Experiments with learning geography
by Aruna Raghavan

eaching geography has become a non-
starter, with parents around the world indicating a marked preference for the sciences and applied sciences. They work over-time to coach their children in math and science and leave ‘lesser’ subjects like geography, history and languages to the last week before exams.

But contrary to popular belief, geography is not an inconsequential, peripheral subject. Learning geography is vitally important not only for children to understand the ecology of endangered Planet Earth which they have inherited, but also to ease social and commercial interaction between themselves and people in other climes, countries and cultures in an increasingly globalised world.

Therefore in our school in rural Tamil Nadu we adopted a new pedagogy to teach geography with a slant towards armchair adventure and travelogue. Both approaches to teaching this subject have proved a great success. Years later, all our children — with no exception — love geography because learning outcomes were reframed.

Our first objective was to generate love and respect for Planet Earth which will host them for their biblical span of three score and ten years, perhaps more. The second was to lead them to discover its splendid array of flora and fauna. The third was to teach them to infer and produce intelligent answers.

For the ‘fall in love with this planet’ programme, we schedule one hour sessions weekly. In the first 15 minutes children are briefed about what they will witness. This is followed by projection of a 30-minute film.

We download films on 30 countries. They are made for tourists which suits us well as they showcase the location and physical features of each country, focus on their most interesting cities, monuments, people, occupations and of course how they live, their culture, dance, music and history.

For example, if we screen a film featuring Brazil, we start with a large wall-map which establishes its location; picture books are used to introduce the rain forest, the Amazon and fauna of the country. We pose simple questions which afford additional opportunity to re-show some visuals to ensure that the children have followed the lesson.

The viewing of country documentaries is seldom interrupted, except to call attention to something particularly interesting or unique. Like assessing Pedro Alvares Cabral, Christopher Columbus and Captain James Cook inter se, comparing the Iguaçu falls to the Victoria falls. Or running a breathtaking scene — the Lake District in England — over again so that a picture is planted in the mind’s eye. In passing, a significant feature, say of glacial erosion is explained to students — not more than a couple of minutes — so as to not interfere with the show.

A 30-minute country documentary is followed by a 15-minute debriefing session. It usually begins with the children identifying what had pleased or excited them. Questions are fielded in rapid succession. Concepts that were introduced — such as glacial erosion — are dealt with in greater length. The next day (during a class of 30 minutes), senior students (of classes IV and V) are asked to set questions for younger ones (classes II and III). The questions tend to be simple — columns to match, blanks to be filled or the right answer to choose from. Appointing older children to set questions serves two purposes: it helps gauge the level of understanding of every child and determines her readiness to move to the second part of the programme.

That is just as exciting. if screening a documentary stimulates visual and sensory perception, debriefing and testing creates understanding. Next we move to the classroom armed with atlases, clay, paper and colours, picture books and sometimes story books!

To continue with the Brazil example, children are quizzed about the location of the Pampas. Are they close to the sea? Is the land flat? What do they see growing there? What are the gauchos herding? What do they wear in winter and in summer? What does their clothing denote about the climate of Brazil?

The pace is stepped up. The children of classes IV and V are asked to look through picture books to spot familiar visuals in other climes and then check the latitudes and longitudes. This invariably leads to the ‘discovery’ of climatic mirror images in the two hemispheres. They find equivalents of the Pampas in other continents. Teachers deliberately leave clues around to enable pupils to make connections.

Finally, the learning is related to student lives. They learn the relationship between the environment and themselves by observing food markets, trees, flowers and the seasons, and how their own lives are touched by these phenomena. Since the school is in the path of migrating birds, children are taken to the fields to watch their flight.

Then we wait for the knowledge about the world they live in — a throbbing, pulsating planet — to quietly impact their minds.

Geography is not a classroom subject. It’s about learning to live in harmony with our environment.

(Aruna Raghavan is co-founder of Shikshayatan a free school for children in rural Tamil Nadu)