Data, data, data. Many people who work in schools now believe that this is the sole objective when facilitating learning experiences and producing long term plans. Students must achieve the best in their exams and with such a large amount of subject content to cover the priority is to ensure that all of this is delivered, leaving little time to deviate and make learning experiences truly rewarding and fun. This is true. There is a lot to cover by the end of Year 9, 11 and 13 but it is still possible to develop an innovative curriculum where students can participate in fun and engaging learning activities which fully connect them with real geography taking place every minute of every day outside the classroom.
Firstly, I would like to make it clear that I do not work in a school that is solely driven by data. My department and I, and indeed our staff body, are very lucky to work in a school that focuses on the development of the whole child and not just their examination results at the end of key stages 4 and 5.
In years 7 and 8 our students study EFC (Excellent Futures Curriculum); a two year curriculum based on PBL (Project Based Learning). Students only study their core subjects (English, Maths and Science), MFL and PE explicitly with all of their foundation subjects such as Geography, History, Business Studies and ICT taught through a variety of projects over the two years. There are two key ideas behind the projects. Firstly, for students to develop the seven school attributes which are key to being a successful individual both in school and in life (e.g. confidence to take risks, initiative and self-motivation to learn independently and with others, and intellectual curiosity). In addition, projects are REAL as they connect students with the ‘real world’ and allow them to see the relevance of what they are learning beyond the classroom.
You may be wondering at this point why I am writing this article if I am not being driven solely by data. I recently gave a conference on ‘leading an outstanding Geography Department’ where I explained that once students finish the EFC at the end of year eight, they pick twelve out of our twenty six option subjects to try out during year 9 (four each term) before choosing their final four to take forward into year 10. Therefore, we do not explicitly teach Geography to our students until they start their GCSE course in year 10 other than the one term as part of the year 9 taster options. A number of questions arose regarding our ability to deliver the innovative and engaging learning activities I was sharing, and many were surprised to hear that we are still able to deliver these in just the two years of GCSE along with covering all of the content and skills required by the exam board specification. As we are able to offer this in just two years of geographical teaching by the end of year 11, other departments are surely able to offer this over five.
We have developed a number of activities in each topic. These range from building favela houses with a number challenges along the way to simulate real life in Rio de Janeiro when studying the impacts of rural to urban migration, to modelling river and coastal landforms using playdoh and explaining the formation and features of each. We simulate a sweatshop when studying globalisation and a case study on MNCs where students have to sit on the floor in rows in the dark with fan heaters on sewing their initials into small pieces of cloth. There are factory machine noises in the background and people shouting at them to work harder and faster. Some wear gloves and some wear eye patches to bring home the reality of accidents that occur in the sweatshops. For each one the students complete correctly they are paid 1p, and those that do not meet the quality control standards are thrown in the bin. Students also build earthquake proof houses and test them on our homemade simulator after learning about building designs around the world, along with producing documentaries about a stretch of eroding coastline and suggesting strategies to manage the situation (considering a variety of stakeholders and perspectives) with real feedback provided from industry experts such as the environment agency whom we send them off to.
- Increased engagement and motivation to work hard and achieve well
- An increased love and passion for geography and geographical study beyond the classroom
- Improved geographical knowledge, understanding and skills
- Students see the ‘real world’ relevance of what they are studying and improve their geographical awareness
- Increased retention of theoretical knowledge and understanding along with case study information for their exams leading to significantly improved GCSE grades
There are many opportunities at Key Stage 3 to hook students into the subject using a number of activities such as those mentioned here. It is important to ignite and develop their passion for geography at an early stage of their secondary school educational journey, but also to continue to offer these experiences at GCSE and A-Level. Take the plunge and invigorate your geographical offering – the benefits will speak for themselves.
If you would like more information on any of the innovative learning activities mentioned here, others, or guidance on how to develop your own I would be more than happy to discuss this with you.
Matt Childs is a Lead Practitioner (Options Curriculum) and Subject Leader for geography at Stanley Park High in Carshalton, Surrey.