Thursday, August 30, 2012

Avoiding Geogphobia

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Adelaide, Australia: S: 34º 55' E: 138º 36'

Sunshine Geography versus Problematic Geography

We teach geography in our schools for many reasons. As Rita Gardner says:

“Geography is one of the great civilising subjects in the curriculum. It trains young people in an understanding of the diverse and interconnected world in which they live and for which they will have to take a responsibility though their work and actions. With this emphasis on understanding both environmental and social processes, and their interactions and change, geography encompasses many of the issues facing the world today." 
 Rita Gardner Director Royal Geographical Society 1999

In our enthusiasm to expose and address the problems facing our world we may be doing our subject a dis-service.  Recent statistics on the decline of the number of geography students in the senior years in Australian schools started me thinking about how we get students to ‘love’ geography like many of us did. When I say to people I am a geography teacher, their first response is “that was my favourite subject at school.” Rarely do I come across a student today who says the same thing!! As a result in this posting I would like to pose the following questions:
  • What’s changed? 
  • What did we like about geography when we did it at school?
  • Has the subject changed for the worse or have students changed and no longer find it appealing compared to other more exciting subjects?
  • Is it that they do not see geography going anywhere or providing employment opportunities?
  • Is it because we have too few passionate geography teachers in our schools?
  • Is the subject not “hands-on” enough for the modern student?
  • Is the curriculum not relevant to student interests and needs?
  • Does the name geography lack currency and is seen as old and offering little excitement for students?
  • Is it that in our desire to educate about the environment, challenges and threats to our world, we have concentrated too much on the bad news?

I would say there is an element of truth to all of the above but the one I want to focus on is the last. This focus on bad news stories is called “death geographies” or “Doomsday Geographies” in the UK and is blamed for turning many students off geography. By focussing on bad news such as pollution, climate change, over-population, famine and other environmental and social problems from the early years of schooling, well–meaning teachers have created a sense of powerlessness amongst students and even a feeling of blame – neither being an attractive approach if we want to attract students. This approach is often compounded by non-geographers teaching geography who lack the content knowledge and find that there is a plethora of materials on the bad news geographies that provide ready-to-go teaching materials. I am not saying that it is not important to teach the bad news stories but we need to develop a love for the world before we start the death/doomsday geographies.  Surely one of the reasons we loved geography was the remote, exotic, diverse and fascinating geographical stories we studied in primary and secondary school.  The remote, romantic and exotic is what fed our natural curiosity and engaged our wonder.  I call this “Sunshine Geography”, It is this geography we may have neglected in our fixation on systems and problem solving over the years.

As we write the Australian Curriculum: Geography we have kept this sunshine aspect of geography in the forefront of study.  It is only when someone loves something that they really care about it and for it.  

The Australian Curriculum: Geography Aim 1 states: 
Australian Curriculum: Geography aims to ensure that students develop a sense of wonder and curiosity about places, people, cultures and environments throughout the world.”
This sense of wonder and curiosity is what we need to ensure from the start, so that students enjoy and embrace geography.  Only once they have this should we start talking about what is threatening the beauty of the world. Just look at this visually stunning video montage with clips compiled from the Discovery Channel's series "Planet Earth”  and "What a wonderful world" with David Attenborough. How could a student not be fascinated and inspired by such vision. 

The question about when and how we introduce the problematic geography is a question that needs to be discussed in a considered way by teachers.  We have a responsibility to not depress and scare students about the future of our world.  An interesting parallel can be drawn from the work on Cosmophobia amongst young people.  In many ways the fear of a comet hitting the earth is no more scary than a teacher saying that we will be destroyed by climate change (droughts/sea level rise), increasing catastrophic events, die of famine or unable to breath through air pollution.

"In the case of movies, documentaries,books, blogs and websites, they are doing their best convince many in the public that some kind of catastrophe awaits us around the winter solstice of 2012, and that its cause will be an astronomical or geophysical event. Some people are seriously worried, others are mildly concerned, while others are cynical about both the scare mongers and the scientists who rebut these suggestions. “Doomsday 2012″ represented both a challenge and opportunity for science communication and education."

The Cosmophobia website offers teaching materials to be used to help students to cope with these fears.

In the case of geography we must be careful to not create a “Geogphobia” of destruction through focussing on the problems of the earth from the early years of schooling, over and over again.  No wonder students do not want to do geography!! We need geography teachers who have the sense of wonder and knowledge of process and geography thinking to inspire students.  As students move through their schooling this sunshine geography needs to be integrated with considered problematic geography but we must be careful not to overwhelm students with the “we will all be rooned” approach. 

"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan, in accents most forlorn,
Outside the church ere Mass began, one frosty Sunday morn.
The congregation stood about, coat-collars to the ears,
And talked of stock & crops & drought, as it had done for years."

Even if this was my favourite poem at school we must not make it the basis of geographical education in our schools or us geography teachers “...will all be rooned.”.

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