How to make your geographical learning experiences real

7th September 2015 at 15:30

Subject Genius Matt Childs Geography Class


Each time the beginning of the new academic year approaches, I find myself asking one key question: ‘how can we further inspire our students, igniting their passion for learning and bringing their Geography alive?’

In years 7 and 8 our students study EFC (Excellent Futures Curriculum); a two year curriculum based on PBL (Project Based Learning). Students only study their core subjects (English, Maths and Science), MFL and PE explicitly with all of their foundation subjects such as Geography, History, Business Studies and ICT taught through a variety of projects over the two years. I am a Project Based Learning (PBL) specialist at my school teaching on the Excellent Futures Curriculum as well as leading the Geography Department, teaching years 9 to 13. The Geography department is actively involved in this with 3 of 5 staff teaching EFC, and the department contributing and embedding geographical knowledge, key skills and competencies within the projects. There are two key ideas behind the projects. Firstly, for students to develop the seven school attributes which are key to being a successful individual both in school and in life (e.g. confidence to take risks, initiative and self-motivation to learn independently and with others, and intellectual curiosity). In addition, projects are REAL as they connect students with the ‘real world’ and allow them to see the relevance of what they are learning beyond the classroom.

It was clear to me that a comprehensive and engaging programme of study with a variety of fascinating and inspiring topics from ‘Geography of death’ to ‘living on the ice’ between years 9 to 13 was already in place. Our Geography curriculum has embedded within it challenge and rigour, differentiation and support, continuous reflection, feedback and improvement. So how was I to drive my department forward to ensure we continued to generate a love and enthusiasm for the subject, further improving our geographical provision for students? How could I guarantee that whatever was implemented would have longevity and benefit students throughout their learning journey?

Our success with EFC over the last few years meant that it was time to branch out from years 7 and 8, moving Project Based Learning to the upper years of the school where foundation subjects are taught explicitly and students could reap its benefits during their all-important examination years. Taking the lead on this, I introduced a number of projects into the Geography curriculum to make learning experiences even more REAL – rigorous, engaging, authentic learning that allowed students to see the ‘real world’ relevance of what they were studying. Students were not always able to fully connect their ideas from the classroom with the world around them so I was looking forward to making them see the true importance of what we study each lesson. This has had great success and I am now working as Lead Practitioner (Options Curriculum) to develop projects in our 26 option subjects across the school from year 9. To give you a flavour for how you can embed this style of learning into your Geography curriculum I would like to take this opportunity to discuss one of my year 10 projects which looks at coastal processes, landforms and management.

Outline of the project

The project was named ‘Changing Coasts’ and focussed on the Holderness Coast (East Yorkshire, UK). Our students study the WJEC/Eduqas B GCSE Geography course but this could easily be adapted for any exam board specification. The year 10 students were placed into mixed ability groups and provided with a student pack which outlined what the project would entail e.g. what the project was about, what they would learn, what needed to be produced and the outcomes including a project time plan with deadlines.  In addition, students were provided with a graded success criteria for each aspect of the project so that they knew exactly what they were working towards and this allowed for marking of work to be easier and more time-efficient.

The project was set up so that it was 90% student led, with the teacher being a facilitator of learning both within and outside the classroom as opposed to being responsible for every little piece of learning. The responsibility was with the students to learn the required materials for each lesson and ensure that they kept up to date with the deadlines set to produce the desired outcomes. Students studied the theory required for the each lesson individually at home, making notes in their workbook, using guided online resources such as websites, videos and books (flipped learning) and then utilised that new knowledge and understanding in class, applying it to decision making exercises in their groups.

The first lesson was based on coastal processes and students were provided with a blank outline map of the Holderness Coast along with a variety of maps detailing different information. A number of tasks were to be completed including writing a description of the location of the coastline, labelling onto the outline map key places to be studied and researching background information about them e.g. population, infrastructure etc., along with identifying key geographical features including wind and wave direction, geology, and where they expected key marine processes such as erosion, transportation and deposition to be taking place – justifying their decisions and brining in their independent learning.

Next, students were provided with another map but focussing on landforms along the coastline. Again they could use their knowledge and understanding from independent learning at home along with their processes map from the previous lesson. Students were provided with images of different landforms and had to identify where they would have been produced and justify why, locating them on their map.

Finally, students were provided with information about whether any management was in place at each location being studied along the coastline and what types were being used if applicable. Students had to use their independent learning on coastal management strategies to identify the impact of this management not only at that specific location but also at other locations along the coastline. They had to take into account factors such as coastal processes i.e. longshore drift and its impact on erosion, transportation and deposition. Students evaluated the effectiveness of the management techniques (or lack of) at each location, and identified impacts in terms of social, economic, environmental and political.

Once students had learnt the required information they were then able to produce a professional documentary (or report) using all of their knowledge and understanding which summarised the current situation of the coastline. This included natural processes, landforms, human intervention in terms of management and why it was needed, and the impacts of this both positive and negative in a variety of ways. Students then detailed how they would have managed the coastline and what they would do now based on the current situation.

Once the documentaries/reports were finished, they were sent off to both East Riding Council and the Environment Agency who are responsible for the management of the Holderness Coastline. REAL feedback from coastal engineers and environmental experts was provided to the students which allowed them to see the viability of their recommendations and the reasoning behind it.

Students kept a learning journal each lesson and as part of their homework allowing them to reflect and evaluate their performance both individually and as a team. This fed into the assessment process whereby the quality of student’s independent learning in their workbooks accounted for 20%, the decision making activities another 20% and the final documentary/report 40%. The other 20% was based on their evaluation of their own performance during the project and how well their peers thought they had contributed to the group tasks. This meant everyone was working hard to ensure that the rest of their team valued their contribution and awarded them the highest mark possible.

Impacts of the project

There were a number of significant impacts of this project (and others) including:

  • Increased engagement and motivation to work hard and achieve well
  • Improved geographical knowledge understanding and skills, along with decision making abilities and personal attributes
  • Students see the ‘real world’ relevance of what they are studying and improve their geographical awareness
  • Improved student responsibility for their own work and others
  • Increased retention of theoretical knowledge and understanding along with case study information for their exams leading to significantly improved GCSE grades
  • Considerably reduced teacher workload in terms of planning and marking, with students using ‘flipped learning’ along with self- and peer-marking using the pre-defined success criteria
  • Increased time for the teacher to work with individual students to check their understanding and provide support to those who need it most during the group decision making exercises in class

Next steps

The success of this meant that we now have a number of projects throughout the year in our department covering topics from ‘Geography of death’ and ‘raging rivers’ to ‘living on the ice’ and ‘the trouble with tourism’.

This style of teaching could be applied to any topic in Geography, allowing students to take ownership and responsibility. The class knew that REAL people who are experts in that field would be looking at their work and scrutinising it so they made sure it was the best it could be. After all, it had their name on it! To take your Geography lessons to the next level, make your topics REAL and meaningful - connect your students and their learning with the ‘real world’ and the people who are living, breathing and influencing what we teach in our classrooms every day!

If you would like more information on this project, others, or how to develop your own I would be more than happy to discuss with this with you.


Matt Childs is a Lead Practitioner (Options Curriculum) and Subject Leader for geography at Stanley Park High in Carshalton, Surrey.