Ever since the times of Ptolemy and Strabo, the skills of observing and recording, analysing and presenting information have been the geographer's stock in trade. In Scotland, the practical introduction and assessment of these skills in the curriculum has been a problem for the past 20 years, but it is coming to a head with the current proposals for post-16 exams.
The value of empirical skills for individual study was first recognised in exam syllabuses as far back as 1974, with the introduction of the Alternative Higher. A practical exercise was designed to encourage individual investigation, to show up the difficulties of problem formulation and solution, as well as "the excitement of discovery".
Such was the enthusiasm for the practical approach that investigations became an integral part of the Standard grade exam when it was introduced in 1990. Pupils of all abilities had to plan, research, analyse and present information in the form of a written and illustrated report. When the current 5-14 guidelines were drawn up to develop a coherent structure for environmental studies courses in primary and secondary, several of the key strands involved investigating skills.
But despite acceptance of the need to develop pupils' investigative powers, there have been rumblings of discontent among many practitioners. There were two concerns: authorship of the final investigation and impact on the workloads of pupils and teachers. Pupils at Standard grade had to tackle investigations in more than one subject and teachers had to supervise them at Standard and Higher grade.
Investigations were assessed on the "finished product", but it became clear that in carrying out the work, some pupils had been able to tap into considerable reservoirs of support from parents and family friends, while others had not. The level of support varied from being driven to fieldwork locations to having virtually the entire exercise researched and presented for them. The playing field was anything but level.
For teachers the burden was considerable, with the need for regular meetings and monitoring of investigations, often at lunchtimes or after school. This had a huge impact on teachers' time and contributed significantly to their stress levels. For pupils, the pressure of doing investigations in a number of Standard grade subjects was also enormous, with the result that they didn't want to tackle another one at Higher grade. Since geography was the only subject with an investigation at Higher, the number of pupils sitting went into decline.
Concern was so great that the Scottish Association of Geography Teachers campaigned in the early Nineties to have investigation removed from the syllabus. In the end it was removed from the Higher, with an immediate effect on the numbers taking up the subject (up from 7,512 in 1995 to 9,373 in 1996). But a gap was left in a curriculum which claimed to espouse continuity - fundamental geographical skills which were in the 5-14 guidelines, in Standard grade and in the Certificate of Sixth Year Studies, were absent from the Higher.
Now, with the re-organisation of post-compulsory education in Scotland (the Higher Still programme, which aims to combine the academic and the vocational in a new Higher) an attempt is being made to cut the Gordian knot.
The present Higher Still proposals try to ensure that investigative techniques are taught and assessed in a manner that ensures greater uniformity. So a list of 18 geographical methods and techniques has been incorporated. These must be taught in such a way that students know how information can be collected, analysed and presented - but a finished product will not be required. As far as possible, the new proposals will permit schools with a fully developed fieldwork programme to continue this work, while others can practise the techniques using simulated fieldwork. The list of techniques builds on work already being done by some schools, so the analysis of climatic graphs, soil profiles and vegetation transects are all included, as are analysis of land use data and field sketches.
The assessment of these techniques will be internal and external. The school will need to provide evidence that the candidate has achieved one human and one physical technique from the list, while the external exam will also contain a method and technique question.
In this way an attempt has been made to ensure that basic geographical skills are part of a syllabus which allows for flexibility of approach, and can be easily taught and assessed. There remains, however, the problem of continuity.
If the present Higher Still proposals remain at the end of the current consultation phase in December, the resulting Higher programme will be out of step with other courses, since no final "product" will be required.
This should be seen not as a problem of the proposed Higher, but as an opportunity for the revision of Standard grade, where a shorter and more straightforward list of methods and techniques could be tackled. The time of the paper might have to be extended to permit this, but given the benefits to staff and pupils, and the levelling of the playing field for students, it would be a price well worth paying.
Jack Bairner teaches geography at Bannockburn high school in Stirling