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Concepts: the grammar of a subject

A programme of study articulated without concepts, runs the risk of focusing entirely on knowledge or skill acquisition

Brooks, 2017

What is a Concept?

Upon settling on a vision for your curriculum you then need to start the process of fleshing this out and here-in lies the first consideration when creating what you hope will be a coherent curriculum – what concepts are you going to build your curriculum around and what organisational structure are you going to use to allow your chosen concepts to match your vision? For the sake of clarity in the remainder of this blog, a concept is something that helps organise the knowledge that you hope to convey to the students in your subject

Your Concepts

Concepts are at the centre of geography education. However, even in the fairly recent past, concepts and in particular their role in the geography curriculum, have been somewhat contested

Brooks, 2017

What concepts are you going to build your curriculum upon? Quite simply, there is no simple answer to this question. As shown in the table below, there are many different concepts that geographers have used to devise their curricula around.

There is no hard and fast rule on what concepts you should plan your curriculum around.

Taken from Fogele (2016)

Whilst there is no hard and fast rule about the concepts you use in devising your curriculum, I would suggest that ‘less is more’ applies well here. Too many and you risk your curriculum becoming a slave to a loose set of concepts that lack a coherence. However, the risk of taking a reductionist approach is that your concepts become too broad and, ultimately, mean nothing to anyone and again make your curriculum lack coherence. I decided that six concepts would be a good middle ground between these two extremes:

  • Place
  • Scale
  • Sustainability
  • Interdependence
  • Risk
  • Processes and Systems

Organising your Concepts

Geography is a content rich subject and therefore requires this content to be sorted, or organised, it into the various silos that allow it to not only be coherent to the teachers that are teaching it, but also to the students that it is being delivered to as well. However, how you chose to organise the grammar of the your curriculum will dictate how your curriculum is planned and, ultimately, delivered.

Hierarchical Concepts

Arranging your concepts as a hierarchy centres upon the selection of a small number of concepts, which are abstract and/or technical, that are gradually fleshed out as you move beyond the initial concept to those that become concrete and/or vernacular. An example that immediately forms in my mind to exemplify this would thinking about the concept of pressure, which would be a technical/abstract concept that would be fleshed out in a series of lessons to the concrete/vernacular concepts of rainfall, biome etc. I can see where a hierarchy of concepts would work well, particularly where you have large topics to work through, such as physical geography at A level and though Brookes (2019) gives some examples where hierarchies of concepts work, I decided against this method. The rationale for moving away from a hierarchy of concepts was that the topics I thought would form at least part of our Key Stage 3 offer would revolve around a interwoven of curriculum of themes and regions as outlined by Enser (2021).

Organisational Concepts

The Organisational model views takes a fundamentally different approach to organising your concepts with the aim being to develop geographic through having wide-ranging concepts that link everyday experiences to those higher-level geographical ideas. To my mind this would mean that an over-arching concept would be something along the lines of ‘processes and systems’ which facilitates for higher-level geographical ideas, such as global atmospheric circulation to be taught in a unit on weather and climate and then returned to several times again in later units on regions to explain the climates of these regions. This method of organising concepts certainly on the face of it seemed to suit the initial idea for our themes and regions curriculum.

Further Thinking…

Once you’ve decided upon your concepts and the structure you are going to use to organise them, there are a few other things to bear in mind before moving on:

  • Do your concepts match with the topics you are considering for your curriculum and allow it to be organised the way you wish?
  • Do your concepts align with your vision?
  • Do your concepts allow for powerful knowledge to be developed?
  • Do your concepts and organisational model allow for mastery in your curriculum?


Brookes, C. (2017) Understanding conceptual development in school geography in Jones, M. and Lambert, D (2017) (eds) Debates in Geography Education (Debates in Subject Teaching). Routledge, Oxfordshire.

Bustin, R. (2019) Geography Education’s Potential and the Capability Approach: GeoCapabilities and Schools. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Enser, M. (2021) Powerful Geography: A curriculum with purpose in practice. Crown House Publishing, Carmarthen.

Fogele, J (2016) FROM CONTENT TO CONCEPT. TEACHING GLOCAL ISSUES WITH GEOGRAPHICAL PRINCIPLES. European Journal of Geography Volume 7, Number 1:6 – 16, March 2016


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