Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The following article was published recently in the Australian newspaer as part of an ongoing public curriculum debate about the social sciences in the secondary school curriculum in Australia.
It raises some interesting issues about geography teaching and the role of geography.

The Geography Wars - Australian 28.9.06 Justine Ferrari

As part of a geography assignment studying the effects of of pollution on the environment, a group of
primary school children from Brisbane headed off to photo­graph the damage to Moreton Bay. But when they arrived, the waters of the bay were relatively pristine and there was no pollution to be seen.
Undeterred, the children carefully set about creating their own polluted part of Moreton Bay photographed it and just as carefully cleaned up the mess they had made. "Those kids knew what answer they were supposed to come up with" says geographer John Lidstone, associate professor at Queensland University of technology in Brisbane. "And when kids know what the answers are that they are supposed to reach, they stop thinking".
Students in geography classrooms across the nation are being asked to devise strategies to manage scarce water resources, for sustain­able use of resources, to minimise the degradation of our coastline or environment from farming, mining or other human activities. Often, the answer is in the politicisation of the topic or with the data they are provided, and time pressure precludes them making their own investigations.
Geographers are concerned that missing in the examination of some of society's most intractable issues is fundamental teaching of the basic processes behind these problems, the rainfall cycle, the theory of longshore drift of sand along the coastline, the formation of physical landforms and resources.
Also missing is the breadth of the discipline, the wider look at human society, its relation­ship with the Earth it inhabits and interaction within itself. "If you look at issues like environmental sustainability, it's essentially about how societies come to terms with managing and living in their environment," says Clive Forster, associate professor at Flinders University school of geography, population and environmental management in Adelaide. "If you want to understand what we may need to do to live more sustainably in the future you don't need to know solely about environmental issues. You also need to have an understanding of how societies operate and to be able to put together the economic, social and environmental perspectives. Tradi­tionally; that was the strength of geography; it produced people who had an appreciation of the three perspectives and how they needed to be seen in relation to one."
Geography teacher Sue van Zuylen, from Tara School for Girls in northwest Sydney, agrees that the lack of specialist geography teachers is critical. "The biggest impact in the classroom is the way the curriculum is delivered by the teacher, “and it's going to be delivered with greater passion and interest and enthusiasm by somebody expert in the subject than someone [for whom] it isn't their first love," she says.
In the first half of the 20th century, school students were taught "capes and bays" geography with its emphasis on naming the of world being able to draw maps of countries, knowing the names of capital cities, river systems, the highest mountains. During the 1960s came a rise in regional geography, with students writing profiles of countries based on subheadings such as population, climate, land use and vegetation, or writing about the industrialisation of particular countries. Since the late 1980s, geography has been dominated by environmental studies, a trend sparked by the rise in the green movement and entrenchment with the move in the '90s to teach geography as ­part of an integrated social studies course. The model originated in the US and was adopted in school systems across the world including Australia, predicated on a belief that a single discipline had all the answers, and it was better to teach children skills and knowledge in the integrated way they would need to apply them in the real world.
In Australia, the integrated social studies movement occurred at the beginning of the push for a national curriculum, which created a key learning area called studies of society and environment. Adding to the pressure to integrate geogra­phy into one colossal course with history, economics, civics and citizenship and legal studies were time-tabling pressures. School curriculums are overcrowded, forced to in­clude an ever‑expanding list of topics from sex education to vocational subjects. So teaching a little bit of geography, with a little bit of this and that, seemed a good compromise, as well as providing a way of trying to make the curriculum more relevant to students. And so the phenomenon of what high school geography teacher Steve Cranby, a member of the Australian Academy of Science's national committee on geography, calls SOSE‑ification of geography.
Only NSW stood alone, continuing to teach geography and history as separate, compulsory subjects in years 7 to 10. Victoria in recent years reintroduced an identifiable geography course, with a new one taught this year under its humanities umbrella. Lidstone, who was secretary for 10 years of the International Geographical Union's edu­cation. commission, points out that while the US started the trend of integrated social studies, it has recently undergone a resurgence in geography with a bill before Congress to make it compulsory in schools. "An American once said that God invented war to teach Americans geography," he says.
But Lidstone prefers the vision outlined by the first man to hold the title professor of geography, James Fairgrieve of the University of London, who said in 1926: "The function of geography in schools is to train future citizens to imagine accurately the condition of the great world stage and so to help them to think sanely about political and social problems of the world around."
Says Lidstone: "The two phrases, 'to imagine accurately" and 'to think sanely' still represent for me the essence of the enterprise.' But much of what passes for geography in schools today is what Lidstone describes as "naive environmentalism".
Phenomena such as global warming are presented as unquestioned facts, with no real examination of the debate. In part that's a result of not having geography teachers in charge of teaching geography. The main consequence of the SOSE‑ification of geography was a de-skilling of geography teachers. It's pot luck whether the teacher in a SOSE classroom is trained as a history teacher, economics teacher or geography teacher. Obviously, teachers are most comfortable with their own discipline. A history teacher forced to teach geography is going to struggle with the often complex science behind some geographical ideas, such as climatic cycles.
Before, Cranby starts a topic with his students, he spends a couple of weeks teaching the theory underpinning the theme. One of the core topics for his Year 12 class is the Murray-Darling basin and the issues surrounding its use and management.
Cranby spends four weeks teaching his students about rivers, their formation and processes, how they work and operate, the definition of a sustainable resource and the theory behind it before embarking on the specific issues of the Murray‑Darling.
The problem is that not enough new geographers are being trained. SOSE students don't study anything called geography and the minority who do take on geography into their final years of school, or even university, come with generalist training or specialis­ing in an environmental study rather than disciplinary skills in geography.
"We are not producing our kind" Forster says. "There's not that degree of breadth that people had 25 years ago. They'll go on to become the new generation of academics but they won't be teaching as geographers, they’ll be teaching as someone who has done an environmental management degree."
Alaric Maude, secretary of the Institute of Australian Geographers, who was involved in writing the South Australian school syllabus 20 years ago, says the environmental thrust of geography has also splintered the subject. Not only is geography forced to compete with the plethora of subjects offered in schools today, it also has to compete against specialisations of itself: environmental studies, natural resource management, sustainable futures. "Geography seems to have become narrowed down” he says. "It's become very heavily environmental geography with not much emphasis on the core topics of human geography, such as people and. cultures, regional development, divisions between regions such as who's wealthy and who's poor, or why Western Australia is growing. Somehow the environment has become a major part of what teachers seem to see geography as but it's only part of our inheritance".
Maude imagines a geography curriculum that sets out questions students can investigate, including indigenous knowledge and use of the environment; land clearing and its consequences; water sources and their management, the coast and its place in Australian life; Australia as a highly urbanised country; and migration, settlement and identity.
Lidstone would like to see students acquainted with some of the "awe and wonder" of the natural environment, how mountains are formed, the population and settlement patterns of communities who live on mountains. "Geography is the study of patterns" he says. "You can have patterns of homo­sexuality, there's a cultural geography of bird flu. There's, a geography of the Internet. Its fascinating when you sit on the internet and suddenly notice different countries coming on line. It's connected to the Earth's rotation and as people come to work or go home, the people on chat sites change.
"At 8pm in Australia you get a whole different group of people than early in the morning. In the US. Internet providers employ geographers to work these things out on the time zones because they target advertising according to who's going to be online at any particular time. Yet I don't know that many schools teach time zones, despite more of us travelling than ever before. I learned about time zones when I was at school and I didn't expect I would ever be able to go on an aeroplane. Everyone can fly around the world today and we don't teach time zones."
Lidstone says the focus of geography curriculum on issues, to make it relevant and more exciting, is counterproductive. Students can find it depressing to focus on problems so big that adults and governments cannot fix them, and instead of appreciating the wonder of the world are taught only about the Earth's problems. "There's not much room for the geography of laughter, the geography of fun," he says. "Where are people happiest on the Earth? What does it look like? Is it to do with a pristine environment? If you want to live a happy life, where would you go to live? These are very nice geography questions.”
Taught a discipline and the skills of geographical thinking, Lidstone believes students will find the relevance for themselves. He tells the story of students at a girls school where the "very feminist geography teacher who was appalled to find her students were using computers to identify where in Australia was the greatest concentration of young professional men with high incomes who, owned, their own home.
"That's where they wanted to go to university, so they could find wealthy husbands. The teacher was so appalled that she banned them from the computer room. We might not agree with the topic but these girls were using geography and geographical skills to find the answer to a question that was important to them."
Geography teachers critical of merging the subject into the new vogue "studies of society and environment" argue that it undermines the integrity of geography and does not serve the interests of social studies, either.
SOSE becomes a mish‑mash and makes it harder for syllabus consistency between states.
The SOSE syllabus encourages parochialism instead of encouraging understanding of global trends.
Underplaying physical geography robs children of interesting inquiry into how volcanoes, mountains, rivers and glaciers are formed.
Teachers lose confidence when teaching SOSE because they studied to specialise.
The mish‑mash of SOSE is less likely to inspire enthusiasm in teachers, a key to passing on passion to students.
The argument is whether the focus should be on developing a disciplinary understanding or whether it should be an integrated studies approach based on contemporary issues.
Eventually, the rise of SOSE in schools will remove expertise in geography.
Geography is fundamental to understanding the society in which we live and issues from water usage and environmental sustainability to population trends, migration and Australia's links with the world.

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