A spoonful of sugar

5th January 2001 at 00:00
Do we need statistics on Baywatch babes and the Old Firm's clashes to put learning on the map, asks John Cairney

"THAT'S where Uncle Philip lives," I said to Rachel, pointing to Washington DC on the world map we were inspecting. Her response shook me. I had underestimated the influence of advertising, attentive parenting and children's powers of recall.

"And that is where Disneyworld is," she replied, sliding her chubby four-and-a-quarter-year-old index finger southwards through the Carolinas and Georgia, stopping about halfway down the Florida peninsula.

Before I could utter a "well done", she had moved her finger smartly south east across the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean and jabbed at Alice Springs, "and that is where Neighbours takes place".

I tried to think of an equivalent combination of popular culture and geography from my own childhood. We might have picked out Hollywood in California, though with considerably less expectation of ever visiting Tinseltown than I suspect Rachel has of getting to see Donald, Mickey and Pluto. The young lady in question, by the way, once picked up a television remote control and pointed it at the TV when she was about five months old.

I was the only person in the room at the time and no one believed me when she declined to repeat the gesture; but, she did, I tell you, she did.

My world atlas at school tended to be less multicoloured than the present-day version, the predominant colour being red. In primary school, maps were regarded as important in the quest for "general knowledge". When we graduated to learning "geography", it was as dry as dust, which was one of the reasons I dropped the subject and opted for history.

At least some of the information I had gleaned from the historical stories of G A Henty would come in useful, though we never did get to study the role of the East India Company at the time of Robert Clive or the conflict between Britain and France which led to Wolfe storming the Heights of Abraham in Quebec.

Using aspects of popular culture to sugar the learning pill is not a recent phenomenon. Our history teacher once promised to treat us to lessons on the real American West if there was a satisfactory response to the weekend homework exercise - and he kept his promise. The social and electoral reforms of Victorian Britain paled into boring insignificance once we got into the historical factsand personalities involved in the gunfight at the OK Corral and the battle of the Little Big Horn. The obvious enthusiasm with which our teacher countered so much of the Hollywood western mythology showed that he shared our preference for Wyatt Earp over Lord Palmerston.

In my first year of teaching I encouraged my pupils to bring to school sports photographs which were then displayed in the dressing rooms and the corridor. Some of them, notably the larger ones of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, also came in very useful in covering up the holes in the plasterboard walls of my registration classroom. Perhaps it was because it was an all boys annexe, but there were more pictures of long jump medallist Mary Rand than of her male counterpart, Lyn Davies.

I never did try to find out if the boys knew where Tokyo was, which is perhaps just as well. That was the school in which a boy complained to me while I was invigilating the history exam that he was absent the day the class did history.

A more recent example of using sport to increase interest and motivation has been the use of the statistics in the Scottish Premier League as an aid to teaching mathematics, particularly among boys. I have my doubts about that one. On a general point, I thought that the idea was to deflect young males away from inducements to "laddism". And given that Scotland's two most successful teams are, certainly in the west of Scotland, still closely associated with sectarianism, maths classrooms could become affected by this pernicious influence.

Anything is worth a try, but I can't see this one being a success.

According to my friends who are still in the business of trying to impart the legacy of Pythagoras and Newton to adolescent males, you could offer them hands-on experience with measuring tapes and Baywatch look-alikes and they would still not be interested.

The success of this year's Sydney Olympics offered a marvellous opportunity for pupils to improve their knowledge of world geography and a lot more besides, given the emphasis on the indigenous culture in the opening and closing ceremonies. The television coverage was impressive and at times spectacular, but as far as I could see there was no indication in the broadcasts as to where Australia actually is.

Geographically challenged secondary pupils probably couldn't find it on a map, but I know a four-year-old who can.

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