Worldly wise?

So much reading, so much blogging, so much talking (It was another good Brick Lane curry last Friday). So much to think about – and all this only related to the day-job… There are so many different views, so much debate about what does or doesn’t work that it gets quite difficult to know what to think after a while. One thing that has become increasingly clear to me is that people who teach different subjects to some extent talk different languages. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – they are only relating their own experiences as relevant to what they do – but it does make one question the degree to which it is possible to agree common approaches and expectations across teaching as a whole. Maybe our energies would actually be better directed looking elsewhere.

Some subjects seem to get disproportionate coverage – English Lit. has been in the news recently of course – but Science, Maths and to some extent History get regular airings. Other subjects seem to linger in the shadows, receiving barely a mention – and much to my perpetual puzzlement my main subject, Geography seems to be amongst them. It’s not as though it’s a new discipline and in fact one might have thought that with the way the world currently is (globalisation, the rise of the East, various conflicts raging, climate change, increasing mobility) that Geography would be seen as a highly relevant subject. But no matter how many train trips Michael Portillo goes on, it’s still a Cinderella, seemingly destined to live perpetually in the shadow of academically-more-credible History.

One wonders whether Michael Gove has any substantive views on the teaching Geography, beyond the fact that we all need to know where London is. Actually, he seems to be in favour of more regional studies, which I’m not against: pupils seem to like them for their concreteness. If anything, the subject at school level has become too conceptual. But there is still the problem that (unlike in History) everything goes out of date so rapidly.

I am also coming to the conclusion that this affects how teachers think about learning: if you have an essential core skill like literacy or numeracy to teach, it may make you more concerned with the specific techniques employed in the classroom – as the never-ending debate about how to teach reading would testify. It also gives you a fairly identifiable benchmark of success – if a pupil can read better than before, or is becoming more numerate, that is fairly visible, if not always measurable – and in a meaningful timescale. It may also make you generally more interested in skills than knowledge, insofar as they are separable.

But how should one teach Geography? And indeed, what should be the purpose of teaching it? How does one know whether pupils have made progress – especially if you accept that knowing lists of countries, capitals and main exports is of limited use? What approaches are specific to, and most effective in the subject? John Hattie talks about modelling success – but in a multivariate subject like mine, that is easier said than done. History and the other humanities do share some of these dilemmas – but in History’s case at least, it seems to have more intellectual capital to fall back on when it needs it; Geographers, by comparison seem to be perceived as people who get excited about obscure things like pro-talus ramparts or zones of accretion and discard. The very breadth of the subject is perhaps also its problem, in that it doesn’t seem to have a very clear identity or field of study.

In fact, Geography  does have a long, if rather schizophrenic past, deriving from the age of discovery and empire, through the quantitative revolution of the 1970’s and 80’s, the move towards behaviouralism and the current one-earth concern with human-environment sustainability – hardly an insignificant theme in its own right. As people travel more and more, one might have expected a growth in interest in the world they move around, but it seems not – most pupils (many of whom are more widely-travelled than I) seem to transit from airport to resort and back again with barely a glimpse of the actual places they travel to – and in plenty of cases no knowledge whatsoever even of where they’ve been.

One of the problems of teaching Humanities (and possibly geography as opposed to the others) is its essentially holistic, integrating nature. The skills is employs are relatively generic, so there’s little very distinctive there, and individual chunks of knowledge are arguably not especially important in themselves, even if they do sometimes have intrinsic interest. While some topics are more complex than others, there is little clear hierarchy of knowledge by topic – it’s more a matter of how closely you look. So the concept of a linear progression of knowledge is rather a non-starter. A command of the subject really derives from the overview one achieves with a good all-round knowledge.

I would argue that a good knowledge of place is important in its own right – I can’t imagine what it is like to live in a world where you have no sense of location – and it is also essential working knowledge since nearly everything that can be discussed in some way contains references to Place. But the acquisition of it is a little-discussed process that certainly doesn’t derive only – or even mostly – from school lessons. Neither does systematically memorising an atlas solve the problem.

And even excellent world-knowledge does not a good geographer make. In the final reckoning, it’s about having the ability to understand and assess the functioning of the planet – be that physical or human, or the interaction between them. Ultimately, the skills are those of weighed judgment, what some people would call considered thought or wisdom. A good student possesses, above all else, the ability to make connections between a disparate range of factors and come to an explanation and evaluation of the whole. They will rely on data and other factual information in the process, but will also evaluate it critically, and add their own informed judgment. These are not skills that are easily explicitly taught.

The following is an extract from the 2014  ‘A’ Level Edexcel Module 4 exam pre-release material, upon which students have to write a 70-mark, 90-minute dissertation-style report with an unseen title. It gives an idea of the range of material and thought needed:

OPTION 1: Tectonic Activity and Hazards

  • Explore the range of strategies used to manage tectonic hazards before, during and after their occurrence.
  • Research contrasting examples of managing a range of primary and secondary tectonic hazards.

  OPTION 4: The World of Cultural Diversity

  • Explore the physical and human factors which influence the degree of cultural
  • Research a range of contrasting locations to illustrate how cultural diversity varies from place to place.

  OPTION 6: Consuming the Rural Landscape – Leisure and Tourism

  • Explore the fragility of different rural landscapes and their resilience to the demands of both leisure and tourism.
  • Research contrasting rural landscapes which illustrate a variety of impacts from leisure and tourism.

This is not an insignificant challenge, and there is no reason why it should be seen as lacking academic credibility. But the methods by which such material is taught are not easy to define: like geography itself, people seem not to understand what is involved. More specifically, when one is preparing students for a challenge of this sort, notions of specific technical teaching styles – let alone the ability to ‘show progress’ in any one lesson – appear more than faintly ridiculous. One might also start to appreciate why it is difficult, at any level, to impose simplistic measures of competence in the subject: for Geographers at least, the descriptors of the National Curriculum never made much sense – any they certainly weren’t linear and watertight in the way that was intended.

Maybe Geography could help itself more, by presenting a less fusty image (though how it does that in the light of so much prejudice is another matter) – but certainly this is a subject whose needs deserve to be more widely known – and upon whom unhelpful frameworks of expectations derived from other subjects – need not to be imposed. I have come to realise that some of my differences with others regarding teaching methods and objectives derive from subject-specific matters  – but that is a two-way street.

I would be interested to hear what other geographers (and indeed others in general) have to say about this…


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