A planet short on details

25th March 2011 at 00:00

Where on Earth? Geography Without the Boring Bits

By James Doyle

buster books pound;7.99

3 out of 5

Author Jim Doyle is risking his arm in subtitling his book "Geography without the boring bits", because properly speaking geography shouldn't have any boring bits. After all, what could be more fascinating than the study of the places and peoples that constitute our planet?

What he may be hinting at is that not all geography lessons in schools are the amalgams of The Human Planet and Planet Earth that we would like them to be.

Where on Earth? contains a familiar list of topics and chapter headings: Mountains, Rainforests, Earth and Beyond, Oceans, Water, Weather and Climate, to name but a few. These are all dealt with in a similar manner, with short, pithy sections and anecdotes on the key areas and their subdivisions. For the most part, these are lively and interesting and will appeal to students who have a natural curiosity about the world around them or have had their imaginations fired by lessons.

Students who engage with the Horrible Histories or pore over the Guinness Book of Records may well find this book attractive for its cache of facts, but the visual presentation is restricted to a few cartoons and some simple diagrams and that may well deter others. Some of the cartoons are clever and make their point effectively - I particularly liked one on water recycling in which one old buffer says to another, "This glass of water has been in our family for generations" - but to introduce a topic entitled "The Marvel of Maps" and to try and explain grid lines without actually including a pictorial map borders on the perverse.

From a teacher's point of view, Where on Earth? is a useful back-up book. It is not, I think, specifically intended as a teaching resource, and it would certainly not take the place of a textbook, but it is a useful reference book that students of all ages can be directed to dip into as reinforcement. Its place, I would suggest, is on the classroom bookshelves as a resource for topic work. That, of course, presupposes that yours is a school where geography is still taught; if you have given up on it, then a few copies in a non-fiction book-box might help to fill the curriculum vacuum.

If I have one reservation about the content, it is that bright students may find the lack of detailed explanation frustrating. There is a lot of where? and what? but not so much why? For instance, we are told that deserts are increasing due to farming, but it is not absolutely clear why cleared land under cultivation and a higher demand for meat can lead to desertification via poor soil conservation and deforestation. We are told that "most reported tornadoes happen in the USA", but not why this is so. Why in the USA and not other places? Is this a matter of geography, climate or media reporting?

These may be niggly points, but many of the students who are attracted to this sort of factual investigation will want crystal clear answers. For the most part, these are on hand, but occasionally the admirable desire for pithiness and brevity may just be a little overdone.


James Doyle is a geography teacher from Belfast. He has won an exceptional teacher award from the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations amp; Assessment and works in several advisory roles for CCEA.

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