Geographical inquiry

Geographical inquiry gives students the opportunity to actively engage in understanding their own place and the world they live in. Teachers can work with students to develop their ability to ask geographical questions, and to look for answers through investigative work both outside and inside the classroom. Fieldwork and new technologies support students to explore geographical concepts together.

The illustrations of practice provided are:
Illustration 1: Developing questions for inquiry Year 6
Illustration 2: Water scarcity in West Asia Year 7


What makes an inquiry 'geographical' is what is being investigated and the kinds of questions being asked (Roberts, 2006, p. 90). Clearly geographical inquiry is a teaching methodology, part of the teacher's toolbox, and is a professional skill that needs to be developed in tandem with the crucial ability to think geographically (Dinkele, 2004, p.102).

Understanding inquiry F-6

An essential aim of primary geography is to 'foster fascination with places through fieldwork and the use of new technologies in and beyond the school grounds and the local area' (Catling & Willy, 2009, p.18). Inquiry necessitates that 'Children are actively engaged in the creation of personal and shared meanings about the world, rather than being passive recipients of knowledge that has been created or selected by the teacher' (Martin, 2006, p. 9).

'The teacher works with the students to develop their abilities to ask geographical questions and to look for answers through investigative work' (Halocha, 1998, p. 41). Some of this investigative work should take place outside the classroom in fieldwork activities and there are other specific skills involved in the interpretation of atlases, maps and photographs, and the analysis of data.

Central questions

There are a number of generic questions that are central to geographical inquiry in the primary school. In terms of questions about 'place', Michael Storm developed five key questions to be used in UK primary schools:

  • What is the place like?
  • Why is this place as it is?
  • How is this place connected to other places?
  • How is this place changing?
  • How would it feel to live in this place?' (Storm, 1989, p. 4).

Two more questions were added following the development of the UK National Curriculum:

  • Where is this place?
  • How is it similar to/different from another place? (Foley, 1999, p. 83).

'E' models

David Boon (Kriewaldt & Boon, 2012, pp. 133-136) presents the 5Es model in the context of the Australian geography classroom - engage, explore, explain, elaborate and evaluate. Simon Catling (2003) recommends a 'three Es' approach to inquiry in the primary school - enable, enhance, empower. The geography teacher builds on young children's inquisitiveness using a structured approach that enables inquiry where children can put forward their own questions and develop the means to develop their own responses. The teacher enhances inquiry by challenging students' questions and by incorporating geographical concepts. Young people are empowered when they develop their own questions, methods and approaches while the geography teacher offers appropriate scaffolds for inquiry. The former approach tends to be rather formulaic, but both approaches stress developing skills and addressing geographical issues.

Characteristics and size

It should be emphasised that an inquiry can be small, medium or large in scope. This is an important consideration given the competing demands on time in the primary classroom. A small inquiry could be based on the examination of a single photograph. On the other hand, there could be a number of lines of inquiry about local and faraway places. Younger children will be more interested in questions that relate to their own experience (Halocha, 1998, p. 42).

The ownership of inquiry questions is important. It helps to motivate students and the questions are useful indicators of their current level of knowledge and understanding of geographical concepts (Martin, 1995). Rather than emphasise the transmission of knowledge, inquiry in the early years and in primary schools should focus on questioning and evidence-based approaches (Owen & Ryan, 2001, p.10). Geography is a subject that is open to many different interpretations, ways of seeing and forms of explanation, including those assisted by the use of spatial technologies such as Google Earth.


Catling and Willy (2009, p. 71) argue that facilitating geographical inquiry in the primary classroom has a number of benefits. Such inquiries have relevance and are of interest to students to the extent that they feel that they are valued as participants in the process of their own learning. Their inquiries are related to their own thoughts and feelings and they are challenged to 'think', and consequently to apply, adapt and develop their geographical understanding, knowledge, values and skills in continuing and new inquiries. By the time they reach secondary school, such students should be well versed in geographical inquiry (Hutchinson, 2012, p. 7-8).

Consolidating inquiry in Years 7-10

Geographical Inquiry is a process by which students learn about and deepen their understanding of geography. It involves individual or group investigations that start with geographical questions and proceed through the collection, evaluation, analysis and interpretation of information to the development of conclusions and proposals for actions. Inquiries may vary in scale and geographical context.

Source: Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA).

By the end of Year 10:

Students use initial research to identify, develop and modify geographically significant questions to frame an inquiry. They identify and collect a range of primary and secondary sources using ethical protocols, and evaluate sources for bias, reliability and usefulness. They select and organise relevant geographical information to answer inquiry questions. Students accurately represent multi-variable data in a range of appropriate forms and construct graphic representations, selected to suit purpose, including special purpose maps that use a suitable scale and comply with cartographic conventions. They evaluate multi-variant data and other geographical information to make generalisations and inferences, propose explanations for patterns, trends, relationships and anomalies, and predict outcomes. They apply geographical concepts to synthesise information from various sources and draw conclusions based on the analysis of data and information, taking into account alternative points of view. Students present findings, arguments and explanations using appropriate geographical terminology and representations in a range of communication forms selected for effectiveness and to suit audience and purpose. They reflect on and evaluate the findings of the inquiry. They apply generalisations to propose individual and collective action in response to a contemporary geographical challenge. When proposing action students take account of environmental, economic and social considerations and explain the predicted outcomes and consequences of their proposals.

Based on Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) materials.

 A number of resources can help teachers reach the above achievement standard with their Year 10 students. By way of background to the inquiry process it is instructive to refer to the work of Margaret Roberts, an acknowledged expert on this process.

The articles and websites listed below will help you develop your geographical inquiry understandings, planning and teaching.

  • In GTAQ: Queensland geographer two articles, 'Inquiry: The heart of geography or just another blind alley?' (pp. 7-12) and 'Geographical inquiry in the curriculum' (p. 13-14) explore the many aspects of geographical inquiry and links to the curriculum.
  • Spatial inquiry using web-mapping tools explores the use of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) in education and how 'Internet-based GIS represent opportunities to open up the world of geographic inquiry for students' (p.14).
  • Margaret Roberts, the British geography educator, has written a number of books focusing on geographical enquiry. In these works she explores the questions 'What is geographical enquiry?' 'Why is geographical enquiry important?' and 'What are the essential aspects of geographical enquiry?'

Searching for best practice

There are a number of resources that provide ideas and support teachers to explore best practice.
For Years Foundation to 6, a US Department of Education resource Early childhood: Where learning begins (Frombolti & Seefedt, 1999) contains activities for children aged 2-5 years of age.

Lesley Stanton's article Enquiry in the early years includes ideas for geographical understanding relating to Ian Beck's book (1995) Tom and the island of dinosaurs.

The video clip Primary geography: Overseas localities on the TF Video website presents two innovative teaching strategies for geography classes. There are extra materials available for download from this website.

The role of fieldwork and learning objects

Experienced geography teachers automatically think of fieldwork when geographical inquiry is referred to. There are a number of resources that support geographical inquiry through fieldwork, and learning objects that support geographical inquiry.

About fieldwork is a resource developed by the NSW Department of Education and Training's Centre for Learning Innovation (CLI). The resource covers the following sections (and tools, shown in parentheses):

  • starting out  - which explains the purpose and value of fieldwork
  • direction (compass, using a map in the field)
  • distance (trundle wheel, using a map in the field, GPS)
  • topography (clinometer, using a map in the field)
  • clouds (estimating cloud cover, cloud identification chart)
  • rainfall (rain gauge)
  • air (barometer)
  • humidity (hygrometer)
  • wind (anemometer, weather vane, Beaufort wind scale)
  • vegetation (vegetation identification chart, transect, quadrant)
  • soil (collecting soil samples and testing)
  • water (collecting water samples and testing)
  • location (choosing fieldwork locations/parameters, GPS)
  • observation (creating a field sketch, taking digital photographs, using counts)
  • interviews (preparing and conducting an interview)
  • surveys (preparing and conducting a survey)
  • what next? (research action plan).

Other useful resources include:

  • the website GPS for geography teachers which explains the use of the digital spatial technology

About the illustrations

Illustration 1: Developing questions for inquiry Year 6 will help you develop knowledge and understanding about asking questions about the world. The Illustration of practice considers how geographical questions to investigate and plan an inquiry might be developed. A range of resources is provided.

Illustration 2: Water scarcity in West Asia Year 7 will support you to work with Year 7 students to examine water scarcity and the ways in which the water cycle connects places and people. The illustration emphasises interconnection and sustainability, and uses an inquiry framework with particular reference to qanat water supply systems of West Asia. A range of resources is provided.


Bliss, S. (2009). Discovering my backyard: Fieldwork research Years 7-8. Geography Bulletin 41(1), pp.14-17.
Catling, S. (2003). Curriculum contested: Primary geography and social justice. Geography 88(3), pp.164-210.
Catling, S. & Willy. T. (2009). Teaching primary geography. Exeter: Learning Matters Limited.
Dinkele, G. (2004). Geographical enquiries and investigations. In S. Scoffham (Ed.). Primary Geography Handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association, pp. 95-103.
Dunk, J. (2012). Geographical inquiry in the Australian Curriculum: Geography. Queensland Geographer 47(3), p. 8.
Foley, M. (1999). Using the enquiry approach in primary geographical education. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education 8(1), pp. 82-85.
Foott, B. (2009). Fieldwork at environmental education centres. Geography Bulletin 41(1), pp. 20-21.
Frombolti, C. & Seefedt, B. (1999). Early childhood: Where learning begins. Geography with activities for children ages 2 to 5 years of age. Retrieved May 2019, from:
Halocha, J. (1998). Coordinating geography across the primary school. London: Routledge.
Hutchinson, N. (2012). Inquiry: The heart of geography or just another blind alley? Queensland Geographer 47(3), pp. 7-12.
Kerski, J. (ND). Spatial inquiry using web-mapping tools. Retrieved May 2019, from:
Kleeman, G. (Ed.). (2019). Geography Fieldwork Unlocked. AGTA, Australia.
Kriewaldt, J. & Boon, D. (2012). Geographic inquiry. In T. Taylor, C. Fahey, J. Kriewaldt & D. Boon. Place and time: Explorations in teaching geography and history. Frenchs Forest: Pearson Australia.
Martin, F. (1995). Teaching early years geography. Cambridge: Chris Kington.
Martin, F (2006). Teaching geography in primary schools. Cambridge: Chris Kington.
Owen, D. & Ryan, A. (2001). Teaching geography 3-11: The essential guide. London: Continuum.
Stanton, L. (2005). Enquiry in the early years. Primary Geographer Vol 56.
Storm, M. (1989). The five basic questions for primary geography. Primary Geographer 2(4).


Davidson, G. (2009). Geographical enquiry. Retrieved May 2019, from:


Department of Education and Training, Centre for Learning Innovation, NSW. About fieldwork. Retrieved May 2019, from: