Full marks for asking

4th February 2005 at 00:00
Cultivating a spirit of inquiry fosters good thinking skills. Nic Barnard meets a teacher who delivers results

This article is about geography teacher David Beresford, so we should start with a few questions. How do you get pupils interested in geography? How do you keep excited in the subject yourself? And if you walk up a mountain with your eyes closed, won't you fall off?

Head of geography at Coleridge Community School in Cambridge, David has built a teaching style around asking questions - or rather, getting his pupils to ask them. Kipling's "six honest serving-men" - what, why, when, how, where, who - stand sentry above his whiteboard. David suspects he might be viewed as idiosyncratic by colleagues, but his approach chimes precisely with Ofsted's prescription for solving a deep-seated crisis in the subject.

In November, Ofsted delivered a damning verdict on the state of geography, calling it "the most taught subject in the primary school curriculum", squeezed out because teachers lacked confidence; pupils arrived at secondary school unmotivated and with no real understanding. David agrees.

Baseline tests of his Year 7 pupils reveal that many cannot identify even the most major features on an atlas. "They couldn't tell you where Scotland is," he says.

Ofsted blames the curriculum - too fact-based at key stage 3 and "not sufficiently relevant or stimulating". However, the OCR examination board's new GCSE pilot, with more emphasis on inquiry, has engaged pupils and delivered results, inspectors said.

David has been using OCR's current syllabus, Avery Hill, for most of his 36-year career, because of its inquiry-based approach. The benefits are clear. Nationally, entries for GCSE geography are down a third since 1996, but at Coleridge up to four-fifths of pupils choose it. Between 45 and 50 per cent typically get A* to C, double the school average.

"What's holding many of these young people back is they come through to us with the thought that there's only one right answer," he says. "They've had the questions knocked out of them. They have the right to be wrong here. We try to turn out thinkers rather than geographers. If they're thinkers who are also geographers, that's a bonus."

The tone is set at the start of every lesson. David's pupils are greeted by a set of factual but opaque statements on the whiteboard - for example "Japan is a land of contrasts". They immediately set to, thinking up questions to ask in response. A rapid slideshow of jumbled images might follow, prompting them to write a postcard home - he believes every geography lesson should be a virtual field trip.

An advanced skills teacher and associate adviser for Cambridgeshire LEA, David seems to devise lesson plans for fun. Many are based around pictures and stories, getting pupils to empathise with their fellow global citizens.

"It can be a bare bones subject," he says. "It's the stories which bring the dust to life. Take a photograph - I often find if you've got a landscape, kids won't even bother to look at it. But if you put a person in it, they'll look at it much more closely. You try to encourage them to empathise."

Oral strategies play a major part. David might tell one group of pupils a short story; they tell it to a second group who tell it to a third, who tell it back to the teacher and finally use it as a basis for extended writing.

In a similar strategy, a row of pictures in the corridor might illustrate a walk through a Brazilian favella (slum). Pupils take the walk and then in small groups draw a map. Sometimes, he'll show a video with the sound turned down and make pupils guess what the people are saying. Who are they? What clues are in the background, the gestures, the expressions? Always questions. Or maybe they'll close their eyes and imagine walking through a particular landscape - the sights, smells, weather. Months later, he has heard pupils recall the geography of Alpine valleys in vivid detail.

"What he does really well is capitalise on the visual side of the subject," says Liz Taylor, lecturer in geographical education at the Cambridge University's department of education, where David is also a lecturer. "But he doesn't avoid things that might be seen as more challenging, such as extended writing. He employs strong scaffolding techniques to help them reach a higher level of thinking and engagement by supporting them all along the way."

He's been quick to seize the potential of ideas such as mind-mapping and interactive technology. But what inspires trainees, says Liz Taylor, is "his vision of the potential of each child and their ability to succeed".

David is driven by his empathy for pupils drawn from a tough catchment. An 11-plus failure with a passion for geography, he wanted to be a meteorologist; his teachers told him to consider a job in a laundry. "I can still see myself as that 11-plus failure and remember how gutwrenchingly awful that was. I've seen kids sat at the back of the class and I feel I've got to show them it doesn't have to be like that. You can take charge."

Pictures of Hokeido flash up on the whiteboard. "They're convinced I've been to all these places." But the truth is, much of his own travelling has also been virtual.

In three years, David retires. So, a final question: what does he plan to do? "I'm looking forward to finally visiting all these places I've been teaching about," he smiles. "Yes, Spaghetti Junction, Bootle, the Gorbals..."

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