Why playdough is not the way forward when teaching geography

Many thanks to Durrington geography teacher Hannah Townsend for this post, where she reflects on the importance of challenge and high expectations in KS3.


I recently read a post on a GCSE geography teachers’ forum asking for advice about how to deliver a fluvial landform formation interview lesson. I was shocked when I read all the responses encouraging the teacher to use cake or playdough. The interviewee took these comments seriously and suggested she was going to ‘get baking’! It was suggested to her from a more experienced teacher to ‘get a Victoria sponge and a flapjack and some wet wipes. The kids scratch at the cake and flapjack, the sponge flakes up, the flapjack doesn’t. The flapjack is the hard rock and the sponge is the soft rock. Hey presto – formation of a waterfall’. Well no, that is not how a waterfall forms- ask any one of my year eight students! There was a lot of support for this approach from numerous geography specialists. When I suggested adopting a more technical approach with written modelling of the process in sequence and an exam style question to check understanding I received a reply: ‘they are year 7’ implying I should have lower expectations.

The diagram below is a suggested teacher activity for y10, that I found online.

The photo above shows the year 10 outcomes from the online exemplar of ‘good practice’. The arrows are vague and do not touch the features so marks would not be given in exam; students are using terminology such as ‘bendier’ rather than sinuous, which my year 8 students would use.  It’s a classic example of the students spending too much time on the task i.e. playing with play dough, rather than the core knowledge, understanding and vocabulary.

The above extract from our Year 8 success criteria, demonstrate the expectations we have of our students.

High expectations play a crucial role in my daily teaching. As part of my daily teaching, I strive to ensure all my lessons have high expectations for all students- both in terms of their learning and behaviour. When students enter my classroom, there is always an activity on the board for them to silently get on with for the first ten minutes of the lesson. This is an independent task and gives me the opportunity to circulate the classroom, live marking students’ work as they attempt the questions. The students find this beneficial because it enables me to correct them whilst they are in the process of writing and extend their understanding by adding in questions to challenge them. One way that I have built challenge into these tasks, is to ensure that I verbally suggest that students can start working on the challenge questions (which get progressively harder) and skip the other questions. This is aimed at my higher starting point students but my wording allows any child to adopt this strategy. This has resulted in students asking me ‘can we start on the challenge?’ on other tasks throughout the lesson too.

In light of reading the comments on the forum, I reflected on my recent assessment with year 8. When the students were learning how fluvial landforms are created, I initially show them the success criteria for excellence. We them simplify this into a list of bullet points. For this assessment, key criteria were the inclusion of erosion processes, locating the stage in the river, sequence and clear explanation. The assessment was a three-stage process, explaining how waterfalls, oxbow lakes and deltas form. At the start of each of these lessons the students recalled the success criteria for excellence and used this as a checklist for their work. This ensures that all students are challenged, as the expectation for all is to aim for excellence. When the expectations are high, the students then strive for this. Live marking is then used to help to scaffold students’ answers if they are less sure.

The year eight students I teach all used ‘resistant rock’ and ‘less resistant rock’ and gave an example of each. This was more complex than the blog referring to ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ rock. Their answers were well-sequenced and used numbers to show this. The students used geographical key terminology such as ‘hydraulic action’ and explained how these processes work. To extend the students in my planning, I had studied an A-Level mark scheme of waterfall formation and then incorporated the additional parts- such as potholing into my teaching. The students listened to my explanation of how each landform was formed and made notes. I encouraged students to ask questions and used questioning to check students’ understanding throughout. If the students did not get it the first time, I re-explained it, but paused after each step, checking which areas the students did not understand. The students had to draw sequenced diagrams and were taught exam technique such as the difference between label and annotate and the importance of the arrow head touching the feature being labelled.

There is a time to model with stimuli- I’ve used a sponge in the past to indicate a porous rock contrasted with an impermeable surface to show the water accumulating on the surface- but this isn’t my standard approach. I test students’ understanding by questioning them, live marking to get them to extend their answers and getting students form year 7 onwards to answer GCSE style questions most lessons. This means that students know the importance of including geographical vocabulary in their work; to classify into social, economic and environmental and the difference between command words such as describe and explain.

When responding to feedback, this piece of work was given as an example. The students identified its many strengths and then considered areas to develop, such as a waterfall being an erosional landform rather than process. They used this to help them to improve their own sequences.


This entry was posted in General Teaching, Guest Posts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Why playdough is not the way forward when teaching geography

  1. FRANCIS, M says:

    Couldn’t Hannah use her stretching methods alongside an occasional injection of fun such as a play dough lesson? Just a thought for the morning.

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Matt says:

    I agree with aspects of this, but focusing on exam technique from year 7 begins to suck the enjoyment and natural curiosity out of the lesson. We try to include a balance of ‘fun’ stimuli and exam techniques and always have excellent outcomes! I think a lot of it is about how you follow on from these types of lesson and cement the learning opportunities…

  3. Jenni says:

    I see your point but kids never remember “oh we did lots of exam technique” they do remember the ‘fun’ lessons. I find a balance is what is needed.

  4. Pingback: What Is Not Working in Education (and What We Can Do About It) | perspectED

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s