About Dr Preece

Head of Geography, SE London. Fascinated by curriculum, teaching & learning, and the joy of great Geography. Always learning more... Proud father to two cats.

Becoming a Geographer: Appleyard’s Model applied to Geography?

One of the real joys of the work that I now do is exploring different pedagogies from disciplines that I’ve never encountered before. Here, I’d like to talk about something that I’ve seen in English pedagogy, and consider if – and how – we might want to conceptualise something similar for Geography.

Appleyard (1990) Theory of Reader Development.

In this model, Appleyard (1990) is setting out how individuals make progress as readers of literature. Each chapter represents Appleyard’s suggested stages of development: early childhood, later childhood, adolescence, college and beyond, and adulthood. At each stage, Appleyard describes the essence of the reader’s psychodynamic approach – rather than focusing on what they are reading, underpinned by different psychological and literary theories.

Appleyard’s theory of reader development, showing the progression from player, through hero, thinker and critic towards pragmatist. This diagram has Goodywn’s (1997) pedagogue adaptation added.

The five stages are:

Player: This is the stage where young children engage in make believe and story telling. The begin to learn what makes something a story, but they position themselves in stories they present – stories are mostly play.

Hero: This is the stage where a young person identifies with a hero in a story, or another character – they are swept up in the story. They might feel strongly about a character, not recognising they are a construct created by an author.

Thinker: This is the stage where a young person understands that characters are constructed, created by an author. They begin to be able to comment on how the writer has does this and the effect on the reader.

Critic/Interpreter: This is the stage where a reader can take different stances and apply different lenses to the literature they read. They engage critically. They might develop this through learning about different movements in literary criticism. This stage is needed for A-level and degree reading.

Pragmatist: A pragmatist is the adult reader, able to make selections as to what reading experience they want. You might have experienced this – you are reading and analysing texts for your course of study but once you have a break from studying, you might turn to texts you have read before for comfort or to fall in love with a character.

This model is widely adopted as an underpinning theory for how you can teach or encounter readership, for students and for readers in general. We can see how this might link to key phases of a National Curriculum sequence, or where we encounter components of learning, and this provides a useful framework for scholarship and for pedagogy alike.

A Geographical equivalent?

So, the logical question is whether there is a Geographical equivalent, and if so, what might it include? Based on Appleyard’s five stages, I’ve proposed the following:

Local Hero: in the first phase, the understanding of the world is grounded in place and personal experience. The initial stages of Geography are descriptive, about the world that the student knows – and almost exclusively that. The scale of the world is personal, and fairly local, and the engagement with it relatively descriptive in nature. Like Appleyard, this early Geography engagement places the student experience at the hero centre of the world.

Storyteller: in the second phase, the Geographer is process focused, and learning ‘how things work’. This requires conceptual understanding of time scale and process, and may see some spatial process development. We might see the synthesis of space, scale and time, to help generate explanation clarity (e.g. showing multiple phases of a coastal landform on the same diagram) which creates a relatively singular or linear explanation sense in the student.

Us vs “Them”: in the third phase, the Geographer is able to compare and look for differences between places or examples. We may see this in a ‘place’ case study, or something similar – e.g. the NC studies of “a comparative location”. This is still grounded in personal experience relative to an undefined or unexperienced and tentative ‘other’, and there is likely to be an implicit ‘othering’ that takes place as part of this comparison. There may start to be a tentative global scale of process and ideas. This feels like the top end of KS3 or first part of KS4 in experience for many students, where they have a sense of differences and places, but not quite got the experience or empathy to bring them together, or have a coherent sense of representation and their role in co-constructing the narrative of other.

Evaluative Observer: in the fourth phase, the Geographer is able to judge and evaluate and hold comparative opinions. They are able to provide some relative importance or understanding of connections and synthesis. As they move through the end of GCSE towards their A Level experience, the student is able to generate judgements based on a range of information and selected engagement with the world, and show some sophistication in their understanding as we move towards early undergraduate experiences. This is still a relatively abstract and impersonal conceptualisation, and the Geographer does not play an active role in understanding or evaluating their own lens or structuralist approach in constructing their world view.

Synoptic Pragmatist: finally, the Geographer is able to recognise the construction of the discipline and narrative, and brings threads and components together fluently to construct sophisticated meaning. They are likely to have a stronger sense of ontology and epistemology, and be able to deconstruct their own lens in exploring the worldview and approach they have to understanding and their judgement about the world. It’s possible that they will also have accelerated through this phase by travel or increased personal experience of the world, but this is not necessarily the same as the theoretical and disciplinary consciousness that are developed through systematic and critical reading.

Reflections:

I think this type of thinking helps teachers and Geographers to reflect and develop the students and their experience. Having a sense of perspective, and where in the journey the ‘Geographers’ in front of us might be helps us to help them move through their disciplinary engagement and learning. Thinking about the concepts and topic knowledge only helps us so far; how do we support and develop their progress and development through the wider world of becoming better Geographers!

I do believe that this is a good tool to have in our consideration; but I’m not sure if these are the right five building blocks and themes. I’ve not read extensively on this conceptual development, and I’d be keen to have feedback and thinking shared about how we could collectively build on this further!

Appleyard, J. (1990).  Becoming a reader: The experience of fiction from childhood to adulthood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 

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Geographical Literacy – a reflection

Literacy is the ability to communicate in all forms for all purposes. If we are literate, we have the reading, writing and oracy skills and knowledge needed for success in life.​

As Geographers, the multidisciplinary nature of our subject means that we need to build confidence in a range of different areas. We want our pupils to read and write fluently, but we’ll also want them to have spatial, numeracy and graphical skills to function as Geographers – but for now, I just want to reflect on literacy.

We know it’s important, especially for our pupils. The ECF recommends that teachers should work to develop pupils’ literacy by:

  • Demonstrating a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics, particularly if teaching early reading and spelling.
  • Supporting younger pupils to become fluent readers and to write fluently and legibly.
  • Teaching unfamiliar vocabulary explicitly and planning for pupils to be repeatedly exposed to high-utility and high-frequency vocabulary in what is taught.
  • Modelling reading comprehension by asking questions, making predictions, and summarising when reading.
  • Promoting reading for pleasure (e.g. by using a range of whole class reading approaches and regularly reading high-quality texts to children).
  • Modelling and requiring high-quality oral language, recognising that spoken language underpins the development of reading and writing

And yet, there’s not much published literature that is Geography specific. Even if you reflect on the OFSTED Subject Research Review, the only reference to ‘literacy’ in the OFSTED guidance is in terms of “spatial literacy”.  It’s an interesting reflection – Walshe’s chapter in The Handbook of Secondary Geography seems to be the most Geography specific writing I can find!

In this blog post, I want to look at some of the theory and thinking, and call for a better strategic and curricular understanding of disciplinary literacy in our subject – and ask where and why this exists to support Geography teachers.

Literacy Theory: Scarborough’s Reading Rope

While we are all teachers of literacy – in the development of vocabulary, reading and writing in our subjects – we are clearly not all experts in the stages and development of literacy and the principles behind it. We build on the amazing work of our Key Stage 2 colleagues, and focus on supporting our Secondary Geography students to develop their skills further in our subject.

In 2001, literacy specialist Hollis Scarborough proposed a model for the ‘strands’ needed to develop literacy and reading skills. The “reading rope” model helps teachers to understand and visualise the components needed to build fluency, and to see where their subject contributes.

Scarborough (2001)’s “Reading Rope” model of strands for fluent reading

Some of these concepts and ideas may already be familiar to you from your classroom. You’ll probably have introduced new words to pupils as part of a new topic, or as you develop through from KS3 to KS4. I am comfortable with the fact that I did some of this work as a Geography teacher, or as a Head of Department, but I don’t think I ever really saw a coherent overview of it in this same way. There are two different dimensions of this to explore.

First, how do we do some of the specific individual activities on the left?

Second, how do we make progress through time on the arrows? How do we make this increasingly automatic – and how do we use our understanding of cognitive science principles to help? How do we make this increasingly strategic – and use some of the curriculum planning principles from Gardner (2022) – to embed this development in our medium- and long-term planning?

Why do we need to develop vocabulary?

One of the top strategies outlined by the EEF is to focus on the development of ‘disciplinary literacy’ – the specific set of vocabulary, reading and writing skills associated with our subject. You may sometimes see this referred to as ‘Tier 2’ vocabulary (you can read this optional blog as an excellent introduction to the principles of how it applies to Geography).

If you have a look at the vocabulary associated with the GCSE Geography specification, you can see just how significant a task the ‘vocabulary’ element of the Geography curriculum becomes. One of the biggest challenges of the new-specification GCSE Geography content for teachers and students alike is the sheer volume of content providing cognitive overwhelm.

You can see how it’d be easy to just use all of your learning hours teaching the expected vocabulary for the GCSE course – and that’s without any understanding of theories, processes, or case studies and context. And we haven’t included the skill development; whether Geographical and fieldwork skills, writing and explaining skills, or being able to respond in exam conditions – all of which require repetition and spaced practice.

For learners with any additional challenges – whether that’s in terms of neurodiversity, additional learning needs, or English as an Additional Language – this is a huge structural obstacle to accessing great Geography.

Developing Vocab: How do you do this practically?

There are a number of techniques that can be used to help you teach new vocabulary to pupils in any subject setting. One of the most popular and effective is the ‘Frayer Model’, based on a template developed to help organise understanding of a new term or complex vocabulary choice.

Reflecting on this short introduction to the Frayer Model, written by English teacher Alex Quigley – author of ‘Closing the Reading Gap’, leads us to consider:

  • What are the advantages of teaching in Geography using the Frayer Model?
  • What are the disadvantages of teaching in Geography using the Frayer Model?
  • Is the cost-benefit assessment worth it for Geography? Why? Why not?

A modified Frayer model, from the Texas Alliance for Geographic Education (2014), shows the way you could potentially extend this to link to physical Geography, process or landscapes, for example. Does this solve the challenges of cost benefit for Geography?

While I think I’d definitely endorse the value and structure of the Frayer Model in principle, it’s clear that teaching every single Tier 2 vocabulary term would be unworkable in terms of teaching hours. This is where we need to get more deliberate in terms of our curriculum choices, or consider solutions which might help us develop this beyond the classroom.

For example, in this blog post, Abdurrahman Perez talks about the focus on keywords and command words at GCSE and A Level with his Geography class. You can see how this systematic approach embeds the routine in to the day to day of your lessons – and even make it fun!

In other places, together with the systematic approach in lessons, a number of schools and thinkers have experimented with a ‘flipped learning’ approach to vocabulary. Here, pupils are set structured homework to learn vocabulary. You can see Jo Facer (2016)’s early reflections on this approach from Michaela Community School, which uses flashcards and vocab books. 

A number of other schools have turned to technology solutions to systematise this for their pupils. You might like to look at blogs from Carousel Learning (Adam Boxer, Science) or Quizlet (David Preece, Geography) as examples of how this can be done. Pupils can access flashcards and quizzes in multiple formats from different devices, and have access to standardised vocab lists which provide a consistent (and exam-spec) appropriate definition. Some platforms allow you to set up classes and structures which dovetail with your own learning platforms, or set and monitor pupils progress directly. Clearly, there’s a cost-benefit discussion to be had about creating these mechanisms and spending money on subscriptions, but they can offer a technological solution to vocabulary learning which can mitigate some of the ‘classroom time’ concerns of the Frayer Model.

Clearly, it’s important to have a longer-term discussion and vision in mind for these activities. They are structures which need to be carefully thought out, considered and embedded over a curriculum.

Developing Vocab: How do you do this strategically?

When we looked at the vocabulary list for AQA’s GCSE, we saw that there were huge numbers of terms that were expected for GCSE students. We described some of the impact on student workload, time and cognitive load of teaching that, even with excellent strategies like we’ve just outlined.

So, how do we resolve that? I think the key is in the strategic arrow of Scarborough’s Reading Rope – the thread of connection between our previous work in Key Stage 3, and perhaps the wider contexts – to make the development of this vocabulary an explicit strategy that we adopt through curriculum planning.

Try a brief thought experiment, which I think will illustrate the need for this strategic work. If you go through the vocabulary list from the GCSE specification again, consider sorting the words in to one of three categories:

  • Words you’d expect a KS3 student in your school context to know or understand as part of their regular curriculum
  • Words you’d expect a KS3 student in your school context to have learned in their Geography lessons prior to starting their GCSE course
  • Words that you’d anticipate deliberately having to teach a KS4 student

Of course, it’s likely that the words will be associated with specific topics from the course. You wouldn’t teach tectonics terms in an urban unit, for example – so you may want to group them together to provide some kind of cohesive vocabulary unit that you’d want to associate with some topics.

Immediately, you should be able to see the importance of the long-term perspective here. We’d estimate that a substantial proportion of your vocab list from KS4 is actually taught and embedded from Key Stage Three curriculum thinking. This is why it’s so vital to have a joined-up approach to your curriculum intent and implementation, and to build on the approaches Gardner (2022) talks about in sequencing of skills and connective threads.

If you find that there isn’t a big overlap with KS3, it’s perhaps worth reflecting on either the topic choices and curricular thread between KS3 to 4 OR reflecting on whether your KS3 curriculum is ambitious enough to support the aspiration of great Geography at Key Stage 4!

We also recognise the role that wider cultural capital, or our colleagues in other subjects and Departments might be able to play in supporting our development of vocabulary in our pupils. Working together with other Departments and subjects can be a really powerful way to build curriculum coherence, and understand what our pupils are seeing in different places.

It can also be critical in highlighting misconceptions: sometimes we see that words have different meaning in other subjects, and it’s really helpful to be able to plan ahead and avoid the misconceptions that it can generate. As ever, teaching is a team sport – how can you make use of your colleagues, other Departments and literacy leads to get the best outcomes for your own pupils?

Reflections:

I can definitely remember teaching vocab as part of the classroom experience, and thinking about the topic-specific vocabulary that I wanted my students to know. I was a big fan of Quizlet, and seeing how that all helped with exported definitions – particularly for GCSE – was really helpful for me. I definitely taught students how to analyse sources, or how to write differently as we progressed through the course, but it was always under the label of “exam skills” rather than literacy.

But I don’t think I ever thought about the structured and disciplinary approach like this. Scarborough’s reading rope helps to clarify some of the techniques that we might use in the day to day classroom, but I don’t think I’d ever thought about the strategic and curricular dimension of it in quite such stark terms. Perhaps this is just me? Maybe other schools have a curriculum which does map their vocab, and knows when students will first encounter words, and how that will sequence and build up over time – but I’m not sure.

There’s a lot about developing literacy, and a lot of great advice, but so little of it seems to be discipline specific. Colleagues in other subjects have expressed similar thoughts – so I’m curious to unpick and understand some of the challenges here. Is it not high leverage enough? Is it not something we have enough expertise or training in? I’m curious and grateful to hear thoughts and perspectives!

References:

Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early literacy. New York: Guilford Press. Available online (accessed Sep 2022)

Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge. Part 8: Coaching and approaches for teachers and mentors

So, we’ve talked through the technical approaches of how to prepare and support great candidates, and I’ve shared what I know about the various components of the process. In this final post, I want to share what I think is the hardest and most challenge part of it all – the emotional rollercoaster that this will take you – and the candidate – on.

The numbers are not promising.

1 in 4 Cambridge applicants are offered a place

Oxford interview 60% of their applicants, but only offer places to 20% of their applicants.

And these applicants are almost all going to be straight 9/8 students at GCSE, and predicted AAA-A*AA as a *minimum*.

The likelihood is that – no matter how talented your candidate seems in the context of your school – the odds are against them in their application. Frankly, looking back at what I did, I’m hugely humbled by the sheer dose of luck that I appear to have had in my own application, and in the support of those around me. Every year, great candidates and wonderful Geographers don’t make it. How do you collectively shoulder that, and understand the emotions in place?

I think the first thing to do is establish a culture of big picture. Doing all of the work here isn’t *just* about Oxbridge – it’s great preparation for university, A Level teaching, and the world beyond school. You’re doing this because you’re a great Geographer, not only because you are applying to one university. It’s really helpful to reduce the identity politics that come with this, and support the candidate to understand that if you can.

There’s a weight of expectation that can often come with an ‘Oxbridge candidate’. Whether it’s celebrated in school media, or whether it’s just parents, family, friends and colleagues asking ‘how’s it going?’, there’s almost certainly going to be moments when the students feel like it’s not worth it. Parental pressure can be particularly tricky to navigate, and I’ve mentored a few people who were only really applying because they felt that their parent/s wanted or expected it of them. As a mentor, you might feel on the front-line of that, and you’ll certainly want to be aware of the pressure. Where possible, you need to do as much as you can to dial it back. The opposite of pressure isn’t ‘jacking it all in, and accepting an offer from X university’, it’s ‘doing the right things’ and being confident in the steps.

Other universities might not be your friend in this.  While the ‘conditional-unconditional’ phenomenon has been reduced a bit – where universities say “we like you, and if you make us your first choice, we’ll give you an unconditional offer” – the temptation to take a safe bet early in the game can be high for students. Keep the big picture and long journey conversations going!

Talk and celebrate other offers – and recognise they’re likely to come in quite quickly for your Oxbridge candidates – and keep having the chat about the big picture. So, you’ve got four offers? Which is your current favourite? What are you thinking now? Oxbridge candidates will often have university offers starting to come by October half term, and certainly through Nov-Dec even before other candidates have applied. It’s your judgement about how you share that publicly to support and motivate your other candidates.

Where possible, it’s really helpful to talk with other teachers. Whether you’ve got candidates across your school in multiple subjects, or have an experienced UCAS, Head of Sixth, or Gifted & Talented co-ordinator, sharing your approach – and your feelings about this – are really important in managing the emotions as well as the practical support.

Just like with exams, there’s only so much you can do for candidates. They have to go their own path, and accept their chances. If you follow the advice, give them good resources and give them some help, you can really do no more. Celebrate the successes you have, celebrate the amazing universities and Geographers that you’ve created – no matter what the destination – and know that you’ve played a part in their success, but so have they.

If you’ve got to the end of this, then thank you for reading. I hope it’s been helpful. I’m always happy to have a chat and help if I can, and I wish you – and your candidates – the very best of luck for wherever they choose to apply, and their future Geography studies!

Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge. Part 7: Preparing for interviews

Fundamentally, the biggest differentiation between Oxford & Cambridge (and a couple of other places) and other universities is the focus on dialogic teaching as the key focus of your student experience. As well as lectures, seminars and workshops that you’d have at any Geography Department, you’ll get regular discussions and debates in small groups. At Oxford, they’re called tutorials, and Cambridge call them supervisions. But at heart, you’re expected to be able – and willing – to discuss your ideas regularly with your tutor and peers, and hold your own in an academic conversation about the particular topic in question.

So, you need to be able to talk coherently about your subject. This isn’t really something that gets discussed in your initial application phases, but it’s the primary purpose of the interview phase.

Lots of resources are available through the Universities themselves:

You’ll find a lot of resources claiming to have a ‘definitive list’ of interview questions – and lots of candidates can spend a lot of time scripting and memorising the ‘perfect answer’ to some of these questions. It’s almost always wasted time.

First, the admissions tutors can spot prepared answers a mile off, and will ask another question or take it in a different direction. They want to see how a candidate thinks and talks naturally, and what they’re going to be like to teach. They can ask any questions they want, and take the conversation wherever they want to go for that!

Second, as I’ve argued earlier in this blog series, I believe the best way of preparing is through a ‘rich diet of Geography education’ from start to finish. We want thoughtful, engaged and enthusiastic Geographers in all of our lessons – and good dialogic teaching helps to model the scholarship and communication elements. The more students can hear and see what academic Geographical discussion looks like in their day to day, the less work they’ll have to do to prepare specifically for the application phase.

I’ve set out an overview of how to prepare for an interview, including a timeline of ideas and preparation phases, but fundamentally it comes down to these key qualities:

Able to talk confidently with an adult about an academic subject.

This is a really gradual confidence building exercise. Students need to start thinking of themselves as a ‘peer’ and talking in a more formal and academic register – and there’s always an initial awkwardness and discomfort. Push through that – you’ve got to get to high quality conversations about Geography with someone they know. Once you’re comfortable with 20-30 minute conversations with them, they need to be introduced to unfamiliar adults, and be able to do the same thing.

Pairing up with other schools, video interviews, sending your students to a school to be interviewed, while you interview their candidates – these are all great techniques of getting the student confident with turning up to a place they don’t know, and talking comfortably about their academic discipline with someone they don’t know. It’s always worth reaching out to the subject community – or me, if you can’t find people – to try and get these contacts in place as you start Sep/Oct preparations.

Able to respond to unfamiliar material (sources, data, ideas) and ‘show your working’ in how you integrate them in to your understanding

It’s common to be given something to respond to in an interview. Some Colleges might give you an article 30 minutes before the interview, and use it as a prompt to talk about. Others might give you data, imagery, sources, maps, or even physical objects to work with in an interview.

In your preparation phase, it’s important to include lots of unfamiliar material and sources. Print a good map, or image – what can you tell me about this? Print an article – give it to your candidate, and get them to read it for ten minutes, and then talk through what they’ve learned and how it fits with existing ideas.

It’s key for candidates to be able to “think out loud”. If they sit in silence for five minutes, and then come out with an answer, it might be good Geography, but it’s not great interviewing. So get used to “I’m looking at this, and think this… or I can see this pattern, which might suggest… or could this be why this looks like this….”

They should also build confidence in exploring options – “I think this means X… but can I check that this isn’t because of Y?”, “I’m reading this as Z, but can I check the scale? Because if it were ABC, I might reconsider…”

It’s okay to have uncertainty and want to discuss and debate clarification. It’s how a tutorial or supervision would work, and being able to discuss ideas is critical. Candidates need to okay saying “I don’t know what this means” or “could you explain this bit of it to me?” – they aren’t expected to know all of Geography and all possible routes through it!

Able to defend and debate ideas without becoming wedded to them.

Candidates often feel like they can’t say “I don’t know”, but they’re equally unlikely to say “oh, actually, I’ve changed my mind”.

It’s important that discussions can be free-flowing and offer the chance for people to develop their thinking. Yes, it’s important you follow a line of argument – but if you’re presented with new information, or challenged, you need to be able to accept that your original arguments, or ideas might be wrong. It’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay to say “so, looking at this, I might need to re-evaluate…”

Most of this advice works and would be transferrable to almost any humanities Oxbridge interview subject (let’s leave out STEM maths skills!). So it’s important that we add the final piece of the jigsaw – that this is fundamentally rooted in a Geographical understanding and scholarship. We need to talk about ideas that are Geographical – sustainability, place, space, interconnectedness. How are the candidate’s answers showing they are engaged with the Geography underpinning the individual topic? Having a look at some of the big ideas of the discipline (OFSTED’s 2021 research review series has an overview of some of the core literature, and Teaching Geography articles and debates, and resource from the RGS and GA can be really helpful) together with the students can be really helpful – and provide nice ‘language’ to be able to ‘talk like a Geographer’.

Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge. Part 6: Preparing for Admissions Tests – Oxford Geography candidates ONLY

Candidates to read Geography at Oxford complete a pre-interview assessment task, but this is not something that candidates for Cambridge need to complete.

The purpose of the pre-interview assessment is to help the admissions team offer interviews to the best of the applicants. Oxford currently use the Thinking Skills Assessment (Part 1 and Part 2) for Geography candidates, and it’s an important step to prepare for. Few details are shared about what kind of threshold scores are typically required – so all you can do is aim for your very best.

For candidates:

A comprehensive guide to the test is available online for free. You can find details of the logistics, dates and costs, and lots of past paper questions and video guides to the different sections.

The test comes in two parts.

In Part 1, you complete multiple choice questions in a time window. They are designed to test problem solving skills, numerical and spatial reasoning, and critical thinking skills like arguments and reasoning using every day language. You’ll see a range of questions using different themes, and need to answer 50 multiple choice questions in 90 minutes.

In Part 2, you’re expected to write an unseen essay in 30 minutes. This requires structured and thoughtful essay planning, and effective and clear communication. The questions are not subject specific – the aim is to test your ability to think and reason clearly in a short period of time.

It’s strongly recommended that you get lots of the practice papers, and become familiar with three key aspects:

  1. The type and nature of questions. Seeing the way they ask questions, and getting a sense of the themes and types of questions that get asked will help you understand the thinking skills, and your own strengths and weaknesses to work on.
  2. This helps you to make good decisions. There are some questions where you’ll immediately know an answer and be able to solve it quickly with high confidence. There are others where you can get the answer with high confidence, but it’ll take you a decent chunk of time. There are others where you’ve got low confidence that you’ll get the right answer, irrespective of how much time you were to spend on it. Knowing what to do, to prioritise and how to approach the test as a whole piece for best scores helps!
  3. Practice against the clock. In groups, discussions, or with all the time in the world, you’re probably going to be able to get most of the questions right. But you need to get skilled at doing it in the time conditions.

To an extent, working with teachers and groups can be a helpful first starter – perhaps in the early part of summer. But as you get closer, you’ll want to build your own confidence by working through this yourself, and knowing your own approaches. Even within 2-3 Geographers applying, there’s the potential for a big range of skill sets, and it’s important that you do what works best for you!

For schools:

Teachers supporting Geographers applying for Oxford might want to work together with colleagues, other subjects, and their Exams Officer for their expertise in organising this. There’s a decent amount of logistics involved in administering the tests, and if it’s your school’s first time, the preparation for this is probably better started before the summer holiday!

The tests will need to be taken at an approved Cambridge Assessment centre, and if that’s not you, you’ll either need to get approval to become one, or support your candidate to find their nearest.

You’ll also want to think about how you can support candidates – TSA are sat by multiple subjects, so it can be worthwhile to provide space for them to think through ideas together in the early stages, and to support familiarity with the approach and type of work. You might want to provide feedback on essay writing and clarity, and be available for mentoring – but as suggested above, increasingly, it’s important for candidates to own this themselves and know their own approach to the papers!

It’s important to phase your preparation cycles so that you can start thinking about potential interviews, too. Don’t wait until you’ve got an offer of an interview to start getting ready for it!

Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge. Part 5: September & Application Time

A huge amount of student attention is always – and understandably – given to the Personal Statement part of the application. It’s definitely the thing that students feel they can ‘control’ the most, and improve the most – but it’s not the only thing that Admissions Tutors will consider, and it’s important that the whole application is given due care and attention.

Booking additional tests and checking calendar windows in early September

All details of how to book, and information for students is here: Thinking Skills Assessments.

For most years, the candidate booking date for the TSA is well before the October 15 deadline for the UCAS deadline. Don’t get caught out by that!

For a new centre or school, these tests will need to be run in exam conditions by authorised centres only. You’ll need to apply for that – perhaps worth talking to your exams office to see if you’re a Cambridge centre already – and check details here: adminnistering TSA as a centre. The deadline is 16 September – well before the admissions deadline. Again, don’t get caught out!

Decision-making on College choices

College choices can be an important part of the decision-making choices for students.

However, it’s important to recognise that candidates don’t have to make a college choice. They are able to submit an “open application” to the subject, rather than to an individual College. The admissions team will then allocate the candidate to a College.

If you want to choose a College, then it’s worth checking which offer Geography. Not all Oxford Colleges do, while Cambridge seems to have a wider spread. You can see details here:

Beyond ‘do they offer Geography?’, College choice is a very personal decision. You’ll get the same Geography experience and access to facilities at university level, so there’s not a huge amount of academic difference between them. It’s very much about what ‘fits’ with your own personal preferences and thoughts about your life. You might like to think about:

  • The location of the College relative to what you’re interested in (Geography Department, libraries, river, centre of town)
  • The size of the College and how many Geographers you’d be working with
  • The resources and accommodation offer of the College

The best way is often to get a sense of the ‘feel of a place’ on Open Days. If you want to make a College choice, I’d strongly suggest that you go and see a few Colleges to make an informed decision!

Ensure the whole application process is considered

Your UCAS application form will be sent – blind – to all of your universities at once. They won’t know where else you’ve applied, but they might be able to guess that a high grade prediction application that comes to them before the 15th October is likely to also be applying to Oxford or Cambridge!

You need to select a reasonable profile for your applications and choices.

First, it’s advised and likely that you will be applying for similar courses at all five universities. This means your personal statement and reference will be coherent, and align with what you think is important for those courses.

Second, to lower your risks, it’s normally advised that you should have a range of university entry requirements in your application. Let’s say you’re applying to Oxford (A*AA) – you might also want to have another 1-2 at the same grade. But you might also want to have an AAA or even AAB choice in your five, to give you an insurance offer. There’s no point having a firm choice and insurance that are the same grade – if the summer results aren’t what you want, you’ll have missed both universities!

Don’t make your entire UCAS process about the Oxbridge application – it’s just one of five, remember! Double check all of the application details, make sure all of the grades, course choices and university selections are accurate and exactly what you want before you hit send!

The school reference

It’s often helpful to have reference support, particularly if you’re writing for the first time. You’ll want to deliberately dovetail your reference to the application components. You want to ensure that the same ideas and highlights are supported exactly, and that you’re able to emphasise the core elements of an excellent application too.

You can also talk about what might overlap and link – ensuring that the candidate can free up space in their personal statement to talk about something different than you cover in the reference.

It’s also helpful to have a context statement put in place for your school. An example of the historic grade profile, and a judgement sense of the candidate (“this is the best Geographer we have seen in five years”, or “in a class of excellent Geographers, X stands far above in their scholarship and engagement. Their EPQ on…”) can help to give the admissions tutor a sense of how this person compares to other candidates.  

A high-quality academic reference can be quite tricky to write, so do seek wider support – Head of Sixth Form, any Oxbridge contacts – if it’s your first time.

Cambridge – Supplementary Application Questions

For admissions at Cambridge, all subjects complete an additional Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ). This is available to candidates, and guidance is provided to support the completion. Once your UCAS application has been received by the University, they’ll send you details to the email address that you applied with.

Like UCAS, it’s an online questionnaire with lots of details – and takes time and precision to do right. Unlike UCAS, it’s highly personal and tailored only to Cambridge – including some of your additional information and an additional depth to some of the AS/A Level subject details, or further biographical information. Cambridge are slightly more advanced in their use of socio-economic data in supporting applications, so don’t be surprised to be asked details about whether you were eligible for Free School Meals etc.

You’ll also have the option of sharing further information (e.g. extenuating circumstances, particular personal or additional needs) and making additional personal statement of up to 1200 characters. It’s worth thinking about how you want to use these things – and to consider them alongside your existing personal statement. Repetition is unnecessary – and this offers you a chance for bespoke Cambridge-specific thoughts about why a particular course or structure suits you.

Most candidates will have to complete this within about 10-14 days of the original UCAS deadline, so be prepared for this if you’ve applied to Cambridge!

By early October, all of this will be well underway, and hopefully, you’ll be ready to submit on time, with any additional testing requirements, with a quality application showing the best of your Geography candidate’s ability.

You’ll also want to be considering support and preparation for the other phases of assessment that are important.

Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge. Part 4: Preparing the Personal Statement

In the introduction post, I’ve shared some resource for personal statements – the things to think about, and a structure of a worksheet that might help people get started. There’s a lot of advice and guidance about how to write personal statements around, which I don’t intend to repeat.

In this section, I want to think specifically about how personal statements for Oxbridge candidates differ, and what you need to be aware of in supporting them.

  1. They’re not. Don’t forget that the same personal statement is sent to all five of the candidate’s universities, and they all see it. While they have anonymous levels of detail in the application process, and it’s ‘blind’ to a limited extent, it’s important to recognise that the same statement has to work for all of the applications that the student is making. It needs to be high quality Geography, and not perfectly and individually tailored for Oxbridge – it’s only one application of five.
  2. Generally, the higher quality candidates for Geography at university spend more time talking about Geography than themselves. They have meaningful statements about why they want to study Geography, normally connected to an experience or academic interest, and they explore how they’ve demonstrated their scholarship and engagement over their development and Sixth Form period. While there’s always a need to balance “statement” and the “personal” element in the application, typically a top Geography candidate will prioritise the academic components.
  3. Recognise that for Oxbridge candidates, it is only one part of the application process. For Cambridge, in particular, there’s a Supplementary Application Questionnaire which has further questions and the space to make an additional personal statement. They shouldn’t overlap, and the statements need to be considered in coherence.
  4. All candidates must sign to declare that their application and statement is true to the best of their beliefs, and all personal statements need to be accurate and factually correct. However, unlike most candidates, the personal statement for an Oxbridge candidate can often form the basis of easy questions to be used in an interview. So if a student were to mention a book, or a paper, or a particular concept, it is absolutely fair game for the interviewer to explore and test them in an interview. It’s also critical that you support the student in double checking their references and thinking. Look at the research interests of the likely interviewers at their College choice (if they’ve made one), and check that if their statement overlaps with the research interests of their interviewers, they know it thoroughly!
  5. The phrase “too many cooks spoil the broth” was obviously not designed to refer to Oxbridge personal statements, but it should be. The more ‘high stakes’ the outcome, the more likely you are to have multiple people look at it. This can be amazing, if the advisors are all philosophically and Geographically aligned, but more often than not, it just results in a slightly messy experience for the candidate, where they’re chopping and changing depending on specific advice and guidance. Less is more in this instance – keep a few advisers who know their Geography and, ideally, their Oxbridge statements, and try to limit the spread of the coaching process!

So, let’s revisit the ideas of Geographical scholarship we discussed earlier, and how each of the components can be demonstrated within a personal statement. 

They can demonstrate scholarship and critical engagement

Normally this is demonstrated through clear engagement with books, papers or lectures, and the ideas that they represent. These should be academically well grounded – popular literature has a place (e.g. Tim Marshall’s books), but top level students need to demonstrate their higher reading abilities. It should be well beyond the confines of an A Level syllabus – merely talking about what you’ve been taught won’t demonstrate your ability to engage with the subject beyond what you’re given! It’s important that students write clearly about what they are taking from the reading, and showing their connection and synthesis ability. This should be balanced with some kind of critical reflection – what the student has learned, what they’ve taken away, and how that helps to support their engagement and academic curiosity.

It’s important that this is selectively explored, rather than dumping enormous quantities of quasi-academic research in a statement.

Complexity and range of the discipline

This is where the second component of the scholarship thinking comes in. Encourage students to be specific in what they focus on. They shouldn’t attempt to describe all of Geography, or even all of what they’ve read or studied.

Be critical and selective – pick an idea that is interesting and has come from somewhere (e.g. an unexplained part of the A Level course, a particular experience) and work through it. It’s okay for it to be a fairly narrow and specific focus and exciting aspect of Geography. Show how some of the reading connects the wider A Level study profile, then to other parts of the reading, and how the journey and thought process of development happens. It’s important to be able to clearly explain how one aspect of the engagement leads to another, and ‘show your working’ and how the thinking develops.

This is how the final strand is important for the personal statement. The complexity and development of ideas needs to be well-woven together, and clearly communicated as a story and narrative.

Explaining and exploring the ideas

The interview phase is where students will be pushed hardest to explain their academic thinking and development of ideas. However, students can start to demonstrate their abilities to express themselves clearly in their personal statement and application.

The Geographical content is elsewhere for now – in terms of writing and writing style, my top resources are Simon Sinek’s TED Talk on ‘starting with why’ and great communication is a really good way to shake up the thinking. It’s about explaining intent rather than a litany of factual information – and it’s critical that the candidate is able to link things together to tell the story of why they wanted to study a thing, find out more, and ultimately read Geography. I’ve tried lots of ways to help students “get it” – but this is a short video that’s had quite a bit of success.

Story telling is critical. Assembling that CV of all the things they’ve done feels positive and seductive – like a safety blanket. The brave and difficult decisions are about how you decide what to leave out, and where you spend more time explaining how you learned from something, or how you connected it to something else!

As ever, there’s got to be a balance between “personal” and “statement”. While a more academic applicant will normally have more academic content than their extra curricular or evidencing personal characteristics, that doesn’t mean that it can’t reflect who they are, and what they’re interested in. The statement must help the tutors to understand the person they’re going to offer an interview to, and be interesting and informative for them to read!

As with all personal statements for UCAS applications, remember:

  1. It always takes longer than you think, and;
  2. It always takes more drafts than you think, but;
  3. It’ll never be “done”. At some point, you’ll just stop writing.  

So, getting candidates started early, showing them good examples, good guidance is really helpful. Ideally, get some ideas on paper (even if it’s just the worksheet) before summer, and get some thinking and revision time over summer – so that September is starting with solid ground work.

There’s a lot to do in that month, and it’s important that you’ve got a heads up of the attention to detail and preparation that’s needed for September. The transition in to interview and test prep (if appropriate) will start sooner than the application deadline – so it’s worth ensuring you’ve got a plan to hit the ground running.

Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge. Part 3: Laying the groundwork for Geographical scholarship

Great candidates to read Geography at university have a deep and meaningful relationship with aspects of the subject and discipline. They are, fundamentally, motivated to study Geography at university, because they’ve found parts of it intellectually fascinating and enjoyable – and great applicants are able to demonstrate this in their application.

I think there are three key components that make great Geography candidates:

They can demonstrate scholarship and critical engagement.

This is simply a sense of reading and thinking about what you’ve read. The best Geographers – even just when we consider this in terms of an A Level essay, for example – are able to recognise lots of ideas, lots of case studies and examples, and evaluate and think about what that means. They don’t accept ideas at face value, but are able to thoughtfully incorporate them in to their existing understanding.

And, just like in our A Level experience, the best Geographers are able to play at a level above their existing understanding. They’re able to demonstrate engagement with undergraduate quality thinking (or beyond!), rather than sticking closely to the confines of their specification and taught course. Most often, this is demonstrated in an application through reading or engagement activities (e.g. RGS lectures, speaker events etc.).

Complexity and range of the discipline.

Geography is a huge subject, and there are lots of areas of it which have their own focus and specialisation. A great Geography candidate is able to recognise that there’s a lot of ideas out there, and that you *don’t* have to engage with, or indeed, be an expert on all of them.

In an application, then, it’s often better to show deeper engagement with a smaller slice of the discipline – I am interested in X, so I read Y, and followed that up with Z, and explored that further with A, B and C – rather than trying to show that you know all of the bits of Geography in a very limited or superficial way. Again, this is really about critical and sustained engagement – rather than brief and light touch!

Explaining and exploring the ideas.

Fundamentally, the biggest differentiation between Oxford & Cambridge (and a couple of other places) and other universities is the focus on dialogic teaching as the key focus of your student experience. As well as lectures, seminars and workshops that you’d have at any Geography Department, you’ll get regular discussions and debates in small groups. At Oxford, they’re called tutorials, and Cambridge call them supervisions. But at heart, you’re expected to be able – and willing – to discuss your ideas regularly with your tutor and peers, and hold your own in an academic conversation about the particular topic in question.

So, you need to be able to talk coherently about your subject. This isn’t really something that gets discussed in your initial application phases, but it’s the primary purpose of the interview phase.

I’ve said before that I believe the best way of doing this is through a ‘rich diet of Geography education’ from start to finish. We want thoughtful, engaged and enthusiastic Geographers in all of our lessons – and good dialogic teaching helps to model the scholarship and communication elements. The more students can hear and see what academic Geographical discussion looks like in their day to day, the less work they’ll have to do to prepare specifically for the application phase.

As we come towards the Sixth Form, though, I think it’s worth having some strategies in place for explicitly raising the level of engagement and scholarship, and making it accessible and normal for students to explore the world of academic Geography:

  1. Consider whether your school can support and subscribe to journals or publications so they can regularly be visible to students. You might like to get them to explore the GA’s GEO platform, or some of the additional resources on the RGS website
  2. Can you subscribe to the Royal Geographical Society so that you have access to lectures and speaker programmes?
  3. Alternatively, can you set up a Geographical Society for Sixth Form students to speak – and hear guest speakers – in your own school, or nearby schools? If you’ve got good connections with careers leaders, or former students, they can be really helpful to push towards interesting topics to cover! If you have students doing EPQs, or extended essays and similar thoughts – then getting them to show and talk about their work can be really powerful as a demonstration of academic thinking.
  4. Depending on your school and Department context, it’s interesting to think about what access to books and reading your students might have. You might be able to work with your library team, if you have one, to get great material in. If that’s not an option, a few books each year can soon build up a Department library of great reading material that can be kept in one of your classrooms, or a shared office space. Having the ability to say “oh, yes, you should read…. this book on that interesting question”, and be able to recommend and hand the student the book sends a really powerful message about academic reading, and makes it part of the normal process.

This helps to prepare students for the three parts of excellent Geography, and gives them interesting points for research to make decisions about what to apply for, and exactly what to look for in their decision-making process.

It’ll also be a key part of preparing for the personal statement process, and I think should be the key focus for Year 12 and the summer period.

Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge. Part 2: What are the timescales?

Realistically, a lot of the process for applying to Oxbridge is no different to other universities – you’ve got to make good decisions based on your research and thinking, and then prepare a high quality application.

So, what’s different?

First, the timescale is accelerated. Unlike other university applications, the first phase of UCAS needs to be done by October 15th. This means that a lot of the work needs to be done in between Year 12 and Year 13, rather than purely at the start of Y13 as you might be able to do for other application cycles.

Second, there are often additional requirements involved. This might be the submission of work, the completion of pre-interview assessments (Thinking Skills Assessments for Oxford, traditionally), and the interview process. These all take time to prepare, and it’s helpful if you can have a clear sequence from start to finish in your mind.

I’d recommend something like this:

Year 12, Spring TermStudent: Decide whether you are interested in Oxbridge Student: Decide which one, and why – this might involve course research, topic knowledge, or even structural thoughts about interview and approach. Teacher: Clarify timescale and expectations of work that’s needed Teacher: Start thinking about reading and wider experiences
Year 12, Summer TermStudent: Focus on high quality of reading and wider experience, start developing first draft of personal statement Student: Look at additional requirements and plan accordingly – you may want to acquire TSA prep materials for Oxford candidates, and start thinking about how to support that. Note that Oxford and Cambridge have broadly consistent approaches across their whole cohort (i.e. Oxford Geography requires TSA, Cambridge doesn’t), but they might have some individual needs depending on College (e.g. submitted work). Check carefully! Teacher: Check in with your exams officer about what might be needed (and when) for entry to additional tests if required. Teacher: Agree a timescale/drafting process for PS drafts – normally want “a good one” by first week back!  
Year 13, SeptemberStudent: complete normal UCAS application proforma Student: draft and complete Personal Statement Student: start thinking about any additional requirements – e.g. submitted work or SAQ answers Teacher: support with PS draft Teacher: support with transition to test prep if required
Year 13, OctoberFor Oxford: test preparation for TSA Normally takes place at the end of the half term, or in the first week back. Check carefully on deadlines for entry and on the date of the test – it *must* be done in person on that day, so holidays can’t happen!
Year 13, NovemberYou may or may not know if you have an invitation to interview. But prepare as if you do – lots of conversations, practice interviews, and scholarly reading exercises
Year 13, DecemberInterview window is normally first two weeks of December, although decisions might not come until January!

This is an idealised timetable. No matter when a student decides they want to apply to Oxbridge – and in the days of AS/A2, we’d have some who’d realise they were good enough after their AS results day in August….! – they can always make a good application in a shorter time-frame.

However, as with anything, the more time you have available to prepare and think, the better the outcome is likely to be, and the lower the stress for candidate and teachers respectively!

So, I’d encourage starting early to lay the groundwork. This builds on the principle of ‘the rich diet of Geography education’ and allows developing and meaningful conversations to happen over the timetable!

Supporting Geography Candidates for University & Oxbridge. Part 1: Raising Aspirations

Part of our job as Geography teachers is always about raising aspirations of our students – whether that’s in the completion of an individual task, discussion or exercise, the grades that they can achieve, or their eventual destinations that they can move towards.

We do this all the time by:

  • Having high standards of Geography – always encouraging people to think deeply and explore more perspectives.
  • Extended and enriched ‘diet’ of Geography – trips, visits, competitions, reading, modelling a wider and deeper engagement with the subject at all levels.
  • Modelling interest and passion for our subject, and encouraging them to share the same excitement about their understanding of the world
  • Showing our own journey, and being open about our experiences that made us Geographers, or helped us. For some, it’s about talking about specific moments, decisions, or travel experiences – for others, it’s about university experiences.
  • Connecting further to our friends and peers who have studied Geography, and gone in to careers that aren’t “being a Geography teacher”

These help students to understand that ‘Geography is worth studying’ and that it’s a valid and approachable option for them. Hopefully, it’s part of what we’re all doing in our classrooms right from Year 7 onwards – and this “rich diet” narrative will be really important for the creation of high quality Geography students over their curriculum experience. You simply can’t do it all in Sixth Form.

If you are specifically looking to raise aspirations towards Oxbridge, then it’s worth considering:

  • Access and outreach visits from Oxbridge tutors and admissions teams. Most Colleges have specific parts of the country that they’re responsible for, and specific connections. If you can get multiple schools together, then it’s worth them coming to you.
  • Access and outreach visits to Oxbridge are really valuable in providing an insight in to the people and places – they can be complex to organise, and support from the outreach teams is invaluable. It’s normally worth having a multiple-subject approach – for your school, or for groups of schools, rather than trying to make it subject-specific. They can be hugely helpful in allowing students in Y12 to make decisions about picking Colleges, or deciding between universities, for instance.
  • However, it’s often worth considering this in Year 10/Year 11 for students – the motivational push for GCSE grades, or in helping them to select their A Level subjects can be really valuable. And, as we said before, it’s sometimes worth having the idea planted before reaching Sixth Form.

If you can, getting former students who’ve had success in their interview or application process is a really valuable connection between “the students” and “people like me” getting success and making it real.

The other component of this is the “have you considered?” kind of conversation – with talented students who haven’t potentially considered themselves as Oxbridge candidates, and encouraging them to think about it or look at it. I know this was my own experience – Mr Phipps and Mr Russell as gentle guide encouraging me to think of these options. Often, this is a combination of confidence building – students with excellent GCSE profiles and likely A*/A at A Level, having a chance to think about what and where they might be able to study.

There’s a difficult balance to strike between raising aspirations and putting pressure on students. Some people will find the support welcome – and others might resist it. Like any other Sixth Form experience, the relationship and understanding your students (and their context, their parents, their motivation/aspiration) is critical.

So, assuming a rich diet of thinking has taken place through the Geography curriculum, what kind of timescale are we talking about? Let’s have a look.