Our countries: right or wrong?;Reviews;Subject of the Week - Geography

27th March 1998 at 00:00
Themes are out; countries are back in. Changes in the geography curriculum have brought an imaginative response from publishers, writes Michael Storm

COUNTRY SERIES. ITALY. By Fred Martin. JAPAN. By Michael Witherick with Celia Tidmarsh. INDIA. By Steve Brace. BRAZIL. By Roger Robinson. Heinemann pound;5.99 each.

Exploring series. GHANA. By Graham Ranger. EGYPT. By Michael Hill. GERMANY. By Brian Dicks. SPAIN. By Michael Hill. Hodder amp; Stoughton pound;5.25 each. EXPLORING JAPAN RESOURCE PACK. By John Greenlees. Hodder amp; Stoughton pound;22.50. INDIA AREA RESOURCE PACK. By Peter and Carole Goddard. Stanley Thornes pound;21.99. EXPLORING SERIES MAP CARDS FOR BRAZIL, FRANCE, AND JAPAN. Edited by Vincent Bunce. Packs of 15 for each country. Hodder amp; Stoughton pound;14.99 per pack.

You might think that geography is primarily about countries. But in fact countries have been a problem for school geography for many years. The 1990 national curriculum proposals attracted much criticism for recommending a return to the study of specific countries.

The suggestion arose from a concern that school geography had become almost entirely thematic - agriculture, energy, transport, population, and so on. Such studies typically incorporated case studies - for example, an Indian village, a Brazilian hydro scheme, Japanese railways, the explosive growth of Shanghai.

The curriculum report alleged that this darting about the globe "reduced the opportunity for pupils to develop a coherent understanding of what particular places are like, and an appreciation of how the various geographical features of a place are interrelated".

The requirement to study countries "in the round" ("This term we're going to study China, not settlement patterns") was seen by many in teaching as a retrograde step; before 1960 geography had often been a drab descriptive accumulation of country studies. Critics feared the study of values and issues would be eroded; that supra-national phenomena ranging from climate change to investment flows would be downgraded. Resources, courses and styles of examining had for decades taken a thematic approach.

Nevertheless, the requirement to study whole countries was reintroduced. The Heinemann (KS4) and Hodder (KS3) series represent an encouraging response by publishers to this curricular shift. These books demonstrate that the equation of area-based work with arid encyclopedism, and thematic topics with relevance and dynamism, is a false dichotomy.

The books on India and Brazil in Heinemann's Country series are written from what might be termed a development education perspective, with much emphasis on spatial and social inequalities. Michael Witherick, on Japan - the best of this set - concludes by questioning Japan's global environmental credentials; Fred Martin analyses Italy's spectacularly collapsing birth rate. Both sets deploy detailed case studies and mostly eschew national generalisations.

The two European texts in the Hodder Exploring series set use a simple but effective strategy which helps to reconcile foreign-ness and familiarity: headings, occasional geographicalterms and place names are given in German and Spanish. Extracts from foreign topographical maps have a similar symbolic value.

Country books acquire cohesion when the author identifies a dominant and recurring theme or question. For example, how and why did Japan, with such an unpromising physical endowment, become so economically powerful? How will Germany digest its sudden and stressful enlargement? How will China cope with a population that has more than doubled since 1950?

Geography is supposed to be about helping pupils to understand the world. Outside the classroom the endless bombardment of information generally arrives with national labels attached; we don't see headlines about political crises in the savanna grasslands. Books such as these (and photo-copiable back-up material such as the resource packs for Japan and Egypt, and the well-produced map cards from Hodder) can help to dismantle the perception of homogeneity implied by the attributes of nationhood - flags, coins, stamps, teams, and so on.

Country-based texts can demonstrate effectively the Russian-doll nature of spatial statements. As we explore each territory, we become aware of contrasts between regions, within regions, within cities. Such contrasts generate tensions - on Brazil's pioneer frontier, in northern Italy's separatist inclinations, in Spain's intense regionalism.

These are geography textbooks, aligned with curricular requirements and freighted with pupil assignments. They are not to be confused with the "country books" of the Sally and Tom Visit Ecuador type found in school libraries. The Heinemann set, in particular, sets a high standard. We need more of these sorts of books.

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