It’s traditional, but someone’s got to do it … and good old GCSE Geography recently came back into the top ten subjects sat by 16 year olds. In the age of subjects such as media studies and preparing for life and work, this might be surprising. But a survey of nearly 700 secondary schools in England in 2011 found that the advent of the new Ebacc performance measurement for schools was affecting pupils’ choices. The Ebacc can be attained by achieving good passes in English, maths, two sciences, a foreign language and history or geography. Correspondingly, the number of pupils taking more traditional subjects such as history and geography was found to be rising. As a result, nearly half those sitting their GCSEs in 2013 were taking an Ebacc combination, compared with just 22% in 2010. And geography jumped by around 36,000 from 187,000 entrants in 2012 (and a steady decline over almost 20 years), to nearly 223,000 entrants in 2013.
Geography is about the relationships of humans with each other, with different places and environments, and with the planet earth itself – everything from drought to democracy. It’s all about understanding the world around us, and it seems a good thing that this important subject is enjoying a revival as we increasing ask young people to become ‘global citizens’. Physical geography is part of the subjects studied, from the way eco-systems work to specific environments such as rivers and coasts, glaciers and tectonic plates. Human geography could cover population and migration, globalisation, urban and rural differences, tourism, and of course, the impacts of climate change. Skills learned include the basics such as understanding maps and graphs. Geography is also now among those subjects where the new curriculum in England will examine a pupil’s standard of written English as an element of the marking.
There is a trend that is nowadays a fundamental part of the study of Geography, and that is to ask the question: ‘What am I going to do about it?’ Or, put more formally by the CEA, asking pupils to consider how they ‘can contribute to a sustainable and inclusive environment’. They might, for example, ask how their consumer decisions can impact on people’s lives in other parts of the world, or calculate their own contribution to rising CO2 levels.
This practical approach to the learning about the environment can also work the other way – to support the scientific community. Scientists are increasingly using research-based on data collected by school students to explore humanity’s impact on the planet, using ‘citizen science’ projects. Data collected by school students in experiments designed by academics in areas such as biology and the environmental studies element of geography is proving fascinating for pupils. They can examine abstract concepts by undertaking real-world experiments, increasing their engagement with the subject. For example, the Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) project is a science initiative which runs surveys across the UK with the aim of learning more about the state of our environment, and offers specific surveys in which schools can take part, along with supporting teachers’ resources and ways children can examine their local environment, including the health of soil, the quality of air and how our actions affect our climate. Citizen science can make a subject such as geography feel truly relevant for students.