Geography: Finding a better way to teach it

world puzzle

Geography teachers need to go beyond theory.

Photo: Bigstock.

The work market is needing professionals with power skills. This growing trend has taken the discussions about educational efforts to new places.

When we talk about power skills, the first skills that come to mind are, communication, emotional intelligence, and critical thinking, but what about, the spatial dimension, geographic knowledge, and its social dimension?

In a previous article, we mentioned the urgent need to equip the students with geography knowledge. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for geography specialists will rise 29% towards 2024.

But how can we manage teaching geography in a way it allows us to convey more advanced knowledge to middle school and high school students?

Taking off with active knowledge

David Perkins, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of the book “Smart Schools: From Training Memories to Educating Minds,” offers a clear perspective about what to consider if we want to find a way to teach geography better.

Perkins explains that there are several types of knowledge and not all of them are useful or effective. He specifically refers to one of them as 'inert knowledge', the one that students get when they memorize only for a class purpose and not to apply it in daily life. Whatever they learn will not translate into skills, it will be pushed back by other knowledge they will use and hone.

These educational symptoms fit perfectly to describe the weak point of geography teaching in middle school and high school. It usually goes this way: A teacher in front of the class uses a map to indicate locations, like their continent, their country, states, capitals, cities and more.

If the school has tech resources like Google Classroom, they may include some details like videos of an aurora borealis in Norway or the movements of waves in a Thailand’s beach. Nonetheless, the structure of these courses is still missing key elements.

David Ausubel, one of the most important psychologists of the 20th century provides an interesting idea to help reevaluate the way in with we teach geography.

Meaningful learning happens when there’s an environment that facilitates the condition for contextualization. This is the opposite of learning by memorization.

Every teaching technique that aims for the learning of geography must have a contextual frame, an applicable methodology, and an active focus to relate to students.

Finding North

Kelly Young, founder and executive director for the training and curriculum consulting company, Pebble Creek Labs, exposes the root of the problem. Geography knowledge becomes useless not just because of the lack of context, but because the teaching process relies heavily on passive learning.

Young proposes to use creativity as a base in the geography teaching process. It’s about doing geography, not just studying, as she sustains. One of the models she recommends to achieve this is The Inductive Model w/ Statistical Data Sets.

For a class that can be wildly creative, exciting, stimulating, for too long Geography has a been passive memorization of maps, definitions and terms with a heavy dose of videos.

In this approach, the class handles from 15 to 20 pieces of geographical information for each chosen location; it can be a country, a city, a continent, etc. The students are asked to research specific data, which has to be specific, concrete, interesting and above all, relevant to them.

For example, if there are soccer fans in a class, an investigation about which country has the highest attendances to games might pique their interest better. On the other hand, if the class has cinephiles, they might be more excited if they are asked to research which countries are the go-to place for filming or which country produced the most movies this year.

The students share their findings, discuss them in class, make questions, find insights and develop the skills derived from geographic analysis, which they can still use outside the classroom.

Another strategy with a high level of success is the 'Read Alouds/Think Alouds.' It usually uses a piece of writing about an exciting aspect, specific to a location, like New Orleans cuisine, regional music from the Northeast of Mexico, martial arts from Southeast Asia, etc.

When the students write a prompt about it, the data they use stops being isolated information and becomes part of a creative experience, improving the learning process and producing more lasting knowledge.

In conclusion, as this methods show, to implement active learning in geography courses for middle school and high school students, we need:

  1. Place students at the center of their own learning process.

  2. Give context to any given data so the student can find sense in them and relate.

  3. Promote the constant use of the skills obtained in class.

All the possible strategies that can derive from this three simple steps, open a significant number of paths that we can go through, to improve not only geography teaching but also creativity, critical thinking, research, communication even empathy.

Undoubtedly, a great resource builds up the power skills students need to stay competitive in the work market.