Where is geography?

Where is Geography?


Geography has become an important subject within education in Northern Ireland.  Successive educational reviews have sought to streamline the actual learning that students receive.  It is within the last 100 years that Geography has managed to segregate itself from the (then more powerful) grasp of geology to incorporate aspects of social science, earth science and studies of place and pattern.  In fact, it is really only within the last 30 years that the value of geography – as a holistic subject has been realized.

However, the place of geography is not secure.   Its position within the curriculum is under threat.  Candidate numbers (for CCEA) are holding at GCSE (if not a little up) – though it will be interesting to see if this can be maintained following the introduction of the first batch of new examinations that was completed in 2019.

Fig 1 – Geography CCEA qualifications awarded from 2015 to 2019
  GCSE GCSE Non-G AS AS Non-G A2 Level A2 Non-G
2019 5766 2113 2113 398 1618 302
2018 5714 2209 2338 403 1602 282
2017 5270 1947 2212 372 1605 316
2016 5118 1823 2351 418 1751 341
2015 5395 1991 2542 468 1852 396

*Statistics from CCEA Qualifications statistics release 2015 to 2019

 Candidate numbers in both AS and A2 Geography are slightly down.   There is still a significant drop in number from the number of students who take exams in AS but who then do not complete the A2 level course in Geography (usually between 600-700 students).

There are a multitude of possible reasons for this decline and these might include (amongst others):

  • STEM (and STEAM) agendas managed to reduce the importance and relevance of a geographical education;
  • many university courses changed their entrance requirements so that geography no longer was that ‘bridge’ subject that once allowed students to take paths into sciences, medicine or humanities with a geography A Level;
  • many students saw it as their ‘fourth’ subject from the start and were always intent on dropping it as soon as possible;
  • the increase of vocational qualifications put significant pressure on its role as a more flexible, ‘fun’ subject;
  • less reliance on quality fieldwork experiences meant that the draw of an overseas trip or extended residential was often squeezed into one local traipse over a sand dune

We need to make sure that we recapture the importance of a geographical way of thinking.   The recent COVID-19 epidemic has reminded us how connected our world is and how the many technological advances can be used to help track and manage such challenges.  Geographers are at the heart of understanding key elements of how diseases like this can act and spread globally.   Through the use of GIS we can track the infection patterns, we can help manage the response and understand how illnesses like this will have different impacts on varied locations – in inner cities, on different ethnicities and react in different climatic conditions.

Why is Geography important?

In 1964, an American Geographer, William D Pattison wrote a famous article that tried to introduce what we know as ‘Geography’.  He developed an argument of what he thought geography should be offering.  His path was to simply break down the differing elements and ‘Traditions’ of Geography and to analyze each of their importance to school geography.

  1. A spatial tradition
  2. An area studies tradition
  3. A man-land tradition and
  4. An earth science tradition.

Today, Northern Ireland Geography teachers have had to fight for the recognition of their subject also. Since the 1980s the government took an increasing interest in the school curriculum and the DES published a stream of documents about its nature and content.   Geographers had to think not about the kind of geography they wished to teach but they had to engage in debate about whether Geography should be taught at all.  Sir Keith Joseph concentrated the mind of geography teachers when he noted in 1985 as part of the ‘great debate’ in education that,

“Geographers themselves have to be clear about what their subject is uniquely or best qualified to offer, since it is on this basis that their subject claim for scarce curricular time should be made and judged.”  (Joseph, 1985)

The challenge to geographers was to justify their subject within the light of the review process. Replies to his statement came quickly.  A firm justification came from the GA (Geographical Association)  about the purpose of teaching geography,

“to enable the growing child and young adult to conceptualise and set in order the dimension of space in which all human beings live.” (Bailey, 1987)

Bailey continues to set out a detailed synopsis of the benefits that the study of geography has for the child.  It is interesting to note that much of the sentiment raised in this report continues to provide the basis for the current stance of the Geographical Association on the place of Geography.

The Geographical Association in their ‘Geography in the curriculum: a position statement from the GA’ they note that in their view the purpose of geography and the aims of a geographical education are:

  • To develop in young people a knowledge and understanding of the place they live in, of other people and places, and of how people and places inter-relate and inter-connect; of the significance of location; of human and physical environments; of people-environment relationships; and of the causes and consequences of change,
  • To develop the skills needed to carry out geographical study, eg geographical enquiry, mapwork and fieldwork,
  • To stimulate an interest in, and encourage an appreciation of, the world around us, and
  • To develop an informed concern for the world around us and an ability and willingness to take positive action, both locally and globally

The distinctive contribution to the curriculum of Geography includes:

  • Place study
  • Studying physical and human patterns and processes
  • Studying people-environment relationships
  • Geographical enquiry and fieldwork and
  • Working with maps and images

Screenshot 2020-07-11 at 01.41.43

The Geographical Association brought out their ‘manifesto for geography’ in 2008 – some of the key features included here were:

  1. Geography is a curriculum resource par excellence . . . geography underpins a lifelong ‘conversation’ about the earth as the home of humankind.
  2. Thinking geographically . . . an essential educational outcome of learning geography is to be able to apply knowledge and conceptual understanding to new settings:  that is, to ‘think geographically’ about the changing world.
  3. Living geography . . . Geography in schools is concerned with perceptive and deep description of the real world.  It seeks explanations about how the world works and helps us think about alternative futures, it is ‘Living Geography’.
  4. Geography and young people . . . young people themselves, working with their teachers and drawing from their own experiences and curiosity, should be encouraged to help shape the geography curriculum.
  5. Investigating and exploring geography . . . The GA believes in geographical enquiry: that is, in students as active participants and investigators, not just the passive recipients of knowledge.
  6. Geography and the ‘real world’ . . . there is no substitute for ‘real world learning’ – at least for some of the time!  Fieldwork is an essential component of geography education.
  7. Curriculum making with geography . . . The GA believes that teachers should be accountable, but that they are autonomous professionals driven by educational goals and purposes: that is, they are the curriculum makers and the subject leaders.


Geography is not a subject built on its uniqueness – it is the ultimate ‘swiss-army knife’ subject as it fits in with and overlaps with other subject domains – in fact that is its greatest strength.   It demonstrates the contribution which Geography can play within the wider contribution of the curriculum to

  • Literacy
  • Numeracy
  • Information and Communication Technology
  • Working with others (Interpersonal); Improving own learning and performance; Problem Solving
  • Citizenship
  • Spiritual, moral, social and cultural development
  • Personal, social and health education
  • Work-related learning
  • Education for sustainable development


The National Curriculum was here to stay providing a coherent and centralised, common curriculum for all.  Geographers were elated to have won a major battle that now cemented the place of geography within this new curriculum.  Teachers were to follow carefully laid plans of what needed to be taught and the actual implementation of the curriculum and new educative strategies involved with the improvement of Teaching and Learning became more important.

In many secondary schools the very fact that Geography sits as an Arts/Humanities, Science and Social Science subject allowed for an overlap of skills with nearly every subject.  Employers and higher education institutions alike often seek the skills that are produced as the course in Geography generally denotes a well-rounded learner.

Ron Johnston puts it this way:

‘Geography’s origins lie in the need to present material about the world to its citizens – in a packaged format acceptable to the powerful vested interests
in society. Initially, this involved emphasizing the differences between places and the
singularity of regions. More recently, the positivist orientation within geography has stressed commonalities among places, whatever their creations, environments, histories and cultures. Geographers have disengaged themselves from studying and promoting the uniqueness of place, and consequentially have contributed to a general ignorance of the world as a complex mosaic. This disengagement must be corrected… and geographers must once again take the lead in portraying the complex variability of peoples and environments, avoiding both the generalization trap of treating the empirical outcomes (as against the real mechanisms) as the consequences of general laws of behaviour and the singularity trap of considering each place as a separate entity. Such a task, of description-in-context, is necessary to human survival.’

I have been teaching geography now for over 25 years and my teaching philosophy has very simply been that I,

“aim to make Geography as interesting a subject as possible, so that pupils of all abilities will enjoy studying and learning about the world in which we live”

Screenshot 2020-07-11 at 01.41.14

A source of woe to all geography teachers is the meetings when parents remind us how “Geography has changed since their day, it was all about places.”  Yet, the curriculum has changed and the subject of geography aims  at being an important medium to challenge long held and ingrained values and beliefs within a spatial context.  In simple terms, the role of the geography teacher is to act as an interpreter/facilitator.  Learning must be engaged within students so that the perceived ‘Specified’ curriculum (that is laid down by QCA and the DE) is learnt in a particular fashion.  However, many educators find that maintaining the equilibrium between this and the ‘Experienced’ curriculum is often at odds.  Each institution has its own set of controls and ideologies that often cause stresses upon the teaching and learning.  A big challenge continues to be how we balance the quality of teaching and the quantity.  If we were to follow the rigid guidelines of the DE to the letter, the chances are that we would be unable to provide some of the important experiences that we find necessary in the provision of a good all-round geographical provision for the learner.  The experiences that students receive are built up upon the ‘experience’ of the educator and their perception of their role.  This becomes ‘Enacted’, especially at key stage 4 and beyond as teachers are less concerned about the pedagogy of the subject as they are about whether they will get the whole course completed within the allocated time.

The conditions of the mechanics of school organization and administration underlines, regulates and dominates the educational situation.  Reality dictates that pressures are places upon this ideal framework that constrict the improvement of practice.  This especially has a big impact on the particular way that Geography is taught, learnt, managed and assessed within the school.

Andy Green notes there is a “deep division between ‘Academic’ and ‘Vocational’ learning”.  He explains this as being some sort of left-over class related, political and cultural snobbery.  With more Vocational (BTEC and Applied courses on offer, we are experiencing what Broadfoot calls,  “The contradiction between the ‘instrumental’ function of education – the training of people for jobs in terms of the requisite skills and knowledge . . . and the ‘expressive’ function of education, aims at fostering social integration . . .”

The big question is ‘do we train people for specific jobs in school or do we provide a wide basis of education?’ Do we encourage children how to think, make decisions, problem solve, develop thought processes, think critically, reflect and use cognitive skills so that they can collect, process and use information?  In many ways geography provides both this academic and vocational content that is necessary for future career development.

Joanna Le Metais argues that education and values are often a response to a measured/perceived need within a particular state.  This means that the educational aims have been expressed as covering the artistic, cultural, developmental, economic, environmental, personal, political, social, moral/religious and the physical.  She notes that one of the key challenges to the future of education (and hence learning) is how can the assessment of values and beliefs be incorporated into standardized tests and exams.  It is difficult to relate, benchmark and target the effectiveness of this type of teaching, especially when students all have different starting points and different experiences.

Eleanor Rawling (2000) recently looked at what’s new in the National Curriculum against 5 criteria which she says ‘experience has shown are essential if a national curriculum framework is to promote good practice and high quality school geography.’  These criteria closely reflect some of the concepts explained by Alexander

Figure 3 – Curricula Criteria (Rawling, 2000)

  • Why are we teaching the subject?      What can it contribute to the school curriculum?    (Aims/Rationale)
  • What is the basic structure of important ideas in the subject that will enable it to make this contribution?   (Key ideas/Aspects)
  • What is the minimum required content to be taught to each age group?  And hence what is the scope for teacher choice?     (Minimum content)
  • What is the approach to learning and how is this integrated with the knowledge and skills?    (Approach to learning?)
  • What are the expected outcomes or expectations for student achievement after teaching has taken place?        (Outcomes for student achievement)

To put things simply, geographical education over the last few years has been boring.  Somehow we have managed to tire students about things that are highly interesting in our world.  We have overkilled particular topics and not even touched whole areas of geography, whilst at the same time making geography a textbook/worksheet combination.  We turn to the things that used to excite us like maps and atlases and we have failed to make them come alive.   We concentrate on the ‘hard’ aspects like rivers, coasts and ecosystems and fail to look at the uses for GIS, epidemiology, population/migration/ refugee movements, climate change and global economic dependency issues.

When developing practice, it is important that we aim to facilitate quality learning.  Over the last few years I have been considering some of the concepts of both Piaget and Vygotsky in my teaching to encourage ‘cognitive development, from initial egocentricity to mature, independent, logical thought.” (Piaget)

This is further developed through the Vygotsky idea of “Individual progress . . . cognition is embedded in social relationships and amplified by cultural tools, including language and literacy”

It is essential that teachers develop an understanding of how children learn.  There is a great deal of brain research being carried out at present which helps us to develop our understanding and use of the areas of ‘Thinking skills’, ‘accelerated learning’ and ‘critical thinking’.  Many years ago I started looking at the ideas of David Leat (1998) who argued that new approaches should be taken to incorporate metacognition, cognitive challenge and constructivism methodologies which will enhance learning.  He challenges teachers to reinvent their lessons through ‘Talk and groupwork’ and the use of bridging and concept mapping techniques.  It is amazing to see the massive growth in this area of educational writing over the last few years.  There has been an explosion of writers and researchers looking to see how we can continue to make our teaching both effective and enjoyable.

Students need opportunities to express their creativity and to explore geography in all of its fullness.  We need to move away (again!) from the constricting bind of the ‘all-in-one’ textbook and develop a selection of skills and resources that allow children to develop and challenge not only their different learning styles but also their individual multiple intelligences.  However, this takes time.  The restrictive amount of content in the curriculum may have to be sacrificed to allow space for teachers to re-discover their own individual creativity.

What is the purpose of teaching geography?  (Adapted heavily from Bailey, 1987)

“All geography begins with somebody, somewhere, going out to observe what is present on a part of the earth’s surface.  What is observed then has to be described, sampled, measured, and explained.  To do this, the geographer refers to knowledge and insights derived both from the sciences and arts . . .”

From this process of observation and ordering, a number of important lessons derive  . . .

  1. The earth is unique – we have a responsibility of care  . . .
  2. Natural events on the earth occur
  3. Mankind intervenes in the world’s natural processes
  4. Space (on earth’s surface) imposes order on human activities
  5. Locations and distributions encourage spatial awareness (mapping)
  6. The application of a Values or belief system to the above thoughts


The Aims of Geographical Education – synopsis from a range of sources

 The Teacher’s guide for Geography (QCA, 2000) states that the aims and purposes of geography

“Geography teaching offers opportunities to:

  • Stimulate pupils’ interest in their surroundings and in the variety of human and physical conditions on the earth’s surface
  • Foster pupils’ sense of wonder at the beauty of the world around them
  • Help pupils to develop an informed concern about the quality of the environment and the future of the human habitat and thereby enhance pupils’ sense of responsibility for the care of the earth and its people

Another  example of the practice involved in the teaching and learning of geography was published by the Education and Training Inspectorate in 2000.

“Practice in teaching and learning in geography may be judged to be effective when the pupils, relative to their ability, are gaining a knowledge and understanding of the world in which they live.  The pupils are learning to:

  • Use and interpret maps and atlases to gain a familiarity with places
  • Compare and contrast places which they have studied
  • Develop a sense of wonder and interest in the world, and to show concern for the natural environment
  • Communicate effectively the ideas in response to an attractive range of aural, visual and written stimuli
  • Develop a range of skills, such as investigating, observing, classifying, measuring, interpreting, recording, explaining and predicting


The Education and Training Inspectorate (2000) Evaluating Geography 2000,  Bangor,  Inspection Services Branch, Department of Education

Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (2000) Geography – a scheme of work for key stage 3, Teachers guide, London, QCA

The Geographical Association (1999) ‘Geography in the curriculum: a position statement from the GA’, Teaching Geography, Vol 24, No 2, April 1999 pp 57-59

DENI (1996) Programmes of Study and Attainment Target – Geography

 Joseph, Sir Keith (1985) ‘Geography in the School Curriculum’ in Geography, Vol 70 pp 290-298, London

Pattison, William, D,  (1964) ‘The Four Traditions of Geography’ in The Journal of Geography, Vol 63, May 1964

Bailey, P and Binns, T (eds) (1987) A Case for Geography,

London, The Geographical Association

Bailey, P (1987) ‘What are the Geographer’s Contributions?  Geography in the Curriculum from 5 to 19’ in A Case for Geography (Referenced above)

Boardman, D and McPartland, M (1993) ‘Towards Centralisation: 1983-1993’ in Teaching Geography, October 1993 pp 160 – 164

Rawling, E (1999) ‘Why Geography matters’ in Teaching Geography,

The Geographical Association, Vol 24, No 3, July 1999

Rawling, E (2000) ‘The Geography National Curriclum:  What’s new?’ in Teaching Geography, The Geographical Association, Vol 25, No 3, July 2000

Leat, D, and Nichols, A (1997) ‘Scaffolding children’s thinking – doing Vygotsky in the classroom with National Curriculum assessment’ published in Education online


Leat, D (1998) Thinking Through Geography, Cambridge, Chris Kington Publishing

The Geographical Association (2008) A different view:  a manifesto from the geographical association, The Geographical Association, Sheffield


Johnston, R (1985) The Future of Geography, Methuen, London

Lambert, D (2007) What is Living Geography? Chris Kington, London





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