GeoCapabilities: Teachers as Curriculum Leaders
Thinking Geographically with Powerful Disciplinary Knowledge
Protocols for uploading examples of using geography as ‘powerful
We are seeking short ‘vignettes’ that can illustrate the geo in GeoCapabilities.
One of the ideas that underpins GeoCapabilities is the need for teachers (and students) to
understand and value geographical knowledge as ‘powerful disciplinary knowledge’
PDK means more than the possession or acquisition of ‘facts’. Having PDK means
understanding and interpreting the world in ways that are distinctive. Specialist teachers
provide students with opportunities to access PDK, and the ability to think in distinctive
and disciplined ways. Geography teachers support the development of geographical
We invite you to provide an example to convey what you think is the PDK that underpins
thinking geographically. We askyou to describe a specific example of something you teach
in geography that demonstrates what is special and distinctive about thinking
We are collecting examples from teachers using this template
Title (geographic topic, theme or issue)
Your name and contact details
Your institution and address
Description (150 words maximum) – Describe your chosen topic, theme and
issue in geographical terms.
Illustration – photograph, diagram, image
Discussion (150 words maximum) – A reflection that explains what makes
your example evidence of powerful disciplinary knowledge (PDK). For
• What is geographically theoretical or conceptual about the example?
• How does the example support geographical thinking in a way that
is systematic (i.e., has value for interpreting the example in a way
that expresses the intellectual significance of geographical and
spatial concepts such as location, place, region, pattern, spatial
hierarchy, regional identity, etc.)
We have included some contrasting examples to get you started
1. ‘Boulder Clay’
An example from physical geography
An example from conservation
TOPIC Boulder clay and coastal geomorphology
NAME Richard Bustin (email@example.com)
INSTITUTION/LOCATION City of London Freemen’s School, London UK
My Year 10 class (15 year olds) know that ‘the Holderness coastline (on the east coast of
England) is made from boulder clay’.
This is not everyday knowledge. But is it ‘powerful knowledge’? I would argue it is not, on
its own, powerful knowledge. It is just a more or less correct ‘fact’.
However, ‘boulder clay’ (or more precisely glacial till) could be conceptualised in a
number of ways by different academic disciplines - chemists would be interested in its
chemical composition, physicists might look at its tensile strength and the way it behaves
under different stress and pressures. Geographers could look at it in a number of ways,
but they are distinctive. For example, geomorphologists would develop their knowledge
of boulder clay in terms of its physical properties of permeability, its tendency to slump
and move under gravity and how it affects (and is affected by) its environmental context.
To fully understand boulder clay geographically it needs to be placed within the context
of its origins (from glacial deposition some 10-20,000 years ago) and its surroundings,
which in the case of the clay on the Holderness coastline includes its location next to the
sea. The actions of the sea (which also can be conceptualised in a number of ways) are of
importance to understand the significance of the boulder clay as the wave action
undercuts the clay cliffs to cause rapid cliff retreat.
Our knowledge of ‘boulder clay’ (or glacial till) is shaped by the way it is conceptualised
in the discipline of geography. For instance, we do not fully comprehend the significance
of this phenomenon without knowledge of its origins, composition and location. It is this
that makes it ‘powerful’. It is almost the ‘back story’ of boulder clay - the way boulder clay
is understood - that is indicative of the way geographers identify and describe it, and its
TOPIC Conservation areas and National Parks
NAME Duncan Hawley
INSTITUTION Geographical Association, 160 Solly Street, Sheffield S1 4BF
Teaching about conservation areas and National Parks features strongly in my geography
teaching. It is easy to teach ‘factual’ information in these topics, especially if taught by using
a series of case studies of the sort illustrated in text books.
However, I have asked myself what ‘PDK’ was key to understanding certain
questions: For example, (i) why some types of environment need special
protection, and (ii) how particular types of environment have come to be.
Furthermore, I am interested in how students might be helped to consider certain
ideas: For example, (i) the value of environments, (ii) the conflicting demands on
environments and (iii) the possible implications of changing and managing
GeoCapabilities helps in thinking these questions through. Thus, we can think
about how the key geographical ideas that may be helpful to students. If we
deconstruct the idea of environmental conservation from a geographical
perspective we can soon arrive at the following statements:
1. Different places have individual (unique) characteristics.
2. Some environments are consideredvaluable to people (for different reasons), and
sometimes in ways that are hard to measure.
3. Places can be altered by people's activities
4. Some types of places can be easily created and some types of place cannot be
easily re-created once destroyed or altered.
5. Some valuable places might need special protection to slow down change or
reduce to levels that are acceptable or where ‘natural recovery’ occurs.
6. People who are directly affected by the special protection of an environment are
often involved in the creation of alternative lifestyles, or at least new ways of
thinking about the protected environment.
These are all ‘geographical’ perspectives. They represent generalisations that are not
necessarily self-evident or obvious. And yet they are helpful to underpin an intelligent
conversation about conservation or National Parks.
These ideas provide a very useful way of thinking about environments and highlighting
conservation from a specifically geographical perspective. The deconstructed (key) ideas
in the statements can be reconstructed in several different ways, depending on the
particular case being studied or the resources available or selected as most appropriate
in the curriculum making process. Using their geographical understanding students gain
the capability to reason critically: for example, to decide whether an environment might
be given a designation of being ‘special’ (whether considering a ‘natural’ or urban
environment). They can be given the opportunity to argue over alternative scenarios for
the management of change in these environments.