Let’s make geographical connections

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‘Making Geographical Connections’ was the theme for this year’s Geographical Association Annual Conference, attended by 750 enthusiastic geographers. We spent two days attending lectures, taking part in workshops, discovering new resources and sharing ideas for the teaching of primary and secondary geography.

This was my third time at the conference and I came away with plenty of inspiration and enthusiasm for the final term of the school year. The wide variety of sessions on offer ensured that each delegate’s experience was unique. I would like to share two things that stood out:

  1. Continually challenge accepted theories

A workshop presented by the GA Physical Geography Special Interest Group opened my eyes to the dangers of not updating our subject knowledge. Whilst textbooks and specifications change over the years, there are also important developments of previously accepted theories of which we must be aware. The presenters showed us five established and widely taught theories, for example; ‘mantle convection is the main driving force behind the movement of tectonic plates’. This is something I taught one of my classes only a few weeks ago! However, Earth scientists have used modern imaging techniques to explain that convection cells do not exist in a strong and regular enough pattern to drive the movement of plates on top of the mantle.  Instead, there have been two new processes proposed as more important mechanisms: gravitational sliding at divergent margins and slab pull in subduction zones. The most current thinking is that slab pull is the most dominant force over gravitational sliding and convection (convection appears to be strongly out of favour!). A quick check of the GCSE specifications for 2016 reveals that we should still be teaching ‘how the core’s internal heat source generates convection, the key foundation for plate motion’.

This generated an interesting discussion in the workshop about whether we should teach the theories that will gain pupils marks in an exam, or whether we should teach them the up-to-date (although complex and contested) geographical research. What is your opinion?

  1. Be proud to be a geographer

Steve Rawlinson’s Presidential Lecture set the tone for the whole conference. He spoke on the topic of ‘making connections’, by drawing on experiences from his own life and career. Steve encouraged every person in the room to think about their own connections with geography and how they can inspire and discover the geographical connections of those whom they teach.

He spoke first of ‘personal connections’ to geography and how it is important to take a step back from our busy lives as teachers and reflect on how people, places and events have affected our own personal geographies. This can be as simple as thinking about landscapes that have inspired your love of the subject or appreciating the professional relationships you have fostered and how these have shaped your understanding and your career. He then moved on to make an important point about ‘curriculum connections’ which emphasized how the integrated nature of our subject is at its core. This inherent characteristic of geography should not be undervalued and Steve made historical, cultural, technological, scientific, economic and artistic connections to just one of his favourite places; the mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog in Wales. This has inspired me to take the time to think of one of my favourite places and to make as many interdisciplinary connections to it as I can – geography has the ability to connect many different elements of the world. The lecture ended with the notion of ‘future connections’ and how the future of geography, of teachers and of our pupils needs to be carefully nurtured.

Steve left us with this: geography is a subject that becomes a way of life – embrace it, and yours and the life of the children and young people you teach will be richer because of it.

Rebecca Priest photoRebecca Priest is a Geography Teacher at King Edward VI High School for Girls in Birmingham. She is currently studying for a MA in Geography Education at the Institute of Education and presented a session on ISM at the GA’s 2015 Annual Conference.