on teaching this vocabulary.  It seems a pretty obvious thing to do but a whole school initiative refocuses attention on these things and jumping on the band wagon quick means you can use it to your advantage. 

Another example would be trying to overcome all the different barriers to getting students out on fieldwork.  Character education, resilience and growth mindset initiatives all fed into introducing residential fieldwork to Dorset at A level and GCSE by going camping (see the RGS website for what we did).  It’s not that we should need another justification for doing fieldwork but being in the Midlands about as far from the sea as you can get in the UK and barriers that the cost of residentials can put in place, this extra contribution to the development of our students supports getting the trips off the ground.

The last thing I want to add is that the thing about whole school initiatives is that they come and go.  If you let these drive your Geography curriculum, your Geography teaching and students’ Geographical learning then you will always end up trying to plug gaps and constantly changing for the latest initiative.  If Geography comes first in every curriculum and teaching and learning decision you make then you’ll be up-skilling the next generation of Geographers – they may be more resilient after the camping trip but they will definitely know more Geography and that means they will be better equipped to understand our ever-changing world, whatever lies in their future.



PS If there was ever any doubt in my mind a focus on core Geographical knowledge is an enduring force in education (despite seemingly coming and going as the dominant discourse has changed over time), it was squashed when I found my own exercise book from 1996 over Easter.  It might not have been exciting and engaging and innovative but 23 years later I used exactly the same diagrams and layout to revise river processes and landforms with my Year 11 class.  Core Geographical knowledge is powerful and still relevant years later…so (milking my point for all its worth!) the GEOGRAPHY ALWAYS NEEDS TO COME FIRST!


Endnote: I should imagine this post will be majorly revised following my attempt to get it all across in a 10 minute talk at TMGeogIcons.  Feedback where you think my explanation is unclear or I need to make links/thoughts/rationale more explicit would be most appreciated – both in text and from the presentation.  It’s definitely all a work in progress!

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