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Professional standards for teaching school geography

Jeana Kriewaldt
Dianne Mulcahy

Jeana Kriewaldt is a lecturer at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Dianne Mulcahy is a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne. To contact the authors email jeana@unimelb.edu.au.

Policy makers and education authorities commonly endorse the creation of professional standards as a means to define accomplished or high-quality teaching. Standards are seen as a tool to make teaching practice less variable, more reliable and increasingly effective. Typically, teaching standards seek to articulate what is valued about teaching and describe the critical features of what teachers know, believe and are able to do (Ingvarson, 2002).

Standards for teaching school geography

A research project to develop a set of standards for the teaching of geography in Australian schools is now complete. Led by Dianne Mulcahy, Jeana Kriewaldt and David Clarke of the University of Melbourne, the project commenced in 2007 and was funded by the Australian Research Council, in conjunction with the Australian Geography Teachers' Association, the Geography Teachers' Association of Victoria and the Victorian Institute of Teaching.

While standards for teaching in a number of specialist areas have been developed by the teaching profession across Australia, the processes used in this case were distinctive in two respects. Firstly, the classroom practices of teachers were documented in order to investigate the nature of accomplished geography teaching. The authors observed 22 geography lessons conducted by accomplished teachers, who had been selected through purposive sampling. These lessons were videotaped using a system developed during earlier research (Clarke, 2006). Interviews were subsequently conducted with the teachers, and the classroom recordings were used during the interviews to help capture the specificities of practice and stimulate the participants' recall of key events.

The second process, and the main focus for this article, was the incorporation into the standards of student perspectives about what makes for accomplished geography teaching. The 57 students taught by the participating teachers were interviewed as well as the teachers, and again, video recordings of lessons were employed during the interviews to stimulate students' recall of major learning events in the classroom.

The investigations took place at eight schools across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. The schools represented the public, Catholic and Independent sectors and both metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas.

The main categories of standards

The project identified and defined a set of standards that express the specific characteristics of accomplished geography teaching. The highest level of these standards consists of nine broad categories:

  • Knowing geography and the geography curriculum
  • Fostering geographical inquiry and fieldwork
  • Developing geographical thinking and communication
  • Understanding students and their communities
  • Establishing a safe, supportive and intellectually challenging learning environment
  • Understanding geography teaching  and pedagogical practices
  • Planning, assessing and reporting
  • Progressing professional growth and development
  • Learning and working collegially.

These categories expand into 38 sub-categories. So, for instance, the category 'Knowing geography and the geography curriculum' contains four standards statements that specify that accomplished geography teachers:

  • know the breadth and depth of the academic discipline including its concepts, skills, values and understandings
  • assist students to understand that geography draws from the physical sciences, the social sciences and the humanities
  • understand current curriculum documents and reasons for curriculum change
  • locate geography within a wider educational context, making connections with other curricular and co-curricular areas.

An example of students' input into the standards

Students' comments were helpful in identifying the aspects of accomplished teaching that were not prominent in the existing sets of standards that were examined prior to the study. One example of this contribution was students' feedback on the role of exemplary teachers in personalising geography. During their interviews, students described the way that good teachers made use of classroom discussion time to give them or their peers opportunities to relate their own experiences in relation to geographical topics under consideration.

Many students also commented on the value of personal anecdotes that illustrated relevant issues and events. Students often characterised accomplished geography teachers as 'story tellers' who successfully personalised abstract concepts or who provided accounts of their relevant life experiences. These approaches resonated with students at an interpersonal level, and at the same time, provided insight to the teacher as an individual. Teachers' personal stories also served to highlight the benefit of the topic and reveal some of the ways that the teachers had constructed their knowledge (Kriewaldt & Hutchinson, 2009).

Informed by this student feedback, the 'Developing geographical thinking and communication' standards category incorporated statements that accomplished geography teachers:

  • encourage students to recognise their personal geographies and to use these lived experiences as an entry point to understanding the complexities of the contemporary world, seen through events and issues arising at personal, local, national and global scales
  • share narratives with students that have real world contexts, whether they are based on the teacher's own life experiences or others' narratives and, in so doing, they make visible their geographical thinking.

Similarly, the standards category 'Understanding students and their communities' incorporated the specific statements that accomplished geography teachers:

  • creatively link their sophisticated geographical understandings with the diverse and developing geographical understandings of their students
  • bring an enriched understanding of students to the classroom because of their particular sensibility to students' diverse communities. They are alert to the spaces and places that students occupy so they can incorporate students' personal geographies into learning sequences, drawing clear connections with students' prior knowledge and identities from the local community and beyond.

This personalisation of experience was one aspect of geography teachers' capacity to contextualise learning, which was also expressed, for example, when teachers held classroom discussions on current world events.


This article has illustrated some of the ways in which students' commentary contributed to the development of professional standards for accomplished geography teaching. The students reported that they learned most from teachers who were able to link their sophisticated geographical understandings with the growing understandings of the class. Teachers' capacity to do so emanated from their particular sensibility to students' diverse communities. They were alert to the spaces and places that students occupy and they incorporated students' personal geographies into learning sequences, drawing clear connections with students' prior knowledge. From a learner's perspective, this was achieved by creating a classroom climate that typically involved a high level of dialogue between teacher and students, including small group and whole class dialogic exchanges.

While standards are only an approximation of accomplished teaching, and can serve to downplay the complexity of teaching, they are useful in guiding teacher professional learning and in providing a common language for the profession (Lustick & Sykes, 2006).

Professional learning resources for use with the standards are being developed. These resources have been drawn from the empirical material collected as part of the study which includes: video clips of accomplished geography teaching, video extracts of teacher interviews, audio files of student interviews, transcripts of lessons conducted and samples of students' work. They will be available at www.geogstandards.edu.au later in 2010.


Clarke, D 2006 Making connections: Comparing mathematics classrooms around the world, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Ingvarson, L 2009 National curriculum and national professional standards: Potentially a powerful partnership, Seminar Series Paper 184, East Melbourne, Vic: Centre for Strategic Education.

Kriewaldt, J & Hutchinson, N 2009 Improving Understanding of Accomplished Teaching in School Geography Through and Examination of Learners' Perspectives. Geographical Education 22, 28-39

Lustick, D & Sykes, G 2006 National board certification as professional development: What are teachers learning? Education Policy Analysis Archive, vol. 14 no.5. Retrieved from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v14n5/.

The research team comprises
Dr Dianne Mulcahy (team leader), Jeana Kriewaldt, Professor David Clarke, Nick Hutchinson from the Australian Geography Teachers' Association, Anne Dempster and Judy Mraz from the Geography Teachers' Association of Victoria and Fran Cosgrove from the Victorian Institute of Teaching. The team was supported by Sarah North (Research Assistant) and Roger Smith (who, in conjunction with other team members, helped develop and write the geography standards).

Key Learning Areas

Studies of Society and Environment

Subject Headings

Educational evaluation
Educational planning
Teaching and learning