Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Doing’ Geography Instead Of ‘Studying’ It

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 23, 2014 15 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This week’s question is:

What are creative ways to teach geography?

Geography is included among the many different classes I teach each year, so I’m always interested in learning about creative approaches to the subject. And today’s contributors certainly share a number of them.

In addition to suggestions from readers, my guests include: Kelly Young, from whom I’ve learned more about teaching than from anyone else; Elisabeth Johnson, who is the best social studies teacher I’ve ever seen; middle school educator Lisa Butler; and Matt Podbury, who teaches Geography at an International School in France.

Readers might also be interested in a ten-minute conversation I had with Kelly and Elisabeth on my BAM! Radio Show. In addition, I’ve compiled three related resource lists:

The Best Websites For Learning & Teaching Geography

The Best Geography Sites For Beginning & Intermediate English Language Learners

The Best Online Geography Games

Response From Kelly Young

Kelly Young is founder and executive director of Pebble Creek Labs, a training and curriculum consulting company focused on instruction, literacy and leadership development. Since 1998 Pebble Creek Labs has partnered with schools and districts to promote student achievement and develop educators. Kelly can be reached at kelly@kellyjyoung.com:

Creative Geography starts with an orientation of “doing” geography as opposed to studying it.

For a class that can be wildly creative, exciting, stimulating, for too long it’s been a passive memorization of maps, definitions, and terms with a heavy dose of video viewing.

We have had a lot of success with two principle strategies to emphasize “active” geography.

The Inductive Model w/ Statistical Data Sets - A data set consists of 15-25 data pieces per country--population, population density, birth rate, death rate, fertility rate, average income, life expectancy, number of universities, literacy rate, military spending, number of hospitals, etc. Students examine data on countries of a region looking for trends, outliers, interesting facts. “Did you know that only 5% of Brazil’s population is over 65? Or, in Norway life expectancy is 81 years?” In addition they consider and test hypothesis. “If a country has a high literacy rate, is their per capita income also high?” Hypotheses are tested and students respond, “I found that in 14 of the 17 countries examined in South America, countries with low population density also had high infant mortality rates.” Students also study variables by region and come up with mean averages to make generalizations about regions. “In general, Northern European countries are literate, wealthy (relatively high per capita income) and Protestant, whereas countries in southern Europe are less literate, poor, and Roman Catholic.

This strategy is excellent for “doing” geography. Students become comfortable with data, with identifying generalities and outliers, with asking questions, with creating and testing hypothesis. In short, learning and honing tools for thinking.

Another very successful strategy is Read Alouds/Think Alouds. This begins with finding great writing, a joyful assignment for any curious teacher. There is a plethora of fantastic and evocative writing describing all regions of our globe, writing that “puts you in the setting”, visualizing the sights, smells, sounds and feel of a locale. All our Read Alouds finish with an engaging writing prompt, causing students to often reread text (without they knowing it) and write to the prompt. Partner talk is often part of the mix. Depending on the text sophistication and student skill level, using some Think Aloud cues while reading the passage to students often guides students to important information in the text or particularly interesting writing. Because a Read Aloud activity--teacher reads, students write, students share, class discusses--is usually 8-10 minutes long, we frequently use a series of passages, three to four, for a more complete lesson that exposes students to a broader range of the topics (e.g., New Orleans music, food, cemeteries, architecture, topography, etc.).

We have found this strategy to be high interest, low risk, and one that peaks interest in a region while simultaneously building a knowledge base.

A very productive off-shoot of this easily available on-line are high quality photos of a city, region, country for the purpose of a slide show to accompany Read Alouds. Images are shown quickly with students viewing pen in hand, writing questions, noting what they see, and responding to prompts.

The point of both strategies - Inductive Model and Read/Think Alouds--is to create Geography classrooms of active learning; data, literature and image rich with many opportunities to engage.

Response From Elisabeth Johnson

Elisabeth Johnson teaches Geography as well as Government and Economics for ELL students at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. As a teacher consultant of the for the Area 3 Writing Project Elisabeth has worked with local teachers to increase student literacy in the Social Sciences:

Geography is often the first of the social science a student takes in high school with the purpose of introducing students to the diversity of people and places that make up our world. Unfortunately, quiz shows and nationally televised pageants tell us that Americans are missing a lot of Geographical knowledge. I think this is due to a lack of interest in Geography.

To pique a students’ interest I find it helpful to make geography an experience, a journey that the class takes together in an effort to understand our world better. Utilize your knowledge as a teacher and resources to create as vibrant of a journey as possible. For example, as teachers we know that our students are very interested in music so why not use that interest to explore the world? Use free internet radio to give students an idea of the music that is popular in an area of the world. Most internet radio websites have features to request music by genre or a popular artist to help you create a station for that area of the world. Have students close their eyes and listen closely to the music, what do they hear? Is the music the fast- paced, heavy drum beat music of Bollywood, or is it the slow tranquil guitar of the Bossa Nova music popular in Brazil? Encourage students to ask questions and draw conclusions about the people and places based on the music they hear and modify those ideas as you move through your unit. As you move to new areas of the world have students compare the similarities and differences of the music from different areas of the globe. Use the questions and ideas generated about the music to guide your study of a place creating and inquiry based unit stemming from something of interest to your students, music.

Another way to infuse the idea of a journey through your geography classroom is to create a travel story to help students remember the names and locations of countries in the world. Your travel story is a mnemonic device which uses link words to help students recall names of countries. This same idea is used in math, remember when we all learned, “please excuse my dear aunt Sally” to remember the order of operations? Create a link word or a special word(s) that can help students to recall the name of the country. The link word can rhyme with the name of the country or be something unique about that country that the student will remember. Like “bowl” for Bolivia, “big” for Brazil, or “pyramids” for Egypt. Connect the link words together to form a short travel story. Have students create visuals for link word and a Total Physical Response. In this way your mnemonic device, the travel story, is reaching a variety of learning styles. Make sure you stay between seven and ten countries at a time, any more than that and the information becomes too much to retain long term.

By using what we know our students are interested in and learning devices used in other areas of education we can increase the desire to learn Geography and perhaps the success rate.

Response From Lisa Butler

Lisa Butler is a middle school Social Studies teacher in Hershey, Pennsylvania. She teaches in a BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) classroom, so a wide variety of technology tools and resources are utilized for teaching and learning about Geography. Butler is a life-long learner, whose favorite classroom is the world, so she takes many opportunities to travel:

Maps represent the world and bring physical and human geography alive for students. Technology provides many opportunities to engage the students by letting them apply geographic concepts and explore the world. It also captures their attention and brings complex topics into focus.

Early in geography, students need skills to interpret maps. To foster a sense of exploration, have the students search by latitude and longitude coordinates on Google Maps. Students would switch to Street View. They would be responsible for describing and categorizing the physical characteristics, while simultaneously practicing absolute location. There are endless map options online beyond just Google Maps. When teaching thematic maps, I use show.mappingworlds.com to provide conversation starters. The cartograms morph to display data. There are themes that could be analyzed and connected to more specific discussions.

Bring personal connections into the lesson by asking students to research data to be mapped. For example with the theme of movement, you could ask students where their grandparents were born or which country manufactured the items in their outfit. The students submit their answers on a Google Form; the results could easily be transferred to an Add-On in Google Spreadsheets or to a separate website like BatchGeo. Both tools map and publish the results for students to explore. Do not rush the students randomly clicking on points and seeing what these spots represent. The learning will come from the questions they ask as follow-up.

Images speak a universal language and bring physical and human geography alive. Google’s Cultural Institute highlights World Wonders ranging from physical characteristics like the Great Barrier Reef to human characteristics like the Taj Mahal; in total, there are over 160 places to explore. National Geographic is a well-respected resource with an active Instagram account. They disseminate daily images and stories that could spark an interest in learning.

There are some topics that are too foreign for students to be taught in isolation. For middle school students, this includes economic principles that overlap with geography. They are best taught in context. A website like Curriculet allows a news article to be uploaded. Additional media, maps, and links provide context in line with the text it references. It could even include a link to a serious game on GamesforChange.org.

Technology is not mandatory; maps from tourism boards are also effective. All of these activities provide authentic study of geographical topics.

Response From Matt Podbury

Matt Podbury is the Head of Geography at the International School of Toulouse, France and the author of Geography Pods. His Twitter “handle” is @mattpodbury:

I’m sure that wherever you teach geography, be it in Toulouse, Talco or Turin you have a set of fairly dry looking curriculum documents somewhere that you need to follow. Of course, the natural hazards unit always jumps out as a favorite, but it is down to us as geography educators to formulate creative and exciting approaches to those areas that aren’t traditionally as exciting. This approach can be best achieved by embedding the ‘awe and wonder’ approach into your geography curriculum using the many free tools you have at your disposal.

In an age where we we have access to almost limitless data, Google Earth, Google Images, Google Streetview, Google Hangouts, CIA World Factbook, Skype Chats, Facebook, Youtube, Vimeo, Flickr and the such like can be used to open the doors to places that our students perhaps will never visit and create that awe and wonder.

As an introduction to geography for our new High School students in Toulouse, I use a simple clothes line that the students have to position themselves on to show how they are connected to each other. This immediately reveals the scope of the geography that they will be studying in terms of globalization, place, culture, physical landscapes and the environment and makes a very nice display afterwards (not with students still attached).

At the end of this first year course, we also ask students to create their own ‘Landscapes in a Box’. No technology involved, but a lot of glue, color and mess! Creative geography at its best.

Using role play and debate is hugely beneficial and we do many such activities with our second year students. One such role is embedded into the Mount Everest scheme of work and asks the students to make difficult about managing tourism on Everest and the removal of dead bodies from the ‘Death Zone/' Another is based around the key stakeholders involved in the construction of an out of town shopping centre in Toulouse. This always gets very heated as all students get really into their roles and play them out fantastically.

Out third year students use their artistic skills to design pieces of Amazonian art that aim to depict first contact and then leads on to a debate on whether these indigenous people should be left alone. They also have to become budding architects and create a more sustainable tourism development complex for Niagara Falls. We then bring elements of marketing and business by teaching and then completing a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis on the finished product.

Our students in Toulouse have their own school Google accounts and so we make the most of this in the fourth year (IGCSE) by giving students to design, create and upload their own start stop animations on coastal and river processes to YouTube. Amazing what a bit of modelling clay and a camera can do and how well they remember the processes in the lead up to their final exams.

Our Baccalaureate students, on top of having endless essays and projects to complete, are also given the opportunity to be creative. We team up with the drama department and students are required to take a particular scenario concerning the impact of gender inequality. They then have to write and produce their own mini production, props and theatre program before acting it our live in the studio.

The subject lends itself to fieldwork approach and so, most importantly, every effort should be made to get the students out of the classroom and experiencing real life geography, whether it is a study of fluvial processes in the Grand Canyon or siting a bench in the school grounds encouraging the use of weather recording data and the study of microclimates.

Of course, we still have essays, projects, notes, homework tasks and the like to plough through. But now, more than ever, we have new and exciting ways to bring the subject to life, move away from the traditional text book and enthuse and fire up our geographers of today and tomorrow.

If you come up with something exciting, share the good news using the #geographyteacher on Twitter. We have a small but growing community of geographers who are making a real difference.

Responses From Readers

Meryl van der Merwe:

Play a video about a geographic location and follow it up with a quiz on what they saw (I warn the students there will be a quiz before we start).

An offline Scavenger Hunt where I provide a stack of library books and brochures I get from travel companies, official country websites etc. I divide them into teams and give them an hour to find the answers to as many questions as possible.

For review I have devised my own versions of pictionary, taboo, hangman, charades etc that we do with concepts / places we have learned about in previous weeks.

Linda Lonergan:

Thinglink with a picture of a map that has links connected to show various aspects of the area. Also, Google Maps Engine Lite (now called My Maps) or Tour Builder, they both allow you to add pictures and videos to a map.


Create a Web search with questions where the students have to hunt for answers. The best tools I have found to pull facts from are the cia.gov factbook and google earth. Also groliers had an interactive map on their library database if your school has access to that. Google Earth has a ruler tool that allows students to “measure” one location to another. The CIA site shows different countries size relation to America which gives great visual comparisons for students. I got these ideas from an awesome Global 9 teacher that I work with!

Thanks to Kelly, Elisabeth, Lisa and Matt , and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first three years of blog, you can see a categorized list below. You won’t see posts from school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking on the monthly archives link on blog’s sidebar:

Student Motivation

Implementing The Common Core

Teaching Reading and Writing

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching Social Studies

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Teaching English Language Learners

Using Tech In The Classroom

Education Policy Issues

Teacher & Administrator Leadership

Instructional Strategies


Teaching Math & Science

Brain-Based Learning

School Relationships

Author Interviews

Professional Development

Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Watch for the new “question-of-the-week” in a few days....

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.