One geography department's claim to a revitalised role

24th March 2000 at 00:00
This time last year we were feeling a bit out on a limb in the geography department at my school. For the first time the humanities subjects had lost access to all Year 10 students as we became adjuncts rather than compulsory areas of study in the GCSE menu of options; and the school was bidding for Technology status, which involved three faculty areas directly - but not ours. Perhaps it was feeling sidelined that stimulated action and a need to stake a more pronounced role for the subject.

The year saw the expansion of "literacy" into key stage 3. I was first made aware of the enhanced armoury of literacy skills when, with my Year 7 class preparing for a field trip to some nearby coastal features, I was describing the terms "swash" and "backwash". "There's a word which describes terms which sound like the thing they refer to..." Barely had the words left my mouth when a chorus went up: "Onomatopoeia! We did that last term."

With the new intake of Year 7s there is an evident awareness of grammatical accuracy. Turning that into effective "literacy" is the ambition we have joined forces with other subject colleagues to explore. We are beginning to see how more effective skills in language can help students to display the understanding we know they possess and to achieve those higher grades.

A series of one-day courses run by the East Riding English adviser together with the historygeography adviser has sparked new directions in which to venture, with mutual benefits to all three subjects.

What it has meant for geography is a reinvigorated examination of what we ask students to do, how we prepare them to communicate it, and the offering of structures to get the more sophisticated expressions which can help them gain higher levels of achievement.

In practice, this has meant exploring the use of word-frames, raising awareness of technical vocabulary, and stylistic devices for explaining things which engage the students more readily. "The Life Story of Barry the Boulder" excites far mre imagination and provides the impetus for the use of terms such as "attrition", "corrasion" and "confluence" more readily than the banal "Write about how a river erodes its valley".

We have produced geography vocabulary lists and menus of connecting phrases for each unit in Years 7 to 9. A Year 9 piece of work on the impact of oil drilling in Alaska asked students to make use of the word "exploitation" from the vocabulary list they had stuck into their exercise books. Some of the responses about how the Inuit are "exploited" by the oil companies were inspirational. Students are using more precise geographical vocabulary and we are seeing new concepts explored at younger ages than we had previously considered.

We have also been building on the "thinking abilities" of students, looking at the ways in which geographical concepts, skills and techniques of analysing the world can be identified and worked on consciously. The work of David Leat at the University of Newcastle and his book Thinking Through Geography (see box below left) has opened up some enticing possibilities. Exercises which help students develop key conceptual skills in geography such as classifying, correlating, looking for associations along with identifying cause and effect all help make the subject a more "useful" discipline in the eyes of students - and others. Geography has always relied on these abilities - at least for the past 25 years, but it is perhaps only now that we are being given the tools to lay claim to significant areas of those ephemeral whispers we call "intelligence".

So, far from being left in a bit of a backwater our department has a cause. We feel we are on a double cutting-edge of making geographers literate enough to command respect for what they know, explain and can contribute and we aim to be up-front about developing the thinking abilities which exercise the brain in leaps towards new associations.

Andy Day is head of humanities at Withernsea High School, East Riding of Yorkshire

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