Odds and ends;Subject of the Week - Geography

27th March 1998 at 00:00
Road signs; map references; measuring rainfall . . . Simon Catling and Gill Davidson on why maths skills play an important role in grasping many concepts in geography

Understanding numbers is essential to understanding geography. How could you make sense of the sequence of numbers in a grid reference? What would the number of people living in a village or town mean? There would be little point in undertaking a tally of vehicles or shops during an investigation of the local environment without using numbers.

The emphasis on numeracy in the primary curriculum offers important opportunities for geography. It is vital that connections are seen and made to support work in mathematics.

Using numeracy skills to measure aspects of weather, present data on graphs, read heights on contour lines and compare survey findings is fundamental to exploring patterns and processes in places and the environment. Children need to use numbers to find out about and to express geographical information, concepts and values.

The corollary is also true. Numeracy skills need to be developed through the use of real world data that children see as relevant and through the use of number in the environment. For example, in examining the route the local postman used, a class of six-year-olds followed the sequence of street numbers and learned that the odd numbers are on one side of the street and the evens are on the other. Discussion centred on the best route to deliver a set of letters and on sequencing odd and even numbers.

Spotting numbers in the local urban environment is an idea for project work with a class of eight-year-olds. They will find that numbers on road signs tell them about distances between places; that on buses they act as symbols to designate routes; on shop doors numbers tell people when they can buy goods and services, and on street furniture they give information for services such as fire hydrants.

They will discover how much people use numbers without realising it - and how important numbers are in their environment.

It is difficult to read many maps without using numbers. They form part of letter-number grid references and all Ordnance Survey map co-ordinates. To use six-figure grid references involves developing an understanding of fractions as tenths, and can be a basis for introducing or developing understanding of decimals. Numbers as spot heights or on contour lines provide clues about the slope and steepness of the landscape.

Measuring distances using a scale bar requires more than counting off numbers. For the distances to have meaning involves appreciating how far one metre or kilometre is. This is a challenge to children, because it involves having a sense of the real distance on the ground - not just a capacity to count.

Geography can provide the opportunities to recognise the real value of numbers. The population of a village or city is, again, not just a large number, but it is a set of real people.

For primary children, the need for pictographic images to help appreciate the size of a group is important. A class of 10-year-olds in a village school could be introduced to the reality of population size through the use of census data, seeing the electoral roll, using photographs of the families in the class and by discussing the number of village people who come to the school's summer fete.

Many classes have used surveys and maps to identify and record information about their local area. This can provide insights into the meaning and use of numbers.

For example, a group of seven-year-olds counted shoppers and vehicles during a survey along their local high street. The concentration required to count people and vehicles made them realise how many people were out and about - they could begin to see what the numbers they recorded meant.

The following are important points to bear in mind when linking number and geographical work:

* the way children make sense of numbers for themselves; * the experience and understanding of numbers children have when using them for tallies or in looking at numbers in the environment; * the nature of the number understanding required for geographical tasks; * how real examples of numbers in the environment can be linked to mathematical activities; * the extent to which children can describe and explain the meaning of the numbers they use in a geographical task; * how children make use of numbers in their daily lives; * that there is coherence and consistency between what is undertaken in geography and mathematics, so that understanding is developed, used and reinforced and that progression in both maths and geography is enabled.

Simon Catling is tutor in geographical education and deputy head of the school of education at Oxford Brookes University, and a past president of the Geographical Association.Gill Davidson is tutor in geographical education and leads the secondary PGCE course in geography in the school of education, Oxford Brookes University

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