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.