• Vancouver geography teacher

    Sean Nugent stands in his classroom before a map that highlights key aspects of physical geography, many of which feature prominently in the landscape of his home province of British Columbia. (Photo: Sean Nugent)

Sean Nugent believes that thinking geographically is an important life skill for students to develop in order to understand the world. He has been teaching Grade 12 geography at Lord Byng Secondary School in Vancouver, B.C., for 15 years. He is also a lecturer at his alma mater, the University of British Columbia, where he now teaches geography for the Faculty of Education. In his secondary school classes, Nugent focuses on providing students with the skills they need to think critically, while in his post-secondary classes he has been exploring the use of virtual reality technology for geography teaching, with the help of UBC's Emerging Media Lab and Department of Geography.

On teaching geography through case studies

My main push is geography skill development. The world is an amazing place and everybody who has taken my courses realized that without me. A lot of times they just don’t have the skillset to be able to analyze it in a way that gives them a better understanding of the world. If we’re learning about something specific like tectonics, I will look at case studies, whether it’s earthquake preparation in Vancouver or local volcanism. We just did a unit on water management in the context of the Three Gorges Dam and water diversion in the Aral Sea. I do a lot of case studies to get students to look at how decisions get made and where things end up.

On the importance of critical thinking

One thing that I’m starting to work on, which has been instigated by my work with the UBC students, is inoculation theory—how to teach students to challenge non-factual arguments around things like climate change, so that they’re not persuaded to think that there’s an equivalency between climate denial and climate fact. They can go to Wikipedia and look up all the details about climate change, but that’s not going to teach them about how significant of an issue it is or how they can be in the right frame of mind to actually be solution-oriented. Having the skills to critically examine an issue gives you confidence and the power to have a role in changing things.

On using local examples to engage students' interest

I tend to use regional geography a lot. We’re lucky in Vancouver to have so many different examples of physical geography—rivers, coastlines, tectonics, etc. One thing I did with them last year was a community analysis assignment. They were given a city block and they had to go out and gather data and do research. They did an analysis of different types of land use, housing styles, and housing values and they had to create some inferences on what’s there or not there and why. I was very impressed with some of the things they came up with. A lot of them live in this area and they were able to look at it through a completely different lens. They were coming back with these statements of wonder, like, “I walk past that house every day, how can it be worth six million dollars?” Or they’re starting to observe some of the issues around zoning, how utilities are delivered—just opening their eyes to things they walk by every day but don’t necessarily see. It’s the kind of thing that if I was to teach about it in the classroom it would be paralytically boring, but the ability to go out and understand their own sense of place really resonated for them. 

On what he has learned over the course of his teaching career

In British Columbia, we’ve moved more towards inquiry-based education and I’m a proponent of that method. What it’s made me realize about methodology is that students rely on you to give them the ability to learn properly. It’s not just about delivering content and trying to amaze them with images and field trips. It’s more about giving them the skills to understand what they’re looking at and why it’s important. It’s about giving them the ability to approach the world knowledgeably and meaningfully, to add it to their toolbox of life skills that they need to navigate the world. To me, when I see them able to use these skills and to think critically, not just regurgitate information about a topic, it makes it worthwhile.