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Teaching distant places

“A high-quality geography education should inspire in students a curiosity and fascination about the world and its people that will remain with them for the rest of their lives. Teaching should equip students with knowledge about diverse places…”

2014 National Curriculum

Topics on this page:

Choosing places to teach about | Place case studies | Students’ understanding of distant places | Diversity of places | Misrepresentation of places | Ofsted’s findings on teaching about place | Preparing teaching units on distant places | Reading

Introduction

Experiencing different places is important for students. If they are to develop as global citizens, they need exposure to places that are different from ones they know well. This helps them to re-examine their own assumptions and connect with different cultures and environments.

Carl Lee (2011) sums up the dilemma facing geography teachers planning to teach distant places, when he asks ‘What are the “Gove facts” that should underpin my teaching of India now?’ He explains:

‘When, in January 2011, Michael Gove, the British Education Secretary, exhorted geography to return to “the facts” (BBC News, 2011) I was still trying to make sense of the challenge to certain assumptions that a recent visit to Bangalore, India, had thrown up. First the city, the state capital of Karnataka, had changed its name from Bangalore to Bengaluru in 2006. More importantly the “facts” about modern urban India are becoming increasingly contested. Should the narrative be one of a technologically-advanced country led by the towering wealth of its billionaires whose wealth was brought about by the mighty transformative power of neo-liberal globalisation? Perhaps the story should be about the poverty, environmental degradation and slums as suggested by India being Britain’s largest recipient of overseas development aid.’ (ODA).

As Lee illustrates and as you wrestle with this dilemma, you will recognise that there are no clear ‘facts’. Teaching about distance places in a dynamic world is teaching disciplinary knowledge; it is open to interpretation and different perceptions. It is important that your students are made aware of this.

Choosing places to teach about

When you describe a place or your experiences of it to students, you are re-presenting it to them. You make choices about the resources and images you will use in lessons and decide how you are going to present that place to students. You need to be alert to the decisions you make and what is influencing you. Consider whether you can or should give students alternative viewpoints about a place.

  • Two key readings on distant places are Freeman and Morgan (2017) pp. 123-6 and Enser (2021) chapter 7, Places.

Refer to ‘Questions to consider when selecting places in school geography’ in Freeman and Morgan (2017) Figure 3 p. 125. These questions range from the practical, such as resource availability, to the personal, such as personal staff links, to the educational, such as curriculum requirements. 

Consider whether you, as a teacher, know enough about a place to teach it well. It is also worth considering how the study of a place will take students beyond their everyday experiences.

Place case studies

Brooks and Morgan (2006) argue strongly that students should be entitled, at least once during a key stage, to undertake what they call a ‘place study’ – an enquiry that allows them to explore and draw together many threads ‘to weave a coherent whole, a rich and delightful place tapestry’.

  • Read Brooks and Morgan (2006). This extract includes the chapter on place illustrated with the example of Trinidad and Tobago.
  • Audit the key stage 3 schemes of work. Which places are students taught about? Mark the places on a world map indicating whether it is a passing mention or a detailed study.
  • Discuss this map with teachers in the department.
    • What does this tell you about the student experience?
    • What rationale was applied to select the places – or did the selection just evolve?
    • What places do students enjoy learning about most?
    • Are there places they feel should be included in their key stage 3 curriculum?
  • Discuss, in relation to Freeman and Morgan (2017) Figure 3 studied earlier, what would they like to change and why?
  • What case studies and places are taught in the school at GCSE? How and why were they selected? Does this radically change the distribution you mapped earlier?

Place case studies are usually used in one of two ways:

  • The geographical theme is the key idea, and a series of place-based case studies are used to build up understanding.
  • A place (or country) is identified for study and case studies are used to exemplify different themes within the country.

It is important to carefully consider the place case studies you select and the references below provide food for thought about selection. There are dangers in using case studies that you should be alert to. If they are chosen to illustrate issues and themes, they may give scant attention to the place itself. Also, adopting a case study approach can mean that students end up with a very piecemeal understanding of the world as pointed out in Sampling the world from John Hopkin’s GA Presidential Lecture in 2011.

  • Read ‘How does the curriculum represent the world’ in Roberts, M. (2023) p. 57.
  • Read Hamill (2021), which describes writing an A level case study on Volcán de Fuego, Guatemala and how to ensure the people and place are not misrepresented when using secondary sources.
  • Refer to Ferretti, J. and Minton, M. (2023) ‘Case studies to raise student attainment’, GA Conference Presentation, April. This contains good advice on how to use case studies effectively.

Other issues can arise if a case study is used to convey a ‘single’ story without due attention paid to diversity and balance so that it becomes a misrepresentation or reinforces stereotypes. Refer to O’Connor, A., Haward, K. and Chandrasingh, R. (2023) ‘Learning from, not about: the pedagogies of inclusive case studies’, GA Conference Presentation, April that illustrates some of the inherent dangers.

  • Read Roberts (2023) p 65-7 ‘How can case studies be misleading?’

GCSE examinations make particular use of case studies:

Scale is another factor to consider. A case study at a local scale can be best to understand the reality of the place and the people who live there. But to understand how a place impacts on wider social or economic processes, the case study may need to encompass a wider area, perhaps at the regional or national scale.

Students’ understanding of distant places

David Rogers (2017) writes ‘A major problem for students is putting places into context. Geography is full of dazzling facts and figures; however, these can be difficult to interpret unless we connect the faraway place with something more familiar.’ Bear this in mind when you are teaching distant places.

  • Before you begin to plan work for students on distant places, read the article by Liz Taylor (2015) that summarises recent research on young people’s understandings of distant places and draws out key implications for teaching.

Make sure that you allow sufficient opportunity to explore students’ prior understanding of a place at the start of any teaching unit so you can deal with any misconceptions or stereotypes (see misrepresentations of places section below). 

In particular, look out for any suggestion that students are conflating countries that are a long way away as referred to by Taylor. Draw on students’ experiences and knowledge of local places and build on these to move from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Making these connections for students is increasingly important for young people in today’s globalised world.

We can identify many similarities between places, even if they are thousands of miles apart. As Nick Middleton writes,

‘All places are unique, but all places also have many similarities. Likewise, wherever you go in the world, the familiar connections people make with their homes and each other often outweigh any differences of culture, clothing, race or diet. People everywhere harbour the same hopes and fears, they laugh at many of the same things and enjoy similar social events. While as geography teachers we rightly highlight the differences, because this is what helps to make foreign lands interesting, we should not forget the similarities, because these are the connections that enable us to relate to other human beings.’ (‘Valuing places along the Silk Road’, Teaching Geography, Spring 2005)

Another aspect to consider is students’ emotional response to other places. Morgan (2019) explores whether emotion can be an effective medium for fostering Year 9 students’ engagement in the classroom. Morgan was a trainee teacher when she explored this.

Finally, consider the ideas of Harding (2023) who argues that international experiences do not have to be limited to visits overseas. She explores opportunities offered through partnerships with schools abroad, collaborative activities and local visits to places with different environments. 

For example, she describes how from a video call with their partner school in India, the students ‘learnt far more about cultural differences during those twenty minutes than I could have taught them in the classroom‘. She comments that ‘we must find creative ways for all students to have tangible experiences of distant places if we want students to grow up as truly global citizens‘.

Diversity of places

Bear in mind what you read from Liz Taylor’s article that young people sometimes emphasise diversity between places and minimise diversity within them. While every place on earth is unique, places are also diverse. For example, there is not one ‘Sahara desert’. Within the Sahara there are landscapes that are physically different and the Sahara as a place has different meanings to different people – nomadic herder, oil company, geologist.

When we help young people to learn about places, we face a tension between the complexities of the real world and making the understanding of places accessible for them. We must be careful not to oversimplify. For example, when teaching about the Sahara it is not helpful say ‘this is what the Sahara is like’ or ‘this is what a desert is like’ because of the inherent diversity. We need to draw on many images to convey this diversity to students.

Another important consideration is to beware of teaching ‘the single story’. In the Summer 2011 editorial of Teaching Geography, Mary Biddulph writes:

‘… the implications of ‘a single story’ raise many questions for teachers of geography concerning the stories we create in our classroom and the unintended consequences for young peoples’ geographical understanding if we only tell single stories. Mexican migration is often viewed as a ‘classic case study’ of international migration, but as geography teachers, we have to ask ourselves what kind of geographical understanding does this single story create in the minds of our students? What are their mental constructions of Mexico, or any other place, if all they have to work with is this single story?’

  • Read Owen and Witts (2018) which articulates the dangers of the single story and suggests teaching approaches that you can use at key stage 3 and GCSE.
  • Read Bowden (2021) about challenging misconceptions about Africa.
  • View the video The danger of a single story, where the novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Also read Roberts (2023) chapter 7, which covers this topic.
  • See Geo (for GCSE students): Why go beyond the ‘single story’?
  • See Geo (for GCSE students): Can Haiti throw off its historical chains?

One way of emphasising diversity within a place is to provide students with a range of photos of places and ask them whether they think they are ‘Japan or not?’ You need to choose from both stereotypical and surprising pictures of the country. It is a good way to get across ideas of complexity rather than simplicity, perhaps at the start of a unit about a place.

Misrepresentation of places

We have already commented that what we study in the geography classroom is not the world itself but a representation of it. Be careful you do not misrepresent places in your lessons. As a teacher, you should challenge myths and stereotypes about places and not reinforce them. ‘Othering’ is also a trap to avoid – where one place or group of people is seen as ‘them’ with the implication that they are inferior to ‘us’.

Sometimes misrepresentations can be unintended; for example, teaching about topical events (e.g. earthquakes) can distort the image of the place. In particular, take care when you are using case studies. Always set the context in which a case study is located and do not let students assume that the whole country replicates the case study. 

Critically evaluate the information sources you use to avoid bias and stereotypes. Also remember that students have mental images of places that they bring to the classroom and these are often fed by today’s media, which may not be accurate (see Media literacy and the web).

  • Read Roberts (2023) chapter 7 ‘Representation and misrepresentation’.

Roberts (2013) clearly sets out your responsibilities as a geography teacher to avoid misrepresentation in all its forms. How do you perceive Southern Italy? Refer to pp. 65-7 to read about ‘The representation of Southern Italy in textbooks’. 

This is a useful reminder that you must carefully consider how information about places is presented in teaching resources and texts before you use them with your students. Textbooks can rely on simple binary representations, such the north/south Italy described here, that do not reflect the complexity of reality.

Read the articles by England (2015) and Garlake (2001). These remind us that we need to be wary of stereotypes in case studies and must think critically about the material we use in teaching. Make sure that students are aware that any image only conveys one view of a place, and that this is influenced by a person’s perceptions – their ‘sense’ of that place. So, when reading a text or looking at a picture about a place, a student should be asking:

  • What other perspectives might exist about this place?
  • How would different people who live, visit or work there choose to present it?
  • Who took the photograph, and why was it taken?

Do you know the perceptions or stereotypes of people and places that your students have? Find out – it can bring surprising results! Try some of the activities suggested in Roberts (2023) Figure 7.9: Classroom activities to counteract stereotyping. Also read Kennedy (2011) and Tierney (2010), which give accounts of challenging stereotypes.

It can be difficult to engage students with a ‘sense of place’ when teaching about places you have never been to. Drawing on first hand, vivid descriptions of places can stimulate students’ imagination and engage them with a real sense of place.

  • See Michael Raven’s article on his field trip to the Peruvian Amazon rainforest in Teaching Geography, Autumn 2014 or Suzanne Baldwin’s description of Christchurch, New Zealand in Teaching Geography, Autumn 2011; this is part of the ‘My Place’ series in Teaching Geography, which gives interesting personal insights.
An example of a book that is a potential resource for geography teachers is Dipo Faloyin’s Africa Is Not A Country: Breaking stereotypes of modern Africa. It illustrates the diversity of the African continent and its peoples and provides a wealth of inspiring stories and experiences to enable geography teachers to start debates on these issues in the classroom. Read the articles in Geography by Robinson (2023) and Faloyin and Finn (2023) about this book.

Ofsted’s findings on teaching about place

Ofsted (2023) reported that teaching abut ‘place’ was often poorly planned in schools. They were critical about:

  • teaching places in a way that promoted a very narrow knowledge of them e.g. only one feature, aspect or phenomenon. ‘In some schools, students only learned about India in the context of informal housing, or about Brazil in terms of deforestation‘.
  • the use of resources that present an outdated and inaccurate view of the places being studied.
  • students’ knowledge of places that is little more than a list of disconnected facts.
  • activities that expect students to find out information for themselves, without explicit teaching on how to organise this information into a coherent geographical understanding of the place.
  • students developing misconceptions about places or only learning simplistic knowledge about them as a result of not teaching about the regional context.
  • using case studies that were not appropriate for the teaching objectives.
These are things that you should avoid.

Preparing teaching units on distant places

Read these references for some good guidance and examples of place-based teaching units:

Things to consider:

  • The concepts you want to develop with students; how you will use scale?
  • Which ‘lamp(s)’ will you illuminate (natural science, humanistic, socio-economic?)
  • How will you use students’ prior learning – both formal and informal?
  • Will you use case studies? What criteria will you use to select them?
  • What images you will present of the places? How will you evoke a ‘sense’ of place?
  • What teaching and learning strategies will achieve your learning objectives?
  • Do the resources present a contemporary perspective and avoid bias?
  • How you will avoid misrepresentation, ‘stereotyping’ and ‘othering’?
  • Have you been questioning your own assumptions and world views as you prepare this unit?

Reading

  • Bowden, K. (2020) ‘Using the danger of a single story as a curriculum artefact to challenge misconceptions about Africa’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Brooks, C. and Morgan, A. (2006) Theory into Practice: Cases and Places. Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • England, R. (2015) ‘Countering stereotypes through global learning’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Enser, M. (2021) Powerful geography. Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing, chapter 7.
  • Faloyin, D. (2022)Africa Is Not A Country: Breaking stereotypes of modern Africa. London: Vintage.
  • Faloyin, D and Finn, M.(2023) ‘Interview with … : Dipo Faloyin, author of Africa Is Not A Country’, Geography, Spring.
  • Freeman, D. and Morgan, A. (2017) ‘Place and locational knowledge’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Garlake, T. (2001) ‘Looking behind disasters’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Hamill, A. (2021) ‘Representing without misrepresenting: the ethics of case study writing’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Harding, R. (2023) ‘Do international experiences have to be distant?’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Kennedy, C. (2011) ‘Imagining distant places: changing representations of Egypt’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Lee, C. (2011) ‘Wake up and smell the masala: contested realities in urban India’, Geography, Summer.
  • Morgan, M. (2019) ‘Emotional enquiry; accessing a new level of engagement in the classroom?’ Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Ofsted (2023) Getting our bearings: geography subject report, Ofsted, September.
  • Owen, C. and Witts, S. (2018) ‘Going global: Keeping it real’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Roberts, M. (2013) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Robinson, H.(2023) ‘Africa Is Not A Country by Dipo Faloyin’, Geography, Spring.
  • Rogers, D. (2017) 100 Ideas for Secondary Teachers: Outstanding Geography Lessons. Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • Taylor, L. (2015) ‘Research on young people’s understanding of distant places’, Geography, Summer.
  • Tierney, M. (2010) ‘Paradise on Earth or a land of many problems? Challenging perceptions of Sri Lanka through enquiry’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Wellsted, E. (2006) ‘Understanding distant places, chapter 14 in D. Balderstone (ed.), Secondary Geography Handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association.