What do we know about initial teacher education in geography?

Simon Catling, Emeritus Professor Oxford Brookes University

What do we know? Surprisingly little it seems, at least from scholarly articles and research.

Though we have details about issues in teacher recruitment and entry into the workforce (Tapsfield, 2016; UCET, 2023), initial teacher education is not a well-researched area, as Butt (2020) indicates in his study of research in geography education in the UK.

There has been some research during the past twenty to thirty years mostly in small scale and single institution studies and typically examining prospective teachers’ ideas about geography, their learning about teaching geography and teacher educators’ identities.  But there has been plenty of public debate on what should be included in geography teacher education programmes in universities or schools, frequently referencing Ofsted inspections, and government policies that determine broadly what should be in courses. Much of what we understand about geography initial teacher education is gained through geography teacher educators talking to each other, such as through publications and conference presentations. While longstanding key texts, such as Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School (Biddulph et al., 2021) provide invaluable guidance for pre-service geography teachers, they say little about the nature and impact of their courses for such prospective geography teachers. This is also true of those texts for future primary teachers, such as Mastering Primary Geography (Barlow and Whitehouse, 2019). 

Perhaps it should be of concern to us that as geography teacher educators we know so little about learning to teach our subject from research, even though ‘research engagement’ is now de rigueur in the teaching profession. (Lambert, 2018)

Secondary teacher education programmes are promoted with succinctly informative outlines of why they are of value in learning to teach geography. Such promotions identify what courses say they cover, including the time and focus of teaching and study in school. What we cannot get a sense of – though perhaps we need to investigate – is whether what is advertised about geography secondary courses is lived up to in the practice of the full programme. In comparison, primary initial teacher education programmes offer a different sales pitch, basing these courses in teaching the whole curriculum and developing younger children’s skills in the core areas of literacy and mathematics. Geography rarely gets a mention. We need to explore why marketing geography (and indeed other foundation subjects) in primary courses is rare and whether geography course provisions ought to be more evidently mentioned. 

If we believe that learning to teach geography in certain ways is necessary and significant for future teachers, we need to research what this is and gather the evidence. Likewise, we should investigate what it is that prospective teachers of geography bring to these primary and secondary programmes. Why do they join the programme they do, as undergraduates or postgraduates? What is the range of understanding and experience pertinent to geography which they and tutors assume they have? How do geography tutors use such information in their courses, if they do? Again, we know positive approaches are enacted but largely through anecdotal discussions rather than thorough robust research investigation.

While there are some commonalities across secondary and primary pre-service programmes there are also fundamental differences. A prospective secondary geography teacher will spend time in school (preferably more than one) working with geography colleagues and teaching geography lesson sequences, often (but not always) encouraged to bring stimulus and some novelty to lessons. Although it may well be that future primary teachers are able to teach lessons in a focused geography topic during their school experiences, it is possible they may not encounter geography teaching at all. We know such disparities exist, but we need research on the extent of the range of experience of future primary and secondary teachers in learning to teach geography in schools. What is the extent of such disparities and how do they affect future teachers’ potential and capabilities as teachers of geography? 

Much has been made of the role of curriculum making in geography education (Biddulph, 2018). In what ways does this intellectual and practical activity feature in preservice courses and, if it does, how does it contribute to high levels of teacher agency (Biesta, Priestley and Robinson, 2015). More investigations into the work of geography mentors, given their important role, is also needed, to develop their work in secondary geography initial teacher education (Healey et al., 2022). It is also required to provide evidence of the practice (or its lack) by primary geography subject leads (Howells et al., 2021). Indeed, we might ask, who the primary geography mentors are and how are they chosen; and, if geography is well taught in the primary schools to which prospective teachers are sent for their school placements. Is there any evidence for example that primary schools which have earned the GA’s Primary Geography Quality Mark are better placements than those without? And why?

These topics and issues are not simply matters for the countries of the UK. There is little available information about the nature of the course content in secondary and primary pre-service courses across the nations of the world. Overall, research is lacking across institutions and schools about how courses are taught and what their impact is, let alone about comparability between providers. With the increasing diversity of providers and their number, this is not a straightforward concern to research. Indeed, this diversity has become a legitimate matter of research in its own right as private individuals and groups have begun to take an entrepreneurial interest in teacher training – and in some settings with very little public accountability (eg Black, 2015).

In much of the world, there appears to be negligible (comparative) analysis of pre-service geography courses, their staffing, their time provision, their resourcing and the placements of their prospective teachers of geography. There is little to draw on globally to help future research and comparison.

The geography education research community debates curriculum questions and the question of geographical knowledge (eg Morgan and Lambert, 2023). Individuals share experiences, ideas and intentions about teaching pe-service teachers how to teach geography to infant children right through to A level students. Yet as a community we seem to find it difficult to research and draw well-grounded findings from teaching pre-service students and their courses, so that we can develop, (re)construct and be creative about the courses we provide. The community seems to have been more trusting of service and experience than of research, capable of critiquing preservice course strengths and limitations and of government proposals and policies, but reluctant to examine presumptions and claims through systematic and dispassionate research.

Geography pre-service teacher education has been working in an environment of changing expectations and shifting requirements for many years, which seem to need constant shifts of focus and course revisions, if not closure. Before one set of changes can bed in and be properly reviewed for effectiveness or efficacy, the next set of changes seem designed to ensure that this is not possible to do, and so we move, poorly informed, from one set of changes to another. Does this really matter other than to ourselves? If it does, how can we fund and find the time in busy and over-pressed working schedules to do the research into our own practices?


Barlow, A. and Whitehouse, S. (2019) Mastering Primary Geography. London: Bloomsbury.

Biddulph, M. (2018) Curriculum Enactment in Jones, M. and Lambert, D. (Eds) Debates in Geography Education.Abingdon: Routledge.

Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A companion to school experience. Abingdon: Routledge.

Biesta, G., Priestley, M. and Robinson, S. (20115) “The role of beliefs in teacher agency.” Teachers and Teaching21(6), 624-640.

Black, L. (2015) Schools officials’ consulting raises questions of transparency. Chicago Tribune. October 23.

Butt, G. (2020) Geography Education Research in the UK: Retrospect and Prospect. Cham: Springer.

Healey, G., Hammond, L., Puttick, S. and Walshe, N. (Eds) (2022) Mentoring Geography Teachers in the Secondary School: A Practical Guide. Abingdon: Routledge.

Howells, K. and Lawrence, J. with Roden, J. (2021) Mentoring Teachers in the Primary School: A Practical Guide. Abingdon: Routledge.

Lambert, D. (2018) Teaching as a research-engaged profession: uncovering a blind spot and revealing new possibilities, London Review of Education. 16(3) 357-370.

Morgan, J. and Lambert, D. (2023) Race, Racism and the Geography Curriculum. London: Bloomsbury Academic

Tapsfield, A. (2016) Teacher education and the supply of geography teachers in England. Teaching Geography, 41(2), 105-109.

UCET (2023) Response to the Call for Evidence to the Education Select Committee: Teacher recruitment, training and retention. London: UCET.


Geography teacher educators’ identity, roles and professional learning in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world

Dr Emma Rawlings Smith, Department of Education, University of Oxford and Dr Elizabeth Rushton, Institute of Education, University College London

In this blog we discuss a recently published paper in International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education titled ‘Geography teacher educators’ identity, roles and professional learning in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world’, in which we explore the role, identity and professional learning of geography teacher educators, through a subject lens.

Initial teacher education (ITE) systems worldwide have been the subject of significant government review and reform driven by the development of neoliberal discourses, policies and practices across the sector. For teacher educators, this ‘policy turn’ (Cochran-Smith, 2016) has resulted in increased centralisation, the narrowing of ITE curricular and a complex, fragmented and challenging context in which to work. Yet, teacher educators – those who teach teachers through initial or continuing teacher education programmes – are not always recognised for the vital role they play in the sector and the significant impact they have on the quality of teachers entering the profession. 

Critics have argued that current policy reform is de-professionalising and allows the continued reproduction of social inequalities (Dwyer, Willis, & Call, 2020). At the same time, sustainability continues to be absent in teacher education policy in England (Dunlop & Rushton, 2022). We find these aspects troubling when considering the key role of education in creating a socially just and sustainable world (UN, 2021). Teacher educators worldwide continue to work in contexts which are shaped and informed by persistent policy reform and global environmental crises which we argue, combine to create a professional life that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). Although, the contribution and identities of teachers, especially geography teachers, to the teaching of climate change and sustainability in formal education has been widely recognised (Rushton, 2021), the important context of teacher education, and geography teacher education, has received far less research attention. Our research study addresses this gap and explores the professional role, identity and professional learning of Geography Teacher Educators (GTEs) based in England. 

A full account of our research study is available in Rawlings Smith and Rushton (2022). Here, we outline the key findings. Drawing on data from an online questionnaire, a practitioner workshop and semi-structured interviews, our findings highlight the diverse nature of a GTE’s role with three broad aspects including a focus on geography; the development of pre-service teachers’ pedagogy; and provision of pastoral support. During interview, participants placed emphasis on the subject specialist element of their work – this was a thread running through their professional life – and they wanted to support pre-service teachers to build their own relationship with geography during ITE. They also emphasised the importance of pastoral care, compassion and kindness as teacher education is a challenging and intense period of professional transition and development for pre-service teachers. In terms of knowledge, GTEs articulated the importance of having secure and substantive geographical knowledge; knowledge of teaching school geography; and engagement with geography education. 

Drawing on diverse experiences and expertise, GTEs discussed the broader aims of education and how their role allowed them to promote social and environmental justice. Maintaining subject knowledge was seen as important but knowing where to source this was not always obvious. The forms of professional development GTEs recognised as key to their professional growth included engaging with research; professional learning within and beyond their institution; and being a member of the wider GTE community. With an appreciation of the serendipitous nature of professional learning activities, participants recognised the importance of the GTE community as a source and conduit for ongoing professional development.

Ahead of concluding this blog, we would like to invite readers to consider the following two questions:

  1. How can a geographical lens support new understandings of teacher education in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world? 
  2. Is there the will from teacher educators and policy makers to make social justice and sustainability more visible in teacher education policy in England?

In the time taken to complete and publish this research study, the context of ITE in England has significantly changed. Following policy reform, a Market Review and ITE reaccreditation process has seen long-established and highly regarded providers of ITE lose their accreditation for 2024, meaning parts of the country will have teacher supply cold spots (DfE, 2021; Adams, 2022). This VUCA context has affected everyone across the sector and has impacted the professional roles and identities of teacher educators, felt more acutely by those whose jobs may no longer exist in 2024. This reduction in provision seems illogical when the government want schools to be increasingly research-informed (Rawlings Smith, 2022) and counterproductive particularly amid a teacher recruitment crisis, for example postgraduate teacher recruitment was 29% below target in 2022/23 (DfE, 2022). 

Teacher education is a multi-faceted partnership involving schools, universities, policy makers, subject associations, professional bodies, unions and local communities to name but a few. We argue that teacher educators, and especially geography teacher educators, have a responsibility to work together to question and bravely challenge policy making which limits our capacity to leverage our professional roles to enable a socially and environmentally just future for all. There are many ways in which such questioning and challenge can occur, and we encourage that challenge to be constructive and collective. For example, active membership of professional bodies and subject associations and sharing perspectives and inviting future conversation and collaboration through blogs which are widely accessible are two possible ways. The VUCA context of teacher education in England can make engaging with policy change all the more challenging however, teacher educator communities of practice provide a vital space for this to continue. 


Adams, R. (2022). Teacher shortage could worsen after DfE rejects dozens of training courses, The Guardian Accessed 10 December 2022.

Cochran-Smith, C. (2016). Teaching and teacher education: Absence and presence in AERA presidential addresses. Educational Researcher, 45(2), 92–99.

Department for Education (DfE). (2021). Initial teacher training (ITT): Accreditation. London: HM Government. Accessed 12 December 2022.

Department of Education. (DfE) (2022). Postgraduate initial teacher training targets. London: HM Government. Accessed 12 December 2022.

Dunlop, L., & Rushton, E. A. C. (2022). Putting climate change at the heart of education: Is England’s strategy a placebo for policy? British Educational Research Journal

Dwyer, R., Willis, A., & Call, K. (2020). Teacher educators speaking up: Illuminating stories stifled by the iron-grip regulation of initial teacher education. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 48(5), 572–585.

Rawlings Smith, E. (2022). Breaking the theory-practice relationship: why decoupling universities from ITE would be illogical, CollectivED working papers, Leeds Beckett University.

Rawlings Smith, E., & Rushton, E.A.C. (2022). Geography teacher educators’ identity, roles and professional learning in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education.

Rushton, E. A. C. (2021). Building Teacher Identity in Environmental and Sustainability Education: The Perspectives of Preservice Secondary School Geography Teachers. Sustainability, 13(9), 5321.

United Nations (UN) (2021). Climate Change Conference: Co-chairs conclusions of education and environment ministers’ summit at COP26 s-conclusions-of-education-and-environment-ministers-summit-at-cop26/Accessed 12 December 2022.


Mentoring and the ‘production of space’: Research, practice and geographical futures

Lauren Hammond, Grace Healy, Steve Puttick and Nicola Walshe

Mentoring matters in, and for, geography education. Mentoring is critically important for inducting teachers of geography into teaching as a profession, and more broadly into the schools and communities that they serve. Mentoring is also invaluable for supporting the progression and development of experienced teachers, researchers and teacher educators throughout their careers. In our forthcoming (February 2022) edited collection Mentoring Geography Teachers in the Secondary School a wide range of geography educators – working in a variety of different settings – come together to explore mentoring (Healy et al., 2022). In this blog we have distilled their insights to offer a summary of arguments developed further in the book. We begin by critically examining the relationship between mentoring and the ‘production of space’, before exploring the relationships between geography and sustainability to consider the potential of mentoring for producing more just and inclusive futures in, and through, geography education.

Since we submitted this book for publication, the socio-political landscape of teacher education in England – the national policy context in which we all work – continues to be a space of contestation and debate. In Taylor and Healy’s (2021, n.p.) words, ‘teacher education has been shaped by neo-liberal political agendas that dispute the role of the university within the knowledge base for teaching, while supporting the advancement of the private sector within a teacher education ‘market’’. The recent Market Review of ITT (DfE, 2021) has resulted in significant concerns being raised about the role of the state in (decision-making about) Initial Teacher Education (ITE), including  – but not limited to – the role of disciplines (e.g., geography or history) in ITE (Hardman, 2021). For example, in their response to the Market Review consultation, the Geographical Association (2021) express that they are:

concerned by the level of prescription and limits to academic agency within the report’s recommendations, which risk undermining a critically-engaged professional ITE environment that allows for subject/phase-specific development of geography teachers. Longer-term, this would have significant implications for the status and professionalism of geography teaching.

Concerns raised by the Geographical Association and others across the sector (see for example, CCT, 2021; NASBTT, 2021; UCET, 2021) build upon pre-existing concerns about ITE policy. Particularly that the ITT Core Content Framework (CCF) (DfE, 2019) is framed by selective reading of a narrow research base which has the potential to remove prospective teachers of geography from the ‘reservoirs’ (Bernstein, 2000) of knowledge and expertise that exist in, and are supported by, disciplines in universities. Put another way, they contribute to what Taylor and Healy (2021, n.p.) term a space of ‘deeply contested policy-making’, with some universities considering the ethical and professional implications of continuing to support teacher education in this landscape (see for example, responses from UCL, 2021; University of Oxford, 2021). 

Stepping back from the particular challenges facing ITE in England, Morgan (2022) situates ITE amid fundamental intersecting crises facing the Earth as our shared home. These crises include, but are not limited to, the CV-19 pandemic, anthropogenically induced ecological and climate crises, and systemic and everyday injustices faced by people in different spaces because of their intersectional identities. Here, active consideration of the affective and embodied nature of community, and the disciplines of geography and education (and the relationships between them) is of critical importance.

Community in geography education is multifaceted, and we use it to foreground:  the communities we work within and serve (hooks, 2003); the colleagues we work with in schools, universities, or other educational spaces; and the disciplinary communities we draw upon and contribute to (Kinder, 2022). These communities enable us – in different ways and at different times – to: seek support; to engage in critical discussion, practitioner inquiry and research; to challenge one-another’s thinking and (potentially) to develop shared philosophies and practices; and to advocate for change where needed. Mentoring in geography education has a vital role in introducing beginning teachers to these communities, nurturing professional development, and in collectively addressing global, and local, challenges in, and through, geography education.

We draw upon Lefebvre’s (1991) work on the ‘production of space’ to frame our examination of mentoring. This is because ‘social space is a social product’ (p.26), and through mentoring and teaching mentors actively (re)produce the kinds of futures they want for their students, their mentees and for the world. Applied to geography education, the production of space offers a valuable and ambitious view of mentors’ agency: 

Freedom and liberatory politics cannot be pursued, we may conclude, without active human agents individually or collectively producing new spaces and spatio-temporalities, making and remaking places materially as well as in a different image, and producing a new second nature and thereby revolutionising their socio-ecological and environmental relations.

(Harvey 2009, p.259)


Mentors can, and do, shape presents and futures as agents in communities and the world. Through actively engaging with different ideas and theories about geography and education, teachers of geography become more informed in their practice and thinking about the presents and futures they want to shape in, and through, education. These are ambitious aims, and involve active consideration of the relationships between mentoring and geographical futures.

Framing his chapter around the question ‘what sort of mentoring for what sort of geography education?’ Morgan argues that ‘there is an urgent need for mentors to engage colleagues in sustained conversations about the theory and practice of geography education’ (Morgan, 2022, p.46). This profound question recognises the significance of mentoring to teachers’ professional growth and well-being, and also offers a typology of ways in which mentoring might be conceptualised and understood. This typology (Table one) offers mentors a way to critically consider the nature of their mentoring and the possible impacts on the mentee, and more widely on geography education and the children and young people they teach. 

Type of mentor/ingWhat is this mentor/ing like?
Evidence-based learningFocussed on effective geography teaching, and demonstrable results. Risks ignoring profound and underpinning questions about the purpose of (geographical) education.
Reflective knowledgeThe teacher is central – with the beginning teacher encouraged to critically reflect upon their teaching, and to make changes based on their reflections. Risks knowledge and debate  about geography education being sidelined. 
Teachers as activistsDraws on radical and progressive ideals about education, and positions the school as a site of social change, with the teacher positioned as a transformative intellectual.
The knowledge-focussed mentorFocussed on the debates about the place of, and politics around, the ‘place’ of knowledge in schooling.
The networked teacher-mentorIdentities are shaped, and teaching informed, through social networks and negotiations.
Table one: Adapted version of Morgan’s (2022) typology of mentoring for geography teachers

As we argue when concluding the book, Morgan’s question and typology is beneficial to supporting mentors in truly engaging with the question ‘what kinds of futures do you hope your mentoring will produce?’ (Hammond et al., 2022). We argue that this question allows mentors to take a metaphorical step-back from their practice, and to consider how the ideas of justice, agency and voice can be used by mentors to support and inform their practice. Here, we propose that by actively considering justice in, and for, geography education, mentors and beginning teachers can be supported in (re)producing more just educational spaces and systems. For example, in challenging injustices, othering and exclusionary practices to enable and empower teachers of geography both in their everyday work and also their development as professionals. This includes actively considering how people and places are represented in curricula and teaching, and empowering students through pedagogy. It also involves actively considering barriers teachers of geography might face – including those related to their identities when engaging with ‘communities of practice’ (Lave and Wegner, 1991), and ultimately in achieving their career aspirations.

Another important future envisioned by chapter authors in the book concerns sustainability, for ‘one is born into history, one isn’t born into a void’ (Brand, 2001, p.82 quoted in Yusoff, 2018, p.27). The revision of the geography National Curriculum presented in the 2014 Programme of Study for Key Stage 3 (DfE, 2014) removed sustainable development and climate change from the Geography National Curriculum in England. Whilst not all schools are legally obliged to follow the national curriculum, and teachers conceptualised as ‘curriculum makers’ (Lambert and Morgan, 2010) exert their agency as they navigate decisions about what to teach – the national curriculum is important. For example, affecting; the content of published teaching resources and the focus of accountability regimes; how geography is taught; assessment foci and processes; and also potentially areas of focus during ITE.

Current curriculum policy is one aspect of the time-space in which we exist. There is certainly no curriculum void! For us, a key role of mentoring is empowering beginning teachers to critically engage with what to teach and their representation of the world and the people who call it home (Ahmed et al., 2022). In the present time-space, this includes active consideration of how they teach children about the intersecting crises facing the Earth, and how we might empower children as active agents in their own lives, communities and the world. As Healy and Walshe (2022) argue, mentors can become more intentional as they navigate the professional landscape that shapes their mentoring, becoming policy actors (rather than policy subjects). 

Whilst Healy and Walshe (2022) focus on critical engagement with educational policy that conceptualises and affects the practice of mentoring, in this blog we now shine a light on the intentionality of critical engagement with a more complex and wide-reaching set of policy, including geography curriculum discourse and policies concerning the future of the Earth. Combined with active scholarship, this is fundamental to ensuring beginning geography teachers are better placed to question the decisions that others have made when they engage with curriculum policies, debates and textbooks (Healy, 2022). For example, by drawing on the work of Haraway (2016) beginning teachers can support students in (re)examining the relationships between people and the Earth. As Haraway contends, ‘human beings are with and of the earth, and the other biotic and abiotic powers of the earth are the main story’, with how human beings live and die matters, not just to other people, but ‘also to the many critters across taxa which and whom we have subjected to exterminations, extinctions, genocides, and prospects of futurelessness’ (p.59). Drawing on Haraway’s work can support children in thinking about their connections to the Earth, and the decisions they make in their lives and futures.

In conclusion…

In this blog, we have examined how mentoring in geography can (re)produce spaces, practices and systems to help co-create more just communities and tomorrows for mentees. Through the example of sustainability, we have considered how through scholarship and moves to act as ‘policy actors’ mentors can also support beginning teachers in navigating the complexities of teaching geography in ways that critically engage with policy at a range of scales. We are conscious that these are highly ambitious aims, and we hope that the wide ranging, questioning and provocative contributions in Mentoring Geography Teachers in the Secondary School makes connections between the practical challenges facing mentors and the reservoirs of vibrant geographical thought that might inspire more expansive and hopeful futures. We have argued these futures ought to foreground concern with sustainability in ways that critically engage with intersectional injustices and contribute to geography’s essential contribution to education in the 21st century.   

Mentoring Geography Teachers in the Secondary School will be published on 28th February 2022 and you can read more about the book here:


Ahmed, F. Hammond, L. Nichols, S-A. Puttick, S. and Searle, A. (2022) Planning in geography education: A conversation between university-based tutors and school-based mentors in Initial Teacher Education. G. Healy, L. Hammond, S. Puttick and N. Walshe (eds), Mentoring Geography Teachers in the Secondary School. Abingdon: Routledge, pp.156-172.

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Healy, G. and Walshe, N. (2022) Navigating the policy landscape: Conceptualising subject specialist mentoring within and beyond mentoring. G. Healy, L. Hammond, S. Puttick and N. Walshe (eds), Mentoring Geography Teachers in the Secondary School. Abingdon: Routledge, pp.187-207.

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