Reconsidering ‘Geography in the News’

We are surrounded by Geography every day.

Part of our roles as Geography teachers is to make sure our students are not only aware of this but have the knowledge and skills to make sense of the world around them and its Geography.

A common way of doing this has been through ‘Geography in the News’.  Whether it be a regularly updated noticeboard in a corridor or how Geography teachers go into a frenzy of collecting articles and resources whenever the next big ‘Geographical’ event happens to update the case study they teach.

Screen Shot 2020-04-13 at 13.01.46Today I am reiterating my plea to Geography teachers to stop this practice of jumping at the latest ‘event’ as a way to make Geography exciting, relevant and up to date.  And this renewed plea today is very much grounded in a fear COVID 19 is going to become the next ‘Scheme of Learning/Work’ to make Geography ‘relatable’ for our students.

But why do I make this plea?  The reason is simple.  The have limited hours to teach Geography at school and this needs to be driven by decisions based on what Geography do we need students to know.  Changing our curriculum suddenly or adding in one off lessons on something in the news to make things seem exciting means we are not prioritising a well thought through and solid sequence of Geographical learning and we are trivialising the nature of the world around us.  Let me elaborate:

  1. A well planned and sequenced Geography curriculum builds knowledge up over time.Examples and case studies should be chosen with deliberate thought over their inclusion – Can we generalize from them?  Or are they unique in illustrating how spatial processes and the uniqueness of place have interacted?   That is not to say a new event will not be a better case study to be taught in the future but this should be done as careful evaluation of the whole unit/year/Key Stage and the impact on Geographical learning and not because it is something new and exciting that the students have heard of.
  2. Teaching Geography is about deepening their understanding of the world around them so they can make sense of it on their own.  It needs to be meaningful and planned in terms of what are the gaps in our students’ Geographical learning and how do we address these. Conceptual knowledge should be the basis of this so that students can apply this knowledge themselves to future events.  For example, if we teach them about data analysis and trends they can critically question the news for themselves or if we teach about the principles of development they can unpick the possible implications of the next natural disaster and, should they wish to, act to help.  If students have a strong grounding in Geographical knowledge they can consider ‘Geography in the News’ in their own time.
  3. A Geographical education is about widening horizons and our students what else is out there. If it is in the news (with the encouragement to watch the news which many schools do through tutor time, etc) then it is already something students are being encouraged to engaged it.We do not need to spend the limited lesson time we have on information they already access.  Yes, there is an argument here that by studying this in lessons we can help to them to understand this and address and misconceptions, but my response is to go back to points 1 and 2.  We need to look at the overall curriculum we teach students so they will have the holistic knowledge and skills they need to better understand the world in the future – it is about the long game to create future Geographers.

Yet over the last week I have been reflecting on an even bigger reason why we need to rethink a ‘Geography in the News’ approach to updating examples and case studies based on what is happening today.  That when we approach teaching like this, we risk forgetting the wellbeing of our students.

When I first started teaching the Boxing Day tsunami was the case study everyone was jumping on the bandwagon.  I taught a student who had experienced it first hand visiting family.  They were more than happy to tell everyone their account of what happened that day but what if they had not?

When the Ebola crisis hit I was teaching a unit on the Geography of Disease and immediately changed my lessons to cover this ‘relevant’ ‘up to date’ content.  I taught a student whose sibling had been deployed to Sierra Leone and who was terrified they would never see their sibling again.

But with both of these examples it was one student and I knew this was the case before I started teaching so I could talk to them about what we would be looking at in the lesson and prepare their parents in case further support was needed.

With COVID 19 there is already talk of looking at how the disease spread.  Of how different countries responded.   Of what it tells us about globalization and interdependence.  Of development issues.  Of challenges to infrastructure.  There is no denying COVID 19 involves a lot of Geography.

But this time it will not be one odd student in your class with personal experience of this ‘Geography in the News’.  It will be all.  Students will have lived through weeks at home unable to see family and friends.  That time could have been filled with arguments or with fun family activities.  They will have lived through the news reports and the statistics, watching the death toll rise.  They will have washed their hands so many times they will have lost count.  They will all know of people who have died.  Some will have lost family members.  This is not new and relevant Geography.  It will be raw and real and needs our lives not to be turned into a case study.  I would even go so far as to say we should stop teaching any Geography of Disease or Health below A level for the next year or so as the parallels will be too great. The core Geographical knowledge and concepts could be taught through other applications.

In 5-10 years when we can look back with clearer minds and can see we have recovered and bounced back as communities, countries, continents and a planet.  Then is the time to talk about the Geography of COVID 19 in schools.

And so I end with reiterating my plea to Geography teachers to stop this practice of jumping at the latest ‘event’ as a way to make Geography exciting, relevant and up to date.  Geography does not need to be jazzed up for our students.  Our mission is the long game to create future Geographers who have the knowledge and understanding to critically consider the latest ‘news’ for themselves.

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