The uniqueness of teaching Geography 2: Can we ever present an authentic view of place?

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 second reflection is on what we do and don’t teach about places.

I spent an afternoon earlier this term planning lessons for my Year 11 classes on ecosystems. The formula was simple – identify the location of the biome, describe and explain the climate and describe and explain the flora and fauna adaptions – and was repeated 7 times! I tried to mix things up with different resources and activities but essentially it was teach to a formula and I didn’t really have time to go into anything else about these places. We went through the characteristics of 7 world biomes in 7 lessons but what did this really teach students about these locations? Superficial, simplistic description of locations set within the context of global atmospheric circulation?

When I was training we talked a lot about how we present authentic views of places. On GA study tours and on my own travels I’ve always sought authenticity in terms of experiencing places in real terms and not just as a tourist bystander. But whenever we try to learn and teach about places we are always making sacrifices in terms of how authentically we’re representing or experiencing somewhere. When I taught those 7 lessons over 2-3 weeks I was not presenting students with a holistic and authentic view of what those places are like.

I suppose my reflection is really about does it matter if we only provide one perspective or teach about one aspect of a place? Do we have to always strive to give our students an authentic view of what places are like? And what does this even mean?  

Last year visiting Malaysia and Singapore this topic of authenticity kept coming up, particularly at lunch time. Most days in Malaysia we were dropped off at shopping malls for lunch. Those seeking an authentic Malaysian experience were somewhat disappointed by the choice of KFC, McDonalds and Nando’s. But since these were where the locals ate then experiencing authentic local life must surely mean having a cheeky Nando’s for your lunch? For me this really highlighted that we can never present a truly authentic view of a place as everyone experiences and understands that differently; two of us spent two nights in a luxury hotel to experience KL ‘authentically’ as a 5 star tourist recognising our experience of KL would be just as authentic and real as that of a local but we’d just looked at it from a different angle.

My point then is that when we try to represent places to our students we are always making choices about what we tell them. With my ecosystems lessons, they got a snapshot of what the environment is like but nothing about what it means to live there. When we talk about any location we only give a small piece of a complex reality and it is impossible to do much more in the relative confines of a classroom. I suppose then the important thing is that we as teachers think consciously about the image of a place we are presenting to students and are aware of how this could lead to stereotypes or misconceptions. We need to do our best to ensure students understand we can only ever see a part of what a place is really like and that everyone’s view of what a place is really like is always subjective. Authenticity of place is something everyone experiences uniquely – and it’s impossible to gain a definitive and all-encompassing knowledge of what a place really like for everyone.

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