What are we missing out on using the current ‘thematic with a named case study’ approach to teaching Geography?

The debate in Geography about place versus space is a longstanding one. Put in (very!) simplistic terms: Should we look for patterns and processes in studying the world through quantitative, scientific study or should we look at the geography of a region in a more holistic but qualitative, descriptive way knowing that this might reduce the validity of what we find when applied to another location? There is no easy answer to this and the debate spans not only volumes of debate and argument but also centuries of geographical study.  

This dilemma of looking thematically versus looking at case studies has been translated into GSCE Geography specifications over the years as teach a unit then teach a case study that illustrates that unit in depth. The ‘case study’ questions have become the longer responses that students fear and a common target for progress and raising attainment is ‘learn your case study facts to add to your answer’. But these case studies still only show one aspect of a place.

I return to the debate of whether or not we should teach more widely about places often. The point of thinking geographically is about thinking holistically and critically about an interrelated world – human and physical geography is a common distinction but really they are impossible to separate. Yet we do often separate them when teaching to make life simpler – the new OCR A spec has clear human, physical and environmental topics examined in different questions. We rarely teach about the human and physical geography of one place to see their connections.

Driving round Kruger National Park this week, I’ve been giving this some thought while trying to spot elephants, lions and leopards. My students just don’t seem to get the connections between different aspects of geography and, honestly, that’s down to how we teach it. We teach and assess by exam topic. We don’t mix up physical and human topics. We teach about a place for each topic and rarely choose the same ‘case study’ place for more than one topic.

So how can I fix this and encourage them to make connections across topics in geography? And, most importantly, how can I do this when the way the specifications are set up doesn’t encourage it without compromising the fact that, at the end of the day (rightly or wrongly!), it’s getting the grades in the exams that has to come first? I think it’s going to have to come in the little KS3 time we still have available – the time continually squeezed by wanting to start GCSEs earlier and earlier.

At KS3 we try to be innovative and over the years I’ve taught the ‘engaging’ topics of the geography of crime and the geography of war and conflict but, as I’ve written about before, I’m moving away from trying to ‘jazz up’ geography in favour of just teaching students about the world and letting the geography sell itself. Studying multiple aspects of the geography of a location should help this as it enables students to get a feel for how somewhere is different or similar to their own experiences – the ‘wow’ engagement factor becomes learning about the place.

Given the example of Kruger National Park, we visited a private game reserve that includes an ecotourism centre and animal rehabilitation centre. They run education programmes and game drives. It is an example of a ‘case study’ I could teach about ecotourism. But this wouldn’t actually teach students anything about the place of Kruger National Park. It would just be another name to remember for an exam question.

But as you start to unravel and unpick what the game driver was telling us, a lot more Geography comes out. Symbiosis and the cycles within ecosystems are evident everywhere you turn from birds eating the parasites on impala to trees growing in abandoned termite hills to use the recycled nutrients. The carbon cycle (the dreaded topic added to the A level specifications) is everywhere. Global atmospheric circulation and climate change drive both the overall biome and the ecosystems within it. Three years of drought has taken its toll on the region. Elephants have damaged areas in search of food and the hippo population has suffered high losses. Poaching of rhinos has become an increasing problem with, on average, one game ranger dying trying to protect animals from poachers each day. Here you can look at global trade as South Africa is seeking to legalise the trade in rhino horn in an attempt to stop poaching. Global tourist trade and its impacts on the region, issues surrounding the management of national parks and vegetation and animal conservation can all be seen. And then there’s the towns surrounding the park – rural poverty levels are high and there is the question over whether they are benefitting economically from the tourist industry. Going a little wider, driving to Kruger from Johannesburg, you pass through agricultural areas and townships that lead to a whole range of geographical questions. And the biggest wow factor of all for students has to be the animals – if you feel you need your hook to draw students in, one month old lion cubs, giraffes, elephants and zebra are on hand to help.

Geography is the ‘world discipline’ (Bonnet, 2008). So I’m going to try to be a bit more holistic in teaching about places in it by trying to bring in as many other aspects covered by the specification at GCSE and A level too (the continual revision should counter the additional time this will take when we’re already trying to squeeze a lot in) – by only teaching tiny snapshots we miss out the complexity and interrelatedness of the world and that’s where the interesting bit lies.

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