#GeoEdChat 10 with Stephen Matthews (@srmdrummer): Are traditional #skills in geography still useful?

A variety of skills

Most geography educators would probably agree that skills are woven into the fabric of geography; skills in the classroom and skills in the field, as well as skills involved generally in geographical inquiry. Often, it is inquiry that is used to organise how skills are articulated in school geography, as seen for example, from National Geographic or in the newly released Australian Curriculum: Geography. In other places, skills are formed into lists or other categories in their own right, as for example, from the NZ Ministry of Education. Regardless of how they are organised, it would be fair to say that, across these categories of skills, we would encounter some skills that would be termed as ‘traditional’. This raises some questions:

  • What might be considered the traditional skills of geography?
  • Are these traditional skills as relevant and useful as they always have been?
  • Are the more contemporary skills that are emphasised today more about employing modern tools and technologies to do ‘traditional’ things?
  • Is there a case for ensuring that students are able to utilise traditional skills in the traditional, as well as contemporary ways?

There are some, however, who would argue that skills have been, or are overly-emphasised in some school curricula at the expense of other important aspects. When UK education secretary Michael Gove initiated the review of the National Curriculum a couple of years ago, he was critical of a “lack of facts and vital knowledge” in many areas of the curriculum. We might consider whether a focus on skills, especially when not in the context of content, a good idea? Does the ‘knowledge turn’ potentially affect the quality of skills teaching in geography?

As the Australian Curriculum: Geography* was under development, there was early criticism that skills at the primary level expected too much of essentially non-specialist teachers. More recently, questions have been raised about the lack of specificity in skills, with fieldwork and the sequential development of skills using geospatial technologies not technically included in the Curriculum’s mandatory ‘Content Descriptions’. This has undoubtedly come about because the Australian Curriculum, Reporting and Assessment Authority (ACARA) required inquiry and skills to be combined in a single strand with generic inquiry as the organising structure. Having said this, is there the risk of creating potentially vast ‘checklists’ of skills to be covered in a curriculum? Should choices about how and when particular skills are covered be left solely for teachers to determine?

Where, then is the balance in teaching skills in geography to be found? Traditional versus contemporary, stand-alone versus integrated, explicit versus implicit, and so on. Has geography moved past the need to teach traditional skills or are there other imperatives? Join us for the next #GeoEdChat to share your views on skills in geography via Twitter on Wednesday, 5 June, or if you can’t make it, leave your replies here.

(* Declaration: This blogger was involved as a writer of the Australian Curriculum: Geography but the views expressed here are his views are his own.)


#GeoEdChat 9: Cross Curricular Collaboration – Golden Opportunity or End of Specialism?

There is growing talk about collaboration between subjects in school. From what I see/read/hear there seems to be 2 schools of thought with a few ambivalents in the middle. The most vocal are those at each end of a spectrum ranging from ‘golden opportunity for amazing learning experiences’ to those who see it more as ‘crosscurricular mush causing the end of specialist knowledge.’

Recently, I enjoyed reading the experiences of Matt Podbury (@mattpodbury) and Jim Noble (@teachmaths) who worked together on a joint Geography and Maths project about population growth called World Village (and here). I encourage you to read these as I feel they capture the true essence of what crosscurricular projects can do. It is an authentic collaboration where they fit together naturally without any subject being forced to fit. The links provide an authentic learning experience that requires the specialist knowledge from both subjects.

There are, however, examples I have heard of where collaboration is forced and unnatural in projects and I have heard of people saying that they would not want to collaborate as it will cause a watering down of their subject knowledge.

My personal opinion is (not important, but for interest’s sake) that as Geography teachers we should be pursuing a more collaborative approach with other subjects. There are many issues and topics that we study where other discipline knowledge would help give students a deeper understanding. And that is what we should all be striving for after all.

So for #GeoEdChat:

  • Is collaboration a golden opportunity or the end of specialism?

#GeoEdChat 8 with @DanRavenEllison – How can #play be used to improve geographies?

There is a strong link between geography and play. Geography is simply a giant game of hide and seek. Mentally and physically we’ve always played the game. From our first smiles playing peekaboo to the war games (and battles in theatre) that are played out by our military and political leaders, much of our lives are spent searching, evading and finding.

Play can be a powerful way for us to learn about places. Indoor games like The Settler’s of Catan draw from the ‘real world’ and can be an engaging way for us to learn about trade, strategy, inequality and theory (as this game is based on Central Place Theory). With parallels to the famous Trading Game by Christian Aid, indoor (board)games are effective and largely uncontroversial learning tools. A good exception being those created by my good friends at Terrorbull Games (check out the print-and-play games).

Outdoor play is far more controversial than indoor play for some teachers, parents and communities. We all know about the concerns for ‘safety’, curriculum time and other barriers that prevent children from benefitting from outdoor play, learning and exploration. Countries like Scotland have a very forward thinking approach to outdoor learning, but in England, the United States, Australia and other ‘developed’ countries the picture is far more bleak. Despite a raft of evidence revealing the benefits of us (all) having time and space to playfully learn outdoors, too many children just don’t get the right opportunities.

There is much that the professional ‘geography’ and ‘play’ communities can learn from each other. Playworkers, play rangers and playground designers are all inherently interested in creating valuable, meaningful and appropriate places for children. As well as micro-play environments like sandpits, many people in this thriving community are working hard to change the geographies of their communities by creating play streets and helping parents to rethink the real geographies of risk in their local area. Equally, geography educators can learn much from the way that playworkers create opportunities for free play (and learning) and conceptualise how this play can be of benefit to us.

An ever increasing movement of individuals and organisations are working to help the gatekeepers unlock opportunities for us – not just the children – to spend more time exploring, playing and learning outdoors. My work with Mission:Explore, the programme by the John Muir Award, the awesome personal drive of Juliet Robertson with Creative STAR and campaigning by Play England are just tiny sample of what is happening in the UK.

Empty Classroom Day on Friday 5th July is one of the most exciting. It’s a simple idea and one that we should all support. It’s aim is simple – that every school in the UK (I reckon this should say on Earth) there will be an empty classroom and pupils will be learning in their playground, local park, farm, seaside and the great outdoors.

So, my question for #GeoEdChat this Wednesday is this. Given that Empty Classroom Day is just around the corner..

  • How can play be used to improve geographies?
  • What outdoor games can you recommend that help us to learn outdoors?
  • How can play improve the geography of your community?
  • What can you do to support Empty Classroom Day?

#GeoEdChat now takes place for 24 hours every Wednesday with a focussed meet-up at 8pm in your timezone. I’ll be dropping in and out of the chat all day. Tweet with you then?

@DanRavenEllison is a Guerrilla Geographer and National Geographic Emerging Explorer.  He is one of the people behind Mission:Explore, a project to inspire young people to explore, learn and play outdoors. You can follow his blog here.

#GeoEdChat 7 What is a Successful 21st Century Geographer?

There is a lot of talk and articles online about 21st Century Education and what this looks like in practice. There has also been big structural changes to Geography curriculums across many countries in recent years. Have the Geography teaching programs evolved with these changes so that we are creating successful 21st Century Geographers? Or are we still continuing to act like this:

Old School Geographer by Tom Morgan-Jones

Old School Geographer by Tom Morgan-Jones


As many of these curriculum changes come into place it has been my experience that many teachers are looking at how much of their old teaching programs they are able to keep and just tweaking small amounts to say they have made the necessary changes. If this is the case (and Yes I am sticking my neck out here purposely to provoke discussion), are we adequately meeting the future needs of our students?

What are the skills that a person would need to be considered a successful Geographer in these dynamic times and into the future? (are these different than 5/10/20 years ago?)

Does your teaching program allow students to engage in depth with future focused issues with multiple perspectives? Are you teaching these issues in a way that relates them to your life or your students lives?

I argue that we should be changing our teaching programs allow students time to inquire into geographical issues with an emphasis on what these issues mean for the future. This way they will be able to contribute to dialogue in the community about their future. As a subject we are uniquely placed to help students engage with issues such as fracking, sustainability, development and globalisation. This to me would help produce a successful 21st Century Geographer – a person that understands the various perspectives held on controversial global issues and can work out how to take action so the future consequences are in the best possible balance. Yet how much of your teaching program is spent on these? How much of the time on these issues allows students to actually engage with them in depth? Are they exploring various perspectives and projecting future implications or are they merely scratching the surface of these issues?

What do you think a successful 21st century geographer should be able to do? How does your teaching program allow them to flourish?

We have evolved!

Hi all,

after our initial chats, we have had a short break to reflect on how we can improve #GeoEdChat and have come up with a few tweaks. This way we hope to engage more people with the ideas each week (and if you miss one you only have 1 week to wait!). The main change is a move from 1 hour only to a more informal day long affair.

How it will work:

  1. Blog – The guest moderator posts a “Think Piece” on this site
  2. Chat – #GeoEdChat on Twitter, at 8pm in your local timezone (starting down in NZ and continuing on for the next 24 hours), led by the guest moderator 
  3. Blog – The moderator posts a #GeoEdChat summary such as a storify or collation of the best ideas

So, we still want you to log on at 8pm your time but the rest of the world will do the same so that the conversation continues on for 24 hours and allows all people to engage with the theme of that week.

There will still be a think piece to provoke the conversation but now we will also ensure the chat is followed up with a blog/storify/reflection on what was covered in the chat.

Next chat will be next Wednesday May 15th and the Think Piece will be out very soon from Steve Mouldey (@GeoMouldey).