GTIP Think Piece - Teaching A Level Geography

In this Think Piece, Bob Digby (Community Geographer for the Geographical Association) explores some of the issues that face PGCE students in teaching post-16 groups. He argues that, for several reasons, they are often less confident about teaching this age group and that their teaching can be more didactic and teacher-centred than with other age groups. He argues that they need to be aware of the influence that geographical paradigms and pedagogies have in the various post-16 specifications for geography. He then provides three strategies that, he argues, can create enquiry-based classrooms for this age group and help to provide consistency with their teaching elsewhere.



This Think Piece explores three questions:

  • What is different about teaching the post-16 age group?
  • What changes are there to A level specifications? What kind of geography is being taught in post-16 classes and how well will PGCE students have been prepared for this? What values and prejudices and what kinds of geography are presented by the new specifications?
  • How can teaching strategies with post-16 students be made more interactive?

In order to help tutors explore the second and third questions this Think Piece includes suggestions for two 90 minute PGCE sessions together with some background information and resources.

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What is different about teaching the post-16 age group?

Post-16 geography presents a conundrum for PGCE students. Ofsted rate post-16 geography as the best taught age range in the subject (Ofsted, 2003), particularly where it is based upon enquiry methods of teaching and learning. Some of the data regarding candidate numbers reflect this; although A level candidate numbers for geography have fallen during the last decade, the subject nonetheless retains a higher percentage of AS students who progress to A2 than most subjects. Indeed, although it has the 12th highest number of candidates at AS, it is 9th at A2 (RGS-IBG, 2007). Similarly, there has been no marked change in recent years in the numbers applying to read geography or related subjects in Higher Education. It seems as if the students who remain on board really 'get' and enjoy the subject.

Despite these encouraging facts, PGCE students are often threatened most by the prospect of teaching this age range and perceive it differently from other age groups. My own experience in working with PGCE students and NQTs shows that such feelings usually arise out of:

  • their own subject knowledge. Physical geography poses particular threats here to many students who have studied degrees with a human or environmental bias. Rarely do students feel fully prepared without considerable background study, even though their subject knowledge is actually quite easily restored.
  • smaller class sizes, in which they, as teachers, feel more exposed.
  • the ability of the class; where they fear being asked questions to which they do not know the answers.
  • the need for pace, in keeping to the demands of a specification; they, like many teachers, perceive Advanced level specifications as being demanding. This often conditions the kind of teaching methods that they adopt.
  • the accountability of teachers, which has been enhanced by the modular examination system, where students readily account for their grades and marks as a consequence of their teaching.

PGCE students' feelings of insecurity are often rooted in the nature of specifications that they themselves have been taught. Will they who, as students, studied geography from people-environment perspectives (e.g. Edexcel's B specification 2000-2008, previously known as '16-19 geography') be comfortable teaching thematic (and sometimes quite specialist) geography as presented by, for instance, OCR's post-2008 specification?

Faced with such questions, some PGCE students adopt what I call a 'safety blanket' approach, by which they revert to methods used by their own teachers when they were learning A level. In a large majority of cases, even in recently qualified and taught graduates, this consists of content-heavy handouts and may even consist of given or dictated notes, supported with exposition-style teaching strategies, something that few PGCE students ever adopt with younger age ranges. Their rationale for this is supported by their own experience at universities where lectures are the dominant teaching method used by lecturers (note their job title!). Ofsted (2008) noted that: 'Limitations to the quality of teaching include a focus on content rather than learning'.

Such exposition may run counter to the thinking that PGCE students receive in their HEI, but which they will encounter among teachers in their placement schools. Indeed, it may even be recommended to them by school mentors that they adopt such strategies. The expansion in the number of PowerPoint users in classrooms has done little to promote active learning strategies for the post-16 age group. Conflicting advice on how to teach at A Level means that PGCE students are often faced with a dilemma: whose advice should they follow?

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The A level specifications

Background to the changes in the A Level specifications

As well as new specification content, for some Examination Boards at least, changes in 2008 are significant. First, only one specification is allowed per Examination Board; in England and Wales, this means a reduction in choice from seven to four specifications. Also, the increased privatisation of the examinations and assessment 'industry' has led to examination boards becoming far more concerned with market share. One casualty of the reduction in specifications was OCR's 'B' specification, which had fewer that 1000 candidates for most years since 2000. Market 'leaders', Edexcel and AQA at this level, were concerned to maintain or increase their market share. At least one examination board carried out considerable market research before writing its specification, paying attention to popular content and styles of assessment in order to ensure that these were not lost.

Every A level in every subject now consists of four modules reduced from six in the Curriculum 2000 specifications. The intention (QCA, 2006) was to reduce the assessment load on students. These changes are likely to have a considerable impact upon schools, students and results; including on the timing of re-sitting modules. QCA subject criteria (2006) placed a requirement of 'stretch and challenge' in the new specifications. To support this, they required every Awarding Body to state in each specification where and by what means candidates would be stretched or challenged and supported this with the introduction of an A* grade at A2.

One casualty of this reduction in the number of modules was coursework assessment in geography. This has possible implications for fieldwork in post-16 geography. All Examination Boards responded to this with a requirement for fieldwork experience which would be assessed in examination answers; one at A2, the other boards at AS.

The agenda for change

Between 1994 and 2008, there have been three changes to post-16 specifications. These changes result from central government and agency directives but in fact they reflect wider concerns such as: assessment, (e.g. reducing the number of modules); curriculum balance (the desire to promote a lesser degree of specialisation in Curriculum 2000) and equitability (does an A level in ICT have the same equivalence as one in English, for instance?). Within the geography subject community, however, further concerns have underpinned some of the revisions to geography specifications. These can be summarised as follows:

A widespread concern that school geography is well out of step with what was happening to the subject in HEI. Some concerns were expressed by Heeley and Roberts (1996), such as the gap between PGCE student experiences and expertise derived from their geography degrees and what they were confronted with in classrooms as teachers. Such concerns were examined by Oakes (2006) across a wide range of HEIs, in which he interviewed university admissions and first-year undergraduate tutors about their perceptions of school geography. His research found that typical concerns included that theory levels were poor, compared with politics or sociology; that learning tended to be 'case-study based' rather than theoretical; that it focused on facts, not thinking; and that there was little critical questioning of concepts such as sustainability.

The rapid acceleration of change affecting the world. During the period of Curriculum 2000 specifications between 2000 and 2008, the impacts of globalisation increased, China's economic status was greatly enlarged, Russia re-awoke as an energy superpower, and the Millennium Development Goals made a considerable impact in countries such as Uganda and Ghana. Perceptions of subsistence economies and dire poverty in the developing world were rapidly being challenged.

A generational change in geography teachers. During the first decade of the 21st century, the average age of the teaching profession fell, as post-war 'baby boomers' retired and were replaced by a new generation which was more schooled in more recent HEI geography.

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PGCE session one: How do teachers select A level specifications?

This session is designed to last 90 minutes and focuses on the ways in which teachers select particular specifications. Teachers' decisions are largely based on personal preferences; some teachers are the only ones to teach A level in their schools, whereas other departments are large and may reflect compromises. The ways in which teachers select specifications, however, are guided by what I call the two Ps:

• their paradigms of geography (see Resource Sheet One)
• their preferred pedagogies (see Resource Sheet Two)

Linked to these are the kinds of classrooms that they develop, which are explored further in Resource Sheet Three.

The session also includes the use of a PowerPoint presentation. The details of the suggested procedure for session one together with the resources can all be downloaded below:

Download: PGCE Session One
Download: Resource Sheet One
Download: Resource Sheet Two
Download: Resource Sheet Three
Download: PowerPoint Presentation

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Teaching strategies to use with post-16 students

Introduction to the strategies

The activities in the second part of this Think Piece are about methods that teachers can use to promote active learning among post-16 students. It focuses upon three strategies, each of which is designed to promote a particular range of skills, and each of which is supported by a sound educational rationale:

a) Starting where students are at; a sorting exercise about Biomes based on what students already know. This can be found in Resource Sheet 4.

b) Creating a 'need to know' in developing analytical skills; a balloon debate about flood management. This can be found in Resource Sheet 5.

c) Developing an enquiry teaching unit of teaching about sustainability; a focus upon Sydney's Olympics.

What they have in common is their focus on encouraging students to participate and learn through talk. In that sense, they owe much to strategies and their rationale developed by Roberts (2003) about talk in geography classrooms and its essential role in learning.

One of the most significant developments in my career was when I encountered the work of the National Oracy Project, established between 1987 and 1991, and described by Carter (1991). It stressed the importance of what Roberts (1986, 2003) has referred to broadly as Classroom Talk, and its part in the learning process. She distinguishes 'talk' from 'chat'; the former is geography-related and intended as part of the lesson outcome. Several strategies are detailed in her writing, and it is well worth reading her work for active, workable strategies that the PGCE student can adopt and work with in comfort.

Starting where students are at

How much do students bring to the classroom? Barnes (1976) draws the distinction between transmission styles of teaching and an interpretative style. Transmission occurs when the teacher treat students as empty vessels, waiting to be filled. In this situation, it is often the teacher who the teacher relies on for everything they know. Remove the teacher and there is nothing. The condition on which this situation rests is incredibly hard work by the teacher. When I began teaching in the early 1970s, I used to sit up until midnight or beyond, making my own notes which were for use by students the following day. I quickly became aware that this was suiting nobody; I was working harder than the students, and they didn't always understand what I was trying to teach them. It was completely unsatisfactory.

In Barnes' world of transmission, students receive messages from the teacher about what they are being taught. The teachers have got, we assume, knowledge and understanding of the concepts in their mind. But how do we know what students are thinking while the teacher is transmitting information? What if the messages are garbled en route? What if the students can't keep up with the pace of the teacher? What if the dog's just died? Etc., etc., etc. There are simply too many problems with this kind of teaching.

One of the most important strategies for teachers is to find out and build upon what students already know and understand about the world. Activity 1 below is about Biomes; I have used this frequently with post-16 students in units about Biomes from two different specifications. Its purpose is to reinforce the concept of Net Primary Productivity, and use that in assessing the most productive Biomes. So that its context is clear, I used it to show how marine ecosystems (i.e. oceans, coral reefs and mangroves) were most productive depending upon the criteria used. In one sense, the activity is based on intelligent guesswork, but it draws on students' knowledge and understanding of ecosystem process (Net Primary Productivity), their knowledge of the world, the extent and nature of different Biomes and their relative productivity.

Creating a 'need to know'

A 'need to know' has been identified by Roberts (2003, ibid.) as part of the enquiry approach to learning. She describes the enquiry approach as an approach which 'recognises that knowledge is not something 'out there' ready to be learnt; it is generated in the process of answering questions.' However, she stresses that questions need to be students' own questions, 'formed from curiosity' and a need to know. In that sense, therefore, the 'need to know' arises out of puzzlement, from a stimulus of some kind.

Flood management is part of every A level specification in England and Wales. In many cases, it can be taught passively, using video, for instance, or through textbook materials, in which students learn from the content. But engagement does not necessarily follow, and without this, student understanding can be limited. The strategy shown in Activity 2, a game scenario involving a balloon debate, is designed so that students first gain expertise in one role, with survival in the balloon as the 'need to know', and are forced into discussion with others in the balloon. By having to evaluate their own strategy against others, the exercise develops student abilities in rapid thinking and reaction to questions, decision-making, analytical reasoning skills and their abilities in presenting a case, each of which are important learning skills.

Developing an enquiry teaching unit

Whilst activities can be an integral part of every sixth form lesson given sufficient preparation, there is further skill in developing a unit in which enquiry lies at the heart of teaching. The third activity of this session is designed to demonstrate how teachers might use the Olympics in their teaching about sustainability, the geographies of change, urban environments, and of globalisation. For some time now, I have used the example of the Olympics in teaching about urban environments and the application of sustainable principles to people's living spaces, about global change, and about the geography of sport and leisure. Specifically, the unit focuses upon sustainability and change in urban environments.

Rather than being taught as a list of content with which to fill empty vessels it is planned around key questions, which define the enquiry and create the focus. Its key questions are:

  1. What are the challenges of managing urban environments?
  2. How do planners and decision makers attempt to resolve these challenges?
  3. How successful are these strategies in managing urban environments?

Like flood management, urban change features in every new A level specification. In the unit, students are engaged as participants in assessing sustainable criteria for urban change. It offers a broad understanding of 'sustainability', and the criteria which can be used to assess it, an ability to analyse, and an opportunity for students to judge how sustainable urban flagship developments may be. A full rationale is given in the Teaching Geography article ' Teaching about the Olympics' (only GA members can access this article).

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PGCE Session 2: Teaching strategies with post-16 students

This session, designed to last 90 minutes, focuses on ways in which PGCE students can integrate active learning strategies into their post-16 teaching, just as they might hope to with younger age groups.

Details of the suggested procedure and the resources needed for this session can be downloaded here:

Download: PGCE Session Two
Download: Resource Sheet Four
Download: Resource Sheet Five

Teaching Geography article 'Teaching about the Olympics' (GA members only) - note the additional Word resources on the right.

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Barnes, D. (1976) From Communication to Curriculum, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
(See link below for some excerpts from this book)
Carter, R. (Ed.) (1991) Talking about geography: the work of geography teachers in the National Oracy Project, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
Digby, B. (2007) 'Teaching about the Olympics', Teaching Geography, 32, 2, pp. 73-77.
Digby, B. (Ed.) (2000) Changing Environments, Oxford: Heinemann.
Digby, B (Ed.) (2001) Global Challenges, Oxford: Heinemann.
Edexcel (2000) Advanced GCE in Geography B
Heeley, M. & Roberts, M. (1996) 'Human and regional geography in schools and higher education', in Rawling, E. & Daugherty, R. (Eds.) Geography into the Twenty-First century, Chichester: Wiley.
Oakes, S. (2006) Internal paper for Edexcel Examinations (unpublished).
Ofsted (2003) Geography in secondary schools: Ofsted subject reports series 2001/02
Ofsted (2008) Geography in schools: changing practice
QCA (2006) GCE AS and A level subject criteria for geography
RGS-IBG (2007) Analysis of the 2007 Examination Results and the Current Status of Geography in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland
Roberts, M. (1986) 'Talking, reading and writing', in Boardman, D. (Ed.) Handbook for Geography Teachers, Sheffield: The Geographical Association.
Roberts, M. (2003) Learning through Enquiry, Sheffield: The Geographical Association. (particularly Chapter 7).
Roberts, M. (1995) 'Interpretations of the Geography National Curriculum: a common curriculum for all?', Journal of Curriculum Studies, 27, 2, pp. 187-205.
Roberts, M. (1991) 'On the eve of the National Curriculum ...' Geography, 76, 4, pp. 331-342.

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Excerpts from From Communication to Curriculum - More in depth discussion of transmission and interpretation views of teaching.

The four A Level Geography specifications for England and Wales:


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(Page created 07.01.09)

Comment on this page

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Lisa Burke Guest

Hoe can we find a copy of the following reference to read? Carter, R. (Ed.) (1991) Talking about geography: the work of geography teachers in the National Oracy Project, Sheffield: Geographical Association

John Lyon

John Lyon GA Staff

Hi Lisa
I've had an interesting search for this - the person who does our archives isn't in today. I have found one remaining copy here at the GA office. If you are a member I could scan it and send it to you - which would be cheaper than the one I've just seen on ebay at 21.99! If you e mail me jlyon@geography, and let me know what you would like me to do we can sort something out.

GA Member

The links to the excerpts from communication to curriculum come up with "page not found" - I wondered whether a new link could be made so these excerpts could be accessed.


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