The State of Geography in Schools Today (Ontario)

 

**Note: Written  a few years ago for the Queen’s Geography Alumni Review

We asked one of our alum, Anne Smith, (BA Hons ‘86; BEd, MEd), if she would be willing to prepare an inclusion for this newsletter on the state of geography in Ontario schools and, although extremely busy, Anne agreed to write up the following: a subject that is very close to her heart.

Anne Smith, (BA Hons ‘86; BEd, M.Ed.)

Continuing Adjunct,  I/S Geography Programs

Faculty of Education, Queen’s University

 

Education is perhaps one of the most important and challenging areas facing our society today. This has never been more evident than in the area of Geographic Education. I would like to sit here and write a glowing account of what is currently happening in our school’s Geography and Social Studies classes, however I can’t. Don’t get me wrong, we have some amazing teachers and some fabulous things happening in many classrooms. We have an incredibly dedicated and devoted group of educators through organizations such as OAGEE (Ontario Association of Geographic and Environmental Educators), however we are faced with a ‘mountain’ of challenges and one might argue are in fact an ‘endangered species’ headed for ‘extinction’.

Why is it, that in this age of ‘globalization’, ‘global security’, ‘global this’ and ‘global that’, that our students are not learning about the ‘globe’? Seems to me that our province, country, continent, world, has never before been in need of a stronger geographical perspective for our students. Canada’s economic well-being is increasingly dependent upon the ability to compete successfully in a global market place, a geographically literate (locally, provincially, nationally, internationally) workforce is more critical than ever before. As our nation and the world face increasing environmental pressures, a perspective in geography offers a critically needed understanding of the relationships between human activity and the condition of our planet.

 

Why is it then, that in the province of Ontario, our students have mandatory courses in Geography, for approximately 180 hours, over twelve plus years of schooling? Today students are required to take approx. 35 hours of geography in both grade 7 and 8. In high school, there is ONE mandatory course (110 hrs) in Geography; Grade 9 – Geography of Canada. This has been preceded with a ‘sprinkling’ of ‘geography’ through Social Studies from grades 1-6. (Actually, grade 5 has no geographical component at all!) At no other point in their K-12 academic journey are students, required to learn about the world and its global connections, interactions, issues and challenges, from a geographical perspective. Disappointing, as courses dealing with such topics as Physical Geography, Travel & Tourism, Geomatics, The Americas, Canadian & World Issues, World Human Geography, Environment & Resource Management and World Geography: Urban Patterns & Interactions are all ‘on the books’ in the current Senior Gr. 11/12 Curriculum documents.

Why then are these courses which deal with such timely issues, not thriving? (In fact, a disturbing trend now in Ontario secondary schools, is that many schools now offer nothing more than Grade 9 geography at all!!) The answer as I see it, is a complex one.

 

Let us start with what exactly is Geography? This is where we ‘geographers’ run into difficulty in terms of a clear definition of exactly what our discipline is about. It is not hard then to understand that if we have a problem defining exactly what our subject is about, that others (i.e., Education policy makers, principals, parents, etc.) would default to the old ‘Capes & Bays’ perception of geography, where all we are concerned with is an ‘inventory’ of place names and features. Translation, “Why then, is this important and therefore relevant for our children to know? Guess it’s not, thus no geography. One cannot underestimate the importance of ‘perception’, as this affects decisions which administrators make as to which courses are offered in the secondary panel.

Geographers know however, “…geography combines the physical and human aspects of our world into one field of study. This combination focuses on the interdependent parts of our world to provide a practical framework for addressing local, national and global questions (Directions in Geography p. 9)” Today’s geography includes for ex. epidemiology, how, where and why AIDS has spread throughout the world. It is the economics of oil and the Middle East (location) and the politics of freshwater access to the world’s 7 billion individuals. If policy makers and the public in general understood these definitions of Geography, our discipline could be seen as relevant and important. “Geography motivates us to look at our past, study the present and to predict the future. We can determine where things are, why they are there and where they’re headed from here” (Grosvenor). As Gritzner put it, geography is about, “What is where, why there, why care?” (Gritzner, Charles F., 2003) ‘Why Geography?’, Journal of Geography, 102: 2, 90 — 91)

 

So let’s assume we can all agree and understand exactly what geography encompasses, its relevance and importance. Guess those classes will thrive now! Not so fast… Let’s take a look at who is teaching in our geography classrooms. There is a growing acceptance in education, at the secondary level, (long established in the elementary), that ‘non-specialists’ are equal to ‘specialists’ when it comes to academic training and teaching. The result has been an increasing number of teachers teaching ‘Geography’ without any or very little geography in their academic backgrounds. (*Note: this trend is not exclusive to Geography as other academic areas are experiencing this as well.) Unfortunately, one can no longer assume that those teaching the subjects are knowledgeable or have formal training in those areas themselves. One can argue being a ‘teacher’ first is more important than the subject. I agree with this to a point. However, we need BOTH.

 

OK, let’s assume we all understand the nature of the discipline and have teachers with a strong academic background and enthusiasm for the subject. Those classes are full now right?! Oops, forgot to mention, if you don’t have teachers with the academic background, often the courses available are not even offered in the school! When introducing my teacher candidates at the Faculty of Education to the Geography Curriculum for Ontario, many of them were ‘shocked’ to see the number of courses available under the Geography ‘umbrella’. Many had gone through high school and had never heard of most of the courses ‘on the books’. IDEA: Why not get some training for teachers that may want to further their geographic background? Although the College of Teachers specifically outlines the professional expectations of teachers to continue with professional development (PD) and ongoing learning in their areas, the reality is there is very little support for teachers and PD. Most PD days held throughout the year are focused on new non-subject specific initiatives etc. coming ‘down’ from the Ministry of Education and/or local issues. Boards typically have money available for acquainting staff with the latest ‘ministry initiatives’ and often send teachers to conferences on such topics with all expenses paid. For a subject based presentation, such as an OAGEE conference, teachers may be left paying for everything even including supply teachers to cover their absence. Lack of support for curriculum specific professional development prevents our teachers from constantly improving and building upon what they know and keeping them current and relevant in our classrooms.

 

One area of the discipline that is extremely timely, valuable, and relevant and has future career opportunities are those related to Geomatics and Geo-technologies. The power of a GIS and the geographic analysis that comes with it is applicable and relevant to so many businesses, industries, governments, etc. Officially in the Ontario Curriculum there are two specific courses related to Geomatics/Geo-technologies offered at the grade 11 & 12 levels. The reality once again, is most schools in this province do not offer these courses and or opportunities. The problem again is multi-faceted. Number one, few teachers have the training or background to offer and run one of these courses. Secondly is the issue of resources. Many schools still rely on few computer labs for an entire school. Access to those labs is extremely limited.  David Joiner, Head of Geography at St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, offered the following insight into issues related to Geo-technologies in schools:

“My first thought is the apparent growing gap in exposure to GIS in the schools. Although every school has a (Ministry purchased) licence for ArcView, (ESRI GIS Software) I find that more and more teachers at conferences are commenting that either the software isn’t loaded properly or they don’t have access to the labs[or in some cases IT support]. In our school every student walks around with ArcView loaded onto their laptop computer and I can walk into a Business class and teach GIS and Marketing on almost a moment’s notice, yet in other schools the students never use GIS. This is both a success (for those schools that have access) and a concern (for those who don’t). Something that makes Geography very relevant to students is the ability to link to current events very quickly. If there is an earthquake, the online maps generated by the various earthquake monitoring centers let us explain things to the kids faster than they get most of that information from the news media.”

 

OK, so let’s pretend, we understand the nature of the subject, we have specialist teachers, great PD support and unlimited resources! We must be running all those Geography courses!! Try again! During the late 1990’s the ‘new’ curriculum was released. What this involved was a ‘collapsing’ of pre-existing academic departments into ‘mega’ departments of various subjects. In the case of Geography, this led to being under the umbrella of ‘Canada & World Studies’, which officially includes the subjects of Geography, History, Economics, Law and Politics. In theory this became the new ‘department’. In some local specific cases I have heard of courses related to Family Studies, Phys-Ed etc. being ‘subsumed’ under this same umbrella as well. What this means is the curriculum leadership provided by department heads now covers a minimum of five academic areas. In the past, as a Geography Department Head, I could offer leadership and direct curriculum support for teachers teaching in geography classrooms. Today, I would be responsible for that same leadership in four other academic areas that I am not even qualified to teach!

 

Add to this the compression of high school from a five year to a four year program. Now there is one less year to work with and students are still required to earn their 30 credits, now in four years. The result is reduced opportunity for ‘optional’ courses such as geography. In the past, students were required to take ‘one senior social science’ which traditionally meant geography, history, law or politics. Now, the ‘pool’ of courses that students may choose from is much larger with the result that fewer students are choosing geography as an option.

 

Remember that discussion at the beginning on the definition of Geography?? Another element impacting our programs relates to the Ministry of Education’s major push on ‘Literacy & Numeracy’. Another colleague offers the following: “From an elementary perspective … the loss of geography in school (is) because of the emphasis on Literacy and Numeracy. Geography (and Social Studies and History) are being seen as ‘add- ons’ not a part of those two initiatives. More PD and education for teachers needs to focus on how to use Geography as the context piece for Literacy and Numeracy.” In geography, both literacy and numeracy are large components of the discipline. For example, data analysis is central to any distribution patterns and mapping that may be done. Population pyramids, adiabatic lapse rates, etc. all require numeracy skills. Perhaps our students should be getting MORE geography as both literacy and numeracy skills will be strengthened doing ‘geography’!

More ‘Geography’? Alex Trebek, (long time host of JEOPARDY), in accepting his gold medal (2010) from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, made the following observation: “History is about the past, Geography is about the future and that is where today’s students will spend their lifetimes”. So what about the future? Recently the Toronto District School Board released an interesting study related to student performance in academic areas and graduation rates. One key finding of that study was the following:

 

“It is interesting that Geography is a slightly stronger predictor of future achievement than Mathematics (although the differences are minor). This is important to note because current educational practice emphasizes Literacy and Numeracy outcomes, and these are often translated as English and Mathematics. Geography and Science also have Literacy and Numeracy elements that are part of integrated curriculum. Their strength in predicting future achievement shows the importance of examining a broad range of subjects (a reason for the importance of credit accumulation, for example), and the potential limitations of focusing on a narrow range such as English and Mathematics only.” (The Grade 9 Cohort of Fall 2004 Robert S. Brown Copyright © (June 2010) Toronto District School Board) The implications of this finding and what it will mean for geography programs remains to be seen. Hopefully, this recognition of Geographic Literacy as an important element in predicting future achievement will raise the profile and value of a Geographic Education.

 

In the future, what is important here is that our students are geographically literate and have a working knowledge and understanding of our world, and a ‘global’ awareness of the issues facing us. For some students who may want to pursue their education in this area we need recognition and support from our post-secondary institutions as well. As it now stands, no university (in Ontario) requires courses in geography at the secondary level to pursue a degree in Geography. What is the message here to our teachers and students? The reality is, there are so many fabulous things happening and opportunities available for teachers and students in Geography which need to be supported and promoted. Every Fall, the Ontario Association of Geographic and Environmental Education( OAGEE) holds a Conference for teachers and is a wealth of information, strategies, etc. for anyone teaching Geography or Social Studies from grades 7-12.

 

I truly believe there has never been a period in our earth’s history that a geographic education has been more important. We need to support those in the classrooms, and educate policy makers about exactly what we do. We need to be passionate about raising awareness of the value and relevancy of geographic literacy. The ‘mountains’ of challenges we face need to be confronted and prevent our currently ‘endangered’ discipline from ultimate ‘extinction’. In closing, as I say to my students, “Geography is Everything!”

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