GIS in Geography Teaching and Learning

Diana Freeman (The Advisory Unit, Computers in Education) gives an introduction to Geographic Information Systems, discusses ways in which GIS can enhance geography teaching and provides information about useful resources.


What is GIS?

How does GIS fit into the geography curriculum?

Is there a progression in GIS?

How can GIS be integrated into lesson planning?

What practical experiences of GIS in education should PGCE courses provide?

Resource provision and evaluation

Ordnance Survey digital mapping
Further reading


GIS is an exciting development in geography education because it brings an expanding area of new technologies into the classroom and fieldwork. GIS is already part of everyday life in satellite navigation systems, it powers market research linked to supermarket card schemes, delivers government information online and aids the emergency services.

Commercial GIS applications are complex and require specialists to implement them, but there are educational GIS software packages that are much easier to use and which help to deliver the geography curriculum in a new and interesting way.

GIS is a relatively new area of teaching and learning so it is useful to consider some basic questions, organised into the subheadings below:

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What is GIS?

GIS (Geographic Information Systems) is one of the fastest growing software applications in the world. GIS is not one program and different types of GIS serve different purposes: a GIS that tracks and schedules freight on a route network is different from an environmental GIS. More than 80% of data collected can be linked to a location on the earth’s surface, so it is not surprising that GIS and mobile services are taking off. GIS really puts geography on the map!

There are three elements to any GIS: a digital map, data located on the map, and a software application (GIS) that links the two together. A simple school GIS provides display and search facilities for mapped data. More sophisticated commercial GIS functions include spatial querying and analysis, buffering and spatial modelling. Trainees should be given the opportunity to explore ‘school’ and commercial GIS to decide which would be most suitable to incorporate into different lessons and to understand a progression in the use of GIS.

Visit the RGS Project What is GIS? for some basic guidance on GIS for schools.

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How does GIS fit into the geography curriculum?

GIS is ideal to introduce into the geography curriculum as it provides techniques and opportunities to further pupils’ geographical learning by:

  • Overcoming mechanical aspects of mapping to give pupils the opportunity to produce a professional result;
  • Improving pupils’ visualisation of the landscape through aerial overlays on maps, 3D imagery and ‘fly-throughs’ reintroducing a wow! factor into mapping skills;
  • Enabling access to up to date mapping and locational data on the internet through, for example, search engines, local and national government sites and NGOs;
  • Enabling pupils to experiment with cartography by choosing colours, graphical techniques and methods of selecting and presenting data on maps;
  • Allowing more time to achieve higher level thinking by replacing tedious mapping operations with interactive manipulation of large sets of digital maps and data to select, display and interpret spatial patterns and relationships.

The majority of the geographical skills in the programmes of study at KS3 may be enhanced by the use of digital maps and GIS. Traditional geographical skills take on a new dimension when adapted to a digital context.

Table 1: Geographical Skills and GIS

Geographical skills may be extended into the use of digital mapping and GIS. The list illustrates how skills gained using more traditional methods may be transferred to digital mapping and GIS.

Use an extended geographical vocabulary

  • New vocabulary includes ICT keywords (such as raster and vector) and specific GIS terms
Select and use appropriate fieldwork techniques and instruments

  • Tablets or smartphones may be used to enter data directly in the field for transfer to GIS;
  • Handheld GPS systems are now accurate enough to collect location information for transfer to GIS;
  • Weather monitors and environmental data loggers may collect information for transfer to GIS.
Use maps and plans at a range of scales, including Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 and 1:50,000 maps

  • Ordnance Survey digital map data provides the basis for vector and raster mapping.
Select and use secondary sources of evidence: aerial photographs, satellite images, ICT sources

  • Aerial photographs and satellite images may be used in digital mapping and GIS;
  • Ground level digital photographs may be linked to ‘hotspots’ on a map.
Draw maps and plans at a variety of scales, using symbols, keys and scales...
GIS explores raster and vector maps:

  • Draw and edit maps and plans in a GIS editor;
  • Import a variety of digital maps and plans in different formats;
  • Add information to maps and plans from a set of data;
  • Select separate vector map layers;
  • Zoom in and out at different scales and pan around an enlarged map;
  • Measure distances (in a straight line or along a feature), areas or perimeters accurately; Understand geo-referencing
  • Select and use appropriate graphical techniques to present evidence on maps and diagrams including the use of ICT.
Present data at points, lines and areas (closed polygons) on maps using the functions of a GI.

  • Areas: Choropleth and thematic maps.
  • Lines: Flow lines of traffic or journeys by people.
  • Points: Diagrams (bar charts, pie charts, divided pie charts, proportional circles and pie charts) at places on the maps
  • Add pictures and notes at locations on the maps.

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There are also cross-curricular links with the ICT curriculum: the enquiry route in geography parallels the steps for data handling in the ICT curriculum.

Table 2: How the enquiry approach to learning in geography at KS3 and the KS3 strategy is aided by GIS

Geography programme of study KS3 KS3 strategy How GIS helps
Ask geographical questions to identify issues Ask questions, predict and hypothesise Enables spatial data to be collected, organised and investigated to show patterns and relationships
Suggest appropriate sequences of investigations Find, organise and use information that is fit for the purpose Provides a framework within which to collect data in tables linked to points, lines and areas on maps
Collect, record and present evidence

Analyse and evaluate evidence and draw conclusions
Seek patterns and relationships

Interpret results and evaluate evidence
Allows information to be selected and presented on maps quickly and easily to identify spatial patterns and relationships
Communicate in ways appropriate to the task and audience Present and communicate findings in a variety of ways Resulting maps may be used in reports and presentations to different audiences
Based on: Geography National Curriculum Programme of Study for England and Wales. DfES 2000 Based on: KS3 Strategy - Framework for teaching ICT capability - Using ICT across the curriculum. DfES 2002

Commentary about GIS and the geography curriculum may be found here:

GIS articles in GA journals:

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Is there a progression in GIS?

There is a progression in geographical knowledge, skills and understanding that complements the ICT data handling curriculum. GIS knowledge, skills and understanding also has a progression that may be dovetailed into this sequence. The GIS progression may be summed up as follows:

1. Digital mapping
Moving from paper maps to digital maps raises many questions. What are the properties of a digital raster and a digital vector map? Which type of map is suitable for which purpose? Where can examples of digital map applications be found on the web to link to geographical topics (e.g. changing scale, measuring, route planning, government information, flooding, place searching, overlaying one map on another to compare, for instance, aerial views and maps)? There are a number of websites, such as Google Maps, OS Get-a-Map or Streetmap, and software specific to schools that provide many options to explore.

2. Dynamic mapping
More powerful applications to select data, such as census mapping, allow users to select what to show, including ‘real time’ representations. Dynamic sites, such as Census Profiler, geology mapping and even Bike Share maps in London and other cities or a flight tracker with live mapped information about scheduled flights.

3. Geographical Information Systems
These GIS have editing facilities within the software to allow users to import raster and vector digital maps in order to display data collected from fieldwork or secondary sources. Area, line and point data may be displayed and queried. The higher quality school GIS and most commercial GIS software is suitable for this purpose. Commercial software offers more opportunities for detailed spatial analysis.

This table helps to show how a progression in geography, ICT and GIS may be envisaged:

Table 3: Progression in geography, ICT and GIS

Geography enquiry and skills:

  • Ask and respond to geographical questions and offer own ideas in the course of undertaking tasks set by the teacher, ability to identify and give simple explanations for views held by others (geographical enquiry);
  • Use a range of simple pieces of equipment and secondary sources to carry out tasks supported by the teacher (use of skills).
Geography patterns:

  • Respond to questions about patterns in the nearby landscape and make appropriate observations about the location of features relative to others (patterns).
ICT data handling:

  • Find and use appropriate stored information, following straightforward lines of enquiry;
  • Find and interrogate information, understanding the need for care in framing questions;
  • Amend and combine different forms of information from a variety of sources.
GIS skills and techniques:

  • Understand the properties of a digital vector or raster map;
  • Add symbols and draw routes on a digital map;
  • Measure distances on a digital map;
  • Carry out simple searches and display charts, images or text at places on a map;
  • Compare and interpret different digital representations of the world, such as aerial photographs and maps of different scales.
Examples of software with prepared maps and examples to support levels 3 and 4:

  • Digimap for schools
  • AEGIS 3
  • ArcGIS Online for schools
3D representations and links to GPS, but limited search functions:

  • Memory Map
  • Anquet maps
  • TrackLogs
  • Google Earth
Geography enquiry and skills

  • Draw on your own experience and on the secondary sources provided to identify geographical questions, recognise and explain the views and opinions of others, follow a structured sequence of enquiry and present a consistent geographical argument (geographical enquiry);

  • Become aware of and select a range of appropriate skills and techniques, and demonstrate competence in using the skills specified in the Pos (use of skills).
Geography patterns:

  • Describe and explain patterns, and relate these to the location and character of places and environments in different parts of the world (patterns).
ICT data handling:

  • Select the information needed for different purposes, check its accuracy and organise it in a form suitable for processing. An increased range of quantitative and qualitative information is considered;
  • Use information from a range of sources and use complex lines of enquiry to solve problems and test hypotheses.
GIS skills and techniques:

  • Understand the differences between raster and vector maps and enter data from a variety of sources, manual and electronic, to the map;
  • Use complex searches to select quantitative or qualitative data for display at points, lines and areas on a map.
Examples of software for levels 5 and 6:

  • AEGIS 3 – worksheets based on geography curriculum;
  • ArcGIS Online for Schools
Geography enquiry and skills:

  • Demonstrate independence in identifying appropriate questions and issues, appreciate the significance of attitudes and values (including their own), plan investigations, and provide coherent arguments, substantiated conclusions and critical evaluation of evidence (geographical enquiry);
  • Demonstrate confidence in selecting skills and strategies appropriate to the task and apply effectively and accurately (use of skills).

Geography patterns:

  • Make connections between locations, distributions and patterns of features, and understand how and why these change and with what impacts on people and places (patterns).

ICT data handling:

  • Select and use information to develop systems suited to work in a variety of contexts, translate enquiries expressed in ordinary language into the form required by the system;
  • Design and implement systems for others to use.
GIS skills and techniques:

  • Select and use different formats of vector and raster maps for varying purposes;
  • Create a set of data, pictures and text to link to places on a map for a particular enquiry;
  • Interrogate the data and display the information on a map in an appropriate way for the purpose of the enquiry;
  • Create a scenario allowing others to use the map and data for this enquiry and other related purposes.
Examples of software for level 7 and above:

The software allows pupils to follow the enquiry route to create a map and associated data to display and process spatial information for an individual study or coursework investigation.

Software for entering data as vector and raster in a variety of formats, creating points, lines or areas, adding data and images, carrying out different mapping techniques and complex searches:

  • AEGIS 3
  • ArcGIS Online for Schools
Processes at level 7 and above:

ArcGIS Online for Schools

Importing a raster or vector base map and adding points, lines and areas as required.
Creating a data sheet that has information from primary or secondary sources to plot on the map.
Linking data, images and text to the map.

Interrogating data and plotting the results on the map by appropriate methods.

Analysing and evaluating
Using the results to further the investigation.
Deciding whether the results satisfy the purpose of the investigation.
Suggesting improvements to the above process.

How can GIS be integrated into lesson planning?

There are plenty of opportunities for learning with GIS rather than about GIS in the geography curriculum. Certain topics, such as world development, are ideal for using GIS software to display development criteria as choropleth maps and to search for countries that are at the extremes of each range of data.

Pupils can easily compare those countries with a low life expectancy and access to clean water or doctors. They use GIS (and ICT) skills to display and interrogate the data, but use geographical skills and understanding to interpret their results on the map. Using GIS as a resource in this way puts it into context and allows pupils to carry out investigations for a purpose. There are online resources, such as Stat World, which display country data interactively but a purpose-built GIS package is more flexible for searching and displaying data.

A wide variety of geographical learning may be integrated into GIS lessons. Some core topics are featured in publications such as Nine GIS lessons at KS3 and GCSE (Teacher Pack and Student Text Books) by Helen Young and GIS made Easy, by Robert Lang, both available from the Geographical Association. These have excellent guidance for teachers and support materials.

Trainees may also take up some ideas from these links:

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What practical experiences of GIS in education should PGCE courses provide?

Trainees may have had experience of GIS in their undergraduate courses and therefore understand the basic principles and terminology. However, they may not have had experience of using school GIS. Some tutors have had success in giving their trainees practical skills in one GIS which the trainees have then applied in their teaching practice.

There should be opportunities for trainees to become familiar with digital mapping web sites and at least one school-based GIS that covers a range of skills in order to see how a GIS progression may be identified and applied.

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Resource provision and evaluation

Mapping and GIS software
There are a growing number of GIS programs that schools can use. In fact, schools may wish to acquire more than one GIS program to fit their requirements.

Access to digital mapping
Digital map formats

Trainees should be aware of the different formats in which digital maps can be supplied. Decisions about which GIS software to purchase for a school should always consider which formats of digital maps the program can use and where to obtain those maps.

Ordnance Survey digital mapping

There are two sources of mapping that the Ordnance Survey provide:

Digimap for Schools Service – online access to raster mapping for a subscription. The mapping has simple tools for map measuring and annotations.

Get-a-map - 1: 50 000 and 1:25 000 raster mapping. This is the original version of Get-a-Map.

The Advisory Unit: Computers in Education provides an OS mapping subscription service for AEGIS users. The selection of OS mapping includes vector OS MasterMap for land use mapping. The Advisory Unit also supplies Goad town centre plans (based on OS maps) for AEGIS complete with land use data.

Other free sources of vector maps

Further reading

  • Freeman, D. (2003) 'GIS in Secondary Geography', Teaching Geography, 28, 1
  • King, S. (2000) 'High-tech Geography: ICT in Secondary Schools', Sheffield: Geographical Association - contains a number of relevant articles on GIS and digital mapping.
  • Green, D. R. (ed) (2000) 'GIS: A Sourcebook for Schools', London: Taylor and Francis

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(Updated 24.06.13)

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GA Member

GIS is a key geographical technological feature used by students today and thus should be looked at within the curriculum and it falls within the realms of Geography.
I think it is exciting to be able to offer Geography in a modern light and make it work for the students as an everyday tool.


mostafa Guest

I would like to get an article demonstrates how to implement GIS in Geography Teaching Systems.


  • Primary Geography
  • Teaching Geography
  • Geography

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