Magazine article Teaching Geography

Is This Big Enough? Using Big Geographical Questions to Develop Subject Pedagogy

Magazine article Teaching Geography

Is This Big Enough? Using Big Geographical Questions to Develop Subject Pedagogy

Article excerpt

Using big geographical questions make for a more coherent geography curriculum. They root geography in the principle of enquiry and offer a method of examining geographical topics from key stage 3 through to degree level, at local, regional, national and global scales. They can be used to aid planning, as a teaching strategy or to develop a more enquiring dimension to learning geography.


As a new teacher educator in the early 2000s my perception of the school geography curriculum was that the concepts outlined by Leat (1 998) would and should provide the conceptual backbone of school geography. For my beginning teachers these concepts seemed straightforward and easy to highlight in lessons, and I encouraged them to plan for opportunities to reveal and unpack these geographical concepts. They were asked to find links between topics and case studies to enable them to demonstrate the seamless nature of the subject to their students. When students asked them 'Why are we studying this?' or 'What has this got to do with geography?' they were advised to respond with reference to the concepts as underpinning the topics and how they related to the lesson. However, too often this notion of 'underpinning concepts' needed reinforcing in both university sessions and lesson observation debriefs. The novice teachers were following policy guidelines, successfully adapting and creating learning activities, making sense of assessment for learning and effectively engaging students in starters and plenaries. Yet it seemed to me that there was a significant gap between our aspiration to and our achievement of excellent pedagogy in school geography lessons. At the end of lessons I was not always sure that their students left with a genuinely enhanced geographical understanding that was useful beyond the lesson, examination or direct experience of encountering an ox-bow lake (for example) in the real world. Underpinning concepts were being considered, but not always at a level beyond the superficial.

Piecing together the geography jigsaw

To make the discipline of geography accessible to school students, teachers have to make decisions about how to organise the content: which topics to teach when, at which scale, with which geographical links, resources and teaching approaches. Teaching global locations, topicality, diversity and local environments also contribute to any curriculum design in geography. Add to this the plethora of case studies, and the content of even the bestplanned curriculum can start to seem random to many students. How do teachers condense and make sense of the world in all its dimensions and provide an accessible subject for their students? We need a means by which to provide coherence and help students to navigate their way through a meaningful, rather than random, curriculum.

Big geographical questions

In an attempt to address this, my attention has shifted to what I call 'Big geographical questions' (BGQs). These are hardly profound, but do take a different form to concepts. They root geography in the principles of enquiry (Roberts, 2003) and provide a purpose to learning which concepts in isolation might not. They also reinforce the significance of students as autonomous enquirers (Wood, 2006). BGQs are the sorts of questions that transcend individual topics and can be responded to at many levels. A BGQ is one that both students in key stage 1 and those conducting post-doctoral research are in essence answering. A BGQ can be investigated at a local or small scale, or at a regional or even global scale.

The example I always use when introducing BGQs to my student teachers is 'Why do people live where they do?' as it allows them to understand the associated opportunities for learning at a range of levels. It also demonstrates the value of exploring the relationships between geographical concepts such as decision making, location and inequality. We discuss how it could form the basis of studying:

* population distribution in the UK at KS3

* GCSE coursework on residential urban zonation in their home town

* global patterns in cross-border migrations at A-level

* BA dissertation investigating the socio-economic and cultural factors influencing where secondgeneration immigrants live in Bradford. …

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