Michael Palin, interviewed by the Guardian on 6th August, offered the following thoughts on the value of geography.
“The world is much more accessible, and I think it is hugely important that we understand the world and why countries are where they are, why they live how they do, what the climate is, what they produce,” he said.
“Geography is no longer just something which you learn from a book and a map and that’s it. It’s very much now a collaborative thing.
“The world is out there, you can go and see for yourself, very often now for very small amounts of money, what the world looks like, and I think that’s a great opportunity.
“I think it broadens the mind. That’s one obvious thing, but also I think it just helps us to understand how other countries are the way they are, and this is really very important in just helping us to realise that we all share the same planet and we should know more about what makes us different as well as what makes us similar.”
“I looked at books, I looked at maps, I looked at atlases, I enjoyed that, but the thing that inspired me most of all was being taken from the school into the local area to look at nature,” he said. “To look at the way the land looked, to understand the geography, to walk up little hills and streams and see how the ecological system worked, look at the environment.”
Getting outdoors was “where the magic appeal of geography lies,” he said. “It’s being out there, it’s being able to see and touch and feel what the land is like”.
I’m not quite as old as Michael Palin, but the article made me think about how I came to enjoy geographic knowledge, as a child, then as an adult.
My 1950s childhood was spent largely outdoors, in all weathers, playing in different places with friends, exploring together, without really thinking about it, making our own mental maps of our locality, to be able to meet up in the right place at the right time. These were the days before mobile phones and even a telephone in the house.
I was lucky to holiday with my Welsh miner family, with my Uncle taking us for long rambles after his shift, pointing out places of interest and also the local wildlife. These experiences instilled a life-long interest in the natural world.
Geography, at Primary school, was largely based on atlas work, learning the names of countries, their main cities, rivers and other significant features. Occasionally, this was supplemented by stories, songs or snippets of information about the country. We get oranges from Spain; we always had an orange at the bottom of our Christmas stocking.
Emigrating to Oz as a seven-year-old, the six-week boat journey, eventually each way, was enough to give an idea of the vastness of the world, especially the oceans, with stops on the way in places that created memories that are inevitably out of date. However, it piqued an interest in people and where they live, especially where housing and clothing were very different to our known world. As an 11-year-old, I returned to the UK having had a broadening experience.
Geography, at Secondary school, was in many ways, an extension of the Primary experience. Teachers who had learned facts about countries regurgitating their knowledge, with maps drawn, lists of products, other key facts. The days before easy access to TV programmes, or today’s interactive whiteboards meant that stimulus had to come via the teacher, and if they weren’t stimulating… small photographs don’t really hold a class attention.
As a NQT and early career teacher, teaching geography well before the National Curriculum was even a twinkle in a minister’s eye, the locality became a significant element, with exploratory forays into the village, highlighting essential landmarks, such as the church, the old manor house ruins, the play park, the river, finding the Roman tiles in the church tower, “meeting” the effigy of the local lord of the manor who had blocked the river, meaning that boats could no longer ply their trade. The history of the settlement linked to the geography.
Maps, obtained from the County Record Office, covering around three hundred years, allowed access to the idea of the settlement growth and change over time. Census material showed how households had changed, and, exploring the houses showed the timber framed 16/17th century houses had all been “modernised” between 1780 and 1810, with Georgian fronts covering the tenements behind. A local lady invited us into her house to see some original features.
Uncovering where we live allows access into broader themes, comparisons with other places and ways of life. A paucity of locality understanding could be seen as a dereliction in terms of safeguarding children. The better the understanding of an area, the safer a child can be, in my opinion, so I would want children to be walking their local streets, drawing sketch maps, putting on essential landmarks, able to give directions to get from one place to another; this can even be done within the school building, giving directions for how to get from the classroom to the office, hall etc.
As a relatively simple exercise, I once linked with a local Secondary school art department, whose lead teacher wanted to use the locality for photography. My need was orientation, with a junior class. We divided children into small groups, with a couple of year 10s and a parent to lead. The idea was that the Primary children would create an “I spy” trail along a walk, while the year 10s took photos to work on later. Swapping trails, different groups then had to follow the trail and identify the features drawn. Back on the classroom, sketch maps were drawn, incorporating the “I spy” features as landmarks. Exploration of road names enabled some exploration of locality history, supported by the local history society.
Geography opens the prospects of assuring a sense of place, our place in the world. Understanding our place in the world is a fundamental part of a broad education.
Geography is people, language, places, settlements, materials, buildings, clothing, food and transport among many other things and how each impacts on another, creating a unique culture with song and stories.
Geography is the stuff of narrative, settings, understanding where things take place and the nuances that the interplay between characters and their environment can have on (sometimes power) relationships.
With an Interactive Whiteboard in a classroom, it is possible to explore even distant parts of the world, bringing more life into a topic. Smaller artefacts/images can be made suitably large with a visualiser.
From that point of view, geography is central to any curriculum, if children have any chance of understanding how the world functions. And in today’s political world, it is even more vital, if connections are to be secured and the inter-related nature of geo-politics is to be maintained.
If you want children to have ideas to think, talk and write about, they need to develop and internalise these through a broad range of experiences.
It can all start from local walks, maps and atlases … home activities included? Where do I live?
Linked blog; on psychogeography