To update or start afresh? Keeping on top of case studies

Mount St Helens

Recent, relevant case studies are crucial elements of studying geography. That is not to say that older case studies are junk but dusting off the same material year after year will not only become tiresome for the teacher, but will limit the geographical awareness of the student. Certainly, the AQA exam board defines recent as “within the last 30 years” which means using, say, the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens (1980) will not stand up to the specification requirements. Of course events that took place prior to 1985 don’t suddenly lose their currency in the study of geography, indeed elements of historic events are vital to understanding certain themes and processes, but they will no longer suffice as the main case study.

Having said that, it is unrealistic to think that each year you will choose something entirely new for every case study. Most of those I teach about are certainly “tried and tested” but I do my best to refresh them with updated material where possible. I will not automatically abandon something unless there is a compelling reason to do so. Obviously if I think that my enthusiasm has waned for a particular case study I will choose an alternative that I will be able to put across to my students with the vigour they deserve!

One of the great things about geography is that it is dynamic and case studies continually evolve: We as teachers need to make sure we mould our resources accordingly. Tracking the changes of a case study over time can in itself be illuminating and often adds to the understanding of the topic. Take China’s One Child Policy as an example:

Introduced in 1979, it is still very much part of the study of population change. It was launched in the wake of Mao Zedong’s encouragement of larger families prior to the 1960s. The more benign “longer, later, fewer” government strategy introduced in the early 1970s was found to be insufficient to reduce population growth so the more coercive One Child Policy was implemented at the end of that decade. The serious unintended demographic consequences of a gender imbalance and ageing population (both with multiple knock-on effects) are well documented and have meant that the thirty-six year-old policy has been “relaxed” in recent years – notably in early 2014 when the government allowed couples to apply for dispensation (i.e. to have a second baby) if either parent was an only child. However, this has not resulted in the baby boom that the Chinese government hoped for.

Even though this case study has been taught in geography lessons for a number of years it should not have become stale; on the contrary it remains relevant and central to studies of population. We also need to remember that for each cohort we teach, it will be new and fresh and the debates surrounding the policy will be argued by our students for the first time.

Nowadays, it is relatively easy to keep case studies up to date. The wealth of resources on the internet makes keeping abreast of developments less time-consuming than in the days of scouring newspapers and watching documentaries with one finger on the record button. For me, Twitter has been a revelation, and apps like Flipboard mean sorting newspaper articles by category is straight forward. The internet also makes it possibly to respond to major events as they happen, such as the devastating tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, the London riots that same year or the Ebola epidemic in West Africa 2014/15. Clearly, it may take some time for accurate information to become available but we are lucky in that we can use these events as they unfold to add context to existing case studies as well as inform planning for next year’s cohort.

Originality and “flair” are what examiners look for in top level answers and using information hot off the virtual press ensures your students will be able to show up-to-date knowledge; information from course text books will be supplemented and further developed.

It would be a mistake to think that just because a case study has been used many times in the past it should be written off; however, teachers should certainly keep on top of the latest developments and encourage their students to do the same.

Image: Lyn Topinka [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons: CVO Photo Archive Mount St. Helens, Washington Before, During, and After 18 May 1980, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Rebecca Veals

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.