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That thinking feeling

Resolve conflict, make decisions, de-brief and discuss - but is it geography? David Leat introduces a project which develops the skills of rational argument

* The effect of the national curriculum has generally been to make geography teaching more conservative and dull.

* Geography textbooks, particularly for key stage 3, are fairly undemanding - and have a greater concern for presentation and coverage than stimulation.

* Many pupils are sadly lacking in basic skills of dealing with information.

* Many pupils, even the more able are poor at transferring learning from one context to another.

* Geography departments are often handicapped by the number of non-specialist teachers, frequently senior staff, who have to be carried.

How many of these statements do you agree with? If you agree with any of the first four you may be interested in this article; if you agree with all four I hope that you will be excited by it. Over the past four years, along with some very talented ex-Newcastle PGCE students and local teachers, I have been addressing these issues as a group that has come to be called Thinking Through Geography. Gradually that work has been yielding interesting returns.

We are aiming to do three things. First, devise strategies that are highly adaptable and make lessons more challenging and interesting for pupils. Second, help pupils to understand some key concepts in geography which once understood can be transferred to other contexts by the pupils, for example cause and effect, resolving conflict and planning. Third, make a difference to intellectual development, so that pupils become effectively more intelligent and achieve better GCSE results.

The first aim is achieved. The second looks promising, but we will have to wait some considerable time to test the third. At the very least there is a very positive effect on GCSE uptake.

Let's look at an activity for Year 7 or 8 pupils. It is focused on the North-east but can be very easily adapted to any other region.

Phase 1: The class is introduced to a fictional character called David Stewart. The story goes that he comes from Leicester but has just secured a new job as a senior nursing manager in Newcastle. He has a wife Mary, a 15-year old daughter Rachel and a 12-year old son Mark. He has come up, alone, to Newcastle for a preliminary job visit and while here has started looking for a house. The pupils are given a list of criteria he is using: he wants to be within 25 miles of Newcastle; he would like an old house with a garden, preferably in a village; he would like to be within half an hour's drive from the Northumberland National Park.

Phase 2: The pupils are given eight sets of house particulars and a sketch map of the region with the houses on, and as groups they are asked to make a decision about the most suitable house. Nearly all groups chose one of the two most likely houses.

Phase 3: Pupils are told that David Stewart has gone home to Leicester and the rest of the family are not pleased with his choice. Mary wants a modern home with gas central heating from which she can walk to work, having lost confidence in driving following an accident. Rachel wants her own horse and to be able to go out at night. Mark is an excellent swimmer and needs to be near a pool, but he also wants to watch Newcastle United. The groups are asked to make choices likely to please Mary, Rachel and Mark.

Phase 4: A problem arises - a challenge. The pupils have arrived at the point where there is a potential conflict within the family. Groups are asked to resolve this - which house should the family choose and how would they do it; how are the "losers" going to be persuaded?

Phase 5: This is the most critical phase with two important questions. First, groups are asked what decision they have made for the family and how the compromise has been achieved. Which family member(s) have got their way and how have the others been "persuaded"? (Most groups decide on a modern house in Hexham, a market town about 22 miles to the west of Newcastle, which particularly suits Mary Stewart.) Second, groups are asked how the earlier decisions about individual choices were made.

It is impossible to overemphasise the importance of this part of the lesson. Effectively, pupils are producing an embryonic model for resolving conflict; they are evolving a reasoning pattern. Some of the common points are: * The parents should have most say because they will have to live in the house once the children have left.

* David Stewart is promised that when they retire they can move to a village. He is still near the National Park and his wife can work.

* The children are effectively "bought off": Rachel can have riding lessons and is persuaded that going out will be easier in Hexham than in a village; Mark will be near a swimming pool and can have a season ticket to Newcastle under certain conditions.

Such approaches to conflict resolution are universal, recurring in other contexts and at other scales. In conflicts over land use in National Parks, priorities are often based on power, set and the losers are compensatedbought off. Of course, there are other possibilities which have not surfaced in this context - time solutions are a possibility (one party is allowed use of an area some of the time and another party at other times) as are zoning solutions. It is important to give the pupils' reasoning a name - "We can call that 'buying off'" - so that when next a conflict issue is covered one can readily refer back to "You remember when we did the Stewarts . . . are there any ways in which they sorted out their problem that might work here?".

Over Years 7, 8 and 9 you can build up a very sophisticated and very explicit understanding with pupils of how conflict is resolved. They can begin to apply and transfer this model autonomously. After a year, pupils are able to talk about what they think they can transfer not only to other geography projects but also to other subjects. It is not clear yet that they do it without prompts from the teacher.

The Stewarts exercise also lends itself to debriefing on decision-making. How did they make their decisions? Some pupils stick carefully to the criteria and work through a process of evaluation or scoring, others work through a process of elimination till they have only one left, and some imagine the ideal house for the person and see which one is the best fit. There is a great deal about values to be unpacked here, too. Such activities are essentially learning experiences which have to be debriefed. It is through this process that pupils develop metacognition - awareness of their own thinking.

The model that we commonly use (as outlined in the phases) owes much to the CASE (Cognitive Acceleration in Science Education) Project which has demonstrated that improving pupils' information processing ability has a significant effect on GCSE results.

We are aware that teaching thinking through geography is not easily achieved. There are some very considerable barriers. Pupils can need persuading; they can be suspicious because this is a different approach in which there are few obvious right answers. Some teachers just don't believe that it is geography or proper teaching, and many find the debriefing phase very difficult and miss it out. For anyone who is enthusiastic it can be very difficult to persuade the rest of a department, especially where they have other responsibilities. Furthermore, in schools where results are already good it can be difficult to justify.

However, I was particularly struck on reading the recent TES special report on School Effectiveness (October 6) that many of the points in the checklists map directly on to teaching thinking, for example: * shared visions and goals so that staff are able to lift aspirations and ensure consistent school-wide practice * concentration on teaching and learning as the school's primary purpose * risk taking * authentic relationships in the classroom * intellectual challenge.

If any teacher, department or school is seeking a focus for any level of effectiveness then teaching thinking is worthy of your attention.

* Really Raising Standards by P Adey and M Shayer (CASE project authors) published by Routledge - is a good introduction to teaching thinking including some theory and data on effects

* A short report for senior managers, prepared by Newcastle University, Improving Student Performance: Thinking Skills Programmes in Education and Training, is available from Tyneside TEC, Moongate House, 5th Avenue Business Park, Gateshead NE11 0HV

* For a slim starter pack of a few more materials to try send an A4 SAE to David Leat, Department of Education, Newcastle University, St Thomas St, Newcastle, NEl 7RU

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