Relating with the earth: An exploration of the possibilities in teaching Geography

Relating with the earth: An exploration of the possibilities in teaching Geography

Geography   holds immense potential as a subject both for the teacher and the student. It is a subject that attracts young minds, and is a happy combination of the scientific approach and humanistic concerns. It can make a student more sensitive and at the same time foster a global outlook.

Introduction

How does one begin to learn geography? A great deal of geography can be done in the observation of the immediate environment, both natural and human, through direct fieldwork and observation. Much of the learning can be connected to activities such as walks in the neighbourhood, gardening on a plot of land, as well as field trips. Such an approach begins the teaching of the subject with a strong local, experiential flavour, this may be necessary in the study of geography.

In this article I would like to explore the possible ways in which the potential inherent in geography as a subject can be unfolded, for the teacher and the student.

An underlying focus of geography as a subject is the understanding of human responses to the challenges and possibilities in the natural environment and the impact of human beings on the natural environment. It is a subject that attracts young minds, and is a happy combination of the scientific approach and humanistic concerns. Most young people respond readily to the issues raised through the teaching of geography—ranging from those at a local level to those at a global level. This can develop a capacity in the student to look closely at the local environment and also the world as a whole. Exposure to issues raised by geographers such as environmental degradation, global warming, pollution, ozone depletion and misuse of resources has the potential for making a student more sensitive and for fostering a global outlook.

How does one begin to learn geography? More than any other subject, geography lends itself to the exploration of one’s local environment, as a starting point. To my mind, it is possible to have a geography curriculum that begins with the exploration of the immediate environment. This is of great significance. A great deal of geography can be done in the observation of the immediate environment, both natural and human, through direct fieldwork and observation. Much of the learning can be connected to activities such as walks in the neighbourhood, gardening on a plot of land, as well as field trips. Perhaps the first step for the teacher and student could be an extended awareness of the landscape, its features and structures, its textures and colours, its peoples and their activities. A tactile, sensory knowledge comes out of such an awareness of the environment. This would resemble the intimate knowledge we have of the house we live in or the street we have grown up in. When the student is young, he is relating to the environment primarily through the senses. The implicit knowledge gathered in this process can be drawn upon, at a later stage, for geographical concept formation and interpretation. Such an approach begins the teaching of the subject with a strong local, experiential flavour, and I feel that this may be necessary in the study of geography.

Let me clarify my perspective. If I have actually been to the beach and experienced the cyclone, the waves and the wind, not once but many times, and then I learn about how a cyclone is formed, in the tropics and in the temperate climates, it would have quite a different impact than if I had just read about cyclones in a textbook. If I have worked on the land, and felt the impact of the seasons on my back, on my work, and in nature, and then I find out how seasons occur, my understanding would have a different depth. All knowledge then gets related to my own experience and activity and therefore has a connection with reality. Otherwise knowledge becomes an abstraction that needs to be remembered for its own sake. Krishnamurti too wondered what the subjects that are taught at school have to do with the daily life of the child. When we approach the world only through our knowledge and explanations do we not condition the mind to give greater importance to ideas and concepts than to the contact with reality through the eyes and ears? More importantly, do we not deny the senses the space and opportunity to flower?

To develop such an approach to teaching geography one has to overcome several constraints. For one, the examination system in India at the school level, unfortunately, does not lend itself to this experiential approach for the most part. Local observations can be worked in only through the occasional projects, while the rest of the evaluation remains too concerned with the minutiae of detail, for example, the exact rainfall and temperature requirements of various crops, the names and locations of various multipurpose projects and so on. Moreover, the curriculum hardly refers to the global issues of our times; population growth, global warming, misuse of natural resources, environmental pollution, urbanization, migration, destruction of ecosystems. All of these are assumed to lie outside the traditional geography syllabus, even though these issues are at the heart of the work of modern geographers. Further, to incorporate fieldwork more significantly into the study of geography, the timetable has to be more flexible. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to do fieldwork in a meaningful way in one period or even a normal block period. And yet as teachers, we must strive to bring in this tactile appreciation of the landscape for our geography teaching to be meaningful in the early years.

At a later stage, classroom based ‘fieldwork’ exercises as well as games and simulations—welcome additions to the usual techniques of exposition, discussion and explanation—can give students a taste of working with real-life issues. ‘Fieldwork’ exercises, presenting data related to specific case studies give the student an opportunity to analyze a real-life situation. Games and simulations recreate, in simplified ways, situations where decisions have to be taken, for example, on the location of a settlement, the use of resources, the location of a factory, and other such issues. They give the student an opportunity to think for himself/herself and appreciate the diverse factors involved in the shaping of a decision. Further, I am sure, there are computer-based exercises that allow a student to work with more realistic models of complex and dynamic life situations.

Far more significant than the issue of newer and better ways of imparting information and developing knowledge and skills, is the inherent potential in geography for enabling a caring relationship with the environment around us. Knowledge by itself does not bring about care and responsibility. Relating is a movement of the heart and the senses. Without awakening these, the knowledge gathered, however sophisticated, tends to be superficial and unrelated to daily life. Learning about the ecosystem and the destruction of habitats may lead to a sense of disturbance and to social activism, but how does one actually bring about a relationship and communion with a tree, or a hill? Surely then sensitivity, and not knowledge, has to be the starting point? How do we get the child to see that all rivers are sacred or that this earth is neither yours nor mine? Would this not need a totally different approach, in which relating deeply to the environment becomes the ground on which the acquisition of knowledge takes place? Hence, I would reiterate that an intimate relating with the immediate environment in which the school is situated must be the ground from which the humanities, in particular geography, draw their inspiration. However essential concepts, knowledge and interpretation may be for an educated mind, they have to be held and contained in this field of relationship.

In his Letters to the Schools (Vol II, pg 70), Krishnamurti says: ‘What is nature? There is a great deal of talk and endeavour to protect nature, the animals, the birds, the whales and the dolphins, to clean the polluted rivers, the lakes, the green fields, and so on. Nature is not put together by thought, as religion is, as belief is. Nature is the tiger, that extraordinary animal with its energy, its great sense of power. Nature is the solitary tree in the field, the meadows and the grove; it is that squirrel shyly hiding behind a bough. Nature is the ant and the bee and all the living things of the earth. Nature is the river, not a particular river, whether it be the Ganga, the Thames or the Mississippi. Nature is all those mountains, snow-clad, with the dark blue valleys and range of hills meeting the sea. The universe is part of this world. One must have a feeling for all this….. Nature is part of life. We grew out of the seed, the earth, and we are part of all that. But we are rapidly losing the sense that we are animals like the others. Can you have a feeling for that tree, look at it, see the beauty of it, listen to the sound it makes; be sensitive to the little plant, to the little weed, to that creeper that is growing up the wall, to the light on the leaves and the many shadows? You must be aware of all this and have that sense of communion with nature around you. You may live in a town but you do have trees here and there. A flower in the next garden may be ill-kept, crowded with weeds, but look at it, feel that you are part of all that, part of all living things. If you hurt nature you are hurting yourself.’

Is this the way to connect the Teachings with the teaching of geography?

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