Swept up together

4th February 2005 at 00:00
Diane Swift and David Lambert show how geographers put the tsunami in a larger context

Events following the tsunami in the Indian Ocean on Boxing Day are still unfolding. The responses from individuals and nations around the world have been newsworthy in their own right. Many geography teachers across the globe are a part of this response.

The forum area on the Staffordshire Learning Net (www.sln.org.ukgeography) is testimony to this. A variety of resources have been shared that develop opportunities to broaden and deepen understanding of the tsunami and its aftermath. The Department for International Development funded Global Dimension site (www.globaldimension.org.uk) is a useful starting point for downloadable resources is the Development Education Association website, www.dea.org.uk. Oxfam's materials can be found on their Cool Planet website, www.oxfam.org.ukcoolplanet and Save the Children has produced a poster and lesson ideas that can be found at www.savethechildren.org.uk.orgtsunami-education.

There is no "right" way to teach about such a natural disaster and its human dimensions. There are choices that teachers can make appropriate to their schools. However, while specific materials can be of great value, one-off lessons or sequences of lessons are not always a sufficient response. Indeed, they may even be inappropriately opportunistic. In order to help young citizens think rationally about such events we need to call on their geographical thinking in a sustained way.

When tackling issues derived from the tsunami, careful curriculum choices need to be made. Teach Global (www.teachandlearn.netteachglobal.html) may be of help to colleagues looking to extend their teaching in this way. Also funded by DfID, co-ordinated by the Open University in collaboration with the BBC World Service Trust and the Development Education Association, four courses have been designed to support the teaching of global citizenship (see review page 29).

Learning about the tsunami is restricted if it is represented as a single event with an over-emphasis on short-term sympathy for the victims.

Geography is a powerful curriculum resource, underpinned by a strong academic pedigree that can be drawn on to broaden and deepen pupils'

understanding. Discussion with other colleagues will be beneficial in demonstrating to students how subjects have different contributions to make. Geography's particular contribution derives partly from its concern to link the physical and human worlds and deal in connected knowledge.

One of the key geographical concepts that guides our choice of how to cover an event such as the tsunami is interdependence. None of the places directly (or indirectly) affected by the event is isolated. There is a complex web of physical, human and environmental processes that connects us all. To take Doreen Massey's theme at a recent Geographical Association lecture, every place is more a meeting place than a sealed room where people and ideas mix and play out in different ways. Creating curriculum materials which illustrate this is time well spent. Such resources help pupils connect their learning about this event with work related to other natural events and the impact of human processes.

As Ange Grunsell, Oxfam's development education manager, says: "It is important that young people are given the chance to talk about this dreadful disaster. But it is also important that they understand that poverty destroys the lives and livelihoods of far more people not just in Asia but around the world day after day."

A geographical approach also enables pupils to explore some of the paradoxes arising from the tsunami. The immediate impact of the tsunami on our screens and in our newspapers can be contrasted to the difficulty of reaching many of the areas directly affected. The significance of distance and location adds an interesting dimension to informed understanding of such events. The immediacy of seeing the dramatic, half familiar, moving pictures has created a different global reaction to that of the relatively silent poverty and personal realities underpinning the construction of the millennium development goals (www.developmentgoals.org).

These state that "More than 10 million children die each year in the developing world, the vast majority from causes preventable through a combination of good care, nutrition, and medical treatment." Thinking geographically about the tsunami may help us imagine ways in which this quieter, but infinitely larger, disaster can be understood more fully through ideas such as interdependence, location and distance. It is arguably this style of curriculum thinking that the chief inspector of schools, David Bell, had in mind when he said: "Geography enables us to understand change, conflict and the key issues which impact on our lives today and will affect our futures tomorrow."

Scale is another key idea in geography. The scale at which the disaster is represented is significant. The use of a world map elicits a different reaction to the use of an individual's testimony, and it may be tempting to dwell more on the latter. The local scale of experience provides certain kinds of insights, stories and understandings. The global scale brings in other perspectives, such as plate boundaries. Both are important. Geography provides the opportunity to understand their interrelatedness.

For a specific example, the consequences for communities in Bande Ache, Indonesia, at a personal and local scale are strongly influenced by an understanding of the region and the conflict with Ache. Add to this the global connections of a dynamic earth and the various human and environmental interpretations of this physical system, and we begin to develop a rounded and informed perspective.

Diane Swift is CPD projects leader for the Geographical Association and David Lambert is its chief executive

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