Review - Books - A whirlwind trip through a neglected subject
Where on Earth? Geography without the boring bits
By James Doyle
Jim Doyle is risking his arm a bit in subtitling his book "Geography without the boring bits" because, properly speaking, geography shouldn't have any boring bits - after all, what could be more fascinating than the study of the places and peoples that constitute our planet?
What he may be hinting at is that not all geography lessons in schools are the amalgams of Human Planet and Planet Earth that we would like them to be. In fact, Ofsted's latest report on the subject is a sad record of decline. Some 137 secondary schools did not enter a single pupil for geography GCSE, with inspectors commenting that "uninspiring teaching and the lack of challenge discouraged many students from choosing geography". One in 10 primary schools has abandoned teaching it altogether, especially in the final year where, even if it is taught, it gets pushed to the summer term when the national curriculum tests in maths and English have taken place. Funny that.
More encouragingly, geography provision was rated as outstanding in a quarter of the schools visited. Clearly, provision is neither consistent in quality nor quantity.
Identifying a core of things that all pupils ought to know is a key aim of the national curriculum and, whether they are doing it or not, schools have a clear list of topics they should be covering. These are pretty much echoed by Where on Earth? and key stage 2 teachers will find a familiar list of topics and chapter headings: Mountains, Rainforests, Earth and Beyond, Oceans, Water, Weather and Climate, to name but a few.
These are all dealt with in a similar manner, with short pithy sections and anecdotes on the key areas and their subdivisions. For the most part these are lively and interesting and will appeal to pupils who have a natural curiosity about the world around them or have had their imaginations fired by lead lessons.
Pupils who engage with the Horrible Histories series or pore over the Guinness World Records books may find this format attractive for its cache of facts, but the visual presentation is restricted to a few cartoons and some simple diagrams, which may deter others. Some of the cartoons are clever and make their point effectively - I particularly liked one on water recycling in which one old buffer says to another: "This glass of water has been in our family for generations." However, to introduce a topic entitled "The Marvel of Maps" and to try to explain grid lines without including a pictorial map borders on the perverse.
From a teacher's point of view, Where on Earth? is a useful back-up book. It is not, I think, specifically intended as a teaching resource, and it would certainly not take the place of a textbook, but it is a useful reference book that pupils of all ages can be directed to dip into as reinforcement. Its place, I would suggest, is on the classroom bookshelves as a resource for topic work. That pre-supposes that yours is a school where geography is still taught; if you have given up on it, then a few copies in a non-fiction book box might help fill the curriculum vacuum.
If I have one reservation about the content it is that bright pupils may find the lack of detailed explanation frustrating. There is a lot of "where" and "what" but not so much "why". For instance, we are told that "most reported tornadoes happen in the US" but not why this is so. Is this a matter of geography, climate or media reporting?
These may be niggly points, but many of the pupils who are attracted to this sort of factual investigation will want crystal clear answers. For the most part these are on hand, but occasionally the admirable desire for pithiness and brevity may just be a little overdone.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - JIM DOYLE
Jim Doyle is a geography teacher from Belfast. He won an exceptional teacher award from the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment and works in several advisory roles for the organisation.
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