Geography is a mindset and a skill set, says Andrew Young. As a geography teacher at Georges P. Vanier Secondary School in Courtenay, B.C., Young works to connect classroom concepts to real-world issues. At the University of British Columbia, He also teaches students who are studying to become teachers. To help bring geography into the 21st century as a multidisciplinary subject, Young shares his students’ work online at his blog. Here, he talks pedagogy, the importance of geographic literacy and what makes it all worth it.
What is your main approach to teaching geography?
I'm trying to teach geography more as a mind set and skill set rather than a subject matter. I've been trying to push geo-literacy skills within the classroom, to help students understand holistically why things happen and to see the big picture. They come in and they’ve all got preconceived notions about what geography is – like colouring maps – and I'm trying to break those stereotypes. Rather than taking a linear approach I try to see all the influences that impact people's decisions. I think those are very strong geo-literacy skills that we should try to promote in a modern-day version of geography, as opposed to the 1800’s version of geography.
How do you encourage your students to think critically about how they can apply geography to the way they look at things? Can you give an example?
I also teach a law class for grade nine and ten students, and one of the things I ask students about is their perception of where crime happens in our community and why.
Then what we start to do is look at the police blotter, which gives the information on crime in the Comox Valley. What I get the kids to do is map out crime hotspots. We try to make sense of the demographic statistics of the area, we look at the travel patterns, and the connections between locations and events that take place.
Their goal after they identify the hotspots, like for break-and-enters, is to try and build a community plan, to help the local area become more aware of the criminal actions that are taking place within their neighborhood and try to be proactive in harm reduction.
Why is it important to teach geography?
In a perfect world, every kid would take geography, because geography is everything — there's math, language, music, business and economics in geography. I think that’s part of the problem with the subject, it’s so holistic it's hard to nail down a specific description. And because of that, a lot of teachers go to old school geography and shy away from the critical questioning process that geography helps to address.
If I had a magic wand, geography would be a core subject that kids would take from grade K to twelve, and beyond. It provides a wonderful lens on the world to really understand how we're related and connected.
In your opinion, how do you think geography should be taught?
Daniel Edelson talks about the three I’s of geo-literacy — interactions, interconnections and implications — and if I was going to ask other teachers to teach geography it would be under that framework. You have to make it relevant and personal, because if it's just theoretical then it's not going to hit home for kids. If you can show the practical reality of geography, then they start to realise that geography is really important.
What makes your job most rewarding?
Every year, I've taken a group of students to Mount St. Helen’s for an active field study of the volcano. We take the bus down, and there's a point where you come around a ridge and suddenly, it’s there and the bus goes silent. It’s massive. Cameras start clicking and there's almost like a palpable drawback of breath from the kids.
It's an amazing experience because you're looking at fairly jaded eighteen-year-olds, who all of a sudden become excited seven-year-olds. And that makes the whole experience worthwhile for me. When it comes down to it, I'm hopeful for geography, hopeful for the subject.