Geography: The art of comparison

When we talk about geography, we could focus on a lot of things, but a huge element of the national curriculum at Primary school level is about understanding the physical and human geography around us. There are physical processes to develop an understanding of and the impact these processes have, such as: rock formation, the impact of plate tectonics, the effect of erosion. There is also the necessity to study the impact that we, as humans, have had on our world, looking not just at buildings and structures, but infrastructure such as road construction and the development of other features for trade and transport. What I think is so important to developing children who have a secure knowledge of geography, is ensuring that we encourage the art of comparison. Now I’m not just talking about how one geographical feature may be bigger than another (although lower down in Primary schools, these simple comparisons are an important starting point). We have to develop a clear and modelled approach to developing these comparisons as the children move through their learning.


Physical features vs human features

Why then, did I start this blog by talking about physical and human features. Well, I don’t think that children can develop a true understanding of their own locality if they don’t consider the similarities and differences between the human and physical features that are around them. Now some are obvious. The difference between a hill or mountain compared to a house is a silly example, but when we are talking about younger children we want to make those obvious comparisons. However, the art is in developing that skill of comparison with features that are more similar as the children gain in confidence. My go-to examples are things like rivers and canals.


To children, at first glance they just look like channels of water. I think often children are quick to judge geographical features that are similar by their similarities. I don’t blame them for this. If you are walking by a river or a canal as a child, you might see similar animals, the water seems to travel in a line from one place to another, but it’s developing the children’s ability to notice the differences (of which some are subtle and some are more obvious when you begin to actually look for them). Lakes and reservoirs are another great example to explore.


Now what we are trying to do is really support the children in developing their understanding of how these features are different. What makes rivers and lakes physical? Well rivers start off as small collections of rainfall at the top of a hill or mountain, forming tributaries, streams and then eventually rivers. They sometimes flow into larger bodies of water that are too wide to be called rivers – these are lakes. Rivers always flow out towards the sea. There are other effects that rivers can have on the land, such as forming natural meanders or eroding and cutting through hills to form amazing ‘v-shaped’ valleys. Why is this different from a canal? We need to develop children’s understanding of the fact that canals are purpose built. Within Britain, a canal system was developed to support transport of goods and travel around the country etc. Then it’s about getting children to look at the real differences. Canals often look still whilst rivers continuously flow with a visible current. Canal boats are also an obvious sign, alongside the locks that are in-built to support travelling around the network. The same needs to be considered when looking at lakes and reservoirs, and when looking at images, we need to encourage the children to look for evidence of human work, such as the stones or bricks that are laid to hold water within a reservoir.

There is a further need here, and that is giving children experiences of these physical and human features. You know your own local area, but if you have a river and a canal that you can physically visit then doing fieldwork here is important in order to really support children’s knowledge of these features.


Taking comparisons further

It’s also really important to compare human features with each other, and the same for physical features too. If we want to develop children’s abilities to ask more perceptive questions and consider their own enquiries, then we need to model this. Let’s start by considering human features. There are two examples that I think can be really powerful and really encourage children to develop their own thinking skills, especially when we are talking about observation. The first, is roads. The children will have seen several different types of road, but have they experienced all of the different types? Quiet streets, main roads, cul-de-sacs, motorways, country lanes; the list goes on and on. Encouraging the children to consider why we have different types of road, where they have been laid and why they have been laid there is all really important in developing geographical understanding. What is the impact that these different road types have on their locality? Why do we need motorways?

We can go down the same route if we consider building development too. There are an endless number of different types of building, all with different uses. Children can survey the different uses of buildings in their local area. They can look at where building use has changed. They should be encouraged to consider the ‘why’ of different buildings and their uses and the impact that they have on the local area. Making comparisons in this way is what really supports children in their geographical understanding of their locality and begin to apply this to the wider world.

Of course, the same approach can be taken with physical geography. I think looking at something like plate tectonics has a range of differences that can be explored. Firstly, the plate boundaries react in different ways. This results in different effects, whether it is regular minor tremors or infrequent but larger earthquakes or volcanoes. It’s also important to consider the short term and long-term impact of plate tectonics, such as the formation of mountains as a result of specific plate boundaries. There is so much geography to explore here and an awful lot of it can be explored really successfully by developing the art of effective comparison and analysing the impact of these geographical features.


Developing understanding beyond their locality

What’s also great about developing the ability to compare things effectively is that it opens up the world of geography to the children. When we look at the geography of other parts of the world, we need the children to have a solid base of knowledge about their own world in order to make further connections with the wider world. This applies to everything, but going back to some of my previous examples, if the children have a strong understanding of what a canal really is, they can then look at canals in other parts of the world, such as the Suez Canal in Africa, the Panama Canal in Central America or the Corinth Canal in Greece. They can compare what’s similar about them, but they can also look at the different levels of physical geography that the construction of these canals would have had to approach. The scale of these canals is also completely different.


Suez Canal                                          Panama Canal                                      Corinth Canal


Putting things into perspective is so important in geography. If we don’t give children that solid grounding in terms of what the difference between physical and human features are, then how can we expect them to understand those bigger elements of geography across the world. We must give children as much first hand experience as possible within their locality, and by this I mean real fieldwork, in order to make those comparisons within the world that they know, so that they can apply this to further contexts throughout their learning and their lives.


Making observations

If we are making these observations during fieldwork, we need to ensure that we are collecting some form of data. If we are making comparisons by looking, then field sketching is a great way to do this. Start simple, identify key reference points and then encourage children to add the details of the feature you are looking at so that this can be compared effectively to other field sketches. Using surveys can also be a great way to make these comparisons. Going back to buildings, survey how many buildings in a street are houses and how many buildings are used for something else. This can then lead to further discussions. Making comparisons is such a powerful tool.

Using maps can also be an amazing tool for developing the art of comparison. When children have developed a solid enough basis, looking at two different maps alongside each other can show you how land use has changed over time. Here’s an example from NLS maps (a free online mapping tool):

So there it is. The art of comparison. It’s so important to get this aspect of geography right in order to develop children’s ability to know more and remember more about the geographical features that they study within your school’s curriculum.


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