The sum of the parts

7th February 2003 at 00:00
Jerome Monahan looks at an initiative to tackle global issues such as poverty by first broadening students' view of their world

No man is an island..." could be the slogan for a new three-year project designed to foster better understanding of global connections and humanity's mutual dependence.

The Valuing Places scheme, launched last month, emerges out of the Geographical Association's commitment to international development and will be promoted through its membership network. It is being funded with pound;180,000 from the Department For International Development (DFID), with the express aim of informing young people about how closely related their lifestyles - and the familiar places in which they operate - are to the wider world and priorities such as reducing poverty.

"To date a lot of geography teaching provides a very simple representation of 'place'," explains the project's manager Diane Swift. "The approach is typified by the kind of textbook double-page-spread view which suggests that any given location can be neatly defined. The Valuing Places philosophy is to deepen pupils' grasp of what place actually means, and to induce in them the kind of imaginative geographical thinking that will help them unpack some of the complexity and confusion that surrounds the term."

According to Swift, the perception of place, which is central to the scheme, reflects the outlook advocated by geographers, such as Professor Doreen Massey at The Open University, who has suggested that it is only as "a meeting spot" of conflicting needs and worldwide relations that any given place can truly be mapped and understood.

"A helpful analogy is the idea of the world as a Russian doll," says Swift.

"Once it was enough to think of a particular place as being one unpacked element of the whole - distinct and apart. What we are promoting is an understanding of place that involves placing a Perspex wall through the entire doll, so that all its elements can be seen to be present at one and the same time."

The Valuing Places project will unfold in three stages. During this academic year a steering committee will be formed that promotes the scheme to all English schools. This will be done in part through the provision of key stage 2 and 3 web-based resources designed to emphasise the immediate need for a reduction of world poverty and environmental issues.

A general invitation will also be issued to all teachers to get involved in phase two. This will begin in September with the creation of eight regional groups made up of primary and secondary teachers charged with the task of adapting the core materials for their own areas and pupils.

The emphasis throughout will be on finding ways of uncovering the international perspective likely to enrich perceptions of local places and regions and move students on to a deeper understanding of development than is possible through the compassioncharity model.

This work will in turn generate a programme of local in-service training in the 20045 academic year that will be run by regional group members.

A preview of the kind of learning outcomes that the scheme is likely to promote was provided last October at the Meridian School in Royston. The event, which involved 64 Year 9 gifted and talented pupils from schools across Hertfordshire, focused on developing students' understanding of the county as a geographically distinct entity. "They were required to work in groups drawn from outside their normal friendship network and that immediately had the effect of enriching their understanding of the area," says Bob Page, the school's head of geography.

Initially, they were asked to consider whether or not they thought the concept of a county was useful and what it would mean to live without boundaries. The responses ranged from those applauding the greater open-mindedness that might flow from such a change, to those regretting the loss of a sense of community and difference that could follow the abandonment of borders. "I believe we have a wonderful complex world and to understand something big you have to break it into smaller pieces," said one student.

"It was quickly apparent how much local knowledge they had to offer," says county gifted and talented adviser Rory Fox. "Many were conscious, for example, of the pressures for and against new housing in the county - the need offset by the environmental impact and increased traffic congestion."

A second reshuffle placed the students in larger groups and with responsibility for making a presentation on a number of key topics, including: the extent to which the county fostered a sense of belonging in its residents; the sort of representation and influence individual towns enjoyed across a range of national and international decision-making bodies; the sort of local planning going on to ensure the needs of future residents are met.

"Although the occasion did not have a strong development emphasis, it did promote an investigative approach to learning and an emphasis on students' own knowledge that will reflect the kind of inclusive and imaginative geographical thinking at the heart of the Valuing Places scheme," says Swift.

John Murray, who is the DFID's development awareness programme manager, says he is looking forward to the project. "The eradication of absolute poverty from the world is one of the greatest moral challenges facing us today. It is a challenge that can be met, but that means raising awareness of its importance for all of us.

"Geography has a distinctive role in bringing the global dimension to citizenship and, in particular, in making the concepts associated with globalisation more accessible."

For further information Email: diane_swift@yahoo.co.uk

The Geographical Association

www.geography.org.uk

Department for International Development

www.dfid.gov.uk

Development Education Centreswww.dea.org.ukdecindex.html

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