Why are concepts important?

I have been having some great discussions this week with Stephen Matthews (@srmdrummer) around teaching geographic concepts that have made me revisit my philosophy and teaching approach. This video of Sir Ken Robinson talking about subjects as disciplines provides a good example of the discussions we have had:

I believe that Geography is concerned with social issues and that geographic educators should be equipping their students to take action in society. Increasingly global issues such as climate change, globalisation, sustainability and social justice are making headlines and Geography should assist students with their understanding of these issues.

The Ministry of Education Teaching and Learning Guidelines for Geography echoes this citizenship and participatory thrust in the rationale for the subject. The headings of this rationale are:

  • Geography stimulates a sense of wonder about the world;
  •  Geography inspires students to help shape a better future;
  •  Geography equips students with skills for the future


A number of authors have argued that teaching for conceptual understanding better equips learners to participate in their own worlds (see Teaching Geography: A Conceptual Approach by Lambert & Morgan for more on this). The deeper understanding a concept-led approach produces is what assists students to transfer this classroom knowledge to real-world situations in future. In addition, increased conceptual understanding can lead to a stronger ability to critically participate in society.

In New Zealand our old Important Geographic Ideas have just been replaced by the Key Geographic Concepts. Teachers are encouraged to choose additional concepts that connect with the course of study as long as they have a spatial component.

Important Geographic Ideas Key Geographic Concepts http://seniorsecondary.tki.org.nz/Social-sciences/Geography/Key-concepts
Location Environments
Distance Perspectives
Accessibility Processes
Patterns Patterns
Processes Interaction
Regions Change
Interaction Sustainability

Arguably, the newer key geographic concepts could be seen as more ambiguous and complex, that is, allowing many different interpretations to be made. I have heard concepts such as these called “essentially contested concepts”. Peoples’ understandings of contested concepts, such as sustainability, differ according to their perspective and students need to understand that their own conceptual understandings may also be disputed by others. Social concepts in particular are difficult for students to understand as their meanings overlap, so focusing on big ideas and allowing students repeated interaction with these concepts allows them to develop their understanding in depth.

Another way of thinking about the key geographic concepts is that they are the ‘threshold concepts’ that students need to develop an understanding of to think geographically (See here for more on this). Threshold concepts are concepts that open up a new perspective. They provide a transformed understanding or interpretation, so in the case of Geography, threshold concepts would allow you to think geographically. To be a threshold concept they need to be:

  • Transformative – provide a significant shift in perception
  • Integrative – expose previously hidden inter-relatedness
  • Irreversible – difficult to un-learn
  • Troublesome – they have barriers to being understood

By gaining a deep understanding of the key geographic concepts, students will develop their ability to critically inquire with a geographic lens – that is, they will be thinking geographically (This book is a fantastic resource on teaching this lens to students). Slinger  found that as students negotiated threshold levels of geographic concepts they developed their ability to think geographically about the world around them. To enable students to develop a deeper threshold level understanding of geographic concepts, Slinger states that teachers need to understand “that learning is an iterative process akin to a journey that is unlikely to be linear, is most probably recursive as learners negotiate thresholds, and that will involve a transfiguration of identity as well as thought”. This transfiguration of identity allows students to begin viewing the world with a geographic lens.


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