Tuesday, November 14, 2006

What happened to the real world?

Geography is supposed to be 'out there' but, more often than not, it is actually 'in here'. With increasing time and financial constraints and staff becoming more and more jittery about safety issues, it seems that fieldwork is in danger of becoming something of the past.

Having said that, obviously not all schools, or teachers, have the opportunity to include fieldwork in the curriculum. As teachers we don't have the freedom of expression that was enjoyed 20 years ago, the curriculum guides us from page to page and anything not related to SATs or exams tends to be left behind, even if it is stimulating and damn good fun.

So, if you are one of those frustrated teachers who can't work fieldwork into the timetable, how do you allow students to explore the world, see the sights, hear the sounds and smell the smells?

Traditionally it was films and photographs in text books, then came classroom posters and video tapes. Today we seem to have a wide range of possibilities, but even less time in which to use them. We've searched around for novel, 'easy to do' and enjoyable ways to bring the world into your classroom, and have compiled a list of 10 ways to get that dynamic edge back into the classroom.

1. Google Earth and similar products: Using the new online satellite imagery systems it's possible to have a bird's eye view of just about anywhere on the planet - sweep over an island arc, examine the way vineyards are planted in southern France or look at wave diffraction patterns around a headland - it's all just a few clicks away. Add interest to the aerial views by using the tilt tool at the bottom of the screen. This allows you to take a sideways look across the landscape and see the topography in 3D. Students can bring a volcano to life by circling round it, seeing it's flanks as if they were standing close by and looking up at it.

2. Travel agent's posters. Many travel agents are willing to pass on old displays and posters. The material is commercial and often carries advertising messages, but unless your school is strongly opposed to this, visit your local shops and see what's available. After all, travel agents and teachers are trying to achieve the same thing here- to market different places and make people think. 'I'd like to go there and see it'.

3. Talk to the IT Dept and the languages staff. Can your school link up with schools in other countries? Some highly successful projects have been run between schools around the world, sharing day to day experiences, or working together on an online resource or project. Many schools are terrified of any type of chat software - perhaps rightly so - but just consider the value of your class chatting to their peers in a foreign school, comparing daily life, scenery, transport etc. The cross-curricular opportunities are plentiful, and the experience is likely to stick in your pupil's minds far longer than the last 'chalk and talk' lesson will.

4. Give a few digital cameras or video cameras to a group of pupils and let them record their local area, their lives or whatever aspects of geographical inquiry you want to develop. Create a presentation from the collected material (loads of curriculum targets can be hit in the process as well as covering much of the three main Key Skills at levels 1,2 and 3). A good theme is to concentrate of a local geographical feature such as a river, glacier, airport or harbour. Swap completed presentations with other schools that have investigated other topics that are of local importance to them. Pupils often seem to be more receptive to views and information presented by their peers than they are to material from books or even their teachers.

5. Get in an expert speaker - the Royal Geographical Society (you should consider a school membership), Embassies and other organisations can sometimes help with this - and let your class hear the facts from the horse's mouth. It needs to be a good, dynamic speaker of course, or the effect is the reverse of what you want, but a vibrant and eloquent speaker can bring a foreign country to life; make it live within your classroom. Citizenship and PSE groups have long used ex-drug takers and gang members to put across messages simply because 'they've been there' and know what they are talking about. Why do geographers so rarely do the same?

6. Don't fall into the trap of only considering a resource if it is academic. If you want to encourage interest and geographical enquiry, try starting with something your pupils know and like. Work with food technology staff, or foreign parents, to bring foods, decorations and cultural interests into the classroom.

Get aid workers to visit and demonstrate their skills and equipment. This can be excellent for covering topics such as why MEDC's cope better than LEDCs when disaster strikes. We often tell a class that MEDCs have better rescue and emergency services - but do you ever quantify that? Do your pupils actually know what a fire engine or a fireman can do? Have they ever seen a fire safety demonstration or witnessed a cooking fire being extinguished with a fire blanket or foam extinguisher , then seen the same fire tackled with just an old plastic bottle full of water? If they have, they will have a much better understanding of why fires spread quickly after an earthquake in an LEDC but are usually controlled in an MEDC. (Fire brigades will sometimes put on fire safety displays and offer free training in handling fires- ask your local station.)

7. Have fun with demonstrations. A big tray of damp sand, a watering can, a plastic bag, a flat sponge and a slope are all you need to demonstrate runoff, percolation, an impermeable layer, a porous layer and even the formation of meanders. A little imagination and many processes can be emulated in the classroom, providing a dynamic lesson at the same time.

8. Use the school field. No parental consent needed as you don't go off site, but it's a different setting and often more stimulating than the classroom. Possibilities include using compass bearings (a mini navigation challenge perhaps or following a treasure map?), trying a little bit of basic surveying and laying out ropes or string to form contours (dead easy if your school has a GPS unit or two) , or push long plastic tubes into different soils and fill them all with water- which tubes empty first, and why?

9. Take groups to local lectures and talks. Local branches of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), the Royal Meteorological Society (RMetS) and other groups such as local universities, councils, the Open University etc often run programmes of talks aimed at the general public and schools. There are also field walks, talks and lectures run by woodland wardens, conservation groups and regional sections of organisations such as the RGS that take place at weekends and in evenings. Why not let parents and pupils know what's available in your area? Send home a termly list of 'extra-curricular' opportunities, or advertise them on the geography dept' web pages. Ok, so not many of your pupils will jump at the chance to spend Sunday in a peat bog, but if even one of them does, it could lead to more....

10. Keep pushing for fieldwork time and money. Nothing beats the chance to see geography in action and, so often,our attempts to describe features and processes are doomed to fall far short of reality. Remember that when it comes to learning, first hand experience - being there, seeing, smelling and touching, always beats a classroom session!


At 4:02 AM, Blogger ladymadeline said...

Hi David,

I'm a teacher in Singapore, arguably a melting (and mixing) pot of both UK and American Geography with bits of the tropics and unique history thrown in.

I have been using Google Earth to show kids the state of urbanization in different parts of the world and it really helps them imagine the world beyond our shores.

My challenge in teaching Geography in Singapore is that we find it hard to show things like rivers because they are mostly choked by tropical vegetation! Well, sometimes, showing them reality here in the tropics challenges all the conventional things we see even in our textbooks for physical Geography.

I guess this is where teachers find the need to even challenge knowledge and subsequently advance it.

I do not know if you tried using SimCity, I personally played it and am thinking how to use it in class with only one machine and licence.


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