Changing Places: some thoughts on AS and A Level core content

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Despite some of the final specifications from exam boards not yet being approved, we do have the AS and A Level subject content set out by the government which was published in December 2014.

Perhaps the least familiar theme from the list above to many secondary geography teachers is Changing place; changing places. At first glance, the criteria may look daunting and it may be more straightforward to look at how the boards have shaped this content. I will focus on AQA here.

Where the theme fits into the AQA qualifications

At AS Geography, this theme is examined as part of Component 2 (a paper of 1.5 hours, worth 50 per cent of the AS) along with the geography fieldwork investigation.

The topic appears at A Level in Component 2: Human geography (a 2.5 hour paper worth 40 per cent).

According to the third draft of the AS and A Level AQA specifications published in late March, the content of the theme is the same for both qualifications. The first sentence of the relevant section(s) gives context:

This section of our specification focuses on people’s engagement with places, their experience of them and the qualities they ascribe to them, all of which are of fundamental importance in their lives.” A further crucial note follows: “Study of the content must be embedded in two contrasting places [my emphasis], one to be local. The local place may be a locality, neighbourhood or small community either urban or rural. A contrasting place is likely to be distant – it could be in the same country or a different country but it must show significant contrast in terms of economic development and/or population density and/or cultural background and/or systems of political and economic organisation.”

The topic is then split into further sub-sections:

3.2.2.1 The nature and importance of places

3.2.2.2 Changing places – relationships, connections, meaning and representation

3.2.2.2.1 Relationships and connections

  • Focussing on either changing demographic and cultural characteristics OR economic change and social inequalities

3.2.2.2.2 Meaning and representation

3.2.2.3 Quantitative and qualitative skills

3.2.2.4 Place studies

  • Local place study exploring the developing character of a place local to the home or study centre. Contrasting place study exploring the developing character of a contrasting and distant place.

Obviously, there is much more detail in the documents from AQA and it has evolved considerably since the second draft was submitted to and rejected by Ofqual.

This topic is quite a departure from previous AS/A2 specifications. In my opinion, is more akin to under-graduate degree concepts and will certainly be challenging for teachers as well as students. There is guidance material on all of the core themes (and more) on the RGS website. This piece has been written by Professor Richard Phillips (University of Sheffield) and explains the rationale for the A Level requirements from a university perspective.

Purely anecdotal evidence leads me to believe this topic will be rather divisive: some may find it an unwelcome departure from what they’ve taught before, but others will relish the chance to delve into this kind of high-level thinking.

I have not yet thoroughly planned Changing places but I am keeping an eye out for relevant materials with the specification content in mind. I have found a few articles which I think might fit nicely with some of the components – although relevance beyond general interest will depend on case studies you choose for your pupils. For example:

  1. This piece in the Guardian (21/02/16) may feed into theme 3.2.2.2.1 Relationships and connections (How the demographic, socio-economic and cultural characteristics of places are shaped by shifting flows of people, resources, money and investment, and ideas at all scales from local to global.)
  1. This article, also from the Guardian (04/03/16), may link to 3.2.2.2.2 Meaning and representation. The famous poem Slough by Sir John Betjeman is another central reference.

Researching your local area will be a fundamental part of this topic. For me, teaching in Gloucestershire, there is a wealth of material to draw upon, not least the work of the poet and composer Ivor Gurney (1890-1937). He wrote numerous poems and pieces of music influenced by his birth place including A Gloucestershire Rhapsody. The book, Ivor Gurney’s Gloucestershire: exploring poetry and place by E. Rawling (2011) is, in my view, a gift to teachers in this county! Not only are there extracts of poems but there are several photographs, maps and sketches showing how his work is characterised by “his sense of knowing and belonging to one particular place”. This is clearly relevant for the section of the specification that says pupils should know how places may be represented in a variety of different forms such as advertising copy, tourist agency material, local art exhibitions in diverse media (e.g. film, photography, art, story, song etc.)

As for the quantitative and qualitative skills section a very simple starting point would be to canvass opinion of local people – perhaps starting with the pupils in your school – to get an idea of the sorts of views they have on your local area. One approach could be to ask a simple question:

Which out of these words best describes X? (Gloucester in my case)

Or an open question:

Which three words would you use to describe Gloucester?

You could compile the results (easy if you use an online poll, more time consuming the old-fashioned way) and create a Tagxedo word cloud to give a visual representation or display in using a graphical technique. This is likely to get discussion flowing and is a simple piece of primary data collection which can be extended by more sophisticated or complex techniques.

This blog is just a starting point: a few ideas put forward which may get you thinking about your own approach. If you have any comments or further ideas please feel free to respond below. Also keep an eye on Twitter and if you tweet, please use #changingplaces #geographyteacher so your ideas and resources can find a wider audience!

Rebecca VealsRebecca Veals undertook her PGCE at the Institute of Education, and went on to her first job at Eltham College in London, where she spent four years. She is now Head of Geography at The King’s School, in Gloucester, a position which she has held since 2010. 

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