Adventures in Historical Geography

Being one of the many schools who choose to ask students to start GCSE options in Year 9, we decided this year that we would introduce a new Scheme of Work, in an effort to further invigorate their learning and embed some key skills prior to starting their GCSE proper in Y10.

As an NQT this task was given to me, and as I begin finally to teach the Scheme I felt blogging about my adventures would be a good way to reflect…

I had done a lot of thinking in the previous year about the way in which we teach Geography, which often gives snapshots in time but doesn’t always make links between the past, present and future explicit. An example of this came at a previous school, where students were struggling to envisage how coastal erosion has impacts not just in the short-term, but decades and more down the line.

I’m a firm believer that Geography is more than a collection of processes, charts, case studies and key terms, but a study in the inter-connectivity of our world. For me the whole subject can be summed up with one simple image – the Earthrise shot taken from the Moon’s orbit by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders. Nothing else quite captures my imagination and makes clear that the Earth is a complex, beautiful world.

Credit: Bill Anders/NASA

So I decided to try to address that problem in designing this scheme of work. The basic concept has been to take students on a journey from the very beginnings of our planet, through to the present day and finally making inferences about the future of our world and its inhabitants.

So far the students have studied how the early formations of the Earth can be linked to the weather we see when we look out of the window. Some students were at first puzzled by the inclusion of “science” within the lessons (until I pointed out that much of Geography is itself a science). Allow me to explain – bear with me…

As the Earth coalesced from the cloud of dust and gas circling our new-born star, violent collisions and radioactive material formed a large ball of hot, molten rock. A chance encounter with another small planet knocked the early Earth into a 23.5° tilt, the debris slowly forming our Moon. This Moon actually stabilised our tilt to ensure that the Earth spins at a steady rate and doesn’t “wobble”.

Eventually Earth’s outer crust cooled and solidified, the vast store of heat was locked inside, and our spinning iron core generated a magnetic field. Tectonic processes allowed the formation of an atmosphere, which was protected from the Sun’s deadly solar storms by the magnetic field. This atmosphere experiences convection due to the differences in temperature across the globe, coupled with that tilt. Convection is the fundamental basis that drives our weather systems around the world.

A wordy description, yes, but hopefully one that conveys the message. We almost always talk about the structure of the Earth in relation to tectonic hazards or geological processes; we rarely stop to think about the wider impacts.
Some other examples of key lessons are below:

• “Is there life on Mars?” looks at the importance of water on the evolution of life (and the shaping of our planet), framed through the concept of the ‘Goldilocks Zone’.
• “Why did Columbus sail the ocean blue?” asks students to think about why we are so keen to explore as a species, where this has led us to, and some of the key leaps forward we have made as a result.
• “What is 1°C?” as a concept is stolen from a Horizon show from a few years ago, and looks at precisely what such small changes in our planet’s average temperature (and maybe more) could lead to.

The unit has been designed with some form of continuity in mind, but I’ve not been afraid to veer onto a different path if I’ve felt a particular avenue has needed exploring. Towards the end of the unit we travel down from global to local change, via national and regional, to look at geographical change at different scales.

Overall, I’m quite proud of the concept of the unit, but the proof will be in the metaphorical pudding; it will live or die in the classroom and hinge on the quality of the individual lessons. Our journey has seen three hours so far, with another due imminent this Thursday.

Although the lessons themselves have so far been hampered by a number of ICT issues, I’ve been relatively pleased with the outcomes so far. Myself and my Lead Teacher Laura are similar in our ways, and have collaborated to produce some engaging activities that have (mostly) gone down well with the students.

Hearing a slightly troublesome student today describe the lessons as “interesting” is a good start at least…

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