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Geography in the Senior School & Sixth Form

Geography in the Senior School & Sixth Form

Our Geography department reflect on a busy academic year.

As teachers we often talk about 'light bulb' moments with reference to our students understanding, but High Performance Learning (HPL) has been a light bulb for the way we teach our entire subject, giving a name – and a fashionable one at that – to the things we have always done to promote active learning in Geography.

With such a varied and dynamic resource-base, Geography students have been able to explore epistemology, the “how I know, I know” aspect of learning, to encourage students themselves to explore different ways of seeing and thinking.

We want our students 'to learn to learn', and Geography is a great subject for just that.

Even, or perhaps especially, teaching physical Geography, where linkages tend to be linear, with process A causing landform B on coastline C, Geography students are uniquely placed to focus on the bigger picture, using enquiry-based and dynamic learning.  

Exploring big questions

A recent Key Stage 3 class, armed only with mini whiteboards and marker pens, faced just such a big question on a recent PowerPoint slide: ‘why do coastlines differ’? Behind the big question were images of towering cliffs with rocky shores, wide beaches backed by dunes, industrial ports and yachting harbours.

Teasing out the reasons for these differences will enable us to follow up processes (erosion and deposition), coastal geology (hard or soft rock), human activity (protected coast or unmanaged) and so on, building up a palimpsest of knowledge and understanding which accurately explains our dynamic and differing coastline. 

Out in the field

As pedagogues we all know students learn in different ways and we are lucky as geographers to include fieldwork trips – that practical, outdoor, hands-on lived experience – as a legitimate aspect of our work, required by examination boards for two full days at Geography GCSE and 4 days at Geography A Level.

Here hypotheses can be developed and tested, ideas linked and theory applied. The interplay of factors can be weighed and evaluated and students can come to see for themselves the somewhat unnerving truth that in our varied and ever-changing world, different processes can cause the same things and the same processes can cause different things!

This is an important concept for a young mind (and indeed for an older one) to grasp. But in doing so, much greater mental agility is forged and a resilience built to face the unexpected and, after careful thought, be able to make sense of these complexities by looking at the problem from a different angle.

Take feedback loops in the carbon cycle as an example – we all know that as carbon dioxide builds up in our atmosphere it traps heat, increasing temperatures and melting ice, raising sea levels and covering more of our planet in increasingly warm water.

As Year 13 students know, not only is this already happening at an unprecedented rate, but it is not happening as fast as it should be – thank goodness. For the volume of anthropogenic carbon released our atmosphere should contain far more carbon than it does, and they have analysed the carbon balance and found that some is missing! The warmer oceans have encouraged faster microbial activity, absorbing (or “sinking”) carbon from the atmosphere and locking it away as part of the planet’s own self-regulating negative feedback loops.

They have expected the unexpected and been able to make sense of this apparent anomaly. 

Having HPL formally validate what geographers have long practised, from Year 7 to Year 13, has been a positive experience for us all. Having infinitely varied and ever-changing subject matter, which can be tackled so many different ways, gives us endless opportunities to be creative with our solutions and develop thinking skills which will help us make sense of the world and be better global citizens in the future. 

This year's Geography Field Trips

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