What is Geography?

Towards a new definition of Geography...

Geographers study physical and human features, processes and systems and how they interact with the environment at local, regional, and global scales in an attempt to answer four key questions:

What is the feature, process or system?
= identify and describe the feature, process or system;

Where is it found?
= location: absolute & relative; the spatial extent of the feature, process or system;

Why is it found there?
= i.e. What processes are at work, in that location, both natural and human, to create the feature, process or system?

How is it important from different perspectives?
→ socio-cultural = people, jobs, health, quality of life
→ environmental = Earth's four spheres
→ economic = business & industry
→ political = individual power and that of different groups

These are the questions geographers are answering.

Try this Activity: gDoc | PDF

Asking the Right Questions in Geography (11x17" PDF)

Geographers lead a dual life manoeuvring back and forth between the sciences and the humanities. Physical geographers look at Earth Sciences and try to make sense of how natural features, processes and systems work, such as earthquakes, volcanoes and plate tectonics.. Human geographers look at the socio-cultural world trying to understand how we work, that is, our human systems including migration, urbanization, development and transportation.

But geography is really about both: how people and the natural world interact.

Learning Geography is all about
asking the right questions.

Personally, I've never quite understood the "Five Themes of Geography" introduced decades ago by the AAG. They seem inauthentic and my students struggle to connect these abstract ideas with the real world and put into practice. I've always found that a more investigative approach to geography works better. Students love being detectives, so let's put that to use.


Feature: natural landforms or ecosystems or human building or settlements that can be mapped; e.g. mountain, river, house, industry, golf course

Process: a series of forces that work to create and change features; e.g. precipitation, vulcanism; weathering

System: a series of processes that work at the regional or global scale; water cycle; plate tectonics

Take rivers, for example:

Rivers are a feature in the landscape, but they are also a system with processes that change them over time. Billions of people depend on rivers, but rivers can also wreak havoc.

  1. What are rivers? (define & describe)

  • A river is a ___ that ___s

  • What are the main features of a river?

  1. Where are rivers found?

    • Where are rivers located relative to mountains and plains?

    • What is the absolute location of a specific river? Its source? Its mouth?

    • What are the features of this location?

3. Why are rivers found there?

  • What processes create rivers?

  • What patterns do rivers create?

  • How do rivers and their features change from source to mouth?

  • How do those patterns change over time?

4. How are rivers important?

  • In what ways do people depend on rivers?

  • How are rivers a part of culture?

  • What economic benefits do we rely on?

  • In social and economic terms, what are the costs of rivers flooding or drying up?

  • What are the environmental benefits of rivers in communities?

  • What issues arise from our use of rivers?

  • How do we govern the water in international rivers?

  • How can we best manage rivers to provide a range of benefits?

Now, replace "rivers" with any geographic feature, process, or system – how about "migration", "volcanoes", "urbanization", or "climate change"?

Voilà – the ideal framework for investigative learning.