Saving the world starts with students

Remember Grade 9 geography class? Let’s see … you figured out the locations of South Africa and the East China Sea, used pencil crayons to make a pretty map of Canada with labels for all the provincial capitals, learned to read a topographic map and made neat bar graphs with extra marks for accuracy.

Me, I got to watch endless reel-to-reel films about the landscape and natural resources of various Eastern European countries. Bor-ING!

What do our kids learn in geography today? Some of them are very lucky: they have a talented teacher with the knack for helping students engage with the dilemmas we face as inhabitants of this amazing world. How can we use our natural resources so that there will be some left for our grandchildren? How can we overcome problems posed by the world’s exponential population growth? Why is global climate change the most pressing issue of our time? Can we live sustainably on Earth?

Using issues to frame the study of geography makes the subject interesting. It gives them a reason for learning how to read that multiple bar graph or examine that aerial photograph. It helps them think like geographers.

New technologies don’t hurt in making geography more interesting. Take global positioning systems (GPS). It may sound highly scientific, but most kids these days aren’t intimidated by GPS – they use it all the time on computers and cell phones. Geographical information systems (GIS), satellite imagery, time lapse photography and computer predictive modelling are all now in the geographer’s toolbox.

The new curriculum for the Grade 9 geography course is framed around geographical concepts – core ideas that interest and drive geographers. And that’s what we want students to do: not to memorize names, dates and regions, but to inquire, to investigate, to analyze, to see and interpret patterns and to ask questions.

As you might have guessed, I just finished working on a new geography program for Ontario high school students. (Confession: I have SO much fun creating classroom resources. One of the best careers ever.) So you’ll understand why I’m pumped about the new curriculum.

But good teachers make the real difference, regardless of what resources they have or what curriculum they’re teaching. One geography teacher I know – Kingsley Hurlington – was teaching a geography course about food systems last year. His students followed food from the source, through processing, to distribution. They learned about food issues such as the promotion of processed food, and the level of control large food companies have over what people consume.

Hurlington challenged students to improve the food system by taking action. They examined the $10 bags that some grocery stores offer for sale with the intention that they will be donated to a food bank. The challenge? To come up with a better package for the same $10. And they did it. And while doing so, students increased their awareness of global and local food issues and of their own power to make change.

No more is geography class simply about landforms and bioregions. It’s about being aware of the world around us; it’s about growing the courage to wrestle with some of the most important issues of our day; it’s about seeing how our personal choices can have global consequences.

So if your child is dreading that mandatory geography class in Grade 9, tell them not to worry – it’s going to be an eye opener.


Margaret Hoogeveen is a local writer, editor and mother of two daughters –

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