What about Geography? The Geography Curriculum, Young People, Critical Thinking and Active Learning, pp. 4 of 5

Planning for Active Learning in the Geography Curriculum

The discussion of these lesson examples also raised questions about active learning. The workshop participants agreed that both lessons involved some degree of active learning – but the purpose and nature of that learning varied depending on the structure and nature of the activities. In the first example, the focus was on students’ understanding and application of geographical concepts with some case study information. The application of the two different types of information required the students to be active in their learning. In the second example, the use of critical questions challenged students in their understanding of an issue.  In both cases the students were being active. But “active” may be a misleading term. Constructive ideas in education (see for example Stobart, 2008) are based on the idea that the learner should be actively involved in the learning process: i.e., that learning is an intentional act, requiring the learner to be active.  Such an observation leads me to question if it is possible to learn something passively?

This consideration about active learning is key to understanding the role that teachers play in developing a geography curriculum which includes critical thinking.  In England, the Geographical Association (GA) has adopted the term “curriculum making” to describe how teachers can construct learning experiences (see Lambert and Morgan, 2010). Curriculum can be described at several scales: a national curriculum, a school’s curriculum, an examination curriculum, and a teacher’s planned curriculum.  It is at the last of these: the teacher’s own curriculum, that teachers do their “work” to interpret the curriculum requirements into learning experiences in their classroom. As such, the GA argues that the process of curriculum making is made up of  three parts: represented in their diagram (see Figure1).

Figure 1: Curriculum Making diagram

Diagram showing the approach to curriculum making

Source: Geographical Association - Curriculum Making

This diagram emphasises the relationship between the three key elements of teaching geography: the teacher choices, the subject and the student experiences. The diagram highlights that when these three come together in balance then geographical learning can take place that involves thinking geographically and conceptual development. The focus of the diagram is that the teacher can select appropriate pedagogy to bring together the student and their experiences, with the elements of the subject that they are teaching. The selection of pedagogy is a key part of the teachers’ role, and can influence how students make sense of both their own experiences and the disciplinary tools offered by the subject. The inclusion of critical thinking into geographical learning becomes a pedagogical issue rather than one grounded in curriculum. Or to express this more simply: critical thinking comes from what we ask students to do, not what examination specification we cover. 

However, this is not to suggest that there are some pedagogical strategies that are, in themselves, critical. For example, I have observed lessons that have featured decision making exercises and role play activities where the learning was quite passive.  The essence of developing critical thinking in students is not just in the pedagogical choices but in how the teacher encourages students to use that pedagogy to develop their learning. To illustrate this point, I offer some reflective questions for teachers to consider:

  • Are students required to question the data they are given? Where does it come from? Who collected it? What does it include and exclude? Are students given conflicting data sets and asked to consider why the data shows different patterns or trends?
  • Are images of places and case studies presented as “as the world is” or as representations? Are students offered contrasting representations and viewpoints? Are students given the opportunity to question why a representation has been presented in a certain way?
  • Are students given the opportunity to ask their own questions, or to consider what other data they might need to continue with an investigation?
  • Are students given the opportunity to explore an issue at a variety of scales: from the view of governments, interest groups, individuals, outsiders? And then to consider why the viewpoints may differ, and who has the most power in this relationship? Are students given the opportunity to contrast their own viewpoints or experiences with those of others?

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

Newsletter Subscription

Subscribe to our newsletter and stay up-to-date with new journal issues!