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Bits 'n' pieces of other places

Ordinary objects from distant lands make excellent resources, says Jonathan Barnes.

A primary school in Hampshire buried a time capsule last term to summarise English life in 1999. It included an asthma inhaler, a parking ticket in its plastic bag, a can of cola and a hamburger box. To many the choice of these objects would seem both an appropriate and a damning summary of aspects of "development" in the West. However, the inclusion of these objects, incriminating or not, reminds us of the power of simple and inanimate objects to speak volumes about a particular place at a moment in time. Well before the current mania for time capsules, English Heritage, (G Durbin et al, A Teacher's Guide to Using Objects, 1990) drew our attention to the 50 questions we might ask of that hamburger box; but imagine the range of revealing questions we could ask about an asthma inhaler, starting with why it was chosen for a time capsule at all.

I have just returned with 14 students from a study tour of Tamil Nadu in south India. We all brought back typical Indian gifts for family and friends. Below is my souvenir collection. Most of these things would normally be the rubbish thrown away after the sharing of the "real" presents inside the wrapping, but perhaps these wrappings and oddments are potentially more interesting to a geographer than painted elephants and Rajistani wall hangings:

* a paper bag made from a telephone directory;

* some newspaper used as wrapping;

* a thin pink paper bill listing 14 different Indian meals purchased at a street-side restaurant;

* a plastic water pot made in the shape of a pottery one;

* a skein of coir string from the roof of our jeep;

* bathroom tiles with kitsch transfers of several of the pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses wrapped in a Tamil newspaper and intricately tied with jute string;

* a set of Tamil Nadu state school books made from recycled paper with timetables printed on the backs and Hindu gods on the front and printed on the inside with the words: "Untouchability is a sin, Untouchability is a crime, Untouchability is inhuman";

* a sample of one of the tiny cotton school bags carried by 75 per cent of the primary school children in the state;

* a selection of plastic bags from a vegetable shop, from a silk house and from Meezan's Suitings and Shirtings;

* a knotted plastic string shopping bag 20cms high x 25cms wide;

* a tiny empty matchbox;

* a tattered five- rupee note (worth about 7p).

Sadly, tourist goods tell us very little about everyday life in today's India (apart from its need for the tourist dollar), but the plastic bags, the recycled paper and the government exhortations are eloquent reminders of real life. These objects bear close questioning precisely because they are so ordinary and typical of the sub-continent at the end of the second millennium:

* Why is so much paper used twice?

* What is "Untouchability"? Why is this reminder placed in school books?

* What do government textbooks tell us about Tamil education?

* Why is English one of the two languages used in the plastic shopping bags and money?

* Why are the bags so small?

* Why are the plastic water pots made to the design of the old pottery pots in the museum?

* How is coconut fibre made into rope?

To ponder any one of these questions while holding the evidence in your own hands is likely to make concrete many current cultural, citizenship and development education issues for children. Indeed, artefacts are so rich and potent a form of information tat one might expect the use of objects to be deemed obligatory in the new national curriculum. However, nowhere in the geography section of the document is there specific mention of objects being used as secondary evidence, or as a stimulus in the study of places or in the development of geographical skills. This is a pity. Artefacts are not the sole preserve of history or technology, they are being produced in every place, shape, form and material throughout the world. They are not yet historical artefacts but they could be geographical ones. They become especially relevant when they tell us of distant places in which fieldwork would be unlikely. I would argue that as geographers we should make it our duty to use the objects of the present to get primary children thinking about distant (and nearby places) places:

* What do these objects tell us about the way of life in this place?

* Why are these objects not often found in our place?

* What does this artefact tell us about water supply in the place where it comes from?

* Why is 7p made in the form of a banknote and why is it so very tattered?

We can command objects to tell us about issues of environment, sustainability and conservation:

* How might planting this crop affect the plants around it?

* How is this material disposed of when finished with?

* Why do we not make paper bags out of telephone books? We can provoke children to think about change and diversity:

* Why do you think that plastic is so common?

* How is this artefact different from the ones we use for the same purpose?

* What change can you guess is taking place by comparing the recycled telephone directory with the plastic bag?

We can make weather patterns real and meaningful:

* Do we grow this crop in England? If not why not?

* How does the weather affect the construction of houses?

* What happens to the sap in the sugarcane if the monsoon rains do not come?

We can even use objects to develop geographical skills:

* Where on this map of India would you place the coir rope or the coffee bean and why?

* Where in the photograph do you think you can see this crop being grown?

* Which other places (in Indiain the world) do you think this crop could be grown?

These questions have been the bread and butter of primary geography teaching for years, but how many of us use real things to focus attention, involve the emotions or provoke the imagination? There is little difficulty these days in finding someone who has come back from the developing world with a small collection of similar detritus. To add to such a collection, look carefully during the next shopping trip to find "Place of origin" on a product's label.

Many teachers complain that it is difficult to get children to think, but almost every 20th century psychologist and neurologist has alluded to the same basic answer, that thinking happens when we ask questions about something which seems relevant and interesting. If an idea does not seem important then children will not bother to think about it. A real object, especially an unusual one, placed in the hands, instantly makes itself relevant; it demands attention.

Historians of the future will piece together aspects of our lives in 1999 from the objects in our buried time capsules. Geographers should use the power of the same objects to inform and engage pupils in the world of today. A hundred thousand time capsules cannot be wrong.

Jonathan Barnes is senior lecturer in education, Canterbury Christ Church University College

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