Daniel Raven-Ellison shows how geographical thinking makes sense of the world

From the places where they live to remote online spaces, young people are constantly working out the best way to navigate their worlds. They learn not only about their relationship with physical space but also the communities of which they are part and how they fit into them. PSHE and citizenship both address these needs by exploring a wide range of contemporary issues from local crime to global warming, but coordinators of these subjects might do well to consider how geographical thinking can support people in making sense of their complex existence.

The availability of space for young people was highlighted on New Year’s Day by 15-year-old Hannah Bosher (GCSE geography student at Langtree School, South Oxfordshire) when she co-edited the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. Her argument was that young people use social networking websites as a direct result of a perceived lack of physical space within her village. Online communities such as Bebo and MySpace are major powers in young people’s perception of the world and allow collaborators to share information, affection, distant friendships, ideas and creativity.

Youth space

71% of 12- to 15-year-olds use the internet on their own

70% of 16- to 24-year-olds use social networking sites

67% of children trust most of what they read on the web

50% of internet households have no software to block inappropriate websites

9% more girls use the internet than boys.

(Ofcom, 2006)

Online communities present a wide range of challenging issues that schools and parents often fail to address effectively. At their worst, websites have facilitated paedophiles, promoted the filming of violent bullying and lured young minds into dangerous conspiracy theories, but there are other more subtle risks.

Changing space

Young web users are able to use computers as a tool not only to influence their own lives but also as a remote control from which they can affect people, places and environments across our increasingly distorted planet. With no money young people can remotely affect places on a number of scales by:

  • voting on which places should be given aid
  • visiting a webpage and encouraging violent pornography to be made in Russia
  • ranking an online video and promoting anti-social behaviour
  • advertising a brand that supports conflict in the Ivory Coast

It is important that young people have a sound understanding of their power and influence over distant localities, not just through the internet but through the decisions they make on a daily basis. An understanding of the nature of their connections and the places they are connected to is vital for young people to make informed judgements.

Global space

The top 10 theme searches on the Global Dimension website are: global citizenship, poverty, fair trade, environment, diversity and inclusion, water, culture, education, climate change and development. The global dimension, one of the ‘curriculum dimensions’ outlined by the QCA within the 2007 curriculum review, is linked to all statutory subjects. It aims to address some of these issues. The dimension takes the eight aspects from the 2005 DfES guidance paper Developing the Global Dimension in the School Curriculum. The QCA identifies (questionably) just the first six of these aspects as being directly linked to geography, but how do young people learn to use and make sense of these aspects?

Thinking space

Just as being able to read and count are not just for literacy and numeracy coordinators, thinking geographically is not just the domain of the geography department. This is affirmed by the close relationship between geography and global dimension.

According to the Geographical Association geographical thinking incorporates critical thinking, creative thinking, futures thinking and emotional intelligence.

  • Critical thinking – the ability to think critically encourages pupils to question their own and others’ assumptions.
  • Creative thinking – finding ways to release pupils’ imaginations in geography classrooms is as important as it is enjoyable. It is essential if pupils are to, for example, see connections, and for their understanding of diverse perspectives.
  • Futures thinking – forms an important basis for active global citizenship. Only when we have a vision for the future that can we act towards it. It can empower and motivate pupils to apply their learning to complex scenarios.
  • Emotional intelligence – pupils need to be aware of their emotional responses to particular issues and how these interlink with their experiences, actions and learning (adapted from www.geography.org.uk/projects/ globaldimension/February 2007).

But these ways of thinking are closely tied to ‘creativity’, ‘enterprise’ and ‘cultural understanding and diversity’, the other three dimensions in the QCA review. What makes geographical thinking unique are the concepts that underpin it.

Geographical space

During February 2007 the 12 ‘hot topics’ listed by the Department for International Development’s Global Dimension website were: child labour, climate change, conflict resolution, education for all, the United Nations, human rights, refugees, stand up against poverty, sustainable development, the transatlantic slave trade, water and globalisation. A number of key geographical concepts provide a distinctive edge on how contemporary issues can be confronted. These are place, space, interdependence, environmental interaction, distance, relational perspectives, geographical imaginations, cultural understanding and diversity, proximity, physical and human processes, inequality and scale.

While many of these concepts are used in everyday language, exploring them in greater depth in PSHE and citizenship can help develop young people’s understanding of their place in the world. Not just in the context of global issues, but in terms of their own physical and virtual spaces and places.

Daniel Raven-Ellison is head of geography at Langtree School, Oxfordshire

First published in Learning for Life, March 2007