Pity the poor geography teacher. Sat at his desk wearing brown corduroy, stroking his beard with one hand and sharpening colouring pencils with the other (no mean feat in itself). Geography as a school subject seems to have something of an image problem, highlighted recently when I asked people what their memories of geography lessons were. The responses were almost entirely restricted to colouring in, maps and meanders. In fact, very few people could point to anything meaningful they had learnt in their geography lessons. This is a huge shame, as geography has the power to be truly transformative in shaping the way we see our world.
Geography as an academic discipline has a long and proud history stretching back to the father of the subject, Eratosthenes, who coined the term some 2200 years ago to mean literally writing the world. At its heart, geography is about finding patterns in the chaos, whether that is the cause of migration across the Sahara or the way rivers shift in their course. When you have a deep and secure knowledge of geography, the world starts to make sense.
'Thinking like a geographer'
When a geographer stands on top of the mountain, they see the landscape stretching out before them and the view sharpens into focus. They see the rock type below the surface by the way it affects the land use above it. The geographer detects how the landscape has been used over the generations and how this has left its mark on the land. They see how the ridges have been carved by ice and continue to be shaped today. How the parts of the ecosystem interact and how life clings on in these harsh environments. They see the world and understand the mechanisms behind it.
Geographers draw on other disciplines such as biology, chemistry, maths and, yes, even history to make conclusions about the world, but they go further than simply bringing them together. They do something unique in using these as tools to examine the relationships between seemingly separate disciplines to make sense of what they see. This is what we mean by “thinking like a geographer”.
Making sense of the world
The world can be a confusing place but geography helps children to make sense of it. How else can we understand the debates over refugees in Europe? How can we see the impact of our actions on the environment? Or how can we really understand how flooding can be best managed in our neighbourhood? A geographical education is important because it takes all that humans have discovered about the planet we call home and passes it on to the next generation and then challenges them to add to this body of knowledge themselves. Geography is their inheritance as well as their instruction manual.
It is time for geography teachers to make their voices heard loud and clear in the debate over the place of geography in the curriculum. The memory of geography classes from many years ago has led to a confused and unclear picture on the purpose and nature of the discipline in many people’s minds. Let’s write them the world anew.
Mark Enser is head of geography at Heathfield Community College and blogs at teachreal.wordpress.com