Humanities - Get them in shape

13th January 2012 at 00:00
Old-style model-making can help students visualise complex ideas

The first time a colleague suggested using plasticine for a geography lesson with high-achieving sixth-formers, I have to admit to a certain amount of scepticism. Surely they were too bright for childish stuff? But I was wrong - they loved it.

Even in this age of computer models, the value of actually getting your hands on the materials and making something cannot be overestimated. Plasticine is clean, reusable, cheap and less trouble than papier mache. But what could sixth-formers learn from it? Well, some of the changes in glacial landscapes were proving tricky to visualise, so we made models.

Make a mountain top and then gouge out the corries until you have aretes and a pyramidal peak. Or show the shape of the glacial valley below: using different colours to represent harder and softer areas of rock allows the depiction of differential erosion, over-deepening, rock-steps, whatever you choose.

To model the movement of ice, freeze some water in a plastic bowl, warm the outside to release the ice, tilt it to an angle and "create" rotational movement in a corrie by applying pressure to the back edge of the ice mass. It's even better if you put some sand or grit in the bottom before freezing to simulate abrasion. You can go further and create your own glacier by building up layers in a long, narrow tray: start with damp garden soil and coarse grit, add rain water, then sand, clean water, and so on. Freeze between each addition to represent the phases of accumulation, and top it off with a couple of "erratic" stones.

Plasticine is also great for any sequence, such as in coastal erosion. Form a headland, then caves and arches, followed by a "collapse" to produce stacks and stumps.

The key to learning here comes from being able to explain to others what the model means. Insist on the correct age-appropriate geographical vocabulary during feedback to ensure progress. Take photos to refer to if reinforcement or revision is needed, or for a display.

Try it. As a former sceptic, I think you'll be glad you did.

Lynne Deacon is a freelance trainer, writer and consultant and a former geography teacher


For a more ambitious model of glaciation, try's comprehensive activity. Alternatively, if you don't have time to build one, explore PhET's interactive simulation.

For an extensive scheme of work with worksheets, videos and presentations exploring glaciers through photographs try NGfLCymru's study pack.

u4j48 shares a colourful, differentiated range of activities exploring the terrain of Antarctica.

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