Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Thinking, not things to learn!

Left image: A wordle of the heirarchy of geographical concepts - an insight into geographical thinking.
Right image: Questioning geography?

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21st Century Geography Google Group
Australian Geography Teachers' Association website
'Towards a National Geography Curriculum' project website
Geography Teachers' Association of South Australia website
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Thinking geographically via SPECISS

As the realisation dawns in schools that geography is part of the Australian curriculum and in turn will be taught in all Australian schools from F-10 I have started to think; what does that mean for the non-geographically trained teacher? In my day job I am frequently working with primary teachers and society and environment teachers in secondary schools who feel somewhat uncomfortable with delivering a rigorous discipline based geography curriculum. They have obviously been teaching the place, space and environment strand of SOSE but they have been able to manoeuvre content and approaches to suit their expertise, interests and geographical understanding. ACARA consistently says that the Australian Curriculum for geography being developed is based on discipline expertise and rigour requiring an understanding of the concepts, skills and content specific to geography. Such a statement will understandably create a feeling of unease amongst ‘non-geography’ teachers. Yes, there are geographers in our schools who feel very comfortable with the expectations of a disciplined based geography but it is fair to say, compared to other learning areas in Australian schools, including history, geography is an area which will face significant challenges to deliver the curriculum for geography to the level expected by those writing the curriculum. The question being repeatedly asked by geographers is how do we support teachers to not necessarily know the content but to think geographically when working with the content. As mentioned in a previous Spatialworlds posting, when we talk about the teaching of geography, it is not so much about the content but how we approach the content. The science, history and geography teachers may be teaching the same topic but will do so in quite different ways. For example, in regards to the teaching of earthquakes and volcanoes teachers tend to be in agreement that the history and science teachers will treat the topic quite differently. However the teachers I have recently worked with seem less confident about how the science and geography teachers will treat the topic differently.

So then, what makes geography geography? What is the lens a geographer views and works with the content. This is lens of geographical thinking I wish to explore in this posting.

Inextricably tied up with geographical thinking is the conceptual thinking associated with the way geographers view any event, phenomena or even actions of an individual or group. This conceptual thinking involves the interplay of key concepts which resonate with the geographer. As mentioned previously, the listing of the key concepts is contestable amongst geographers around the world but there tends to be agreement on what the broad range of geographical concepts are.

Geographers really are arguing about how long the list is and what concepts nestle within others or are a key concept in their own right. After viewing a range of geography curriculum around the world, with trepidation, I propose a list of the 12 most popular key concepts.
1. Space
2. Place
3. Sustainability
4. Interconnection
5. Change
6. Earth processes
7. Systems
8. Scale
9. Environment
10. Diversity
11. Relational thinking - cause and effect
12. Values and valuing

After mush debate at the Advisory Panel level of ACARA, a draft list of 7 (this could change as the consultation process proceeds) has been developed. They are: Space, Place, Sustainability, Interconnection, Change, Scale and Environment. As we always want to do, maybe the acronym for geographical thinking in Australian schools could be SPECISS or even PISSECS? Anyway, the important thing is that these concepts provide us with the lens to develop geographical thinking. In the following summary of SPECISS you will see that other concepts are nestled within related key concepts i.e. risk is nestled in environment. As professional learning is developed there will be nothing stopping us highlighting these second tier concepts and even elevating them when appropriate as fundamental to an understanding of what is studied. For example when geographically studying earthquakes and volcanoes and the interplay of the physical and human environments, the concept of risk becomes of first order significance.

Since these are the 7 being proposed by the ACARA writers, when we talk about geographical thinking in Australian schools these 7 should provide the conceptual lens for teachers when they are developing and teaching geographical content in the classroom. I would also suggest that an understanding of these key concepts (and their ‘dovetailed’ related concepts) should underpin the professional learning to be conducted with teachers tackling the geographical thinking learning curve. Whatever content being explored during such professional learning should be through the lens of the key concepts. Only then will teachers be thinking geographically as they explore the topics of the Australian Curriculum: geography with students. The focus must be on thinking geographically and not just learning things.

Peter Jackson’s discussion in is his excellent article titled, “Thinking Geographically” says that:

“… to think geographically provides a language – a set of concepts and ideas – that can help us see the connections between place and scales that others frequently miss.”
So it may be suggested that to think geographically we are required to view everything we study through the following key concepts (note that the related concepts really provide a practical insight into the nature of the key concept):

* Space: The examination and exploration of an area or space of the earth’s surface through the spatial observations of location, distribution and pattern.
(related concepts of absolute location, relative location, distance, association, proximity, agglomeration, time-space convergence, distribution, diffusion, interdependency, spatial pattern, density, clustering, dispersal, segregation, diversity, spatial justice, urban and environmental management, representations of space).

* Place: The observation and analysis of identified localities on the earth’s surface (across and in space) which have been given a particular meaning, shape and perspective by humans. People identify with places, using and experiencing them in response to cultural perceptions and human needs(related concepts of region, territory, boundary, perception, identity, interconnection and interdependence, sense of place, cultural understanding, diversity and similarity).

* Environment: Involves examining how we perceive and experience environments, how people and environments are interconnected, and how we think about our relationships with and responsibilities towards the environment(related concepts of human environment, human-physical environment, change, dynamic, cultural environment, landscape, earth processes, natural environment, management, mitigation, perception, biophysical environment, interdependency, relational thinking (cause and effect), risk and sustainability).

* Change: The perception that the world is complex and dynamic and that various rates of change is natural and expected in a complex interconnected world(related concepts of dynamic, equilibrium, interdependence, risk, relational thinking (cause and effect), time, technological impact, globalization, pace of change and societal change).

* Interconnection: Awareness that geographical phenomena, people, places and spaces are connected to each other in complex and often reciprocal ways – that nothing can be viewed in isolation(related concepts of process, interaction, relational thinking (cause and effect), scale, regional, global, interdependence, system, enabling technology, scale, sustainability and flow).

* Sustainability: To view a location, environment or phenomena in terms of their capacity to maintain human life and system quality into the future(related concepts of values and valuing, economy, long term/short term perspectives, social/economic/political/environmental sustainability, generational equity, development, social justice, contestability, globalisation, world views, change, interdependence decision making, technological change and capacity, planning, management, diversity, relational thinking (cause and effect), risk, renewable resources, technology, non-renewable resources, modeling, perception and preferred futures).

* Scale: To study and map geographical phenomena at various levels of scale from the local to the regional, national, world regional and global - the zoom tool perspective(related concepts of local, global, national, regional, small/large scale, impact of technology of scale perception, time-space compression, spatial perception, distance and map representation of the earth surface and geographical phenomena).

If we modeled geographical thinking when studying a volcanic event, students would explore the human attachment and perception of the place where the volcanic activity was occurring (place), the location, distribution and pattern of the volcanic activity (space), volcanic activity frequency, amplitude and impact over time (change), the capacity of humans to live in the volcanic zone (sustainability), the relative scale and reach of the volcano (scale), the relationships and interdependency of the volcano with local, regional and global biophysical and human environments (interconnections) and the impact on the environment of the volcanic activity (environment). Needless to say, it is the role of the scientist to go into great details on the working and origins of the volcano –such knowledge is background for the geographer but not their core business.

How do we explain and model such thinking to the primary teacher attempting to get their head around geographical thinking before embarking on teaching the Australian Curriculum: geography. It is not that they have not been doing some great work related to geography in their classrooms over the years but has it involved ‘deep’ geographical thinking to the level required by the curriculum which is being written. The writers are not shying away from using geographical terms, concepts and approaches because that is what makes geography geography. I am sure the English, science, mathematics and history writers were not open to a suggestion that they should not include discipline specific language, skills and approaches because teachers may not have understood or been familiar with them. Such characteristics are what makes a subject a discipline and should not be watered down to accommodate those who are not familiar with the discipline. The need to support teachers in moving along the geographical thinking learning curve is the challenge of professional learning which faces us. The premise for the professional learning we develop and conduct for teachers should be informed by this piece of writing by Peter Jackson again:

“The public perception of geography is as a fact-based rather than conceptual discipline. Geography enables a unique way of seeing the world, of understanding complex problems and thinking about inter-connections at a variety of scale. Demonstrating the power of geographical thinking might be one way … of increasing our confidence to take more risks in what and how we teach.”

It is this dynamic conceptual view encapsulated by geographical thinking is the professional learning in geography required for the implementation of the Australian Curriculum: geography.

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