What Ofsted thinks good geography teaching looks like

Inspectorate review warns about ‘relatively poor state of geography education in primary schools’

John Roberts

Ofsted has produced a research review into geography teaching.

Ofsted has set out what it thinks good geography teaching looks like in a new research review.

The inspectorate  warns that studies over the decades have shown the decline in the amount of time spent in classes studying geography, particularly in primary schools.

It is the latest in a series of reviews and themed inspection reports that the watchdog has carried out, focusing on the way specific subjects are taught.

And it says that subject reports by the inspectorate have repeatedly commented on the relatively poor state of geography education in primary schools.

The review sets out what Ofsted thinks high-quality geography curriculum and teaching can include.

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Here are its key findings:

Having a broad and well-sequenced curriculum

Ofsted suggests a feature of a high-quality geography education is having a curriculum that identifies sufficient breadth of content but also ensures that pupils learn this in sufficient depth.

The watchdog said that the organisation of the curriculum  should build knowledge so that pupils can draw on it in future learning.

The report also says that geographical expertise is built on substantive geographical knowledge. It adds that teaching about a breadth of concepts gives pupils the knowledge they need to appreciate the whole domain of geography.

Teachers should be adjudicators of curriculum content

The review also suggests that where geograghy is taught well, teachers can be the adjudicators of curriculum content and select it judiciously.

It adds: “They use their good subject knowledge to do this and take into account how pupils build their geographical knowledge over time.”

It adds that teachers break down the content they wish pupils to learn into component parts. When selecting that content, teachers take into account what their pupils need based on their prior knowledge and experiences.

Knowing where’s where

Ofsted’s research review says that “knowing where’s where” is one of the mainstays of geographical education.

It says that by building pupils’ locational knowledge, teachers recognise that this helps pupils to:

  • Build their own identity and develop their sense of place.
  • Develop an appreciation of distance and scale.
  • Learn about the orientation of the world, including references, such as the continents and oceans, that they can navigate from.

The importance of the early years of teaching

The review suggests that when the subject is taught well, pupils’ geographical education begins in the early years and builds year on year, developing their expertise.

Ofsted said that, over time, pupils can gain a secure knowledge of distance, orientation, scale and positioning systems, which begins in the early years. This gives them the framework they need to understand locational knowledge.

Over time, pupils will then learn and remember more locational knowledge and become increasingly fluent in identifying specific locations.

The importance of ‘place’

The review also highlights the importance of “place knowledge”, which it says brings meaning to locations and processes that pupils are learning about.

The curriculum and teachers’ plans build pupils’ knowledge of place by linking to places pupils already know or are familiar with. This may be from their personal experience as well as through what they have been taught.

Ofsted also says that the curriculum in a high-quality geography education can give pupils the knowledge they need to develop an increasingly complex understanding of place.

It adds: “Their understanding of place helps them to connect different aspects of geography. It also gives them different perspectives through which to consider the content studied. The curriculum builds pupils’ place knowledge over time.”

Problems with a ‘topic-based’ approach to teaching geography

Using a topic-based approach to teach across subjects is common in primary schools and special schools, but Ofsted  warns that this is “extremely complicated”.

The inspectorate adds: “Thematic or topic-based approaches are designed to make the most of a multidisciplinary structure in a school.

"However, in such an approach, the clarity of the curriculum goals can be lost. Potentially, one subject can dominate at the expense of the others. This is especially the case if a teacher’s subject knowledge is stronger in one subject than others.”

Ofsted says that to construct this kind of curriculum across subjects effectively “requires the most expert teachers with strong multidisciplinary knowledge”.

Avoid telling ‘a single story’ about a place

The new report also looks in depth at how places are studied and used as case studies.

It says: “There is also a need to ensure that examples and case studies, data and images are appropriate. Older resources may portray inaccurate or outdated stereotypical representations.

“There is a risk of a ‘single story’ being presented of people and places. The ‘single story’ shows people or place as only one thing, over and over again. Then that is what they become in pupils’ minds.”

Use geography to tackle misconceptions

Ofsted said that in exploring “the here and now of the world’s people, places and environments, geography teaching has a specific responsibility to tackle misconceptions that pupils may hold about people’s lives” in the United Kingdom and across the world.

It adds: “Either from their own experiences or inferences, or from inaccurate teaching in the past, many pupils approach their geographical learning with misconceptions."

Ofsted’s research review highlights how teachers encountered an assertion that “they come to our country and take our jobs and leave us on the streets” in pupils’ comments made when teaching about immigration.

Other researchers cite examples in physical geography where pupils demonstrate misconceptions drawn from their own experiences, such as the belief that the sun moves across the sky. 

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John Roberts

John Roberts

John Roberts is North of England reporter for Tes

Find me on Twitter @JohnGRoberts

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