Off their trolley?

29th March 1996 at 00:00
How can we engage today's supermarket generation? 'De-insulate' daily awareness, says Patrick Bailey

The national curriculum is a framework, not a very imaginative one, for teaching geography. It is a loose formulation which leaves us room to plan courses which express our conviction that geography is an important part of everyone's education. How should we construct such courses? The answers lie with the learners rather than the subject. The geography we teach, if it is to be effective, has to connect with the experience of those who learn. So, what are today's learners like ?

It is not entirely fanciful to think of young people today as members of the supermarket generation. Their experience of growing up has been different from that of their teachers, different in important ways from that of all previous generations. That experience has insulated them from the natural world to a degree never known before; their experience has been fragmented, mainly because of television; and they have been inducted into a spectator culture, a society of watchers rather than doers. True, or mostly true?

First, is there a natural world any more? Many young people are cut off from direct experience of the natural world in almost every aspect of their lives. To start at the most basic level, shopping for the necessities of life now brings with it no experiences associated with the ultimate sources of food. Most food and drink is taken from supermarket shelves and cold cabinets. Milk appears only in cartons, vegetables and fruit come in plastic film wrappings, meat and fish are prepared and presented in neatly labelled plastic packets. Moreover all these items are available irrespective of the season. It is very hard to associate cartons of milk with cows, calves and twice-daily milkings on farms, with all the accompanying sounds and smells. Packeted lamb chops are a world away from sheep in fields and abattoirs. Packs of frozen cod or haddock seem far removed from fish in the ocean depths and the wet, cold work of trawler and factory-ship crews out in the Atlantic.

Young people are insulated also from the effects of climate and weather, especially in towns. They and their families live and work in centrally heated and air conditioned buildings and wear summer clothes throughout the year. When they do go outside, they travel in buses, trams, trains, coaches, aircraft, all of which are devices for shutting out the weather and for viewing the world through glass. When they walk in towns, they tread on tarmac and pavements, rarely on a natural surface.

What, then, should these cocooned young people learn from their geography lessons? Surely, that the natural world exists, that it is still important and powerful, that we ignore it at our peril. The first principle for designing a geography course, for any age-group, is de-insulation, to restore the visibility of the natural world.

Young people today are often knowledgeable about world events but their knowledge usually consists of a mosaic of unrelated items of information. Both knowledge and fragmentation are the results of television to a greater or lesser extent. Television bombards those who watch it with a succession of rapid-fire impressions. Some impressions are vivid, dramatic, compelling; all are selective, few of them are connected. Television begins stories and leaves them unfinished, without explanation. It raises questions and seldom answers them, never in depth.

How should we respond to this fragmentation of knowledge in our geography courses? The answer is surely to make integration, linkage, the second cardinal principle of all that we do. We have to try to put the pieces back together, to look for relationships between parts and wholes, to put items of information into context, to look for patterns and continuities; to try in fact to make better sense of the world awareness many young people already have.

The culture of many of those we teach revolves around spectator sports, especially football, television shows, recorded pop music and, increasingly, computer games. Few young people seen to invent games of their own or to devise their own toys. Again, there are many exceptions; but for those of us who teach geography the message is clear: we must make sure that what we do makes our students think. Our courses and lessons must never become another form of spectator entertainment. The third great principle for course and lesson construction is participation; and the most important arm of participation is independent thought.

De-insulation, integration, participation: how do we put these principles into practice? In very short order, we have to select material which shows why the natural world is important, even to a town-based technological society; and which explores the long chains of relationships which exist between human actions and the natural world. Then we have to present this material in ways which demand thought and personal involvement, even in those for whom learning in school appears to be an activity of marginal importance. Of course, participation cannot be forced; but opportunities for it to happen must abound. We have to live in hope that all our students are either short or long-term learners.

The national curriculum document does not signal an end to thought about what kind of geography we should teach. It give us a framework; it also allow us freedom, probably more than the authors intended. We have to digest the document, put it firmly on the shelf and exploit the freedom to plan courses in geography which we know our young people need. The bland guidelines produced by national curriculum committees, neither one thing nor another, can never do this. Because we know our students, our courses can.

Patrick Bailey is co-editor with Peter Fox of the Geography Teachers' Handbook, a reference book for geography teachers and PGCE students, to be launched at the Geographical Association's annual conference next month. Pounds 25 member; Pounds 37.50 non members

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