05 Oct 2018

Improving secondary geography teaching – learning from the EEF science report

Improving secondary geography teaching – learning from the EEF science report

The recently published EEF Guidance Report ‘Improving secondary science’ suggests some key strategies for improving teaching and learning in the subject. It is all based on strong research evidence and is very easily digestible for busy teachers. Even though I am a geography teacher, I have a long-held interest science having taken science A levels and always leaning towards the physical and environmental aspects of geography. I have also taught key stage 3 science for a short amount of time; a highly enjoyable, but challenging episode in my teaching career!

I was therefore eager to take a look at the recently published EEF Science Guidance Report. As I read through, I started to think about my own teaching and it has become very apparent that most of the strategies proposed could be just as applicable and useful for secondary geography. It is the subject perhaps most aligned with science in terms of the emphasis on factual content, processes, critical thinking, analysis and data skills required at all key stages. Indeed, there is some very interesting work being undertaken to support the cross-over between geography and science through the Geographical Association (GA) and the Association for Science Education (ASE). They have just won funding to run a joint programme from the DfE’s Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund (TLIF) to provide free CPD for primary and secondary teachers to develop the critical use of evidence in geography and science classrooms. See here for more information and whether your school could qualify; Critical-thinking-for-achievement.

Back to the Guidance Report, I have outlined my initial thoughts on some of the recommendations and how I might think about using them to improve my own teaching in geography. Quite a few of the strategies are based in areas that we have been looking at over the last year in the Research School. The Science report offers further ideas on how we could embed these to improve outcomes for pupils.

Self-regulation: Helping pupils direct their own learning

This section draws on the same understanding from the EFF Metacognition Guidance Report. It is crucial to support pupils to understand the process of their learning. We have been thinking this through in geography, and are trialing a ‘monitoring’ checklist with exam groups. The checklist is made available to pupils as they undertake an exam answer and to use during the task, with the items taken from the mark scheme. We had previously considered planning a task with them and reviewing or reflecting, but not monitoring. This offers a further, critical step, in the cycle of metacognition.

By making the necessary thought processes explicit for pupils during a task, we hope to enhance their ability to think through the thinking required so that it becomes implicit. At the start of this process, we are also stopping the pupils a few minutes into the task to review the monitoring list, make adjustments, and then move on.

Memory: Support pupils to retain and retrieve knowledge

Like all subjects, the new qualifications at GCSE and A level require a vast quantity of more challenging material to be learnt and used in exams at the end of two years. We need to support pupils to move material from working memory to long-term memory and be able to retrieve the information in the right contexts. I am looking into reducing cognitive load as suggested by the report by thinking through the amount of content delivered at any one time. I am also looking carefully at the powerpoint slides and other resources produced to avoid unnecessary detail and overload in any location.

Like science, diagrams are critical in geography to the understanding of processes and locations. I am reviewing these to try to put factual information into the actual places that they are mentioned, rather than pupils having to seek the information separately through a key or find it on an alternative resource.

Elaboration is also highlighted. I am using this more as a technique to encourage pupils to process key concepts. By explaining it in their own words, they go through a cognitive challenge and are able to store the information more successfully. This is opposed to multiple choice quizzes or quick fire questioning.

Using structured feedback to move on pupils’ thinking

For a long time, I have been trying to use the strategies based in the work of Black and Harrison, as reference in the report. It is clear that comments are more meaningful and have far greater impact than grades. I now need to focus on improving the feedback in the areas of ‘self-regulation’ and ‘subject’, to ensure that the pupils can focus very specific and targeted feedback to carry forward into their next task. I am currently trying to include more checklists during and after tasks to increase self-regulation and looking at whole class feedback, with numbered targets to allocate to individual pupils. This has reduced workload and at the same time, all students hear all of the feedback provided. Of course, feedback is a huge area and we are running a three day training course on this at the Research School, see here for more info: Feedback course.

There are many other areas in the report which are absolutely applicable to geography teaching. The challenge is to focus on one, or a few things, at a time to ensure that I can really think through and prepare for changes and then evaluate their impact. I would greatly encourage you to take a look at the guidance report if you teach any subject at secondary level, I am sure that there will be some really helpful strategies in there for your use!