Saturday, November 3, 2012

Geography is everywhere and everything!

Image above:Sydney from the air.
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'Towards a National Geography Curriculum' project website
Geography Teachers' Association of South Australia website
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Canberra, Australia: S: 35º 15' E: 149º 08'

Embedding the General Capabilities

Last week I had the pleasure of being on a panel of teacher association representatives at the Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA) Symposium in Adelaide to discuss the General Capabilities of the Australian Curriculum and our learning areas.

For those not familiar with this aspect of the Australian Curriculum, the General Capabilities of the Australian Curriculum are:
  • Literacy
  • Numeracy
  • Information and Communication Technology (ICT)
  • Critical and Creative thinking
  • Personal Social capability
  • Ethical behavior
  • Intercultural Understanding

As always such an event provides the opportunity to think about a topic that one may not engage with unless having to talk to an audience.  As I started to prepare my talk it became clear to me that in the case of General Capabilities, geography is a subject which effectively addressed them all in a variety of ways. In fact, for us geography teachers the general capabilities are nothing new and are embedded in good geographical teaching and learning. We don’t have to go out of our way to tokenistically embed or massage them into geography or explicitly teach them, they are implicit in the disciple of geography and they way we teach geography. The question for geography teachers, I suggest, is not so much how do we embed them but rather how do we ensure they are part of our geographical thinking and practice and how do we make sure they are taken into consideration when we assess.  Such a consideration must be part of our thinking as we develop our professional learning for the Australian Curriculum: Geography in coming years.

The posting below is how I addressed the question at the Symposium of ‘how are the General Capabilities embedded in geography?’.

I once read the quote “Geography is everything”. Not the best way for geographers to win friends amongst our colleagues from other learning areas but when looking at the nature of geography there is some truth to this view (although I am obviously biased).  As the Australian Curriculum: Geography says in its introduction:

Geography is:

“…a structured way of exploring, analysing and explaining the characteristics of the places that make up our world….to build holistic understanding of the world. Students learn to question why the world is the way it is, reflect on their relationships with and responsibilities for that world and actively participate in shaping a socially just and sustainable future.”
Does this sound like the geography you did at school?  In the 21st Century this is modern geography.  Maybe I should have called this brief talk “Beyond coloured pencils!”

Geography is not so much in the detail of the content studied but the way we look at it – how we bring the geographical lens to everything we study, which is the world and its people – a pretty big canvas for a learning area to work on! To do so geography needs to build the capacity of young people to understand, challenge and live in this dynamic world of the 21st Century. 

As 3 of the 5 aims of the curriculum say:

Geography aims to develop students:

    sense of wonder and curiosity about places, people, cultures and environments throughout the world
    capacity to be competent, critical and creative users of geographical inquiry methods and skills
    as informed, responsible and active citizens who can contribute to the development of a sustainable world.

Such capacity building is strongly tied in with the General Capabilities.

 I would like to now briefly put a geographical slant on each of the General Capabilities:


Geography involves the normal literacy’s of a humanities subject but also has a strong emphasis on what are called visual and spatial literacy’s.  Although it does not appear in the general capabilities write-up in the Shape paper for the Australian Curriculum (visual does), spatial literacy is often referred to as the 4th R in literature. Considering the georevolution of data being attached to place (85%) this capability should be front and centre in the 21st Century as a citizenship skill.


The concept of scale and graphicacy is fundamental to geography and the associated mathematics is the underlying basis of map making and Geographical Information Systems. As with literacy, geography provides the real-world medium for students to build their numeracy capacity.

Information and Communication technology

Beyond the normal ICT’s in a school, geography has its own ICT, the plethora of spatial technologies. The use of spatial technology is fundamental to modern geography. From GIS to Google maps this technology is changing the world and students should be aware of its power, good and bad, and be able to use it effectively. As a capability the use of spatial technology is highly sort in the business world and we have a serious shortage of spatial technologist and analyst in Australia.

Critical and creative thinking

Modern geography is about conceptual thinking and inquiring using the geographical concepts of place, space, change, interconnection, scale, sustainability and environment.  The geography curriculum has an Inquiry and Skills strand and a unique geographical inquiry is at the core of the curriculum.  To make sense of their world as critical and creative thinkers, geographers use inquiry. It is not about the content for content sake but how geographical students approach that content.

Personal and social capability
The area of social geography is on about how people interconnect and live together and provides the opportunity to study individuals and groups in society. What makes geography geography is that we study the place and role of humans living in the world and all what they come in contact with.  Geographical pedagogy revolves around working together whether in the classroom, in the field or on-line.

Ethical behaviour

Geography is a very political subject.  You can not study anything geographically without being challenged by the progress/development v’s the conservation/sustainability debate.  As educators we want to promote these debates in the classroom and get students to look at the underlying ethics involved.

Intercultural Understanding

This is the cornerstone of cultural geography. The study of places in geography must be within the context of empathy, challenging ethnocentrism, xenophobia and prejudice.

As a humanities subject, geography is focused on the relationship of humans with their world and thus the general capabilities are not peripheral to geography but of fundamental relevance to this holistic and integrated discipline. Geographers are very comfortable with the general capabilities of the Australian Curriculum: Geography and in fact are affirmed by their existence in the curriculum and see them as augmenting the geographical learning in our classrooms.

Maybe I should modify my original quote that “geography is everything” before I finish. Maybe the quote should be “Everything can be geography if it is looked at geographically”.  Hopefully that does not sound too evangelistical from a one-eyed geographer. Maybe?

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