This post has emerged from multidisciplinary curricula conversations that have taken place with the wonderful Lucy Austin. These conversations have proven to be extremely fruitful in terms of supporting curricular thinking that takes account of how our subjects work together to support a student’s journey through their geography and science education. It ultimately reveals how we can talk of one subject becoming another subject’s hinterland.
From looking at the National Curriculum and GCSE specifications, I am sure it is clear to most teachers that there are some overlaps in content between geography, biology, chemistry, and physics. This is where for me this becomes a bit like a jigsaw puzzle but one that is worth pursuing because it is about a truly collaborative effort to support a student’s journey through both their geography and science education, without any crazy cross-curricularity in sight!
Building on students’ prior knowledge
There are so many areas of geography where we would benefit from building on what is taught in biology, chemistry or physics. As a geography teacher about to teach “an example of a small-scale UK ecosystem illustrate the concept of interrelationships within a natural system, an understanding of producers, consumers, decomposers, food chain, food web and nutrient cycle”, I would benefit from knowing what students have studied around ecology in biology. More than this I would be better placed to activate schemata of students and draw on their prior knowledge if I was aware of how that subject content had been introduced and taught in biology. I liken this to the scenario of sharing a geography class with another teacher. Before teaching my lesson with the class I would want to know: what was taught in the preceding lesson, if there was anything the students struggled with and any misconceptions that arose.
Painting a richer picture
There are also examples where subjects have quite distinct offerings but we would benefit from making the connections explicit to students, so that they are supported to develop a richer picture across subject areas. For example, in chemistry students might learn about potable water (with a focus on how it is produced), whilst in geography students might learn about the global and UK balance between supply and demand, the impacts of water insecurity, strategies to increase water supply and how more sustainable use can be achieved. Together both subjects provide students with a richer picture of the resource management of water.
Another example revolves around distinguishing between the types of seismic waves involved in an earthquake. In geography knowing that there are different types of seismic waves (P- and S-waves) helps students understand why countries can invest systems to immediately slow down high-speed trains and shut-off gas lines as soon as the P-waves reach the surface, but before the more damaging S-waves hit. There is not any expectation that students should learn about P- and S-waves in this context (even at GCSE). Yet I have always found it provides students with a richer understanding of how the physical processes have shaped human responses and management, which is so fundamental to geography. At the same time by learning about P- and S-waves in the context of geography it provides students with a concrete example that can become hinterland for students when they learn more about different types of waves and their importance in detection and exploration in physics. As a geography teacher, I try to be aware of the “ultimate function” (Counsell, 2018) that this knowledge can serve beyond my subject, so that this thread can be picked up by a physics teacher.
If subject specialists have the time and space to enter into dialogue with each other, it seems there are so many opportunities that can be discovered for where curricula in one subject can serve another. A nice example of this that Lucy spotted was that if students learn about glaciation in geography (and in particular the role water/ice plays within glacial processes), then this would provide supportive hinterland in chemistry when students begin to study chemical structures.
Curricula sequencing and knowledge structures
Curricula sequencing does need to be led by each individual subject, but it is fruitful to think about how decisions around sequencing can also serve to support the “indirect manifestation of knowledge” across subjects (Counsell, 2018). I think there is importance in ensuring students build on their prior knowledge and end up with a richer understanding of all their subjects, which can be achieved by making links explicit both to teachers and students.
Our curricula conversations were not just about finding areas of curricula overlap and interplay, but also went to the heart of thinking about the distinctiveness of our subjects and their knowledge structures. School geography is not easily defined as having either a hierarchical (vertical) or cumulative (horizontal) structure. However, it does appear that when thinking about the interplay possible between geography and the sciences (biology, chemistry and physics), the hierarchical nature of knowledge structures need to be more carefully navigated. In underplaying the significance of hierarchical structure where they exist, it seems that students’ knowledge is likely to end up being more superficial or insecure.
Has there been an absence of dialogue between geography and science teachers?
Margaret Roberts has repeatedly reminded geography educators of the value of engaging with science education literature and a few Teaching Geography articles from the 80s and 90s explored the overlap apparent within past iterations of the National Curriculum at Key Stage 3 (Mottershead & Hewitt, 1989; Adamczyk et al., 1994). I know that within my own PGCE I was encouraged to draw on relevant science education literature, especially around student misconceptions in areas that overlapped with geography. Around certain concepts, such as sustainability and sustainable development, there has been research that has taken place across geography and science education (e.g. Summers, Corney & Childs, 2004). More recently, the Geographical Association has launched their DfE Teaching and Learning Fund project that is running in partnership with the Association for Science Education. However, it does appear that there has been limited cross-fertilisation across geography and the sciences in terms of developing the curriculum in schools. So why is this? Firstly, school geography often tends to be perceived as a humanities subject and finds itself connected to history and religious studies within secondary school structures (Fordham, 2017). I wonder if this has limited the opportunity for sustained dialogue between science and geography teachers. Secondly, the complexity of geography teachers’ subject identity, means that some geography teachers are more well positioned than others to engage in curricula discussions that involve the sciences. Whilst, other geography teachers might be better placed to see the connections between geography and other subjects based on their experience and expertise.