The uniqueness of teaching geography:1. Bias over places reported in the media

Recently I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be a subject specialist. As someone who, over the last year, has taught Sociology, History and Psychology as well as Geography it’s made me view the idea of subject specialist in a new light. Many books on teaching talk generically about pedagogy, behaviour management or assessment but teaching these different subjects has reminded me of the importance of considering the uniqueness of subjects when teaching them. Each subject has its quirks, its idiosyncrasies, its distinctive way of creating and interpreting knowledge. In teaching our subjects we need to appreciate their uniqueness and ensure our students begin to appreciate this too. This term I’ve challenged myself to revisit the uniqueness of teaching Geography, rather than any other subject, to really reflect on what it means to be a subject specialist of Geography. My first reflection is on the impact of bias in the media on which places we teach about in Geography.

Tomorrow I meet my new Year 12 class as they start their A level Geography course. The first lesson will follow the same pattern as they always have since I started teaching. We will go through the course specification, I’ll outline my expectations about folders and independent learning and then we’ll see how good their world knowledge by asking them to draw the outline of a world map. If it’s not raining we’ll do this using chalk outside in the playground but otherwise it’ll have to be on a piece of sugar paper inside. It’s an idea I stole from the Head of Geography at my PGCE placement school – he said there’s no better way of assessing how students perceive the world and I’m yet to disagree. 

As they draw the world it reveals students’ world knowledge and the elements of bias that have affected their growing understanding of place. The countries you study for GCSE often appear on the map together with the places most represented in the news. In general USA, South America, Africa and Australia all get marked on the students’ maps and I’ve seen an increase in the incorporation of the Middle East as the years have gone by and this area has gained more prominence in every day life and the media. But Europe often misses off Scandinavia and the shape of Asia is lacks India and Russia just looks weird! Japan is often in an odd place and Greenland rarely appears.

Media bias in covering world news and the questions around why the textbook authors chose to include that place as a case study are issues we are aware of as Geographers but how much do we make this explicit to our students. This drawing exercise opens up such a discussion. What is it that means we know more about some places than others? Who makes those decisions? Does this mean other places are less important?

This year I’ve got another dimension to add to this discussion to raise my students’ awareness of a bias in the media over where in the world is reported about. Jonathan Freedland wrote an article for the Guardian on 1st September titled “There’s a disaster much worse than Texas. But no one talks about it.” He poses the question ‘what is currently the world’s worst humanitarian disaster?’ and goes on to argue why your answer might be Hurricane Harvey or monsoon flooding in Southern Asia because of the dominance of news coverage. He talks about the disparity in reporting even between these two natural disasters with Hurricane Harvey dominating the reports despite the situation in Southern Asia being much worse. But the answer to his question is actually Yemen, yet this hardly makes the news. 

So tomorrow my aim is to get my students to start to think critically about how we learn about places and the places we learn the most about. Bias in the media impacts our world knowledge and our choice of case studies we teach as we seek to teach about ‘Geography in the news’ to make it relevant and exciting for our students. Yet through media bias over the places they choose to report about we can miss equally important and geographical world events that would enrich our teaching. What makes teaching Geography unique and the importance of being a subject specialist is knowing when it is ok to only learn about the places the media sees as important and when we need to look out for those other world events that aren’t seen as news worthy but are vital to developing our students as geographers.

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