Examining all sides of each argument

1st December 2000 at 00:00
Margaret Mackintosh describes a primary geography project that took up a local environmental issue

It certainly made them think!" There was no response when, at an interview 25 years ago, I stated that my priorities for primary education were "to teach children to think logically, creatively..." (I didn't get the job!) After a long journey with much frustration, it is personally satisfying to see it claimed that thinking skills - information processing, reasoning, enquiry, creative thinking and evaluation skills - are embedded in the national curriculum. What does this mean for geography, which is so much about interconnectedness?

At school pupils can be conditioned to the idea that there must be a "right answer". But in geography pupils have an opportunity to meet with uncertainty. Key stage 2 pupils do this as they explore environmental or land-use issues associated with change. In these contexts and others pupils discover that sometimes people just do not know, and often disagree, and that it is acceptable to hold different opinions from those of others. They can learn to justify their opinion, to question their attitudes and values and discover that uncertainty or lack of consensus can lead to dispute. In simulating a public inquiry into, for example, planning or land-use decisions, they learn something of decision-making and democratic processes and citizenship.

An example from the primary classroom grew out of a recent environmental and land-use issue in my part of the country, that of a company's application to divert the Rivers Teign and Bovey to extend ball-clay extraction. Local people's views differed. The company's employees disagreed with local farmers and some residents. Councillors, the clay company's management, the "experts" from, among others, English Nature, the Environment Agency, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds all had a view. A decision had to be made. Considering all aspects of this issue, in a balanced way, constitutes in my view "good thinking-skills geography". In a Plymouth classroom, the teacher told the pupls (nine to 10-year-olds) that they would be learning about rivers."Oh, boring," was the unfortunate response, but this changed as they learned about the issue in an active way that required them to think.

These are the national curriculum thinking skills it involved:

* "Information processing" meant that, using newspaper cuttings, photographs and road atlases, the children identified the issue, explained why it was an issue, found out where it was happening and what the place is like.

* Through "enquiry" and "reasoning" they discovered which groups and individuals had an interest, and considered their disparate views and what might influence them. Following the issue in the press and on local television news, they collected and analysed evidence, and explored how a decision would be made and by whom. Using informed "creative thinking", speaking and listening skills, they participated in role-play, simulating a public inquiry and a council meeting.

* In "evaluating", they voted to reach a class decision that they compared with the "real" decision. This work was carried out separately by two groups, less and more able. Interestingly, the less-able group were much more comfortable with the role-play - they were used to not having, or there not being, a "right answer"; they were used to uncertainty and were more prepared to consider alternatives, to think creatively. To me this justifies the need for this type of "thinking skills" work for all children. Their unanimous verdict was that they had learned a lot about rivers (and other things) and really enjoyed it. Geography had taken on a new meaning for them.

Questions remain. How important is geographical accuracy in role-play? Is this geographical learning using thinking skills, or developing thinking skills in the context of geography? Whatever the answers, I am impressed by the teacher's concluding remark - "It certainly made them think!" Dr Margaret Mackintosh is honorary editor of 'Primary Geography' magazine and senior lecturer at Rolle School of Education, University of Plymouth

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