Thorough grounding

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Geography in Place Books 1 and 2. By Michael Raw and Sue Shaw, Collins, #163;9.99 each.

Geography for GCSE Edited by Vincent Bunce, Longman, #163;10. 50.

These entries in the congested and competitive field of GCSE geography texts could hardly be more contrasting.

The two-volume Collins set provides a substantial programme of 20 topics, each given at least six double-page spreads. Pages are attractively laid out, with very thoughtful sequencing through each book and within each topic. Physical and human themes are dealt with in each volume, with no "forced marriages" - thus, although the treatment of glaciation finds space for a consideration of recreationconservation tensions in the Cairngorms, the bulk of the section is devoted to full and clear explanations of landform-creating processes.

There is no prescriptive progression from book 1 to book 2, though the complex issues associated with population change, economic development, trade and aid, do take six of the nine units in the second volume.

The set has many attractive features, including exceptionally clear diagrams, map extracts well integrated into the text, a sensible end-of-unit summary in tabular form, and some refreshingly unfamiliar exemplar material, drawn from "unfashionable" countries such as Mauritania, Ethiopia, South Korea and Sweden.

However, the set's most distinctive quality is a very welcome seriousness of tone. The authors regard their readers as young students who will find the material interesting without being patronised or jollied along by cartoon characters, a jokey prose style and lots of exclamation marks. The emphasis is on explanation.

Generous space-allocations ensure that processes, whether within weather systems or urban social geography, are effectively taught.

The priority given to explanation means that maps and diagrams of all kinds occupy more space than pictures, and sustain more of the tasks. These are demanding - locating an epicentre from incomplete data, writing a locality-based essay on the text "the past is all around us". The majority of the tasks are cognitive, consolidating knowledge and understanding (without copying or blank-filling).

Invitations to write imaginatively, or to develop a viewpoint, are deployed more sparingly than in many rival series. However, the quality of pupil responses, being grounded in an unusually complete appreciation of a process or situation, seems likely to be higher.

Geography in Place is an academically nutritious set which will sustain the interest of pupils of average ability and above.

Geography for GCSE attempts to cover the same ground, presenting an entire GCSE course in a single volume. Clearly 224 pages will convey less material than 384, but there is also considerably less text per page, due to a spacious format and a preference for communicating through images.

Each of the 12 units starts with an arresting whole-page picture, "a key focus point for the unit". Curiously, these are not referred to anywhere in the text. A further two pages per unit are devoted to pupil tasks, which include some copying and blank-filling.

Some tasks are more ambitious. Pupils are invited to "produce some suggestions for the Malaysian government as to how it could improve its development projects in the future". But the basis for this high level advice is a single page with a map, a photo, a line drawing and 200 words. (One wonders whether Malaysian adolescents are similarly occupied in, say, solving unemployment problems on Merseyside as a homework exercise.)

The appeal of this text has to rest on economic grounds - it provides material on every GCSE requirement - and its accessibility, in terms of style and format, to a wide range of ability. This accessibility is compromised, however, by the inevitable conciseness which affects the intelligibility of explanations.

For instance, the concept of settlement hierarchies, explored over three pages in Geography in Place, has to be rationed here to two paragraphs.

Teachers hampered by budgetary constraints will no doubt be grateful to the Longman writing team for their heroic attempt to square the circle, but will probably find that they still need much supplementary material.

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