Around the world in 180 days

“Very curious, very curious,” said Passepartout to himself, on returning to the steamer. “I see that it is by no means useless to travel, if a man wants to see something new.” 

Geography teachers are sometimes in such a hurry to move on to sexier process-based topics (coastal erosion, tectonics, migration etc.) that I think they overlook perhaps THE organising principle of their discipline – place.

In a previous school I taught top set Year 9 pupils who couldn’t list the seven continents. They couldn’t place Germany on a map. And they sure as hell couldn’t tell you the difference between the United Kingdom and the British Isles.

Some people will say that’s not a problem. That’s usually because they say that studying crime in the local area is honing those elusive ‘geographical skills’. But I think what you know is important. And the order that you learn it is important. And that’s because you need knowledge to make sense of, and discriminate about the quality of, new knowledge.

I’ve tried to remedy this by putting together a ‘back-to-basics’ Year 7 geography curriculum. Rather than focussing on the usual themes in physical and human geography, which I intend to do across Years 8 and 9, the Year 7 curriculum unashamedly focuses on place.

Phileas Fogg attempted to circumnavigate the world in 80 days. I try and do it in 180.

After an initial unit on the Earth and atlas skills we look at British, European and then world place. The benefits of this for memory are obvious: countries and regions are ‘chunked’ according to continent and pupils build a clearly identifiable schema as they travel to countries and regions around the world.

Flags

It’s easy to see learning flags as mere Wednesday night pub quiz trivia. I think this is an oversight. It’s an oversight because flags are the most efficient way of pointing towards a country and its distinct political and physical features. Used appropriately, I think they’re the keys to the memory castle.

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Date and title in books. 1-10 of all the places we’ve been already. GO. I begin by just asking for the names of the countries. Soon, it’s countries and capitals. Sometimes I ask them to plot them on a blank map of the world. My more able pupils have even started to master demonyms: Dutch, Greek and, one I didn’t know before, Malagasy – the people of Madagascar. This slide barely changes – we just add a new country each week and remove a few if it gets too cluttered. But there’s so much you can do: choose the countries that are in the EU; divide the countries up by continent; sort the countries according to their system of government (less useful for this particular slide). The list is endless.

Maps

Then we’ll do a plotting task.

Pupils are given a blank map of the country/region and they have to plot the listed places/features on their map.

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Like the atlas they use, countries are capitalised and capitals are underlined. As you can see from this particular example, you can’t do everything. I’ve chosen countries and features here that particularly intersect with our humanities curriculum. Does that mean that I occasionally have to over-simplify? Yes. But, in my view, that’s the price we pay to build the knowledge and understanding that we look to challenge at a later date. So they plot Israel on the map. And they plot the Palestinian territories on the map. And, in doing so, I leave (some of) the nuance, debate and qualification for another day.

These blank maps make great recap activities too. My pupils will have done at least a dozen of these by the end of the year. Most of them can get 27/27 on that blank map of the British Isles. Can you?

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Comprehension

I’ve written previously that often a change is not as good as a rest: I think there is huge benefit in reducing the number of activities you employ in a lesson. I am firmly of the belief that if WHAT you teach is intrinsically interesting, the HOW becomes much less important. You can focus on the activities that have the greatest impact and practise them over and over again.

I spent a long time researching different atlases to find a children’s atlas with the right map to text ratio. I wanted a mixed political/physical map for the plotting task but enough text so that pupils also learnt something of the history, politics and culture of the country/region in question – again, simplified where necessary. Daisy pointed me in the direction of the Phillip’s Children’s Atlas and I haven’t looked back.

The final part of the lesson will always be comprehension questions taken from the atlas. The atlas is pitched to 7-12 year-olds so I find it just right for the majority of the year. These are the sorts of questions I write to try and assess their knowledge and understanding of the region, as well as their ability to use and interpret an atlas:

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But some of the pupils need a bit more challenge. My brilliant colleague, Joe Allan, writes supplementary texts, which focus on a notable aspect of the region in question. Often it’s political. But it can also be environmental, religious or historical. Here is the paragraph he wrote for our lesson on the Middle East. It deliberately capitalises on some of the substantive concepts which we’ve explicitly taught in English, history and politics, and which can be effectively reinforced here: ‘democracy’, ‘monarchy’ and ‘dictatorship’. Michael Fordham has described the importance substantive concepts better than I can here.

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That’s it. Flags. Maps. Comprehension. Nothing else. And the pupils love it. Why? Because I don’t waste my time and theirs instructing the activity. I devote my time to instructing content. And what content: the whole world, in all its delicious diversity and splendour, in 180 days.