Bird's-eye view - Secondary Geography

31st October 2008 at 00:00
Real-life situations put geography on the map with the help of technology, says Malcolm McDonald

Geographers have always had a fascination for the landscape; how it looks, how it changes and, more importantly, how it can be used to teach geography.

Flying into Edinburgh airport, it's a real delight to pick out features and see things you can only notice from a bird's-eye view. Now we have the technology to fly our pupils over the landscape and stop wherever we want and discuss the various aspects.

I use the website Multimap, which can zoom into a particular landscape. It's like having an Ordnance Survey map that I can display on the whiteboard. It can be annotated and pupils can follow roads or rivers and pick out features easily. Recently, it has introduced built-in aerial photography and, more importantly, the ability to get a bird's-eye view.

For certain areas of the country, mostly the larger cities, you can switch from the map view to bird's-eye view and see the buildings and streets (with or without names) in glorious colour.

Mapping can be a dry area for some pupils, so I have searched through geography network sharing sites (see below) and come up with an idea I can adapt for my Secondary 3 Standard grade pupils (the equivalent of GCSE).

I assigned pupils the role of police controllers and explained what they did and how they used maps in real-life situations - working out where to send ambulances and police cars, and where to set up diversions, etc.

Put into groups, each set was given instructions and a starter map (laminated and with the grid numbers printed around it). I used the whiteboard to show the accident, using bird's-eye view. I put up a screen grab of the image, doctored in Photoshop, to show the same scene after the accident, with the build-up of cars across the carriageway.

The groups were given messages every few minutes to emulate a real-life accident situation, as follows:

Report 1

Time 09.30am

Telephone call from Mrs Rachel Stevens, "There has been a bad accident on the M8 under a bridge involving two lorries." She is not local and can give no better description.

Report 2

Time 09.40am

The police helicopter is now hovering over the scene of an accident on the M8. The accident is at Junction 3 directly under the road bridge. The observer in the helicopter reports that three large vehicles have been involved and that there is already a two-mile tailback on the westbound carriageway.

The pupils had to use literacy and numeracy skills to write a press release, note down telephone messages accurately, draw a sketch map showing the position of the accident and the different cars, and try and work out who was to blame.

I located the "accident" just a few miles from the school so pupils could work out how long it would take ambulances from a local hospital to reach the scene.

The whole idea was to link mapping to a real-life situation and get pupils to put their skills into practice. Although there was a lot of work involved in setting up the lesson, it was worthwhile and has acted as a starting point to other ways of using the bird's-eye view.

Next time, I have decided to devote more time to the actual "mystery" and work out more carefully the make-up of the groups.

Malcolm McDonald is principal teacher of geography at Bathgate Academy, West Lothian, and president of the Scottish Association of Geography Teachers

For notes on the lesson and resources, visit

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