What Is Geography? the View from Year 7
Kitchen, Rebecca, Teaching Geography
I wanted to discover just what my year 7 students thought geography was, where these perceptions had originated and the influence that I, as their teacher, had on these perceptions. The first phase of my research involved my two year 7 classes (30 students in each class - 60 in total) in a girls' grammar school. At the beginning of their first geography lesson at the school I asked them to write down briefly what they thought geography was and where their ideas had originated. Examples of two of their responses are shown in Figure 1 , whilst the results are illustrated in Figures 2 and 3.
Six students volunteered to become the focus of a more in-depth process requiring them to draw a stimulus poster which illustrated their idea of geography. I interviewed them on two separate occasions to clarify aspects of their posters and to probe a little more deeply into where these ideas had originated and the impact that I, as their teacher, had.
The key findings were that:
* Generally, student perceptions of geography appeared to mirror previous studies (see Figure 4) revolving around maps and place, but were confused beyond the superficial expression of 'the world'.
* Specifically, my research found that there were many influences on perception - parents, television, friends and travel - although the degree of influence depended on the student. Yet the greatest influence was primary school.
* I also found that the teacher has a variable but generally significant impact on student perception. This is likely to be greater if content is selected which engages with students' experiences or ideas of geography or by selecting engaging activities, such as independent learning, debate or role play.
However, whilst these findings are interesting, what is of most concern to teachers is how they translate into practical strategies for engaging students in the classroom (Roberts, 201 0). At a fundamental level, the research raises questions about how we can take account of differences in perception in our teaching. How do we guide students through an independent investigation and how much free choice do we allow?
The findings also lead to questions about who should be given the responsibility of teaching year 7. Many heads of department timetable their best teachers and subject specialists to exam classes, not key stage 3. Nationally, this has led to a recurring negative theme in Ofsted reports, highlighting the poor quality of geography teaching at key stage 3 and suggesting that this may be partly responsible for the decline in students opting to take the subject at GCSE (Ofsted, 201 1 ). Yet my findings suggest that if year 7 students are taught by specialists in a way which engages with their perspectives, they are more likely to be motivated and inspired by the subject, and have a clearer view of what geography is. Ultimately, it does not matter how good your key stage 4 and 5 teachers are if there is not a large and sustained pool of enthused key stage 3 students opting to study geography further.
How might the nature of geography be clarified?
So, how best to enthuse and inspire these students? An important starting point is to acknowledge that they are individuals who come to the subject with a range of valid and formative experiences, both school-centred and non-school centred, which combine to create their own personal 'geographies'.
Working with these diverse perspectives is not always easy. However, giving students some ownership of curriculum design makes it more likely that they will engage with the content and link it to their own experience. The teacher must also engage with this content, using learning activities which are likely to motivate and challenge the students.
With this in mind, in my department we are revisiting our key stage 3 curriculum. We are reflecting on the extent to which we seek to give geography a clear identity, and include motivating activities and opportunities for students to engage with their own experiences. …