Ofsted Research Review of Geography – A Summary

The context of geography curriculum design in English schools

  • The teaching of geography gives pupils an understanding of the world around them, its environments, places near and far and the processes that create and affect them.
  • The subject has a relatively low status, particularly in primary schools.

Primary education and the EYFS

  • Geography education journey starts in EYFS
    • ‘People, culture and communities’ and ‘natural world’ set out clearer, identifiable geography knowledge.
  • In EYFS, children acquire some geographical vocab to build on.



  • Substantive knowledge sets out content to be learned. 4 interrelated forms:
    • Locational knowledge
    • Place knowledge
    • Human and physical processes (includes ‘environmental’ geography)
    • Geographical skills
  • Disciplinary knowledge considers how geographical knowledge originates and is revised.
  • Successful geography curriculum reflects careful thought about what is taught, the rationale, the sequencing and the relationships between the forms of knowledge.

Curriculum Progression

  • Bring together content, organisation of content, teaching approaches, assessment and more.
  • Curriculum should map out knowledge that pupils learn to gain geographical expertise.
  • A clearly mapped journey starting from EYFS and developing through the curriculum is critical if pupils are to move towards becoming experts in the subject.

Organising concepts

  • ‘Concepts’ = means of categorising geographical knowledge of natural and human phenomena.
  • Concepts are a way in which to group geographical content. High level concepts include:
    • Place
    • Space
    • Scale
    • Interdependence
    • Physical and human processes
    • Environmental impact
    • Sustainable development
    • Cultural awareness
    • Cultural diversity.
  • Concepts are important as they draw out links between processes and ideas.
  • Content of curriculum needs to be broken down to component parts (chunks) that pupils can understand in their own right before combining different components.

Forms of geographical knowledge

  • Need to identify content (substantive) that is taught and the knowledge of relationships that allows pupils to understand connections between ideas (disciplinary)

Locational knowledge

  • ‘Knowing where’s where’ is a mainstay of geography.
  • Start with near and far, left and right, behind and in front – Reception year?
  • N, S, E, W in KS1 and then 8 points of compass by KS2
  • All pupils need to build extensive knowledge of different countries, regions and features.
  • Pupils should be able to pinpoint certain locations at each stage of their education and be able to associate these locations with the peculiarities that identify them.

Place knowledge

  • Place allows a pupil to ‘locate or orient oneself with respect to the larger global space and to other places.
  • Place is a physical area that can be located and that has personal meaning, attachment or distinct identity.
  • Emphasis on exploring localities and understanding similarities and differences between them. Curriculum must be structured to give pupils knowledge of what makes a place the way it is.
  • Comparisons should be made between different places but also same place over time.

Environmental, physical and human geography

  • Knowing why a phenomenon occurs and the impacts that it has.
  • Pupils need to understand how human and physical processes interact to influence and change landscapes, environments and the climate, as well as how human activity relies on the effective functioning of natural systems.
  • Pupils need to gain the knowledge needed to explore the relationships between process and their impact in different locations and at different times.

Geographical skills and fieldwork


  • Through fieldwork, pupils encounter geographical concepts first hand and connect learning in the classroom with the complexity of the real world.
  • In order to engage purposefully with fieldwork, pupils first need enough prior knowledge of the processes and techniques used and the conditions to use them.
  • Teachers need sound subject knowledge to confidently explore uncertainties and ambiguities that come from moving from classroom to real environment.
  • Can’t tightly control variables – pupils need to know enough about the limitations of procedures and how to get around them to draw valid conclusions.
  • Fieldwork needs to be more than tokenistic.

Map skills

  • To become proficient at map skills, the curriculum needs to ensure that children have the knowledge they need (direction, scale, drawing and analysing).
  • Plans introduce pupils to different types of mapping (topological, thematic) as they progress.

Aerial photography and satellite imagery

  • Often use particular (or false) colours to represent phenomena – can be complex to read/analyse. Curriculum needs to prepare children with knowledge to decode images and interpret representations
  • Imagery can provide contextual setting which strengthens pupils’ schema.
  • Can spark curiosity leading to questions or spur interest to further knowledge.

Spatial thinking in the curriculum

  • This is nor developed purely by inviting pupils to ‘think spatially’ because to do this thinking successfully requires prior knowledge of concepts of space and tools of representation before using processes of reasoning.

A curriculum to ‘think like a geographer’: choosing, building and linking knowledge

  • Concept of building from what is known or familiar to pupils gives security in their understanding and so helps them commit knowledge to LTM.
  • Doesn’t mean exclude teaching the unfamiliar.
  • The use of real and relevant contexts is important in helping pupils relate general principles to actual locations.
  • In selecting examples, teachers ensure their choice bests demonstrates phenomenon or phenomena being studied.
  • It is important that pupils are able to consider scale and have the ability to ‘zoom in’ and ‘zoom out’ in order to view processes and their impact from local, regional, national and international perspectives.

Thematic or topic-based approaches

  • When considering curriculum as the progression model, what pupils are to know needs to be identified precisely and sequenced clearly.
  • Curriculum goals need to retain subject specificity.
  • If planning thematically, be aware of the disciplinary nature of each subject and respect them.

Selecting examples and case studies.

  • Studies should take them beyond their own experience and allow them to appreciate how their own lives are affected by the phenomena explored through examples and case studies.
  • Care needs to be taken not to limit pupils’ understanding of a particular event.
  • Case studies, data and images need to be appropriate. Older resources may portray inaccurate or outdated stereotypical representations. This can risk a ‘single story’ being presented which shows people or places as only one thing over and over again. This is what they then become in pupils’ minds.


  • Stereotypical, out-of-date or overly simplistic representations of processes or their impact in textbooks and ‘imperfections’ in teachers’ knowledge influence pupils’ thinking.
  • Teachers’ knowledge needs to be secure. Understanding misconceptions is useful in establishing how best to teach pupils to correct flawed thinking.

Curriculum structure

Components, composites and schema

  • Well-constructed curriculum sets out the substantive knowledge that pupils need to learn in a connected way.
  • The curriculum identifies the substantive knowledge in components or small chunks.
  • A well-structured geography curriculum is likely to generate curiosity, which, in turn, encourages pupils’ motivations.


  • By learning each component in an ordered way and appreciating how one component relates to another, pupils gain a composite knowledge of a geographical process or phenomenon.

How knowledge is remembered

  • Pupils need to draw on prior knowledge to learn more complex ideas.
  • Key content needs to be not just briefly understood but remembered in the long term.
  • The curriculum organises and repeats substantive and disciplinary knowledge in ways that show pupils how each component fits together and how each composite idea fits with others.
  • Curriculum helps pupils build an effective schema when they further embed previously learned knowledge in memory through recall and review, build in what pupils know and increase both the quantity and complexity of content and disciplinary appreciation.

Carrying out enquiries and making decisions

  • In undertaking enquiries, pupils process and connect knowledge. The challenge is that this can place substantial cognitive load on pupils who are relative novices. We know that novices do not have the same success with more open-ended learning tasks as experts


  • All pupils need to share the same curriculum, with the same level of ambition and expectation of the geographical knowledge that pupils should know.
  • Teachers must be alert to the specific gaps in knowledge that these pupils may have so that they can prioritise the concepts that are most fundamental to future learning.
  • Teachers can identify and break down the components of the subject curriculum into manageable chunks for pupils who find learning more difficult, particularly those with cognition and learning needs. These may be smaller ‘steps’ than those taken by other pupils.
  • In many schools, teaching assistants are deployed to support pupils with SEND.
  • Studies note that few TAs have the same geography content knowledge as the teacher.
  • TAs need to be briefed sufficiently about the content for the pupils they support. With input from the SENCo and other specialists, teachers can work with TAs to discuss their approaches.
  • Ensuring that there are adequate structures and sufficient scaffolding in place to support those who need it is crucial. Fundamentally, planning to ensure that pupils with SEND make strong progress is likely to have a positive impact on all pupils.

Pupils’ motivation and interest

  • If teachers use topical issues in the media, it is important they keep their attention tightly focused on the geography that they intend to be learned.
  • Teachers need to ensure, therefore, that pupils have learned the underpinning knowledge sufficiently well in order to have the level of understanding needed.


  • Curriculum and its assessment need to be carefully designed and implemented effectively. This should make sure that all pupils know more, remember more, and can do more, and so experience success.
  • Studies indicate that retrieval practice enhances recall, particularly when questions are drawn from recent teaching and that in the further and far past. In completing these activities, pupils can ‘over-learn’ concepts and procedures, increasing their fluency.

Culture, policies and systems

  • Fundamentally, the expertise and professional development of teaching staff have a significant impact on the curriculum and its implementation.
  • Other considerations, such as allocating sufficient curriculum time to teach geography, adequately resourcing the subject and the leadership of the subject, all contribute to a high-quality geography education.

Professional development

  • Perhaps the most critical factor in ensuring a high-quality geographical education is teachers’ subject knowledge.
  • If ‘good geographical subject knowledge is a prerequisite for good teaching’, then subject-specific training becomes critical. Teachers need to have the knowledge to successfully plan and revise the geography curriculum, as well as to consider their own teaching and the impact that it has on pupils’ learning.


  • Access to high quality and up to date resources is important to implementation.
  • The world is dynamic, physically and politically. Teachers need to know how locations and features have changed when they are teaching.
  • The learning environment can be key – maps and globes in classrooms play an important part.

Subject leadership

  • The leader must use their subject expertise and experience to ensure that those teaching geography are clear about what pupils are to learn and how it is best taught.
  • Many who lead geography, particularly in primary schools, are not specialists. This means that there is an even greater need for subject-specific support and professional networks that they can draw on.

Curriculum organisation – time allocation

  • Geography placed 10th of 12 subjects taught in KS1 and 8th in KS2 in curriculum time.
  • Considering the breath of geographical knowledge that pupils need to learn, it is important that sufficient time is allocated to allow pupils to gain the knowledge they need. Without this, it is likely that a school is narrowing the curriculum.


  • High-quality geography is underpinned by sufficiently knowledgeable teachers who have the necessary subject knowledge and appreciation of the discipline. They can construct a curriculum that respects the discipline, contains judiciously selected content, is cohesively organised and is contextualised to the school.
  • Through teachers’ careful identification of each component of geographical knowledge and thoughtful sequencing, pupils learn and remember more and more. Curriculum plans reflect the importance of each interrelated form of substantive knowledge. They consider each in a proportionate manner and reveal the connections between them. Through teachers’ curriculum planning and pedagogical approaches, pupils gain an insight into the discipline.
  • As pupils progress through their school years, they develop their knowledge from specific examples to generalisations that they can apply in different locations. Pupils will also be developing the range of geographical skills they use. Foregrounding the use of maps is critical in supporting pupils to present spatially organised data and to analyse it using their knowledge of geographical processes.

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