What about Geography? The Geography Curriculum, Young People, Critical Thinking and Active Learning, pp. 3 of 5

Whilst most of the teachers agreed that this was potentially an interesting and engaging lesson, it was agree that it not one where there was much critical thinking.  The main activity required the students to take ideas from geography (that of push-pull factors and migration), and to demonstrate their understanding of those ideas through the use of an example or case study. The students were engaged in transference and application drawing together place-specific information and geographical concepts. But the students were not asked to be critical of the idea, or indeed the actions of the migrants or their  countries.  The workshop participants agreed however, that this was not a “bad” lesson indeed it had much to recommend it, particularly if the goal of the lesson was to learn about geographical ideas around migration.  We did agree through that it was not a critical-thinking lesson.

Table 3. Lesson Example

Lesson 2: The Global Fashion Industry

This lesson was observed with 12-13 year old students in outer London. The unit of work was on “The Global Fashion Industry”. In the previous lesson, the students had collated data on where their clothes had been made and placed this data on the map. They discussed the distribution of “consumers” and “producers” of fashion, and had started to talk about money flows.  In this lesson, the focus was for the students to consider if the factory workers involved in the global fashion industry are treated equally.

The lesson starter was for students to consider all the monthly bills their families have to pay. After listing all the bills, they had to work out how much money their family would need to earn to cover all the bills.  A short discussion emerged as to which were “luxury” items, and which were a “necessity” – and this got quite heated around the issue of cable/satellite TV.

The teacher then made the connection between what we need to live and how much money people earn. She shared some data on average salaries for different jobs in London, and then some average salaries for people in different parts of the world.  The students were given a table of how much a garment cost and where the breakdown of the costs were allocated. They then watched a small TV clip from a documentary where teenagers from the UK were sent to work in garment factories in different parts of the world (Blood, Sweat and T-shirts). The commentary emphasised the poor working and living conditions.

After watching the clip, students were asked in small groups to consider their response to what they saw, and they completed a brain-storm to record as much as they could remember from the clip.

The students then watched a further clip. This clip was produced by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) and features two school-students in a school yard discussing the issue of children in India stitching footballs. The video was made to promote geography in schools. One student argues that we shouldn’t buy footballs that have been made by exploiting children. The other student argues that we should because without the money being made by stitching footballs, the children wouldn’t be able to afford to go to school. The clip concludes with both students agreeing that the issue is complex.

The students in this class are now divided into groups and are asked to make a list of what further information they would need to decide if they should buy clothes made in sweatshops.  This would be used in the next lesson.

It was agreed that this second lesson was probably more of an example of critical thinking: students were encouraged to think critically about their own lifestyle, and about the issue of inequalities in trade and how consumers might respond, but also about the information they had, and the information they needed to make a decision about the issue. The lesson resources and the structure of the lesson was one that made the issue more complicated (rather than more simple). The learning continued to the next lesson, where students sought to collect additional information so they could understand the issue better.  In our discussions of this lesson, it was agreed that whilst this lesson involved critical thinking, it was also a more risky lesson: the learning outcomes were less clear-cut and difficult for the teacher to articulate or assess what had been learnt. Concerns were raised about the assessment of a lesson like this: how did it relate to the examination schedule? It was also seen as a risky lesson, with lots of potential for the discussions to yield unpredictable results.

From my perspective, the discussions on these lessons illustrate some important points about critical thinking in geography education, which tie into the two major traditions that have influenced it: that of critical pedagogy, and that of critical geography. From critical pedagogy, there is an increased awareness of the situatedness of the learner and what they bring to the learning experience. The learning is seen as being emancipatory, rather than prescriptive, and that the learning stems from the learner’s own perspectives, grounded in constructivist theories about learning. Ira Shor (1992) describes critical pedagogy as:

"Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional clichés, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object, process, organization, experience, text, subject matter, policy, mass media, or discourse." (ibid, 129)

From critical geography, there is a similar emphasis placed on understanding geographical issues from a variety of perspectives, and highlighting how power and authority are played out in spatial contexts.  Critical geography recognises that geographical issues are often not simple or  easy to resolve, and that they need information from a variety of sources to understand, and that the issue may be characterised by a series of different value positions. Critical geography also acknowledges the importance of looking at information from a variety of scales and perspectives. The skill of the geographer is to pull these together and to make some sense of them.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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