Left in the dark on the Sun

18th November 1994 at 00:00
We now have a better map, but a worse syllabus which fails to explore the consequences of the shape of our world, says David Wright From 1995, the world will be a different shape - in children's eyes at least. The revised geography national curriculum has wisely abandoned the Modified Gall map projection. The authors made a spectacular error in 1991 when they stated it was an "equal-area" map. Teachers and pupils naturally believed them. I drew attention to this error two years ago (TES 10.4.92) - for example Kenya looked the same size as Iceland, yet it is actually five times bigger. But it has taken a long time for this map to be changed.

The choice for the world maps is now Eckert IV, a surprise outsider. It is not mentioned in most books about map projections, and it does not appear in most atlases. It has some virtues, mainly that it is equal-area, so no part of the world is under-emphasised. We can be grateful that they did not choose the Mercator projection, with its serious distortions of size, or the Peters projection, with its gross distortion of shapes.

But Eckert IV cannot keep shapes and size correct, so there are some major distortions (see figure 1). For ex-ample Africa is too long and thin, although not as distorted as on the Peters map. Africa is bad, but Scandinavia is much worse, while Greenland is unrecognisable. Worst of all are the corners: Alaska becomes a long thin peninsula, while the opinions of New Zealanders will be unprintable. It will be vital to show lines of longitude when this world map is being used: otherwise the distorted shapes will be totally confusing. Even then, it is a map projection which needs to be boldly labelled "HANDLE WITH CARE". And you will need to use a globe, to see the correct shapes.

The only way to get both size and shape nearly correct on flat paper is to make cuts in the oceans. I am very surprised that an "interrupted" projection, such as Mollweide or Sanson-Flamsteed, was not chosen. They are elegant, accurate, clear and logical - in fact the nearest thing to "unpeeling the orange skin". This seems a lost opportunity. (See figure 2) So we have a better world map, but we also have a worse world syllabus. Where are the excitements, the joy, the mysteries and the consequences of the shape of our round world, the tilt of its axis, and the warmth of the Sun? They were almost absent from the 1991 geography Order; they are even more absent from the 1995 version.

Yet this is where geography starts. Ultimately, almost everything depends on latitude and its consequences, in terms of how much daylight we get and when we get it, and how strong the Sun's rays are. After all, without the Sun's heat we wouldn't have much geography to write about at all. It should be a delightful topic - and much of it is delightfully simple.

Why don't we study the significance of latitude? Without this basis, geography loses much of its logic. Given the virtual absence of these vital topics from the geography national curriculum, I tried science instead. Science tries to tackle all sorts of complex things about the Earth in the Solar System in key stage 2, and then seems to ig-nore the whole topic in key stage 3. I really doubt it is sensible to in-flict it all on primary school pu-pils. And science omits the human significance of these topics. So, overall, there's not much help from science.

Of course in an ideal world, geographers would build on the foundations laid by science, but we all know that this is hard to achieve.

I first really understood the significance and logic of the Earth's axis, and of day and night, as a postgraduate student-teacher, when trying to explain it all to 12-year-olds. After about five years of trying, I think I finally got through to my fifth group of 12-year-olds. Perhaps I was a late developer, but it does seem odd to omit easy important things, and tackle difficult things before age 11.

I then tried the maths curriculum. Here, the opposite problem occurs. Mathematicians think the shape of the Earth is "spherical geometry", which they think is too difficult to tackle until about age 14. Dare I suggest that this is a classic example of taking something simple and making it too complex? Any child who has caught a tennis ball has understood the shape of planet Earth. Anyone who has unpeeled a tangerine is well on the way to understanding latitude and longitude - with a bit of help from an encouraging teacher. And the discovery of "a triangle with three right-angles" is a fascinating aspect of our globe, even though 180 degrees per triangle is a basic belief of mathematicians. For example take three lines that all meet at right-angles: the Greenwich Meri-dian, Longitude 90 East, and the Equator (figure 3).

So we have a big problem. Geography has almost abandoned this key element; science tackles the topic too soon, maths too late. Our planet deserves better treatment than this! And our pupils need a better understanding of their world.

Can we get together over this topic? Geography, science, and mathematics all have insights - and perhaps we all have blind spots too. Could we make some progress by meeting under the heading of environmental education, one of the national curriculum's cross-curricular dimensions? All the world's environments depend on the Sun: where it is in the sky, for how long, and how strong its rays are. We need worthwhile, enjoyable, comprehensible strategies for making "solar education" meaningful and successful. Perhaps the environment and development agencies which focus on the Earth could sponsor a conference? There are plenty of ideas around: we need to bring them down to earth.

A final thought. If my argument does not convince you, ask anyone who has been conned into booking a holiday in The Gambia in May, or Egypt in August, or Norway in December. They will soon assure you that solar education could have saved them a lot of disappointment - and a lot of money too.

David Wright is co-author of Children's Atlas and Environment Atlas (PhilipsWWF). He is a Fellow of the University of East Anglia.

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