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Key concepts

Key concepts are the big ideas and understandings that we hope will remain with our students long after they have left school.

Key concepts | Additional concepts

The key concepts or big ideas in geography

Geographic concepts allow for the exploration of relationships and connections between people and both natural and cultural environments. They have a spatial component.

They provide a framework that geographers use to interpret and represent information about the world.

The development of understanding of these concepts will allow students to participate as critical, active, informed and responsible citizens.

The geography achievement objectives in The New Zealand Curriculum are based on conceptual understandings. A concept is a general idea, thought, or understanding. Conceptual understandings are what learners know and understand about a concept. When the concepts are elaborated into generalisations, they become conceptual understandings. The key concepts are all derived directly from the Level 6 to 8 achievement objectives for geography. 

It is expected that students will develop their understanding of concepts through time.

Teachers may also choose additional concepts that may connect with the local environment or the circumstances of their students. Such concepts must be geographic in nature; they must have a spatial component.

Spatial components relate to how features are arranged on the Earth’s surface. For example, an understanding of 'environments' will be supported by students also developing an understanding of additional concepts such as location, distance and region.

Other concepts may apply to specific contexts, for example, rehabilitation and mitigation for extreme natural events or natural increase and dependency ratio for population. Additional geographic concepts can be found in The New Zealand Curriculum, for example, sustainability, globalisation and citizenship.

A number of Māori concepts may be considered, for example, kaitiakitanga, manaakitanga and hekenga. A full list and explanation of Māori concepts can be found in  Glossary of Māori concepts.

The key concepts are:


May be natural and/or cultural. They have particular characteristics and features which can be the result of natural and/or cultural processes. The particular characteristics of an environment may be similar to and/or different from another. A cultural environment includes people and/or the built environment.


Ways of seeing the world that help explain differences in decisions about, responses to, and interactions with environments. Perspectives are bodies of thought, theories or worldviews that shape people’s values and have built up over time. They involve people’s perceptions (how they view and interpret environments) and viewpoints (what they think) about geographic issues. Perceptions and viewpoints are influenced by people’s values (deeply held beliefs about what is important or desirable). 

Learn more about perspectives. 


A sequence of actions, natural and/or cultural, that shape and change environments, places and societies. Some examples of geographic processes include erosion, migration, desertification and globalisation.


May be spatial: the arrangement of features on the earth’s surface; or temporal: how characteristics differ over time in recognisable ways.


Involves elements of an environment affecting each other and being linked together. Interaction incorporates movement, flows, connections, links and interrelationships which work together and may be one or two way interactions. Landscapes are the visible outcome of interactions. Interaction can bring about environmental change.


Involves any alteration to the natural or cultural environment. Change can be spatial and/or temporal. Change is a normal process in both natural and cultural environments. It occurs at varying rates, at different times and in different places. Some changes are predictable, recurrent or cyclic, while others are unpredictable or erratic. Change can bring about further change.


Involves adopting ways of thinking and behaving that allow individuals, groups, and societies to meet their needs and aspirations without preventing future generations from meeting theirs. Sustainable interaction with the environment may be achieved by preventing, limiting, minimising or correcting environmental damage to water, air and soil, as well as considering ecosystems and problems related to waste, noise, and visual pollution.

These key concepts are significant in their own right and are also interrelated.

Conceptual understandings underpin the knowledge and skills assessed by the NCEA achievement standards. Learn more about geography skills and concepts.

Last updated November 6, 2015