Curriculum Thinking – A Seven Year Geographical Journey

I moved to my current school in September 2015 as an new incoming Head of Department. In a school with a new Headmaster, a new Deputy Head (Academic) for the first time, and – surprisingly – the creation of the first “Heads of Department” relative to a looser grouping of Faculties – there was a significant cultural environment for change. 

The appetite for this was particularly strong in my own Department. With an incredibly experienced teacher alongside me, I was effectively pushing at an open door for change. The Department had been led by a strong teacher before retirement, who had bought a series of textbooks some years before, and continued to work through them with little revision or reflection of the curriculum. The Department teachers were hugely experienced and enthusiastic, and I think it collectively took us a couple of hours from our first meeting, to the point where we said “let’s just start again, shall we?”. Ripping up the entire KS3 curriculum was bold, but it felt like it needed to be done. 

We were also at a unique moment in the educational landscape, with the advent of reform in GCSE and A Level specifications ensuring that the whole platform was changing for everyone. We were therefore able to make free choice of what we wanted the whole seven year curriculum and journey to look like – and as an independent school, we had completely free choice of the “best Geography” without any constrictions on type or nature of exam entries and boards that may have constrained some of the state-funded schools. We were free to choose what and how we wanted to deliver. 

Key Principles and Choices:

To begin, we wanted our Geography to be accessible, dynamic and engaging. We sat down and created our Department vision at about the same time as we started with the blank curriculum page, and a number of our key statements hold really true for how we thought about the subject. We created six “strands” to our vision – that talk about our subject, our approach, and our people. 

  1. Geography is a subject that explains the world: people, places, and their interactions with the environment. It is a critical part of a learning community that seeks to develop academic excellence and well-rounded individuals.
  2. Geography is dynamic, contemporary and fast-changing. Students want to understand the modern world around them.
  3. Students study geography because they want to be able to explore the world, and make sense of their place in it. We teach them the skills to investigate, examine and explain what they find.
  4. Geographers are passionate about their subject, knowledgeable and flexible. We embrace creativity and technology to show the world to our students.          
  5. Geography is a real-world subject. We understand it best by being immersed in it: learning takes place in the field, and awe and wonder is vital to what we do.
  6. Geographers learn. We never stop asking questions, and trying to improve our understanding.

One of the teachers had done her MA in Education at the IOE, involving a lot of work on curriculum design. She and I had some key ideas that we wanted to ensure formed part of our subject and curriculum approach.

We wanted to have major ‘themes’ in our work. Our intention was to focus on three – the human world, the physical world, and a synoptic challenge/interaction theme. 

  • We wanted to “spiral up” in complexity and challenge – starting at local and small scale in Year 7, through the stages to a complex and demanding course in Year 9. This would then adequately prepare students to embrace a similarly structured IGCSE course, and further in to the demands of A Level and university Geography. 
  • We didn’t want to “repeat” units unless we absolutely had to. We both firmly believed that students switch off – either believing that they ‘already know it’ or that it’s ‘too easy’ – and that the potential advantages of repetitive content were more than outweighed by these significant disadvantages.
  • We didn’t like fieldwork “for the sake of it” – if we couldn’t embed it, realistically, purposefully and meaningfully in to the course – then we didn’t want to do “jollies”. We’d seen too many of them go badly wrong.
  • Perhaps our most controversial decision – but actually, one we ended up agreeing on, and having a very positive conversation with our Headmaster (also an excellent former Head of Geography!) was that we didn’t like the NEA. While we like real world Geography, and believe it’s a vital component to the understanding of the world, we believed that much too much of the students’ fieldwork experience was about the administration and frustration, rather than the joy of proper understanding of a live scenario. We wanted to do good Geography, and good fieldwork, without spending months writing up documents and endlessly tweaking – some bad experiences with “controlled assessment” which scarred us all, I think!

Our big decisions were to start at the end – and pick our A Level and GCSE course options. With free choice, we selected the Edexcel IGCSE Geography course, and the Cambridge International A Level. With both, we were impressed by the extensive academic quality of the specification and the confidence we had in the stability of the course. I had taught the A*-E variant of the IGCSE before at my previous school, and examined the course. The proposed change for the 9-1 spec reflected a number of welcome changes that we had been talking to the exam board about for some time – splitting the colossal paper from the 3h45m length, and clearly delineating some of the options for the physical and human units all offered a really positive outlook. 

For A Level, the NEA loomed large, but the bigger concern was really about the stability and confidence we had in some of the proposals from the more established boards. They felt a little artificial in places, and we couldn’t see the logic to how they had constructed segments. However, I had been at a conference with Peter Price, Head of Geography at Charterhouse, who had presented his reflections on the Cambridge International Geography course (9696). He was eloquent and passionate about his desire to see “good Geography” done superbly, and I think all of us in the room were blown away by the quality of the Geography that the course offered. I know many HoDs were swayed that day, and while some were unable to choose the A level for academic and statutory reasons, a huge number moved to Cambridge en masse – pretty much on the strength of the academic thinking he represented. As a Department, we loved the quality of the resources, the stability and academic rigor of the course, and the enormous bank of resources – particularly the vast numbers of past papers reflecting two exam cycles across three different time zones!

We made some tentative thoughts about what units we’d like to teach, and created a set of parameters of what we’d like to do for Key Stage 3. Within these confines, we started with a blank sheet of paper, and sketched out a curriculum. 

Key Stage 3 – Year 7-9

For Key Stage 3, we wanted to ground our students in core principles and key content for their Geography journey. We operate a fortnightly timetable, and have one hour per week for Y7 and 9, and three per fortnight for Y8. 

Year 7My Place in the World // Finding My WayWhat will the weather be like? // Long Way DownLocal Area Investigation (Fieldwork Contrast)
Year 8The Landscape of the United KingdomWhat’s worth fighting for? Global & Local ConflictsThreatened Planet (Fieldwork: Geomorphology)
Year 9Population & MigrationTectonic HazardsGlobal Inequality
Our bespoke Key Stage Three Curriculum

We chose to start Year 7 with a globalisation topic – deliberately big and bold, to encourage students to think about the world and their place in it. We wanted them fired up, passionate and excited to know more about how they connected – and to develop that theme. In the second half term, we’d do map skills, and then another skills/data focused unit to build on that in the first half of the Spring term, looking at weather and climate of the UK. With our students able to make some useful data based work, we embarked on a project based activity. Inspired by Ewan McGregor’s documentary, we ask our students to pick a line of longitude, and follow it from north to south – documenting and exploring the changes in countries along the way. We have had some incredible work done on this over the years since we initiated it – it’s a favourite for students and parent questions on Open Days! Finally, we finished with a unit on local area fieldwork – including a contrasting area fieldtrip to the South Coast. 

For Year 8, we originally went bold – and focused on the conflict topic first. This was a unit we designed ourselves – looking at conflict over water in the Middle East, and conflict over runway development at Heathrow – and exploring contentious human issues to try and unpick “no right answer” topics. Students loved it, but in recent years, we’ve moved this on a little. We felt we were missing a bit chunk of UK physical geography, and our “Geomorphology” unit covers a multitude of big physical ideas – geological time, the rock cycle, weathering processes, and then how rivers or ice shape the land. Ultimately, we ask students to evaluate what they think are the biggest influences on the landscape of the UK. Our conflict unit has moved to the Spring Term – the better relationships with classes are now established to allow a more discursive topic, but we have changed the conflicts we focus on. The complexity of war, Afghanistan, Syria, refugees – all made the “water in the River Jordan” feel a bit marginal, and we also felt that the critical climate emergency was more important to teach for our students. We may come back to the Middle East at some stage, but we kept the local debate at Heathrow – ensuring students recognised how local debates and international ones were connected. Our final unit for Yr8 looks at Threatened Ecosystems – and explores that human/physical interaction and tension theme in detail. 

For Year 9, we were mindful of the fact that it was potentially the last year that some students would do Geography, and we wanted big topics. We start with Population/Migration and issues of management – I thought that they’d be a little unconvinced, but for some reason, they really love population pyramids, and the satisfaction of seeing data and understanding it. We have timed our Tectonic Hazards course to line up with GCSE options choice windows, but to be fair, our students don’t need much persuading these days. Numbers are now the highest option in the school, and we have over 55% of the year opting for Geography in a totally free choice (we don’t do Progress 8 or restrict them to one humanity etc…). Finally, we finish with a development/inequality theme that is heavily influenced by Factfulness and the understanding of the Gapminder world created by Hans Rosling. Our Y9 work, standards and assessment are heavily tied to the standards we set at Yr10-11, and we don’t often see much “jump” in difficulty – the curriculum progression ensures they reach GCSE ready to be amazing. 

Key Stage Four: Edexcel IGCSE

Year 10HT1: Hazardous Environments (Physical): Tropical Revolving storms, to build on the Y9 work on Tectonic HazardsHT2-3 (Human): Economic Activity & Energy, including a fieldwork unit on questionnaires about renewable energy use. HT4-5 (Physical): Coastal Environments, including a fieldwork unit on coastal fieldworkHT6: Internal Exams and a mixed timetable with festivals etc. and lots of off timetable work. 
Year 11HT1-2 (Human): Urban Environments, and we also normally have mock exams during the second HT period. They are early, but we have 80% of the course done, and are able to give students a proper break over Christmas before the final run in to exams:HT3: Globalisation & Migration (Synoptic Unit) leads us to the conclusion of the course, and actually loops back to some of the work we did in Year 9. It normally finishes within a half term. This allows us to spend further time…HT4-5: Revision & Examination Preparation
Pearson/Edexcel IGCSE Curriculum

Our Key Stage 4 course picks up where Y9 left off. While we don’t deliberately teach a GCSE unit, the majority of our Tectonic Hazards work covers a lot of the Hazardous Environments content. We start with that deliberately – partially to consolidate and confirm the importance of their Y9, partly to ensure they feel confident to begin with, and perhaps most unusually, because it does tend to be Tropical Revolving Storm season, and we can “see it live”. I’ve written elsewhere about my love for – needless to say, my GCSE students quickly learn why I love it. 

We move on to Economic Activity, which includes fieldwork on questionnaires, reflecting on people’s energy understanding and use, before finishing Year 10 with Coasts. While we have ended up alternating between physical/human/physical themes, the coasts was placed there to take advantage of the best weather for fieldwork opportunities, and everything else has worked backwards around that!

In Year 11, we start with urban environments, which is enjoyed by students. In and around their mock exams, we finish that unit. In previous years, we’ve run day trips up to London Docklands and the Docklands museum, which have been excellent. Our final unit is a synoptic unit – designed by the board to be so – focusing on bringing it all together, and interactions between worlds. This reflects our journey in KS3 and key themes, and is a great way to finish the course. We are normally done by Feb half term, giving a term of revision together, effectively.  

This shows in our data – in 2015, we had 38 students, and 24% A*, 51% A*/A. By 2019, that was up to 48 students, and our results were at 48% A* (higher in 2018, but hey!), and 68% A*/A. Our students enjoy the course, do well, and many pick it for A Level – we’re normally at three sets in a year group of about 65 – indeed, we’ve just recorded our highest ever option numbers at over thirty students choosing A Level Geography. 

Key Stage 5: A Level Geography

For our A Level curriculum, students have 9 hours per fortnight of teaching in Year 12, and then ten per fortnight in Year 13. This is split between two teachers – our course splits up along traditional Physical/Human lines. The CAIE A Level is still offered internationally along the old AS/A2 model, and so there is clear division between Year 12 content and that in Year 13. While the topics appear to be traditional and divisive, the reality of top quality essays – and the superb Cambridge exam questions – means taht you have to be synoptic and integrative in teaching. Students simply need breadth and depth of explanations, and we have to cross the boundaries a lot more than the course first appears. 

Physical Geography ContentHuman Geography Content
Year 12Hydrology and fluvial geomorphologyAtmosphere and WeatherRocks and Weathering(all compulsory for all students)PopulationMigrationSettlement(all compulsory for all students)
Year 13Hot Arid EnvironmentsHazardous Environments(we choose two from four – we didn’t pick coasts!)Economic TransitionGlobal Interdependence
Cambridge International A Level Geography Curriculum

We have a real mixture of students – as ever, Geography crosses the Arts/Science bridge, and our course strengths and choices often reflect that in our students. We find that our Y12 students struggle most with the Year 12 content in Physical Geography – could just be my teaching! – but it’s new and unfamiliar topic material that often challenges them, and the less data confident or science-minded tend to find Atmosphere & Weather a particular struggle. By contrast, the Y12 Human Geography course is familiar ground, and builds and develops some of their Y9/Y11 work. 

For Y13, while Arid Environments is a brand new topic, it’s loved by the students. Here, the balance is typically reversed for most – the Economics students fly on the Y13 Human content, but it’s quite challenging for most, while the Y13 Physical Geography content makes a lot of sense, and picks up on managing some hazards that students are familiar with. 

Although the lack of NEA is a potential concern, because it puts the pressure on the exams, we think our students thrive on the challenge. In 2016, our eight students took 46% A*/A, while by 2019, that had risen to 30% A*, and 54% A*/A. But I’m exceptionally proud of the numbers of students who go off to read Geography at university – and thrive – and we’ve supported joint honours candidates, and even our first Earth Scientist this year. 

Reflections and Reviews: What have we learned, and what would we change? 

Writing this has been a really interesting reflection for me – as I come to the end of nearly five years in the Department, and am able to look back at what we’ve done. I guess my first reflection is just how lucky I was to be in a particular circumstance – to have been in the right place, surrounded by people who really wanted to change, and were thoroughly supportive of our decisions and ambitions. I think having a Head who was a Geographer made explaining a lot of our vision much easier, and I’ve had incredible fortune to be so supported.

I’m also very fortunate to have had wonderful teams to work with, in particular R, whose curriculum design experience was incredible to have on hand when we started with that blank page in September. This has evolved – as staffing does – but we still hold true to the vision that the two of us sketched out way back when!

We’ve made changes, and adapted one or two units at a time, but the vast majority of this is now embedded firmly into the ethos of the Department, and the wider school environment. Working with UN accreditation was the stimulus for getting climate change formally on the curriculum as a discrete unit, for example, rather than part of the narrative of some of our synoptic units. 

I think the vision for Geography has resonated well with students and parents – we have flexibility to respond if something incredible happens, but we stick to our plans and curriculum, and ensure that we keep teaching wonderful Geography as much as possible. What do you think? Would love to hear your thoughts.


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