The “rightful place” of Physical Geography in Singapore’s School Geography Curriculum

When the new Lower Secondary Geography Syllabus was launched in 2014, there was much talk among teachers that there seemed to be a downplaying of “pure” physical geography topics. Units on the traditional four spheres of physical geography (i.e. biosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere) were taken out, though physical geography topics are still represented at the upper secondary level. This leads us, as geography educators, to ponder – is physical geography’s position in Singapore’s school geography curriculum at risk?

This paper draws on Duncan Hawley’s chapter “What is the rightful place of physical geography?” in Debates in Geography Education (Lambert & Jones, 2013). It appositely explores the “rightful place of physical geography” by presenting the different arguments about physical geography’s position with regard to other disciplines (especially the sciences) and within the discipline itself. It also critically reflects on the implications of Hawley’s arguments on the teaching and learning of geography in the Singapore context.

Earth Science - Geography or Science?

With the use of Earth science as an example, Hawley (2013) presents the various viewpoints on the debate of whether Earth science should be positioned in the geography or science curriculum. Physical geography topics such as climatology and weather, geology and ecosystems, which can be collectively known as Earth science, often overlap in content with the sciences (biology, chemistry and physics), leading to academics like Gregory (2002, cited in Hawley, 2013, p. 90) to question the appropriateness of physical geography within geography. Hawley also acknowledges King’s argument (2011) that Earth science’s “rightful place” in education should be in the science curriculum as international test data has shown that students in countries where Earth science is an established science subject taught by teachers who specialise in Earth science, performed much better than the students who are from countries where “Earth science is not so strongly demarcated” (cited in Hawley, 2013 p. 91).

For this part of the debate on physical geography’s position with regard to the sciences, Hawley concurs with the complementary approach to understanding the physical aspects of the Earth, as advocated by the Geographical Association (2013, p. 91). He draws on the Geographical Association’s justification of how the “commonalities of earth science in physical geography and ‘deep’ earth science do not duplicate learning but are complementary, and both perspectives are advantageous and essential for effective learning” (Hawley, 2013 p. 92). Though Hawley (2103) does not openly state his stand, he seems to be supportive of this approach as he argues that it differentiates itself from the “conventional sciences” and is less generic than the usual Earth System science (p. 92).

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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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