We can still make geography a star turn

7th March 2003 at 00:00
DO you feel low because geography is at the bottom of the primary subject league table? Or high because you are one of the few who can get their heads round this difficult subject? Do you think it is over the top to assert that geography is a crucial area for primary children because people talk about their emotions in geographical terms?

"Humans are programmed to locate themselves and other objects in space," says geographer and Cornwall primary head Pete Brinton. "Learning about the subject helps children to understand where they fit into the world."

It sounds so poetic. Why, then, has the Office for Standards in Education's latest report shown that geography remains one of the worst-taught subject in primaries - a position it has held since at least the 1980s?

History, meanwhile, is going strong. An obvious reason is that history is about stories. There are exciting tales of the past, dressing up, castles to visit. It is accessible to pupils and teachers.

Geography is more complex. Teachers do not always understand the nature of the subject themselves, as they have not been taught much about it and it isn't self-explanatory. The geography national curriculum document itself uses terms which are unclear to a layperson.

The essence of geography is that it demands a different way of thinking. Children have to learn by using the skill of graphicacy - the communication of information through pictures, rather than through writing or speaking. Margaret Mackintosh, honorary editor of Primary Geographer, says, "Children don't need to write to express themselves in geographical studies. Relating pictures to maps, describing geographical features in a pictorial way are a good form of communication in this subject."

Many children think in graphical ways, she says. It is how people orient themselves, find their place in the world, navigate their way through the thicket of information that confronts them. The growth of mind-mapping - the thinking skills method which helps children organise their ideas by setting them down in a structured, pictorial form - ties in with this attribute.

Nevertheless, conventional maps are often introduced too early, before children can understand them. First, they should learn to look at the world from different perspectives, perhaps through a first-floor window, and then from the top of a block of flats.

Most important for her is that geography helps children learn about the world they live in. Globalisation, a possible war in Iraq or famine in Africa cannot be understood without knowing where places are in the world.

"They should start from an early age, getting in their minds a mental globe so that they can have a picture, and rotate it in their minds. They can start by playing with an inflatable globe in physical education, seeing it turn as it is thrown. You need a mental globe to understand day and night, the northern and southern hemispheres."

This is increasingly important as the world shrinks. Dr Mackintosh explains that environmental studies can help to put into context children's learning about all sorts of subjects, from science to history.

Take weather, for instance. A geographical point of view shows how it affects people's lives. What sort of clothing do they wear? What kind of houses do they live in?

"To me, at primary level, I believe that geography - or environmental studies - should have been the core subject rather than science," she says.

Teachers should not feel down-hearted. Chill out about geography and it will give you a warm feeling.

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