The power of curiosity and fascination in Geography teaching

"A high-quality geography education should inspire in pupils a curiosity and fascination about the world and its people that will remain with them for the rest of their lives.” (DfE, 2014) 

It is worth reminding ourselves of the first line of the National Curriculum and the power of curiosity and fascination that any geography teaching might include. How might we bring that about in geography? In this blog Anthony Barlow,  one of the authors of Rising Stars: Geography discusses some ideas. 

Do we bring about curiosity and fascination through a list of ‘must knows’ in a knowledge organiser? Is it through regular quizzing? Is it through outdoor experiences and guest speakers? 

You will have your own view on this and other current debates alongside the approach your own setting is taking. As one of the writers of the new Rising Stars Geography materials, it is only through carefully constructing a sequence of learning that I have started to grapple with this thorny issue: does the geography we are teaching set them up (as the curriculum challenges us to do) for a lifetime of wonder at the world? 

Are you teaching about mountains? 

Consider this: 
•    Are you teaching about mountains? 
•    What’s special about such a region? 
•    What is your pupils’ prior experience and how does this relate to the flat or hilly location in which you are teaching? 
•    Do you have nearby cliffs or maybe tall buildings? 
•    What is a cliff and how is this different to a mountain? 
•    How do endangered birds* find a city with tall buildings oddly accommodating for their purposes, just like a remote mountain region?  

These are just a few questions to consider if teaching a series of lessons such as this. We could jump from where we are and teach them about the idea of ‘mountain’ as a fixed, ‘out there somewhere’ idea and a number to learn (Ben Nevis, Scotland. Height:1345m). But is it enough to just jump to the core of knowledge that pupils must learn? Good geography relies on there being some flexibility and responsiveness to the pupils in your class, your local setting and your community (Barlow and Whitehouse, 2019). Ofsted to some degree agree as I write about below. 

Dialogic Approach 

Primary geography author Susan Pike and many in the geography community call this flexibility a dialogic approach and teaching pupils through enquiry and the new Rising Stars Geography materials have this as their heart. Consider you have a high number of Eastern European children in your class: this should impact on the geography curriculum you are teaching is planned. It doesn’t mean teaching about Poland, Romania or the Czech Republic, but a healthy consideration of this when planning the curriculum is important. This is where you consider your intent and implementation, central to Ofsted’s new curriculum handbook (2019). 

Similarly, if there are East or West African born children in your class, this might affect how you discuss deserts as they might have some sense of what and where the Sahara is and how those different climates and biomes impact on the landscape. Of course, these pupils might not have this knowledge but to deny its existence misses building on where your pupils are and where they might be better included in the teaching you are offering. 

It's important for children to see themselves reflected in the curriculum 

There is space in the National Curriculum for this as it is all about them considering “knowledge about diverse places, people, resources and natural and human environments” (DfE, 2014). Seeing themselves reflected in the curriculum is much more important than solely an abstract ‘best that has been thought and said’ sometimes cited. Ultimately, this is about a notion of geography that is personal, recognises them as a human individuals and with some agency to impact and change the world.  

This can sometimes be criticized as open-ended, lacking teacher guidance and, sometimes, as discovery learning. This is to deny pupils’ agency as the learners and the best teachers of primary geography are fully engaged with an intent so clear that their implementation is flexible enough to utilize this. At its best this highly focused teaching adds an important personal geographic dimension (Barlow and Whitehouse, 2019; Catling and Willy, 2019) to contrast against any high-quality materials, case studies and experiences to create what might be considered both a knowledge-rich and  experience-inclusive teaching approach. This is something Catling and Martin call an ethnogeographic approach (2011).  

The New Ofsted Framework

All this brings us to Ofsted and the new framework. It is important to say that there is no Ofsted-sanctioned curriculum (Ofsted, 2019) but inspectors will be looking to ascertain: “Does it contain the right knowledge in the right order? Is the curriculum providing pupils with the building blocks of what they need to know and be able to do to succeed in each subject?” (Ofsted, 2019) Of course, the right order might be different for different settings as they do say that a “school may choose to ensure that its curriculum incorporates a particular ethos or inculcates certain dispositions.” However, we all need somewhere to start this discussion about ethos off and if this is not your current curriculum, it could be sequenced curriculum materials such as Rising Stars that can help spark such conversations in your school. 

Anthony Barlow is one of the authors of the newly published Rising Stars Geography resources. 

Rising Stars Geography and History are both available for as little as £50 per class. 

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