'Mysteries' and 'mind movies' are just two of the classroom strategies developed by the Thinking Through Geography group. Hilary Wilce explains how pupils' imagination and reasoning are being combined.
A Year 8 class is studying industrial change in South Wales. Except that it is not. What it is doing is trying to unravel a mystery: "Why is Dai Williams involved in the building of a new Japanese restaurant in Bridgend?" To do this, the pupils are given 28 statements, ranging from "Sony is a huge multi-national electronics corporation" to "Megan Jones likes Japanese food". Then, working in groups, they have to use the information to offer a logical, comprehensive explanation for Dai Williams's new job. It is a mystery lesson.
Meantime, a Year 9 class is studying Japan. In the middle of the unit they have a lesson where the teacher tells them to be very quiet, shut their eyes, listen to a real-life account of someone caught in the Kobe earthquake, and try to "see" it in their minds. Afterwards, working in pairs, they tell each other what they "saw", compare versions, then write up their stories.
"Mysteries" and "mind movies" are two of the inventive strategies being introduced into geography lessons by teachers using ideas developed by the Thinking Through Geography (TTG) group, based at Newcastle University. Others include "living graphs", "storytelling" and "fact or opinion"; all are designed not only to teach geography, but also to develop thinking skills and make students more aware of their mental processes. If students work with a "mind movie" of a Japanese earthquake, for example, they recognise not only that their minds have a lot of previously stored knowledge to be accessed when necessary, but also that visual imaging is a powerful mental tool that can be brought to bear on other subjects - such as history, and on exam revision. Other strategies encourage students to think about patterns of cause and effect, and how to evaluate information.
The TTG group, which includes lecturers, teachers and PGCE students, has been working for eight years to make geography lessons more stimulating. In the process its members realised that all their work was underpinned by this drive towards helping students develop independent thinking.
Now, with Education Secretary David Blunkett urging a new national emphasis on thinking skills, and the fact that many of the group's ideas have been used successfully in the sometimes troublesome key stage 3, its work is moving to the centre of the curriculum stage.
"There's a whole range of teaching thinking networks, but I'd say the North-East is certainly one of the two hot spots," says David Leat, teacher trainer at Newcastle University and head of the TTG. (The other hot spot is King's College, London, home of CASE, the Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education programme.) TTG is currently developing a set of modules for use in Years 7 to 9.
David Leat edited Thinking Through Geography, a collection of sample strategies, which last year won the Geographical Association's Gold Award. He is working with colleagues in other subject areas through the North-East Schools-Based Research Consortium and has done in-service training in more than 30 local education authorities. His ideas, however, are challenging and not always welcomed with open arms.
"One thing people say is that they find it hard enough to get through the contet of what they have to teach, without spending more time on process. But to that I'd say that firstly, if you spend time on developing students' skills through these ideas, then you're probably going to get through other topics more quickly. And second, attainment, certainly at GCSE level, is not all that highly dependent on having got through the whole of the content."
Children can find these new approaches difficult, but once grasped, often enjoy them hugely. "Mysteries, in particular, are very powerful, very meaty," says Deborah Smith, head of geography at Walker School, a mixed comprehensive in Newcastle. "And the written work the students produce at the end is incredible."
Even lower-ability students do well, she says, because they become so committed to their ideas that they are willing to stick at the writing task for longer, while one higher-ability student wrote in his learning log: "I think I'm always right, but I've learned that I'm not, and I need to listen to other people more."
Mystery lessons at the school are being videoed as part of the work of the schools-based research consortium, and clearly show, says Ms Smith, how much confidence and motivation the students have gained. From the way that older pupils recall lessons they did two years ago, she can see that pupils retain "the geography bits" better than information from conventional lessons. All teachers working with these strategies stress that debriefing - where students discuss how they have been thinking - is vital.
"You can have a lot of fun without it, but you don't make the best use of teaching thinking if you don't get the children to think about it," says Ralph Hare, geography adviser in Devon. He is working with colleague Steve Parke, and Devon RE advisers, to develop a KS3 project which borrows from TTG's ideas to develop its own, using the Millennium global citizenship programme, "On The Line".
"But, as everyone says, debriefing is also one of the hardest things to do. There's the problem of time, and of pupils' ability to do it, and the fact they don't necessarily have the language to do it, or they get bored, or it's a new skill that teachers have to learn how to do."
Nevertheless, TTG veterans feel that all these challenges are worth mastering.
"You have to learn to take a back seat and become more of a facilitator," says David Kinninment, head of humanities at the Blyth Tynedale High School, in Northumberland. He has worked with the ideas in two schools over the past six years.
"The kids are not being force-fed knowledge any more, and some of them find that frustrating. But it develops over time. Some don't take part at first, and then they will." Pupils have to learn to be able to offer sound and extended arguments during debriefing sessions, he says, "while in normal classes the average length of a student response is something like two seconds, which can't be good, can it?"
Thinking Through Geography, edited by David Leat is published by Chris Kington Publishers, tel: 01223 240030. pound;25
Teaching Thinking in the Humanities: from first steps to effective implementation
A conference for advisers and curriculum leaders at Newcastle University, September 15-16.
Details from Sharon Mullen, tel: 0191 222 5299. E-mail: SharonMullen@ncl.ac.uk
Details of the Devon project:www.devon-cc.gov.ukeal
Then search for On The Line