Getting to grips with enquiry: how geography’s core pedagogy fits with the evidence.

Enquiry is the fundamental pedagogy that drives geography. It helps to develop informed young people and ensures that geographical knowledge is rooted to people and places. Indeed, geography without places and people isn’t geography.  For the past ten years I’ve been sharing what geographical enquiry looks like during sequences of lessons and, given the recent trend toward evidence informed teaching, enquiry seems to have taken a backseat in some geography departments. This post aims to link enquiry to current educational thinking.

Before I begin, when I started teaching I thought that enquiry learning demanded lessons where the young people chose what to do and carried out an independent investigation. This came from my own misunderstanding of what enquiry is, rather than my own ITT. Although students by Year 9, and certainly by Year 11 should be able to carry out enquiries largely independently, it’s clear that I was mistaken. 

What is enquiry?

So, what is enquiry? Well, like educational research that can only highlight what worked in some contexts and times and so may work somewhere else, enquiry must be rooted in the classroom and institutional context. Margaret Roberts defines the process as:

However, to trainees and indeed some more experienced staff, this is not useful. In 2008 when I became a Head of Geography, I produced the following flow chart that outlines the process and it is what I still use today:

What is important to note that this is a process that must be rooted to real places and real people. 

Direct instruction?

Now, although enquiry is highlighted in the Key Stage 1-4 geography orders and is a critical part of A’Level geography (see full slides below for detail), the mistake I made as a novice teacher is that young people could navigate enquiry without much teaching. In hindsight, this was clearly bonkers because novice learners are not able to make good decisions without knowledge. 

Therefore, geographers not only have to explicitly teach each aspect of the enquiry process (and always within the context of geographical knowledge rather than divorced from it) but also have to ensure that the geographical knowledge has been taught. The geography has to be taught before it can be applied. 

It’s also important to remember that no school based enquiries aim to create new geographical knowledge. Whilst that may be what geographers do in the real world, young people need the knowledge before taking that step.

Of course, if our expectations are of excellence, we should and must expect young people to be able to carry out the process independently and I certainly do by Year 9.


Another mistake that I made early on is that the excitement of geographical content is enough to motivate students. If geography teachers aren’t careful, this approach can lead to a skewed and bias view of the world rather than the balanced, critical minds that we seek to develop. 

This means that geography sequences of lessons and enquiry need to be focused on raising achievement. And, let us not forget, the importance of student-teacher relationships grounded in mutual respect. 

Enquiry as story telling

Willingham points out the power of narrative and the enquiry process can be used to structure geographical knowledge into stories, all be it ones that are based in real places. 

Floating topicality

Much has been written about floating topicality ( a term I first encountered in 2004 from Jeff Stanfield, the then Geography Inspector for Hampshire) and whether planned learning sequences should be disrupted in order to consider current events. 

I would argue the following:

  1. Planned topicality should be central to curriculum design. For example, I always plan to teach about tropical storms during the Atlantic hurricane season and about Mount Everest some time in May when both are likely to be in the news.
  2. News events that are covered within the geography curriculum can be considered by all year groups. I advocate a small amount of time with each class considering the topic. This not only helps to pre-teach material but can be used as retrieval practice for students that have already been taught the material. For example, when considering the recent tsunami, we discussed that it’s no possible to directly compare all effects with those of previous events as the long term impacts are not yet clear.
  3. Considering recent events through a geographical lens ensured that we meet our responsibility outlined in the National Curriculum to inspire in pupils ‘a sense of curiosity and fascination’ with the world. Furthermore, if we are to become ‘boring’ teachers and ignore the chance to apply geographical knowledge to real world events to ensure better outcomes for young people, then the appeal of being a geography teacher wanes somewhat.


Students have always required a vast amount of geographical knowledge to pass both GCSE and A’Level examinations. Enquiry learning was central to Priory Geography, where we increase the A*-C measure by over 40% in three years. So it seems we can have a vibrant, enquiry led geography curriculum and enjoy examination success. Cake anyone?

The full slidedeck:

Getting to grips with enquiry 2018 slideshare from David Rogers

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

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