Geography - Lie of the land

How can geography lose its `worst taught subject’ tag with provocative images and videos? Carolyn Fry finds out
30th January 2009, 12:00am


Geography - Lie of the land

Geography is the UK’s worst taught subject, according to a 2008 report by Ofsted. Inspectors found that, far from perceiving the topic as exciting and relevant, pupils considered it boring.

But we need skilled geographers more than ever. Addressing evolving challenges such as climate change, migration and sustainable development will require people who can understand the physical workings of the world and how humans interact with it, which are exactly the skills that geography can provide.

According to the Geographical Association, the key to unlocking the power of the subject and showing its pertinence to pupils’ lives could be on their doorstep.

The association has spent the past three years developing projects and courses to help teachers encourage pupils to study global issues by examining their own lives first and then making links to far-off places.

“If you talk to young people about what they want to be taught, you find they still have that excitement about the world and they want to learn about it,” says John Lion, programme director. “It’s a wonderful starting point if you can hook pupils in by getting them to look at the everyday, and make them think again about their local place.”

So you could, for example, start with a discussion on what pupils’ mobile phones are made of. They contain a small amount of columbite tantalite, or coltan, a mineral that occurs naturally in the earth’s crust in the Congo, Africa. Coltan is sought after by mobile phone manufacturers because of its high melting point, resistance to corrosion and ability to conduct heat and electricity.

However, high demand for it has prompted land-owners to raze pristine rainforests so they can mine for the coltan. In doing so, they have destroyed gorilla habitats and enhanced the effects of climate change by reducing one of nature’s carbon sinks.

“When pupils engage in the first place they have got something they can talk about,” says John. “We’re not just teaching them about something they have no knowledge of, where they’re always on the back foot.”

John tells of a recent conference he attended where the speaker showed a photograph of carpets taken from the air. It looked wonderful, but then he explained that the carpets are designed to order, the dyes are poisonous and it’s often children who mix the dyes.

Suddenly you’re thinking entirely differently about the image. “That’s part of what geography’s about. It’s about understanding your place in the world and realising that what you see in the first place isn’t necessarily the real picture,” says John.

Field trips have traditionally been the place for pupils to see how geographical principles apply in the real world. Many geographers will recall grasping the concept of a “hanging valley” while watching water plunge over a cliff at Speke’s Mill Mouth, Devon, or getting to grips with town planning while counting traffic passing through a town centre during rush hour.

Although several high-profile accidents on field visits have prompted a tightening of health and safety requirements, and the cost of foreign visits can be prohibitively expensive, geography ambassadors view fieldwork as fundamental.

“Imagine doing music but never playing an instrument,” says Steve Brace, head of education and outdoor learning at the Royal Geographical Society. “Doing geography without fieldwork is the same.”

Former geography teacher Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop is a firm believer that pupils in the UK can better understand issues such as religion, migration and diversity by forging friendships with contemporaries in foreign countries. Jamie is now the director of Digital Explorer, a social enterprise that uses technology to help young people explore the world, and he has been involved in sending pupils to Morocco, the Emirates and Oman.

“On one trip, pupils from four schools in London met Sheikh Khalfan, who is a teacher at the main mosque in Muscat, Oman,” he says. “They probably had quite a few preconceptions about a man who wears full Omani dress. But they came away saying things like `he’s the funniest man I’ve met’ and `I’ve learnt so much’.”

Digital Explorer has also been involved in sending remote satellite broadcasts from a UK youth expedition back to the classroom, creating an award-winning website with the Offscreen Student Expedition 2007, plus video broadcasts between Antarctica and pupils in the UK.

Jamie believes video-conferencing can provide a cheap but viable alternative to fieldwork by enabling pupils to explore the world, in real- time from the classroom.

“I arranged a video conference between the polar explorer Robert Swan and one of my classes this spring,” he says. “It certainly fired up the pupils’ interest in global warming for them to be talking to Robert while he was sitting in Antarctica looking at the melting snow.”

Last year, about 178,000 pupils took geography at GCSE level, and 28,000 at A-level. The former figure dropped after geography switched from being a compulsory to optional subject; however, the number taking it at A-level rose slightly in 2008. That said, almost twice as many opted for psychology A-level in the same year. Only about 6,000 go on to study a geography degree.

The resources are there and organisations are producing teaching materials that are relevant in today’s technology-led world (see panel). The challenge for teachers is to use these in an inspiring way. Only then will they equip a new generation of geographers to deal with the great global challenges we face.


For a large range of Geography teaching resources in the TES Resource Bank, click here.

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