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?

References

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

Vision – the foundation of a curriculum.

‘What matters for a curriculum is that teachers come together and agree on a set of aims that underpin their vision for pupil development’

Standish (2021)

What do you want your curriculum to be? Before you begin any changes, be it something wholesale or a bit of tinkering at the edges, you need to have an aim in mind. Something to focus all the efforts of not only you, but every colleague, within your department. The foundation upon which everything is built, from the topics you teach and the order you teach them in to how you teach them. This is your vision and it’s incredibly important that you get it right. So, how do you do that?

Make it Collaborative

Alex Standish, in his very useful chapter on what geography should be taught in schools in What Should Schools Teach?, makes clear that a collaborative approach to formulating a vision is key. Though, as a head of department you’ll be ultimately responsible for your vision, writing it alone isn’t going to get buy in from the start and get your department pulling in the same direction.

Make it Succinct

There’s no point making your vision a long and winding statement. It needs to be at the forefront of you and your colleagues minds not only for planning, resourcing and evaluating your curriculum, but also for when you are asked about it by anyone that asks, be it parents, SLT or Ofsted.

Make it Subject Specific

This sounds obvious. Your vision shouldn’t veer towards the generic, but should have a monomaniacal focus on being subject-specific and laden with what student development in your subject means.

Our Vision

So, having done all this the foundation from which everything that happened next was:

To equip students with the knowledge, skills and attributes to be able to make sense of the world around them, both past, present and future.

Our Vision

Part 2 of my curriculum blog (Concepts: the grammar of a subject) can be found here.

Useful Readings

General Curriculum Reading

Myatt, M. (2019) The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence. John Catt Educational Ltd: Melton, England.

Geography Specific Curriculum Reading

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

Ofsted (2021) Research Review Series: Geography. Ofsted.

Sehgal Cuthbert, A. and Standish, A. (2021) What Should Schools Teach?: Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth (Knowledge and the Curriculum). UCL Press: London, England.

How I explain the formation of a hurricane

Step One – A Fertile Question

It’s only in the last couple of years that I have finally arrived at the lesson on hurricane formation that I am happy to deliver. Sure, cross sections where students can identify the features and the pre-requisites for their formation are fine, but I wanted to delve deeper. I want students to know the genesis of a hurricane from its humble beginnings as a series of small thunderstorms in equatorial Africa to the phenomenal hurricanes that news stations are so happy to send reporters out in to. To begin, I ask what Mark Enser would term a fertile question – ‘Why is the United States interested in thunderstorms in Africa?’

Step Two – Planning the Page

Again, I would always suggest using a student exercise book to plan out drawings and explanations. You then know what will fit on a page (even for the student who has massive writing). I’ve decided that a birds-eye and cross sectional view are to be used as between them I show all the intricacies and features a hurricane has. I’ve decided to use a page and utilise the margin as my equator for the birds-eye view and have the cross sectional view above.

The whole page

Step Three – Planning Stages

I’ve decided that five stages, from thunderstorms in Africa to the dissipation of the hurricane over the Southern States of the USA, will allow for sufficient understanding and not over-complicate the delivery. Every stage is drawn out over the whole page so that I can see what a student book will look like at the end. It also allows me to judge the size of drawings and how much detail I can show as well as the space I can devote to explanation.

Two Views

I would draw the birds-eye view first then follow this with the cross-sectional view. I would then spend some time explaining drawings and would be questioning them as to why thunderstorms would be forming here before writing down the brief notes to explain the diagrams.

Step 4 – Thunderstorms over Africa

Thunderstorms over Africa

The key points I would want students to know are:

  • Maximum insolation due to curvature of the Earth causes rapidly rising air and the formation of thunderstorms.
  • The absence of shear winds in the upper atmosphere means that the thunderstorms are not broken up.
  • Easterly winds move the thunderstorms out into the Atlantic.

The second section involves drawing one enlarged thunderstorm out at sea, both in birds-eye and cross-sectional view.

Step 5 – Agglomeration

Agglomeration

Again, the drawings would be explained and I would want students to know:

  • Easterly winds have moved the thunderstorms out into the Atlantic.
  • The absence of shear winds means that the thunderstorms haven’t broken up.
  • The warm (greater than 26.5 degree Celsius) and deep (greater than 50m depth) ocean water fuels the thunderstorm further.
  • The rapidly rising air condenses and releases heat, which further fuels that thunderstorm and causes the increased size.

The third stage then introduces spinning. Both the birds-eye view and cross-sectional view illustrate the thunderstorm increasing in size. The birds-eye view adds to this by showing the thunderstorm path moving away from the equator, which causes the spinning.

Step 6 – Spinning Around

Spinning Around

From the drawings and explantion I would want students to know:

  • The thunderstorm has increased in size as it is being fuelled by warm, deep oceans and heat released by condensation.
  • The thunderstorm starts to spin anti-clockwise as it moves away from the equator in the northern hemisphere.

The fourth stage introduces the typical cross-section of a hurricane as well a birds-eye view that shows the spin direction as well as the eye and eye wall. This is the section that is the most complicated to draw so I would spend a but of time on this.

Step 7 – Cells

Cells

From the drawings and explanation I would want students to know:

  • The energy of the thunderstorm has now caused wind speeds to exceed that needed for it to be classed as a hurricane.
  • The thunderstorm has increased in size to the extent that there is now bands of warm, rising air and cold, descending air creating bands of cumulonimbus clouds.
  • The centre of the hurricane has an eye where cold air quickly descends causing an eye of cloudless sky.
  • The eye is surrounded by a rotating spiral of rapidly rising warm air, called the eye wall.

The final step shows the dissipation of the hurricane and its return to a thunderstorm over land.

Step 8 – Dissipation

Dissipation

Again, this would be explained and students would be expected to know the causes of hurricane dissipation, which came up as an exam question a few years ago in an AQA GCSE exam:

  • Hurricane moves over land and is no longer being fueled by warm, deep oceans.

So, that’s how I explain the formation of hurricanes. This, like with all explanations I draw, is something that I will revisit each year and develop. Let me know what you think and if it’s been of any help.

How to…explain biome distribution

Following on from @GeographyTom9‘s outline of how he teaches the Global Curculation Model, I thought i’d have a go at explaining how I teach about biome distribution.

Step One – Find a spare exercise book (or two)

I’ve found that when i’m drawing an explanation using my visualiser the best results always come from when I use an exercise book that is exactly the same size and those used by the class in front of my. This means I can guide their drawings and explanations and lay it out exactly as I have done. Ideally, two books are better than one as you can have your pre-planned drawings by your side as you re-draw them with the class in another book.

Step Two – Plan your drawings and explanations before delivering it in front of a class

This has been learnt from bitter experience. Drawing or writing down a half-baked explanation which requires continual editing and scrambles for rubbers (or a new page for those that never seem to use a pencil) will be avoided if your drawing and explanation (including edits) are planned in advance. In addition, it allows you the time and space to consider your explanations and whether they are clear and concise enough and whether your drawings need any more or less detail.

Pre-lesson

Step Three – Explaining latitude

With my pre-planned explanation in front of me I use a protractor and draw round the whole 180 degrees. I explicitly instruct students to draw their semi-circle with the 0 degree line on a line in their book so that this becomes the equator. The equator is then drawn on and labelled as 0 degrees and then 90 degrees north and south are also labelled as the most straightforward latitudes. After this, I then add on the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and Newcastle-upon-Tyne to show how north we are.

Explaining Latitude

Step Four – Insolation

After latitude, I explain insolation. Again, drawing the equator on a line in the book helps as I use one full line north and south of this to indicate insolation at the equator. I then instruct the students to draw a line of equal thickess at the top (the last two complete lines before the north pole). This allows me then to explain how the curvature of the Earth increases the surface area heated by the same amount of insolation and therefore how latitude affects temperatures. This is also a good time to check for the common misconception that distance from the sun affects temperatures.

Explaining Insolation

Step Five – Global Atmospheric Circulation

My explanation of rainfall explains global atmospheric circulation. This must come after latitude and temperatures as the main driver of the Hadley Cell is insolation at the equator. In order to explain global atmospheric circulation (not done that differently from @GeographyTom9) I start by looking at what happens to air heated by maximum insoaltion at the equator then take it from there to explain that rising warm air causes cooling and condensation that leads to rainfall and that sinking cold air doesn’t cause rainfall as there is no condensation. This allows me to then highlight that rainfall isn’t as straightforward as temperature and that it moves in bands of high and low rainfall from the equator to the poles. A small, but important, point here is that the size of each atmospheric cell is drawn to the size required to fit with the first drawing of latitude and the final drawing of biomes. This means that the descending cold air of the Hadley Cell aligns with the Tropics and the desert biome.

Explaining Global Atmospheric Circulation

Step Six – Latitude, Temperature, Rainfall and Biomes

The final drawing has the equator and the tropics drawn on it, but nothing beyond that. This is where a vivid array of colors come in handy to mark the biomes. As this is drawn and explained the two previous diagrams outlining temperature and rainfall and constantly referred to to explain biome distribution, e.g. the desert biome is located at the tropics where there is little rainfall due to descending cold air and not clouds. This means no rainfall and the ground being heated intensely due to limited cloud cover. I have, recently, added a side bar to the final diagram that gives an overview of temperature and rainfall by the side of biome distribution to aid the explanation and overall understanding.

Explaining Biome Distribution

After this, I do some short answer exam questions to check understanding. That’s it.

Next time: I’ll find my notes on explaining hurricane formation over a double page spread from Africa to the Caribbean.

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