Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Benchmarks of Geographic Thinking

My sister planting trees in the Bowron Clearcut, 1986. Many geographic relationships and themes overlap in this image

In what seems to be a regular occurrence, a Social Studies colleague from Ft. St. James has challenged me with some powerful questions. This time it is about what is at the heart of geography education, something she is working through with her students. She likes to set the bar high; not just content to teach curriculum and provide a friendly learning atmosphere (which is as high as I reach on most days), she want her students to really get somewhere, to express and invest and stretch their thinking. Adapting the questions a bit, here is what I'd like to know more about:

When students encounter a geographic issue or phenomenon, what guiding themes or inspirations will help them make sense of of it? What themes, skills, or approaches are of most use for engaging students in geographic problem-solving?

Please leave a comment or email/tweet if you have ideas to add to this. I will edit the post as ideas arrive. I suppose one place to start is with some existing standards to apply to thinking and inquiry in Social Studies:

Benchmarks of Historical Thinking (Seixas)
ref: http://www.histori.ca/benchmarks/
  • Establish Historical Significance 
  • Use Primary Source Evidence 
  • Identify Continuity and Change (Patterns of Change) 
  • Analyze Cause and Consequence 
  • Take Historical Perspectives 
  • Understand Moral Dimensions of History (Judgement) 
Benchmarks (American Historical Assoc.)
ref: http://www.historians.org/teaching/policy/benchmarks.htm
  • Analysis of primary and secondary sources 
  • Understanding of historical debate and controversy 
  • Historiography/how historians develop interpretations 
  • Analysis of how historians use evidence 
  • Understanding of bias and points of view 
  • Formulations of questions and determining their importance 
  • Determination of the significance of historical change 
  • Examination of how causation relates to continuity and change 
  • Interrelationship among themes, regions, periodization 
  • Perceiving the past through values of the past 
Five Themes of Geography
ref: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/resources/ngo/education/themes.html
  • Location 
  • Place 
  • Human-Environment Interaction 
  • Movement 
  • Region 
Six Elements of Geography (American Association Geog National Standards)
ref: http://edmall.gsfc.nasa.gov/inv99Project.Site/Pages/geo.stand.html
  • The World in Spatial Terms 
  • Places and Regions 
  • Physical Systems 
  • Human Systems 
  • Environment and Society 
  • The Uses of Geography 
Benchmarks exist in other disciplines, too
Science 9-12 Content Benchmarks (compiled from various American sources)
e.g., ref: http://www.nmnaturalhistory.org/BEG/BEG_Standards_Science_Part1.html
  • Use scientific method to investigate and gather/analyze evidence 
  • Understand that scientific processes produce evolving knowledge 
  • Use appropriate math to solve problems 
  • Understand properties, structures, and reactions of matter 
  • Understand role of biodiversity and genetics in nature 
  • Understand earth systems, origins, and interactions of the spheres 
  • Understand energy and how it interacts with matter 
  • Understand the motion of objects and waves, and the forces that cause them 
So, what might benchmarks for critical thinking look like in geographic education?
Geographic Inquiry (my synthesis):
  • Structure of place - form & function of human and/or physical systems 
  • Use of Evidence - human and physical features, selection & interpretation of phenomenon 
  • Causality and Change - evolution of systems, function of space & time 
  • Human-Environment Interaction - mutual impacts and dependencies, modes of adaptation 
  • Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives - role of history, sociology, biology, economics, geology, etc. 
  • Responsibility and Sustainability - resource ethics, connected issues, planning & management
What are they for? I think themes guide inquiry in the same way that principles guide decisions or values guide behaviour. They don't always look the same, depend on the individual perhaps, nor are they consistently applied (My "principle" says eat local, eat organic, and yet I just ate a Big Mac). The themes or benchmarks can be studied, challenged, adapted, and can remain present as reminders that just thinking about what we observe isn't enough, we need to put internal (identity connections) and external (scholarly approaches) on the line and be prepared to be stretched in order for deep learning to take place. That's the big challenge. The 5 themes of geography has been around for along time, by themselves they don't make geography fun. A friend of mine recently had his Social Studies 10 class explore the PGSS school and grounds with cameras to locate evidence of the 5 themes in play. They shared their photo observations together and spent some time explaining connections to the 5 themes, defending photo choices, and discussing the use of space at their school. Critical thinking (using themes and benchmarks), engaged identity (their choices, their photos), smart use of technology, physically active/hands-on, focus on "how to think and learn" built on top of the "what," multiple roles for teacher... great lesson, eh?

What is the intended outcome of the use of themes or benchmarks? Sometimes in Geography we construct "geographies." (srsly!). We move from the general (the skills and processes and observations), to the personal (the reconstruction of what is happening in a specific landscape), filtered through the knowledge and agenda of the individual geographer. In other words, "Geography" (as a subject) is the study of place, an analysis of physical and/or cultural characteristics related to a phenomenon or location.  A "geography" (as an inquiry) is a construction of significance -- what is happening in a particular place, often related to an issue (e.g. environmental crisis in a watershed, changing climate as it relates to forestry, a town recovering from a recession, etc.). The "Study of Geography" is the set of lenses we develop with out students -- what's going on here, what are the relevant terms and underlying factors that help make sense of this landscape or phenomenon or issue.  The "building of geographies" is the application of these skills, attended to by the themes and benchmarks that ensure rigorous thinking. The hinge, the key piece that links skills, knowledge, and ability to analyze case studies, is the role of identity and the "topophilia" or the deep connections to place that guide so many of our conscious and unconscious understandings of geographic phenomenon and experiences. Occasionally, students connect to different parts of my geography 12 course because they simply find the material interesting or I've put on a great lesson. Sometimes their engagement depends on a cool project they design and do. More often, though, it is when the material (or lessons) and their response (e.g. project) resonate with some deep need they have to "become" -- they want to make connections between issues, places, ideas, patterns of thought and their own bodies. Learning, especially in the K-12 scene, is as much about becoming as it is about what one ends of knowing. It is for this reason I've abandoned most written or powerpoint project options in Geography and encourage more "Embodied Geography" from students (e.g. see Poutine Glaciation or Waffle Tectonics).

Here are some examples of "geographies" that combine observation with different degrees of bias (identity can't be engaged without also evoking agendas) and the use of standard reference points (e.g. derived from benchmarks or fitting into themes):

This list could be endless -- any careful deconstruction of a set of relationships happening in a particular space and time (sometimes applicable to the larger world, sometime not), and careful reconstruction of what it all means and where we might go with what we learn -- this is a geography. It is the rich boundary-zone between benchmarks of geographic thinking, relevant cases studies, and the passion emerging from students' ongoing identity work. It is also the place where students can get fires up about  issues and begin to understand how direct experience, power, agency, consciousness, and intimacy are all at play in landscapes, just as they are in their lives. Building a "geography" is both a phenomenological and ontological effort. Don't worry, I don't punish kids with those words, not unless they ask, anyways. We do talk about topophilia, though.

I think one of the best things to do with a Geography class is be to build geographies and then find a physical way (something built or something performed) to express them, ideally for the whole class so we can follow their thinking and ask lots of questions.

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