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!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Using Images in lessons - new resources

Geographers have always been associated with images, from the earliest maps through to high tech satellite imagery. The use of photographs and remote sensing is almost universal in good teaching these days, with exciting lessons making use of Internet mapping, Google Earth and the new Google MapsUK(Beta) .and Google Map (USA)

Google's latest offering gives you the expected features such as searching for locations by post code or address, printing out directions and the ability to find businesses. You can view any location as a traditional map or as a colour satellite image, enabling teachers to deliver lessons covering remote sensing based on any location they choose.

Previously there have been other sources of both map and satellite data on the 'Net, but Google Maps goes just one step further, allowing you to combine data from both the traditional map and the satellite imagery. The hybrid images show photographic data with roads and road names superimposed on the map.The process is quick and easy, and changing location or scale is dead easy.

This new tool should find extensive use in lessons, homework assignments and research projects. I can see it being used when teaching map work (compare the map to the real land), landuse lessons (actually see which areas are covered by fields, housing, trees etc) and for just browsing and getting the feel of other places among a dozen other uses.

We've often used photographs to help study different areas, and I doubt that Google Maps UK will ever replace good collections of still images and videos, but as an additional resource it has huge potential. Actually, an example of using traditional images as the foundation of a lesson can be seen here - a lesson that would be almost impossible without pictures and video clips!

Take a look at some example locations and see if Google Maps UK will be of use in your lessons. Enter the location into GoogleMaps UK and compare it to the images available for free from our image gallery.

GoogleMap: Seaton (Cornwall) to see a beach, river crossing a beach and an area that floods regularly.

Photographs: Flooding in Cornwall

GoogleMap: Chamonix Mont Blanc (France) to see how modern glaciation shapes settlement distribution, or to view it's glaciers

Photographs: Glaciation in the Chamonix Valley

GoogleMap: Kampala to examine a fast growing capital city in an LEDC

Photographs: Transport around Kampala

Monday, November 06, 2006

Geography and Food Technology?

Geography teachers have shown enormous creativity in marketing their subject and pointing out its relevance to so many other curriculum areas. The use the Internet has enabled adventurous geography teachers to bring previously unheard of resources into the classroom, from live news feeds through to animated diagrams of processes in action. Forging links with other curriculum areas has been a tradition among the humanities areas such as History, PSE and RE, and more recently we have been encouraged to work closely with Citizenship.

Recently I came across an interesting website that is still new and finding it's feet. Www.biscuit-recipes.co.uk is a free site providing, not surprisingly, biscuit recipies. What attracted my attention though was the world wide distribution of their recipies. I've seen many American schools making the link between Food Technology and Geography, but I wonder how many UK schools have a close working relationship between the two subjects?

Thinking about it, there should be plenty of areas to work together. Geographical questions arising from FT lessons could include 'where do those ingredients come from?, and 'why are they produced there rather than somewhere else?' , 'do you buy ingredients from supermarkets or specialist local shops?' or 'why do traditional foods vary in different locations?

Food technology questions arising from Geography lessons could include 'so where does all that rice go?' , 'what ingredients do primary and secondary industries produce?' or 'what's it like to survive on the typical diet of a low paid worker in an LEDC?

Links such as these would nicely link in with Citizenship issues too. For example how do supermarkets fit into the food chain? or how many people in the world have access to food and drinkable water?


The Geography Site

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Why are sunsets red?

This evening we saw a fantastic sunset - bright yellows, reds and oranges. This prompted my daughter to ask why sunsets in Africa are supposed to be the best sunsets, and generally why sunsets are red and orange.

To understand why the sky goes red just before the sun goes down we also need to understand why the sky is blue for the rest of the time. We are familiar with the sky usually being blue so we tend to think that red sunsets must be caused by 'something else', and accept that the sky 'just is' blue.

Red and blue are words we use to describe different colours (or wavelengths) of light, so that gives us a clue; at different times of the day we are seeing different wavelengths of sun light. When the sun is low down on the horizon (rising and setting) the sky is red, and when the sun is higher in the sky we see blue light.

So, what changes between the sun being low down and high up in the sky? To find out, visit our new page, sunsets, and learn why the sky changes colour.

The Geography Site

Glaciers and Global Warming

I've been glacier hunting again. Whilst in France last month, I spent some time in the Alpine mountains exploring the Chamonix Valley. The area is well known as a summer and winter tourist honeypot, attracting ski and snow board enthusiasts all winter and walkers / campers all summer. For me, the excitement comes from the mountains and the glaciers and being able to get in touch with real geography.

What surprised me most was discovering how much the glaciers have retreated in the fifteen years since I was last there. Locations where I remembered ice were now bare rock, and where I previously walked on glaciers there were now moraine fields left by retreating glaciers. The glaciers certainly aren't gone, but the amount of retreat was startling.

We read about global warming and, in some way, the warming up of the planet seems to be in the news every week, ( for example the melting of Siberian permafrost ) but we rarely get to actually see the consequences for ourselves. Seeing the barren rock around the snout and edges of the glaciers really brought it home to me; global warming, whatever the causes, is here and it is having a profound effect.

To learn more about glaciers and global warming follow this link.

What are clouds and why does it rain?

Most of us, especially if you live in the UK, see clouds every day. Sometimes they are fuffy white things floating along on their own, and other times they combine to form a dark layer that covers the sky and threatens rain at any moment. Have you ever wondered what happens to make a cloud form, or why some clouds produce rain whilst others seem to do nothing at all?

Well, the air around us contains water, but you can't see it because it exists as a gas. We call it water vapour. Warm air can hold more water than cool air, so when warm air that contains plenty of water vapour is cooled down it has to lose some of its water. This condenses out ( or precipitates) as fog or cloud. Whether or not you end up with a little white fluffy cloud or a massive grey rain machine depends on several things, including how much water is precipitated and what caused the air to cool.

There are three main ways in which this happens in the atmosphere, and every geography student needs to know, and understand, all three of them. To learn more, visit What are clouds and why does it rain?

The Geography Site

All change at the beach

The beach outside has changed again. We've had really windy weather and heavy rain fall for several days now, although today it's sunny, calm and dry.

It seems odd to be standing in the sunshine, but surveying a transformed beach, a flooded river and a huge lake where, yesterday, there was a playing field, a road and a carpark!

I'm living on the coast, close to where a small river flows across the beach and into the sea. During the summer the area acts as a tourist attraction with families enjoying the beach, walking along the nature paths on the flood plain and paddling safely in the little river.

Today the combination of heavy rain, a high tide and a strong wind off the sea have combined to create extensive flooding that's closed the only road through the village but still attracted some tourists - this time to stand and stare at the waves pounding onto the beach and to feed the ducks swimming along the road and through the carpark.

With our modern coastal defences and coastal management we tend to be lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that we have nature under control and can build close to beaches or on flood plains, and get away with it. This morning, however, shows that the forces of nature can still catch us out with ease.

I'm not surprised that the beach has changed, given the size and power of the waves striking it. Gale force winds off shore have whipped up powerful waves that are breaking strongly and removing material from the beach. The problem is that the flow of water down the beach (the backwash) is more powerful than the flow up the beach (the swash), leading to sand and pebbles being dragged out to sea. So much water is flowing down the beach that the backwash is 'tripping up' the waves as they try to roll up the beach. As a result they don't get a chance to push material back up the beach before the next lot of water floods back down and removes it again.

To learn more about the power of waves and how coastal defences work, try visiting the following pages.

Coastal Defences

Coastal Management

Waves and Beaches

The Geography Site

Welcome to the Geography Blog