Small Worlds on an Interconnected Planet: Teaching and Learning Geography in Higher Education

Mick Healey (Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education): Alan Jenkins (Oxford Brookes University and Pauline Kneale (Leeds University)

1  Introduction

In one respect "and one that is of very practical concern to the beginner, science is a conversation. The conversation has been in progress for a long time - in the case of ocean waves, for a very long time. To make the analogy more exact, science resembles the babble at a very large reception… The participants in the conversation have sorted themselves into groups, sub groups and sub groups, each dominated by a few brilliant conversationalists who set the subject and tone. Some scientists wander from group to group, while others remain fixed. Some groups talk about similar things, and occasionally snaps of conversation pass from one group to another. You have arrived in the middle of a party… My job is to catch you up on the conversation and show you how to find your way to the bar." (emphasis added).

Kinsman (1965)

Kinsman's extract introduces the key themes of our analysis of the pedagogy of geography, namely that:

When we first encounter the conversation of a discipline we are likely to feel like outsiders experiencing a babble of conflicting and distorting 'tongues'. Specialist language and concerns are vital to furthering understanding through research, but entering that world as a researcher from another discipline, or as a student, requires effective guidance. Kinsman's analogy, that his role as a physicist, writing to those scientists seeking to understand the world of waves, is "to catch you up on the conversation and show you how to find your way to the bar" can also be used as an analogy for the role of a teacher of any discipline. We see it as particularly appropriate to geography as a research discipline and how that effects the pedagogy of the subject (see also Hay & Delaney, 1997).

Geography is not a tightly bounded discipline, such as physics or history, in terms of either subject matter or research methodologies (Biglan, 1973). "Geography occupies a distinctive place in the world of learning, offering an integrated study of the complex reciprocal relationships between human societies and the non-human components of the world" (QAA, 1999, para 1.1). Geographers research aspects of the physical or human worlds, for example, the impact of climate change on vegetation type, or how changes in gender relations affect urban form and function. Or they may seek to analyse the interrelationships between physical and human worlds; for example, the interrelations between climate, city morphology and social behaviour during riots. In Kinsman's terms, while some geographers are fixed in the small world where they research and teach, that world is very different from that of their colleagues who teach on the same degree programme, while others "wander from group to group".

It is this variety of subject matter and methodologies of analysis that geographers often emphasise as its educational strength. It can offer a student a superb 'liberal education'. However, it can also offer a babble of contending, disconnected and even hostile voices. Scott Turow (1988, 49, 58), described his first few weeks as a student at Harvard Law School as follows: "The feeling aroused was something close to panic, a ferocious sense of uncertainty, and it held me, and I believe most of my classmates, often during that first week and for a long time after".…. Later, as one student answered a question - the instructor said, "I'm glad you are talking that way. After all, you can't be a duck until you learn to quack."

This article shows you what it is like to 'quack geography'; how as teachers we seek to take geography students into our small worlds and connect them into a coherent understanding of our worlds. In the conclusion we also suggest what of this is transferable to other disciplines.

The more specific themes are:

2  The nature of the geography undergraduate curriculum

The problem with attempting to reflect on degrees and curricula in geography is the diversity that exists at every scale. The common element in most programmes is economic, social and cultural geography for the Arts (BA) programme and weather, climate, soils and geomorphology for the Science (BSc) programmes. Most geography programmes though, whether arts or science, have both sets of modules. There are linking or cross-over elements that sit astride the human-physical divide, which may appear with words like resources, hazards or sustainability in the title. Modules based on regions may sit in this bridging area or may focus be on particular elements such as South African Politics (arts) or Sustainability of Tropical Landscapes (science or both).

There is a diversity of curricula that in quite unique ways address the social and physical worlds and their interconnections. With no professional body to dictate or shape the curriculum, and since 'Geography is what Geographers do', the scope is endless. Within any programme the detail, focus and spin is often the product of staff interests and may be highly idiosyncratic. Upper level courses may be linked to staff research interests and here individual courses/modules may be strongly linked to 'outside' disciplines. For example, a course in political geography will take the student into the concerns and the language of political science. Some departments may choose to emphasise these connections into other disciplines in how they construct the overall geography curriculum; others may (also) seek to stress the connections between the geography programme they offer.

What is clear from looking at programmes of study is that geography degrees often have a considerable number of embedded skills modules either with a direct skill focus or as part of a more general module. Generic and transferable skills may be embedded through 'Study Skills' or 'Tutorial' modules. Career development and business modules may appear with titles like 'Careers for Geographers' or 'Geographers and the Workplace'. More specific numeracy skills relate to IT through modules like 'Statistics for Geographers', 'Introduction to GIS', 'Quantitative Techniques for Geographical Data Analysis'. Specific techniques may be part of a module or its main focus as in 'Remote Sensing' or 'Air Photo Interpretation'. Science modules embed laboratory techniques, safety and either in techniques modules or within modules like 'Soils', 'Weather', 'Water Quality' or, 'Geochemistry'. One of the most enjoyable modules is the 'Fieldclass', often residential, sometimes overseas. This is where academic geography is put into its real world context. These are increasingly supplemented by virtual field courses.

Figure 1 presents extracts from the mission statements of contrasting geography departments. Looking across the range of statements one is struck by the upbeat selling nature of the messages, so essential to attract students in an increasingly competitive market. There are some strong links to local and regional issues and concerns as exemplified by the University of Melbourne extract. There are links to local problems and the links to meeting the needs of students from specific local areas, such as with Chester College which attracts students from a more local base than some Universities. Almost every statement commits the department to covering human and physical issues and integrating them. Compared with the mission statements of previous eras they are more jolly, less academically dry. There are many references to the skills that will be acquired through the degree programme, IT, personal, transferable and practical skills are clearly the buzzwords of late 1990s promotions. Equipment also gets a mention, as in the University of Tokyo, the 'toys' available to students give an indication of the wealth and research focus of the department.

As the number of students taking geography degree courses in the UK increased during the 1980s and most of the 1990s the number of staff has increased, and the range and diversity of courses have expanded. Specialists from increasing numbers of sub-disciplines are brought on-board. Widening the curriculum and increasing the number of options in many departments has allowed students to select their own combinations of modules and follow their own interests to a greater extent than in the past.

The introduction of generic skill, career, workplace and specialist qualitative and quantitative techniques have followed to support personal project and research work in sub-disciplines. There is no specific skill set that a graduate geographer is defined by, although they should all be competent at word processing, analysing data, using statistical analytical techniques and applying geographical concepts to real-world problems. The increasing focus on key or 'transferable' skills (Chalkley & Harwood, 1998; Kneale, 1999) may reflect geography's wide ranging concerns which enable a range of discipline and transferable skills to be integrated into the curriculum, and thus hopefully aid student employability and life long learning (Clark & Higgitt, 1997). It also reflects a harsher educational climate where disciplines compete for students. 'Non vocational' disciplines such as geography have to reconstitute their curricula to develop student employability or geography staff find themselves and their courses reconstituted as tourism, business studies, and environmental management. Such has been the experience of a number of Australian geography departments (Rich et al., 1997).

The staff in Geography departments present varying, and sometimes conflicting approaches and opinions to geographical topics. Most staff hope to stimulate their students to see that there is no one unique answer to any geographical problem. The aim is to encourage individuals to develop the skills to analyse and synthesise information and to apply their personal ideas to geographical problems. Hopefully students recognise the diversity that exists in all parts of the subject. Faced with a decision-making exercises about planning in a National Park, updating the processes and procedures at a chemical works, considering policy issues in transport for the next 5 and 10 year period or designing a water treatment works there are no clear cut right answers. There is a wide range of alternative strategies and approaches, decisions are nearly always compromises, subject to external influences; a babble of discussion from which an answer is drawn.

Is a geographer an employable graduate? Certainly any geography graduate should have had a good general education and more grounding than most in research techniques, IT, advanced communication skills, numeracy and literacy, analytical and problem-solving. The independence required in fieldwork, projects and dissertations should add self-confidence. Where students have taken part in employer partnerships, work placements, or year abroad activities, the added confidence and experience adds strength to their portfolio.

Diversity and interdisciplinarity are thus key elements of geography degrees. This may leave students confused at times as they hop between sub-disciplines, approaches and techniques. Those who choose to mix their arts and science content have to cope with the remarkably different discourses that formalise the cultural, social, economic and science elements of the courses, and within these discourses there is the babble of technical terms and nuances of technical language.

3  Methods of learning and teaching in geography

Methods of learning and teaching in geography in part reflect the nature of the subject that we explored in the last section. Geography, as we have seen, draws on the natural and social sciences and some aspects of the humanities. Not surprisingly many of the characteristic methods of learning, teaching and assessment associated with these groups of subjects are found within geography. Laboratories, practical classes and reports, associated with the natural sciences (Birnie & Mason O'Connor, 1998), and seminar discussions and essays, associated with the social sciences and humanities (Clark & Wareham, 1998), are all common methods of learning and teaching in geography. Thus variety and breadth of learning and teaching methods characterise the geography curriculum (Jenkins, 1998).

Lectures still dominate the student experience in most departments (Agnew & Lewis, 1998), although active involvement of students in the 'lecture' slots is increasingly common; many geography lectures are illustrated by slides. Some modes of learning and teaching are particularly emphasised in geography, though they are not unique to the discipline. Fieldwork, day and residential trips, is a characteristic feature of geography courses (Livingstone et al., 1998). The trips may involve some 'look-see' activities, but most field courses are dominated by project work and the practising of field techniques for observing, measuring and collecting information (e.g. measuring water quality; interviewing residents; observing natural and human landscape). Role-play exercises are sometimes built into fieldwork (e.g. taking the roles of different groups in an environmental dispute). Fieldwork provides an important opportunity to develop skills in group work and individual initiative. Field courses frequently use less conventional methods of assessment (e.g. posters; consultancy reports; presentations; and field note books).

The UK Subject Benchmarking document for geography notes that "Geography has been notable for its reflective concern with teaching methods, such that the discipline continues to lead in the creation and implementation of pedagogic innovation" (QAA, 1999, para 5.1). Many of these innovations have involved student-led approaches. Resource-based learning and Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have played a major part in these initiatives (Healey, 1998; Shepherd, 1998). For example, a suite of computer assisted learning packages (GeographyCal) was produced in the mid-1990s to support introductory courses in geography (Healey et al., 1998), while the Virtual Field Course (VFC) project has produced a series of programmes to support and supplement learning in the field. The use of the Web is also growing rapidly, both to support student teaching directly and as a means of disseminating teaching materials and ideas. The development of the Virtual Geography Department (VGD) project in the United States and the resource database established by the Geography Discipline Network (GDN) are good examples of this trend.

Methods of learning and teaching vary between departments. This came out clearly in the UK the Teaching Quality Assessment reports, which indicate that methods of learning, teaching and assessment vary between 'traditional' departments, which are more dependent on lectures and unseen examination essays, and more 'progressive' departments, which emphasise a greater variety of methods and have more student-centred learning approaches (Chalkley, 1996; HEFCE, 1995). However, even greater variety generally exists between individuals in the same department.

There are also important international differences in learning, teaching and assessment. For example, distance learning is more common in HEIs in Australia and North America than in the UK, and computer marked objective tests are more common in North American geography departments. However, an International Symposium on Learning and Teaching Geography in Higher Education showed that the differences within Anglo-American institutions are generally more a matter of emphasis than of major substance (Healey et al., 2000).

Differences exist between disciplines in the combination of learning, teaching and assessment methods they utilise, and in the way they respond to pedagogic innovations. The nature of geography means that geographers are used to borrowing and adapting ideas from outside their discipline. Arguably geographers are also more open than many other disciplines to innovations in learning, teaching and assessment. There is evidence that geography is one of the leading disciplines in pedagogic innovation in the UK and the US. For example, in the UK Geography is the only discipline that received funding from the Teaching Learning and Technology Programme, the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning, Discipline Networks, and Key Skills programmes. Geography has its own international journal - Journal of Geography in Higher Education - dedicated to promoting learning and teaching of the subject. It also has several national networks, such at the GDN and the Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences (UK) and the VGD (US). The International Network for Learning and Teaching (INLT) Geography in Higher Education was founded in 1999.

4  Issues of generalisation and transferability

We have now taken you around the babble of voices that is the contemporary geography curricula. We hope it now makes sense to you, and now we have all arrived at the bar, you can buy us a drink!

In conclusion we turn to the issue of what of this is transferable to other disciplines, for that was the brief to us as authors both for the conference workshop and this publication. The ideology of the conference organisers, one which is representative of many educational developers, seems to be that which is to be praised and valued is that which is generic or transferable. Often academics' concern for their discipline and research is seen an obstacle to improving student learning (Jenkins, 1996a; 1996b). So even in a conference on improving student learning through the disciplines, the pressure on discipline-based staff was to emphasise that which is generic and transferable. This can be counterproductive. If we are to persuade discipline specialists of the value of educational development, we need to start by valuing the disciplines themselves. Educational developers, we would argue (and one of us - Jenkins - would now describe himself in these terms), need to approach the small worlds of the disciplines, even one as friendly and open as geography, with interest, humility, curiosity and a recognition that at first there will be a babble of perhaps incomprehensible voices. As they start to understand the language of the discipline, they should join in, at first gently perhaps with questions, and then introduce some of their language and concerns in return. But first they have to listen and recognise the particular worlds of the discipline, and that each time they work with staff from different disciplines there will be a different language and culture to learn.

While arguing for respecting and valuing the peculiarity of these different disciplinary worlds we recognise the importance of reaching out and linking the geographic perspective to that of other disciplines, and suggesting what of our practice might be of more general import. In geography there are two seemingly conflicting ways of analysing (researching) and describing (teaching) the earth's surface. The ideographic tradition sees the world through a lens that identifies that which is unique; for example, how and why the landscapes of the Basin Range are distinct from say the Appalachians. By contrast the nomothetic tradition looks for broad similarities and generic explanations for patterns on the earth surface; for example, the hierarchical pattern of settlement sizes. At different times in its short history the discipline has emphasised these two different traditions, and at times there have been, and are, harsh and conflicting statements as to the value of the two approaches. Whilst the curricula of the departments described above manifest different emphases of these two different perspectives, as a disciplinary community we have learned to value both these approaches.

Having read this far we recognise that you have valued our peculiar landscape, and thus we are now willing to suggest that which is perhaps transferable. What is most transferable, and which offers a realistic approach to improving student learning, is a perspective that values both that which is (seemingly) unique to each discipline and that which is (largely) generic, or perhaps particular, to that tribe of specialists on student learning in higher education.

The three of us have been involved in a variety of institutional, national and international initiatives to improve teaching in our discipline. In the small world of geography, at conferences and in publications we have sought to spread and shape the discussions about the teaching of the discipline. In part we have done that by trying to understand and then bring into our disciplinary conversation those pedagogic concerns of disciplines that are cognate to us. Thus in teaching the representations of landscapes we may well read the (pedagogic) literature and talk to colleagues in fine art, multi-media and cultural studies. But here we may have to translate and at first get students to use a simplified or 'pidgin' language in our introductory courses. We have spent much time talking and listening to colleagues in immediately cognate disciplines from art history to zoology that share our research and pedagogic concerns for fieldwork. Their pedagogic approaches and particular techniques may quickly transfer between disciplines. We have also come to see that other loosely bounded 'disciplines', such as environmental studies or women's studies, share similar pedagogic opportunities and problems; in opening up to students a variety of subject matter and research methodologies, and yet enabling them to bring it together in their own understanding and to quack in a way they understand. Here we are likely to see that it is in the ways these different disciplinary communities structure the whole curriculum, to enable students to specialise in particular interests, but link it back to some common core, that we can both most readily learn from their approaches and add our perspectives and innovations.

As we have sought to improve student learning in our discipline we have come across the small world of the specialist research literature on student learning, and attended conferences such as ISL. Here we have come across a set of contending languages and approaches. With time we have learned to quack terms such 'situated cognition', 'phenomenography', 'surface learning', and so on. With time we think we have begun to understand the language(s) of this strange tribe. We have then sought to introduce this specialist language into our discipline, even though that has at times attracted derision and anger from those who we thought were our disciplinary colleagues. In one major project, the Geography Discipline Network brought together a group of educational developers and geographers to write a series of books and linked department-based workshops to improve geography teaching. What we learned from that project is that:

So, in short, what is most transferable from our experience is this perspective -one that values both that which is (seemingly) unique to each discipline, and that which is (largely) generic or perhaps particular to that tribe of specialists on student learning. The next time you see one of us by a conference bar lets drink and quack about these issues.

5  References and further reading

Agnew, C. & Elton, L. (1998) Lecturing in Geography. Cheltenham: Geography Discipline Network, Cheltenham & Gloucester CHE.

Biglan, A. (1973) The Characteristics of Subject Matter in Different Academic Areas, Journal of Applied Psychology 57 (3), 195-203.

Birnie, J. & O'Connor, K.M. (1998) Practicals and Laboratory Work in Geography. Cheltenham: Geography Discipline Network, Cheltenham & Gloucester CHE.

Chalkley, B. (1996) Editorial I Geography and teaching quality assessment: how well did we do? Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 20 (2), 149-158.

Chalkley, B. & Harwood, J. (1998) Transferable Skills and Work-based Learning in Geography. Cheltenham: Geography Discipline Network, Cheltenham & Gloucester CHE.

Clark, G & Higgitt, M (1997) Geography and Lifelong Learning: a report on a survey of geography graduates, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 21 (2), 199-213.

Clark, G. & Wareham, T. (1998) Small-group Teaching in Geography. Cheltenham: Geography Discipline Network, Cheltenham & Gloucester CHE.

Hay, I. & Delaney, E. (1997) Worlds in our words. Geography as a second language, International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 6 (2), 1-11.

Healey, M. (1998) Resource-based Learning in Geography. Cheltenham: Geography Discipline Network, Cheltenham & Gloucester CHE.

Healey, M., Robinson, G., & Castleford, J. (1998) Developing good educational practice: integrating GeographyCal into university courses. In: Proceedings of the Institute of Australian Geographers and New Zealand Geographical Society Second Joint Conference, Hobart, Australia, The University of Waikato, Department of Geography.

Healey, M., Foote, K. & Hay, I. (Eds.) (2000) International perspectives on learning and teaching geography in higher education: a JGHE symposium. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 24 (2), 217-220.

HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) (1995) Quality Assessment of Geography, 1994-95. Bristol, HEFCE.

Kinsman, B. (1965) Wind Waves, their Generation and Propagation across the Ocean Surface. New York, Prentice Hall.

Jenkins, A. (1996a) Discipline-based educational development. The International Journal for Academic Development, 1 (1), 50-62.

Jenkins A. (1996b) The go-between: strategies for success and recipes for failure, in Leong, S and Fitzpatrick, D, (Eds) Different Approaches; Theory and Practice in Higher Education. Perth, Higher Education and Research Development Association of Australasia.

Jenkins, A. (1998) Curriculum Design in Geography. Cheltenham: Geography Discipline Network, Cheltenham & Gloucester CHE.

Kneale, P. (1999) Study Skills for Geography Students: a practical guide, London, Arnold.

Livingstone, I., Matthews, H. & Castley, A. (1998) Fieldwork and Dissertations in Geography. Cheltenham: Geography Discipline Network, Cheltenham & Gloucester CHE.

QAA (Quality Assurance Agency) (1999) Geography Draft Benchmarking Statement. Gloucester: QAA.

Rich, D. C., Pitman, A.J., Gosper, M. and Jacobsen, C. (1997) Restructuring of Australian higher education: information technology technology in geography teaching and learning, Australian Geographer, 28(2), 135-157.

Shepherd, I. (1998) Teaching and Learning Geography with Information and Communication Technologies (Cheltenham: Geography Discipline Network, Cheltenham & Gloucester CHE).

Turow, S. (1988) One L - What they really teach you at Harvard Law School. London, Sceptre Books.

Web sites


Geography Discipline Network

International Network for Learning and Teaching Geography in Higher Education and

Journal of Geography in Higher Education - an index, plus the abstracts from all the mainline papers, is available at:

Virtual Field Course

Virtual Geography Department


Figure 1  Selected Extracts from Geography Department Mission Statements

The University of Newcastle, Australia - Geography and Environmental Science … gives you an understanding of the environment (both physical and human) and the skills to communicate this understanding. The skills and techniques that you learn doing a Geography and Environmental Science degree are transferable to the employment sector.

The University of Melbourne, Australia - Welcome to the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies! Are you interested in social justice? Is migration your thing? How about economic restructuring in Asia? Perhaps you're concerned about Australian land degradation? Do you want to know about environmental policy overseas? Or biodiversity? Ever wondered about Mabo or fire ecology? …Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Melbourne is where it's at if you want to learn about society/environment relations.

Tel Aviv University, Israel - Department of Geography - Geography today is a multi-faceted, interdisciplinary subject that has expanded beyond the physical contours of the landscape to include the spatial dimensions of history, economics, anthropology and sociology as well as geology, climatology, computer sciences and the environment. The TAU Department of Geography is a full partner in the new geography, offering interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate programs that draw from all these fields.

Tokyo Metropolitan University, Japan - Department of Geography ….covers major research areas in both physical and human geography as well as in both pure and applied geography: geomorphology,…. Main research facilities include a scanning electron microscope and microprobe analyzer (EDS), an infrared thermography, a meteorological satellite data receiving system, a refractive index measuring system, an analytical stereo-restitution, three sets of graphic work station and image data processing peripherals, and an experimental flume (8 m long and 1.2 m wide).

University College, Chester UK - Department of Geography - The department offers a varied range of research-enriched modules in both physical and human geography, a variety of degree pathways, residential and local fieldwork a small and friendly departmental environment, excellent specialist equipment in remote sensing and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) work placements as an integral part of courses together with an emphasis on transferable skills development only 6% of graduates unemployed (national figure for all graduates 9.7%) easily accessible from west Cheshire, Wirral and Deeside.


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