Great plan Leo, but what about the Geography?

This be the thing.

Of all the students in any school, only 5 per cent, at best, will ever need the ability (aka be good enough) to actually code for a living. I’ve been programming computers since I was 10. I grew up with personal computers. I fix them for others, mostly just for the fun of it. Doesn’t matter whether it’s Apple or PC. I love the machines and the only thing better having a computer is having two. I’ve used Sinclair ZXs and Spectrums (all of them) Apple IIe and up, and every conceivable Windows machine from the ones that had the green writing on the screens. I ran a code club in school. I think coding is important. I think every child in school should know that there is a thing called code and that they should have a go at it. Who knows, maybe one of them will be one of the 5 per cent. At least until AI is developed enough for computers to code themselves or doing is out-sourced. Oh wait……..that’s already happening.

But this be the other thing.

Of all the students in any school, 100 per cent of them will need Geography when they leave school. They needed geography the day they were born, they need it to navigate their way through their environment, and they need it to charter the waters of an increasingly globalised world. Geography is not just a school subject, it is woven into the fabric of every individual, whether they like it or not. A better understanding of it gives people mastery over it.

Geography is so important, that the government has just brought out a plan for Irish economic and regional development between now and 2040.  The framework for this plan is Ireland’s geography and the plan, and why we need it, cannot be understood without reference to some basic principles of geography. Much of it looks like the Leaving Certificate Human Elective on SettlementWhat beggars belief is that the same government has taken geography out of the core curriculum in Irish schools. (And no Virginia, it was always a core subject. Go read the Rules and Programme for Secondary Schools). How could future governments garner support for such plans in a geographically-illiterate population. It’s not like we are America where people can ‘afford’ to think that Australia is not a country, or Ireland uses the pound and is part of the UK. And we don’t need to bother thinking about who we will invade next.

We needn’t go to America to see how bad things get. There are similar problems in the UK. And if Brexit teaches us anything, it is the importance of understanding the role geography in education plays in building an appreciation of a more internationalist perspective on cooperation. Virtually no one, not even the current British government, understood or appreciated the complexities of untangling the UK from the EU. But they are complexities explained by geography.

Of course if this situation suits the government, then perhaps they’ll be happy with the consequences geographical-illiteracy has on voting. Everyone knows history and geography makes better Fine Gael and Fianna Fail voters, while CSPE makes better labour voters, according to one Irish Times letter writer in 1994 – the last time a Labour Minister for Education sought to remove history and geography from the core curriculum.

So Virginia…

I have heard of schools where Geography is going to be a choice between it and history. This is a mistake. To be clear, kids should be able to do coding; and Chinese (surely they mean Mandarin or Cantonese); and How-to-put-on-a-drama-production. But in this, of all countries, to even hold as a thought that history and geography would be optional subjects, is to suggest that the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that these subject impart are somehow negotiable on the table of an acknowledged inherently-flawed ‘reformed’ Junior Cycle.

That may sound harsh, but as one of the most globalised countries on Earth, we need our children to have a very clear view of it, and of their place in it.

Lest that doesn’t make sense, the Junior Cycle Specification for Geography has a number of unique features beyond the content knowledge that every school, parent, and teacher could recognise as being invaluable, including:

  • As a standalone subject, Geography addresses more Statements of Learning than any other subject (schools have to ensure all 24 Statements of Learning are experienced by students).
  • Geography is the only JC subject that specifically embeds in learning the skill of Grahicacy – the ability to read and interpret a wide range of visual forms – graphs, charts, maps, diagram, photographs etc.
  • Geography is the only JC subject that specifically embeds in learning the skill of synthesis – the ability to merge several sources of information to develop a ‘big picture’ view. Through the Subject Development Group for Geography, the NCCA added this to the list of Action Verbs. That is how important it was. Geography is the synthesising subject.
  • JC geography, more than any other subject, speaks directly to the National Strategy on Education for Sustainable Development which has been mentioned by Inspectors in their Whole School Evaluations. But you can ignore this if the future counts for nothing.
  • The new JC Geography Specification has as a cornerstone the concept of Geoliteracy, which fundamentally aims to get students to think about the long term consequences of their choices on them, others and the environment around them.

Tell me more…

Young Irish people live and work in a complex, interconnected world and geography can help them reach their full potential within it. The next generations of Irish people will be faced with many social, economic and environmental challenges and opportunities, which will call for a well-developed knowledge and understanding of the interaction between the human and physical geography of our world.

  1. The study of geography embeds the key skills of literacy, numeracy and uniquely, graphicacy.  Through the analysis of data and the interpretation of statistical maps, diagrams, graphs, charts and tables geography develops in students the increasingly demanded skill of graphicacy. Geography is the only school subject that facilitates the successful simultaneous development of all three key skills – literacy, numeracy and graphicacy.
  2. Geography is the spatial science. It provides understanding of the distribution of physical features and human habitats over the earth’s surface (space).  It is the only school subject which develops students knowledge and understanding of spaces and the relationship between them. Understanding one’s locality contributes to good citizenship.  Understanding global space makes active global citizens. Geography enables young people to think globally and act locally. An Irish geographer was one of the scientists on the panel awarded the Nobel Prize for research on Climate Change.
  3. Geographers are the most technologically globalised people in the education system. Geographers use a wide range of technologies to create ‘big picture’ views of issues and solve problems. These are rational and creative skills that are essential to the modern world. This is evidenced in the work of the Marine Institute, Teagasc, The Central Statistics Office, Google, The Geological Survey, An Bord Pleanala and the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, to name but a few.
  4. Geography develops in students the key skills essential for their future successful participation in society: critical thinking and advanced analytical skills; the ability to understand and interpret complex data; a team working capability; and an understanding of physical, social and economic environments and the interplay between them.
  5. The study of the interaction between people and environment is a central focus of school geography. Geography, through its study of the world’s places, people and environments – including how they are interconnected and why they are changing – is an essential part of young people’s personal development and learning. Geography promotes environmental consciousness and conservation. Geography is the only school subject capable of promoting attitudes towards sustainable development as a core competence.
  6. Geography is the foundation of Irish people’s sense and understanding of space and place.  This has been essential, for example, in connecting the Irish Diaspora, driving Irish overseas aid, leading the way in UN peace keeping missions, spreading Irish culture to the corners of the earth and in building the economic relationships that underpin successful multinational investment in Ireland. Geography is what makes Irish people Irish.
  7. Geography is the only synthesising subject in the secondary curriculum.  It is the only school subject that ties together several areas of learning – history, chemistry, biology, physics, economics, Art, English Literature, Languages, business studies and mathematics. No other subject at Junior Cycle is such an effective bridge between the sciences and humanities. Geography and science are closely linked in many areas and geography is a gateway subject to Third Level science. It is offered in TCD through both the Science and Humanities faculties. Geography makes science more accessible as a subject choice encouraging more to take it at senior cycle.
  8. Geography is the intercultural subject.  It builds positive appreciation and understanding of cultural identity.  It promotes understanding and tolerance of different cultures. It provides the ‘raw data’ for international relations, the solutions to apparently intractable disputes and pathways to peace agreements.  Several Irish geographers are significant international political geographers.
  9. Geography is a popular examination choice at Leaving Certificate level. It is the 2nd most popular subject choice at Leaving Certificate, demonstrating the success of Junior Certificate Geography. In the UK, it is considered to be ‘facilitating subject’ by the Russell Group of Universities as a subject that can be used as entry qualification to a wide range of third level courses.  Geography is included in the Irish International Baccalaureate. It is currently being re-introduced in several States in the USA and is being actively supported by government in the United Kingdom and Australia.
  10. Only geography provides students with the opportunity to integrate their knowledge and appreciation of their physical, social, economic, cultural and heritage environment. With its focus on the interaction between humanity and the environment geography provides the appropriate context for balanced social and environmental education.

It is only through a rigorous course of study in Geography that Junior Cycle students can lay the foundations for these life-long skills. As a subject, it speaks for itself and does not need a hard sell. But it’s hard to know this when you are young. Just like eating your greens. It would be a pity to have to wait 10 years to see the fall out that we know is inevitable.