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Curriculum Making Glossary

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Curriculum making with geography: a professional glossary

This glossary provides key distinctions and some explanations. Its purpose is to clarify the professional language in the field of geography curriculum development.

It is neither definitive nor inclusive. It doesn't tackle all the professional language in teaching and learning, just the key ideas in relation to the geography curriculum.

Click on the term(s) you want to know more about:


Many commentators (e.g. White J 2006 What are schools for?) have said that one of the problems with the first (1988) national curriculum was that it was 'aimless'. It was not always clear what the purpose of the curriculum was. Subjects were just 'there' and young people had to study them. Why?

Aims need to be explicit because they provide overall direction, and therefore the purpose of the curriculum. The 2007 Secondary Curriculum Review was designed to be clearer about the aims. It stated that the aims of the curriculum were to create successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens

What we say is that we need subject aims as well as overall whole curriculum aims. At the very least we need to show how the subject geography serves, or contributes to, the whole curriculum aims.

See also Objectives

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One of the features of the 2007 Key Stage 3 national curriculum revision was that subjects were oriented around 'Key Concepts'. There is now much talk not only of an 'aims-led' curriculum, but a 'concept-led' curriculum too. However, concept led may be misleading.

On the other hand, the reason why concepts link well with the aims is that they evoke teaching for understanding. Think of each 'key concept' as a bundle of ideas our grasp of which can grow and develop. They are 'key' because we think growing understanding of the ideas is useful and significant in serving the grand geographical aim of making sense of the world – or at least helping us develop the capacity to think geographically.

See also Key concepts, Elements of learning, Place, Space, Scale, Interdependence, Physical and human processes, Environmental and sustainable development, Cultural understanding and diversity

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Core geographical knowledge

'Core' knowledge can be defined as enabling factual geographical knowledge. Often this is confused with low status 'pub quiz' material. Indeed, if core knowledge is taught badly, as disconnected or fragmented facts, by rote, it probably does remain inert and relatively useless.

Core knowledge is important however. It is extensive and in some ways superficial, but it may be significant in building cultural literacy. It is vital in strengthening and contextualising deeper understanding of issues, processes or case studies.

For geographers, core knowledge can most easily be equated with the 'locational framework'. This is the spatial setting or context of geographical patterns and distributions, plus a range of basic geographical phenomena such as climate patterns, major mountains ranges and crustal plates, distributions of population and megacities, natural resources and so on.

See: Kinder A and Lambert D (2011) The National Curriculum Review: what geography should we teach? Teaching Geography 36, 3, pp 93-95

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Cross-cutting themes

Geography is a notoriously difficult subject to 'place' in the curriculum: it intersects with the physical sciences and the social sciences as well as the arts and humanities. It is not surprising then that geography can 'carry' many cross-cutting themes, such as citizenship (including the global dimension), education for sustainable development and information technologies (in particular those enabling the use and manipulation of geographic information [GI]).

It is important for geography teachers to say something specific about how the subject contributes to such themes – this will almost certainly be a variation on the theme of 'thinking geographically' , but also include aspects of geographical core knowledge (see Peter Jackson's article from Geography – 'Thinking Geographically')

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Cultural understanding and diversity

Geography is fundamentally concerned with the diversity of people and places on the planet. It is important to explore this with pupils in geography, not to 'show them' the world but to explore it using geographical enquiry, focusing on how people and places are represented in different ways. Basic questions that geography can help pupils address are: Who am I? Where do I come from? Who is my family? What is my 'story'? Who are the people around me? Where do they come from? What is their 'story'? One intention would be to help young people to grow accustomed to diversity and not to fear it.

Perhaps the simplest, but most powerful knowledge that geography can impart in this context is  

  • Depictions of lives around the world
  • Explanations of the reasons for differences in lifestyles

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The curriculum is often said to consist of all the planned experiences in school. The geography curriculum is what we plan and enact in geography classrooms, and in out of classroom tasks (such as homework) including 'fieldwork'.

What distinguishes curriculum thinking from lesson planning and thinking about teaching is the overarching need for aims, goals and clear purposes. In what ways is the teaching of this topic worthwhile or of value to the students? (... 'because it is on the syllabus' is not a good answer)

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Curriculum artefact

The curriculum artefact is in effect the 'key' to a series of lessons on a topic. This can be a particular resource such as a map, a set of still images, a video, a song, a set of numerical data or graphs, a text, the list goes on. It is the material substance or content of the lessons. In terms of Roberts' enquiry learning cycle, the artefact provides the 'data' that students interrogate, analyse and develop.

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Curriculum development

Curriculum development can be thought of as an umbrella term that can encompass design (national specifications or programme of study), planning (school or departmental schemes of work) and making (practical lesson sequences). In this sense, all teachers are involved in curriculum development at some level – but others too, such as textbook writers and those involved in funded curriculum development projects.

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Curriculum planning

Curriculum planning in school is the process that results in a scheme of work. It involves taking account of various factors and influences, including the needs and interest of the young people, developments in the subject and wider policy and society concerns such as citizenship, diversity education and community cohesion. It can be likened to the stage of curriculum implementation between the national curriculum (or GCSE specification) and the creative act of curriculum making.

See also Programme of Study and Scheme of Work

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Curriculum making

Curriculum making is the creative process that 'puts the plan into action' (although this is not necessarily a simple, linear process). All teachers apply curriculum making skills, whilst planning may be led by a designated individual such as the head of department or geography leader). Curriculum making is concerned with balancing pupil needs with content selection and pedagogic strategy. It is concerned with and 'making geography happen'.

See also Curriculum artefact

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Elements of learning

According to HMI, many years ago, it is useful to think of learning consisting of several 'elements'. These are: Knowledge, Understanding, Skills and Values. Examination specifications often use these distinctions in devising assessment grids, for example at GCSE.

There are of course issues – for example, saying precisely what the difference is between knowledge and understanding.

One of the recent developments in education, worldwide, is to place heavy emphasis on skills and the 'competency based' curriculum. This is said to be in line with the needs of the twenty-first century workforce which requires flexibility. This becomes a problem if subject knowledge is then deemed 'old fashioned' as if it no longer matters. But learning 'skills' without serious consideration of knowledge, understanding and values is risky. Skills need both context and content. This is where subjects come in

This is why the GA is in favour of the 'knowledge turn', signalled by the 2010 White Paper The Importance of Teaching.

See also Aims and the GA's 2011 geography curriculum consultation

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Geography has a long heritage built on exploration and discovery.

Drawing from this heritage, geography in schools also lends itself to enquiry. In this sense geography responds to young people's natural curiosity and their big questions. For example:

Identity: Who am I? Where do I come from? Who is my family? What is my 'story'? Who are the people around me? Where do they come from? What is their 'story'?

Place in the world: Where do I live? How does it look? How do I feel about it? How is it changing? How do I want it to change?

The Physical world: What is the world (and this place) made of? Why do things move? What becomes of things?

The Human world: Who decides on who gets what, where and why? What is fair? How do we handle differences of opinion?

Mainstream geographical topics, such as population and migration, food production, settlement and work patterns, landscape change, hazard protection etc. are geographical means to respond to such big questions.

It is helpful to think of enquiry pervading geography – rather than sectioning it under 'fieldwork' or 'decision making'. Margaret Roberts' brilliant book, Learning Through Enquiry, helps us explore the full potential of enquiry in geography.

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Environmental and sustainable development

Exploring the dynamic interrelationships between physical and human accounts of the world is central to school geography. The distinctive power of the subject lies in the realisation that 'making sense of the world' is often enhanced by a synthesis of perspectives and understanding across at least three areas of concern

  • Social fairness and justice – driving the welfare geographers' question of 'who gets what, where and why (and why care?)'
  • Economic prosperity – fuelling interest in how cities, regions or nations work. What jobs do people do, how do they make a living and how can this be secured?
  • Environmental quality – stimulating enquiry into how to conserve resources and landscape and ultimately how to militate against large scale environmental damage (e.g. through industrial pollution, soil erosion or over fishing), including global climate change

The interaction of these fundamental motivations provides the basis for geographical study of 'the environment'. Thus, geographical perspectives are central to understanding 'sustainable development'.

It is important to add that the additional feature of geographical study of the environment is that it has a concern for place. Although environmental processes can be generalised, they are played out in specific, unique places. At the same time, a geographical perspective recognises that unique places are connected and part of a global 'whole'.

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Everyday geography

On a day-to-day basis young people participate in their own 'lived' or 'everyday' geographies. They live somewhere, shop here, hang out there, have friends who live over there, have relatives that come from elsewhere. Many take holidays in distant places, and have interesting perceptions of 'other' people and places. Geography in school can both draw from these experiences and help young people understand them, connecting them to the wider world of people, places and the human and physical processes that operate through space.

The process of curriculum making explicitly asks us to say how geography lessons, particularly those that start with the 'everyday', take children and young people further and deeper in their knowledge and understanding.

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The concept of interdependence is important because of geography's concern to develop 'holistic' understanding. Geographical enquiry often sets out specifically to seek out and understand links between phenomena. For example, human actions in one place can have consequences in another place (e.g. deforestation causing flooding; migration of human populations). Or, political decisions having diverse effects in different places (e.g. enlargement of the EU resulting in large scale movement of people and other flows)

A feature of some geographical studies is the use of 'systems approaches' – perhaps the most familiar being the hydrological cycle. Such approaches enable us to be explicit about links and dependencies throughout a process.

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Key concepts

Planning with 'key concepts' in mind (rather than 'delivering' or 'covering' a list of prescribed content) provides a great opportunity for curriculum making.

The 2007 KS3 national curriculum consciously removed much of the prescribed content. The ideal was that teachers could then select the content (the themes, topic or issues) to suit the interests of the students, so long as geography's key concepts were being addressed:

This was risky. The content of school geography risked being defined merely by what happens in geography lessons!

The GA's 2011 geography curriculum consultation has opened up a debate on this in preparation for a new national curriculum that will express the subject's contents in terms of core and essential knowledge, concepts, principles and operations.

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The national curriculum programme of study is anchored by the Level Descriptions that purport to show progress.

There is great confusion over their use – and the GA feels they are often misused. They are difficult to use in any way other than for the purpose they were designed – as fairly rough descriptions to be used to help judge pupil progress by the end of a Key Stage.

In the new curriculum expected in 2013-14, there is doubt over the continuance of level descriptions. It remains to be seen what instruments will replace them

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Living geography

Living geography is a phrase used in the GA 2009 manifesto A Different View.

The term has been coined in order to emphasise geography's curriculum contribution to be current and contemporary and where appropriate offer a 'futures' perspective. David Hicks regards the capacity of school geography to help young people envision alternative futures to be one of its main purposes: See 'Lessons for the Future: a geographical contribution', in Geography, Vol. 92, No. 3 (Autumn 2007), pp. 179-188

See also Living Geography Project

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LOtC and fieldwork

Fieldwork is part of the GA's 2009 manifesto – to the extent it is hard to imagine school geography without planned elements of field work on the school grounds, local area or further afield. The Field Studies Council is one of the GA's strategic partners.

The GA has a range of support for planning fieldwork from Early Years and Primary through to Sixth Form.

Geographers will also find the Learning Outside the Classroom website of great interest.

See also Living Geography

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It is sometimes confusing talking about 'aims and objectives' because it sometimes sounds like they are indistinguishable. There is, however, a big difference.

Aims provide the overall purpose or goal. The objectives serve the aims. They help us achieve the aims. Aims are longer term, and very rarely are arrived at in a single lesson! Objectives are more short term, possibly stepping stones towards longer-term aims.

Think of a journey analogy: the aim is to get to (say) Land's End. The objectives consist of all the bits and pieces you have to think about and decide upon in order to get there in time and in safety – mode of transport, number of stops, luggage requirements, etc.

If you only think about the objectives (and a lot of emphasis is often placed on this, sometimes insisting that learning objectives are explicit to the students at the beginning of every lesson) then the dangers are clear: the course as a whole can lose direction, become fragmented and, no matter how brilliant the learning activities may be, geography lessons may add up to little more than 'one thing after another'.

It is now the orthodoxy in many schools that teachers need to make their objectives clear at the beginning of the lesson. Whilst we can understand the rationale for this, it is not always consistent with the idea of enquiry, explorations and discovery. On some occasions we may not wish to declare the learning objectives in advance!

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Physical and human processes 

Geographical enquiries utilise physical and human processes that cause change and development in places. We do this to seek explanations for patterns and distributions.

Whilst physical processes take us into the realm of natural sciences – the physics of mass movement or the atmosphere; the chemistry of weathering; or the biology of ecosystems, human processes take us to the social, economic and political spheres of human existence.

Geography – the world subject – enables us to synthesise and integrate across these distinctive realms.

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Studying real places is an essential context for developing geographical enquiries. Although it is a fundamental idea in geography, its definition is not straight forward. We could, perhaps, settle for 'place is space that carries meaning, often through human occupation or by human interpretation'.

Every place has a particular location and a unique set of physical and human characteristics. These include what a place is like, how it became like this and how it is subject to forces for change.  Furthermore, the same place can be represented differently. What we think about places is both shaped by, and shapes, our 'geographical imagination'. Pupils carry with them mental images of places – the world, the country in which they live, the street next door. These form part of their 'geographical imagination'. It is important that pupils recognise that there are many images of places, some of which may conflict with their own.

It is well worth reading Tim Cresswell's article: 'Place: encountering geography as philosophy', in Geography, Vol. 93, No. 3 (Autumn 2008), pp. 132-139.

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Programme of Study

This is the official manifestation of the National Curriculum. But it is not a curriculum in itself. It is the framework – like a design template – for teachers to use to plan and make the curriculum

See also Curriculum, Curriculum planning, Curriculum making

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Pupils should investigate geography at a range of scales. Virtually any topic, when studied geographically, benefits from a 'scaled' approach, because scale influences the way we represent what we see or experience.

We can select different scales from the personal, local and regional to the global. In between, we have the national and international scales, which are very important politically. We cannot, for example, fully understand high street shopping in a locality, or industrial change in a region or country, without comprehending, ultimately, the global context. Choice of scale is therefore important in geographical enquiry, as is the realisation that scale resolutions are interconnected, as if by a zoom lens.

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Scheme of Work

A scheme of work is the physical manifestation of a school's (or department's) curriculum planning. It shows the content selection and the sequence lessons. It shows aims and objectives – and also teaching and learning resources and activities. It also shows assessment opportunities. It is best seen as a working document, and not set in stone.

Teachers use the scheme of work as the basis for their curriculum making, when the plan is brought to life through the careful use of curriculum artefacts

See also Curriculum making

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In addition to developing a sense of place in geography pupils also develop spatial understanding. Physical and human phenomena are located and are distributed in space. They therefore have relative locations to each other and often interact with each other across space. Any flows or movements between these phenomena, for example migration, create patterns and networks. Spatial patterns, distributions and networks can be described and analysed, and often explained by reference to social, economic, environmental and political processes. Much geographical enquiry is therefore concerned with identifying such processes, and assessing the impacts of such processes.

See also Core geographical knowledge

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