Special Educational Needs


How can we realistically manage the inclusion of special educational needs (SEN) in the typical geography classroom? The key to including pupils with SEN is the development of ‘inclusive classroom practice’, which is practical and engages every learner, with minimal planning and resource implications. Geography’s diversity, breadth and multitude of facets offer huge opportunities to address the challenge of inclusion. Geography can be a very hands-on inclusive subject.

Differentiating a ‘typical’ lesson for one or two pupils may be possible but perhaps misses the point. Tutors need to encourage trainees to understand inclusivity. What we need to do as geography teachers is very simple. We need to ensure normal, typical teaching embraces all learners including the vulnerable who may not have SEN but are a great challenge to teachers.

Learning geography in an inclusive way

One starting point for inclusive geography is ‘Accelerated learning’ (Rose, 1985; Smith, 1998). This is an inclusive framework for learning that takes account of how learners learn. As such, it provides a structure that accommodates the different ways learners learn with practical tips on how to apply it in the classroom.

Another is to ask trainees to use the mind friendly model shown in Figure 1 to plan inclusive geography lessons

Cheshire LEA, based on Smith, 1993,1996.

Figure 1: Mind friendly framework for learning. Source: Cheshire LEA, based on Smith, 1993,1996.

Provide information through preferred multi-sensory ‘input’– visual, auditory and kinaesthetic – see Dryden and Vos, 2001.

Trainees can also explore geographical topics through ‘Multiple intelligences’ (Gardner, 1991, 1993). The geography teacher should value all abilities/intelligences (see Figure 2) and allow learners to explore geographical topics and concepts using activities most suited to their way of learning, including:

  • Mathematical/Logical – graphs, scale, grid references, statistics, measurements.
  • Linguistic – report discursive, notation, discussion, clarification, debate, questioning, poems.
  • Body physical – modelling, human graph/maps, fieldwork.
  • Musical – raps, rhymes, rhythm.
  • Interpersonal – discussion, collaborative projects, co-operative learning, role play.
  • Intrapersonal – independent study, reflection, empathy, personal project work.
  • Visual spatial – field sketching, map work, physical geography, guided visualisation, photographs, landscapes.
  • Naturalist intelligence – fieldwork touching, seeing, smelling, exploring the world around us.

Mind Map© (Busan, 1993) showing Howard Gardner’s ‘Multiple intelligences’ – an original Mind Map© by Peter Greenhalgh, 2001.

Figure 2: Mind Map© (Buzan, 1993) showing Howard Gardner’s ‘Multiple intelligences’ – an original Mind Map© by Peter Greenhalgh, 2001.

Using co-operative teaching and learning structures (Kagan, 1992) in the classroom can involve trainees in:

  • organising class members into small groups (with four members in each),
  • ensuring the groups work collaboratively until everyone understands and has completed the task,
  • ensuring all group members work towards a common goal,
  • celebrating collaborative team efforts, and
  • ensuring that learners teach one another, because, according to Magnesen ‘we retain 90% of what we say and do [i.e. teach]’ (quoted in Drydon and Vos, 2001).

Returning to Mind Maps© (Buzan, 1993; and see Figure 2), these help learners engage more areas of their brain and employ higher order thinking skills to facilitate recall and understanding. According to Buzan (1993) Mind Maps© also help learners to see connections in a topic, see the ‘big picture’, plan assignments, record field work and revise topics. They may be particularly helpful to:

  • dyslexic pupils
  • pupils with learning difficulties
  • some autistic learners
  • dyspraxic pupils
  • pupils who cannot organise their thinking
  • pupils with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).

In addition, Thinking skills (Leat, 1998; Nichols with Kinninment, 2001) are enjoyable and can generate effective classroom talk. They motivate pupils who lack self-esteem, motivation and those with poor social interaction.

Exercise, for example, Brain Gym (Dennison and Dennison, 1988) can be used to re-energise, increase oxygen into the brain, offer relaxation after intense concentration, diffuse tension and even be fun. Some researchers even suggest Brain Gym increases concentration and expands the areas of the brain which are engaged. Similarly, trainees should be aware that hydration and diet can both have a big effect upon learning (Jenson, 1997, 1998).

Trainees can consider using an Emotional literate approach (including enjoyment and respect) to behaviour management. This offers a sustainable strategy to support a good learning environment (Goleman, 1996).

Finally, music can energise and motivate or relax and calm students. Therefore, trainees can use it to facilitate classroom management, or to evoke a theme (rivers, mountains) or place (the Andes) or for guided visualisations (rainforests).

Further work

With the development of multiple intelligences and other strategies as a way of raising achievement in schools comes a health warning. Some commentators feel Gardner’s work is built on flawed psychology (White, 2005; White, 2006). A high quality research study into multiple intelligences and other learning to learn strategies are currently being carried out (2003-06) by Newcastle University and the Campaign for Learning and Enfield, Cornwall and Cheshire LEAs.

In addition, David Hargreaves has been commissioned by the DfES to lead a working party to evaluate these developments in schools.


Buzan, T. (1993) The Mind Map Book. London: BBC World Wide Ltd. (Overview of the principles and purposes of Mind Mapping.)

Buzan, T. (2003) Mind Maps for kids. London: Thorsons. (If you thought Mind Maps were star or spider diagrams this book should put you right. Simple and well illustrated with examples from all subject areas – including geography. Aimed more at primary, but a useful starting point, which takes you through step by step the principles of Mind Mapping.)

Dennison, P. and Dennison, G. (1998) Brain Gym. Venture CA: Edu-Kinesthetics. (A summary of how and why brain gym can aid learning – with many practical exercises.)

Dryden, G. and Vos, J. (2001) The Learning Revolution. Stafford: Network Educational Press. (Modern teaching methods are presented in the same way that promotes effective learning. Draws on research from around the world. Each page has a ‘poster quote’ to get you thinking about how you teach and learn.)

Gardner, H. (1993) Frames of Mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. London: Fontana. (Guide to Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and learning styles. Demonstrates the many human intelligences, which are common to all cultures – each with its own development and brain activity, different in kind from the others – but which can be combined to create immense diversity of human thinking, learning and intelligent behaviour.)

Gilbert, I. (2002) Essential Motivation in the Classroom. London: Routledge-Falmer. (A brilliant practical guide for teachers. Includes many activities designed to raise levels of motivation.)

Ginnis, P. (2002) The Teachers Toolkit. Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing. (Designed to raise classroom achievement with strategies for every learner, with inclusivity at its heart. Includes information on how we learn, the brain, learning styles and ideas and strategies for lessons, which can be applied to many subjects – including geography. Also includes sections on how to manage learning, group work and motivation etc. A really useful book!)

Goleman, D. (1996) Emotional Intelligence – Why it matters more than IQ. London: Bloomsbury. (An overview of research into emotional intelligence, raising our awareness of its importance across organisations including education.)

Greenhalgh, P. (2001) Reaching Out to all Learners. Stafford: Network Educational Press. (A useful aide memoire produced at a very low cost to enable organisations to buy multiple copies. Provides an overview of mind friendly learning.)

Greenfield, S. (2000) The Brain Story. London: BBC Consumer Publishing. (An accessible route to the neuro-sciences for the layperson.)

Hoffman, E. (2001) Introducing Children to Their Intelligences. UK: Learn to Learn. (Photocopiable resources to help pupils identify their strengths, how these can aid their learning and develop other intelligences.)

Jensen, E. (1997) Brain Compatible Strategies. San Diego: The Brain Store. (Many creative and ready to use strategies to motivate and engage learners, whatever their age.)

Jensen, E. (1998) Introduction to Brain Compatible Strategies. San Diego: The Brain Store (Short and accessible research-based book, which takes a multidisciplinary approach to the question of how our brain learns best.)

Kagan, S. (1992) Cooperative Learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan. (Details how co-operative learning can promote higher achievement than individual and competitive learning methods. Demonstrates how using teams of pupils in the classroom generates a will to co-operate. Includes lots of activities to promote and use co-operative learning. American in style but once you get used to this, the ideas for learning are effective and motivating.)

Kagan, S. (1992) Cooperative Learning. San Juan Capistrano, CA: Resources for Teachers Inc. (Further activities related to co-operative learning.)

Leat, D. (1999) Thinking Through Geography. Cambridge: Chris Kington Publishing. (Includes excellent ideas for getting pupils to think using tried-and-tested geography tasks. Each section has a rationale and takes the reader through the steps of how to run the activity.)

Nichols, A. with Kinninment, D. (2001) More Thinking Through Geography. Cambridge: Chris Kington Publishing. (More of the same – includes different strategies and help for heads of departments to build and embed thinking skills into programmes of study.)

North, V. with Buzan, T. (1991) Get Ahead. BC Books. (Simple and accessible guide to Mind Mapping© for all learners.)

Rowley, C. and Lewis, L. (2003) Thinking on the Edge. Bowness-on-Windermere: Badger Press Ltd. (Inspirational, with ideas to get pupils to ask philosophical questions and engage in inclusive and creative thinking activities in the Morecambe Bay environment)

Rose, C. (1985) Accelerated Learning. Aylesbury: Accelerated Learning Systems Ltd. (Presents the background to the development of accelerated learning, the evidence and describes the methods. Includes information on how the brain learns, how to improve memory, the role of music, importance of relaxation and the power of the imagination.)

Smith, A. (1993) Accelerated Learning in Practice. Trowbridge: Redwood Books. (Practical and user friendly, takes you through how we learn. Includes reference to and strategies for accelerated learning in the classroom, information on music and learning and the importance of multi-sensory stimulation. Contains useful resources and contacts.)

Smith, A. (1996) Accelerated Learning in the Classroom. Stafford: Network Educational Press. (Excellent and easy to read – taking the reader through the main aspects and workings of accelerated learning. Well-illustrated and summarised well in all chapters to allow skim reading. Covers seating arrangements in classrooms, brain gym, the accelerated learning model and the use of music in learning – a good starting point to find out more about the subject.)

White, J. (2005) ‘Howard Gardner: the myth of multiple intelligences’, in Viewpoint No. 16, London: Institute of Education.

White, J. (2006) ‘The trouble with multiple intelligences’, Teaching Geography, 31, 2, pp 82-83. DOWNLOAD ARTICLE

Specific articles on geography and SEN from Teaching Geography include: Volume 24 Number 1 January 1999 ‘Inclusive geography fieldwork’, and Volume 28 Number 1 January 2003 ‘Teaching students with a visual impairment’.

Source: Geographical Association