“Media literacy is a vital part of geographical education and, as geography teachers, we must ensure that students are aware of how their views of the world are shaped by the images and messages they receive from the media.”
Biddulph et al., 2021
Topics on this page:
- Evaluating media and web-based resources for use in teaching
- Teaching media literacy
- Three approaches to developing media literacy and criticality
- Social media
- Geography in the news
The media and the web play a major role today in everyone’s lives. Much of the information used directly by teachers and students, and indirectly by authors of textbooks and other offline resources, is sourced from the internet.
Students develop their knowledge and understanding of the world mainly through how geography is represented to them in these resources. The internet, with its wealth of easily accessible free resources, has been significant for geographical education.
Geographical education plays an important role in helping students to interpret and become more critically aware of what they see and hear from the internet, in newspapers, on television, in films, advertisements and in popular culture. Geography lessons should help students make sense of what they see and hear in the media and develop their skills of analysis, interpretation and communication.
Geography teachers have a responsibility develop students’ competences and empower them to use the incredibly powerful sources of information that are available today, such as the internet, confidently and critically so they can make sense of the world not only in the classroom, but also in their future lives.
Evaluating media resources for use in teaching
The media (including the web) provide plenty of information and images that geography teachers could use in lessons – but this has both pros and cons.
The explosion in the amount of material now readily available through user-generated web pages and social networking sites, means that geography teachers must be very careful when they select the resources they use with students.
Anyone can publish on the web, and it is always important to question the purpose of materials found there. Be wary of media bias, opinion and stereotypes. We live in a time of ‘fake’ news so you need to try to ascertain whether what you find online is true or false?
Most information found on the web has been uploaded for specific purposes. It could be to promote a product or holiday destination, to attract business, to raise funding, or promote a political ideal or a particular viewpoint. It is always worth consider what has been included and excluded and why.
It is very interesting for geographers to hear individual voices and accounts which can provide valuable perspectives, but they give a view from a certain standpoint in time and space which brings limitations and can be inadvertently misleading. As is discussed in the webpages on Teaching distant places, the ‘single story’ can misrepresent.
Key questions to explore for all resources are:
- Who wrote the information?
- Who published the information?
- When was it written?
- And for the web, why was the information written and published on the web?
All internet and media resources need careful evaluation to check they are reliable and valid before use in the geography classroom. Information found in sources such as Wikipedia might be correct but these sites do not undergo the kind of scrutiny that resources specifically published for schools usually do.
Newspapers have a known bias and views that are reflected in what they report. Few authors of websites declare their interests clearly and teachers need to be wary about the accuracy of what is found on the internet. See Roberts (2013) p. 182 for an example of a Google search on nuclear power and how website writers declare their interests, or do not.
Information on the web includes images as well as text, and the same care needs to be taken to ensure they are appropriate for your students. Digital tools enable images to be manipulated to give a false impression.
It is not only the media and the web that needs careful evaluation with regard to misrepresentation. Some resources written specifically for the school curriculum, can mislead or inadvertently encourage stereotyping.
- Read Roberts (2023) Chapter 7 for information on representation and misrepresentation.
- Read Teaching Controversial Issues: A guide for teachers from Oxfam Education; see Engaging with the media and ‘fake news’ page 6, and critical analysis activity on page 15.
Teaching media literacy
Chris Durbin (2006) asks whether geography is best described as ‘the way people perceive the world around them?’. This has even more relevance today in a ‘media-dependant’ world with the internet and social media readily available to teachers and students.
Geography teachers should encourage students to adopt a critical view, be aware what lay behind the ‘information’ provided and become aware of subjectivities involved in producing this information.
In this digital age, students should develop knowledge of websites that provide reliable information and become aware of why this is so. Sites from reputable bodies identify the sources of the data they used and draw on academic research.
Students need to be able to identify partisan sites that promote particular agendas or have commercial interests that influence the information provided. Students also need to be aware that search engines are not neutral and the order of results can be influenced, such as by paid-for advertising.
As geography teachers, we have an important role to help students to understand the ways in which the media and the internet construct reality. We need to develop students’ competence to consider resources critically when they are selecting data to use in geography. Teachers need to reflect with students why the information they have selected to use is valid or may not be.
Students also need to consider what is absent, as well as what is present, in the information they use. As Roberts (2021) points out developing this critical awareness in students contributes to their geographical education but it can also empower them to critically make sense of the world in their future lives.
- Read Roberts (2021) about disinformation, representation and reliability.
- Refer to Critical thinking in geography.
For a good example of the ways in which data can be interpreted to create misinformation read Harris (2018) p 16, where he shows how census data was interpreted by some media commentators to suggest increased ethnic segregation in UK cities.
Read Durban (2006) for an in depth discussion of how our thoughts, attitudes and values are shaped by the media. This provides many good examples of teaching approaches that can promote critical literacy and getting students involved in creativity.
- Refer to Biddulph et al (2021) Table 6.1 Using media literacy techniques creatively in geography; p 171.
Three approaches to developing media literacy and criticality
An enquiry strategy is a particularly effective strategy to use with older students to develop their media literacy. Ask questions such as:
- Who made the resource – does this show in what it conveys?
- What generalisations does it make? – discuss these and make a list
- What evidence (e.g. visual, data, text) is there for and against each of these generalisations?
- What evidence do you need from other sources to check out the accuracy of these generalisations and where can you find it?
Layers of inference is a useful technique to encourage students to examine sources closely. It is often used by history teachers for this purpose and you could discuss how they do this.
- Refer to Roberts (2023) Chapter 17.
Fact or opinion is an activity to encourage students to think carefully about sources that is appropriate for students from key stage 3 onwards. In geography we are often faced with sources of information for which we have to judge their veracity.
This activity helps students consider if different viewpoints are based on fact or opinion. It encourages students to form their own opinions and consider the views of others.
Many text resources can be used for this activity e.g. from the web, the media or a textbook. The activity works well with newspaper articles. Students work through the source in pairs and decide what statements are facts and which are opinions. They can either record them on a table, or highlight them a different colour in the text (one colour for fact and one for opinion).
It is important the discussion is allowed to run in this activity, and the teacher only intervenes to explain vocabulary or terms. The debrief is important to draw together the conclusions from students, and discuss the evidence they used to decide if a statement was a fact or not.
- Refer to Leat (1998) for further information on fact and opinion.
The social media, such as Facebook and Twitter are integral to the lives of both students and teachers. There are clearly issues related to social media and it is hoped that protocols will be developed to manage some of these.
Students are likely to use social media to chat with others on geography matters such as homework or field visits; they are also likely to use it to access information on current events, so it is important to consider how this media can impact on geographical learning.
Like all media, students should be made aware of the important of checking validity of sources of information.
- Refer to Using technology in geography teaching for more on social media and geography teaching.
Geography in the news
‘Geography in the news’ is a very flexible topic and a common theme in geography lessons. It gives us an opportunity to teach our students about the world today and current affairs.
It can cover a range of scales from local to global and all types of geographies including political, economic, physical, human and environmental. It makes use of the range of resources available from the media and the internet.
Look at Geography in the news from a presentation by James Riley at the GA conference in 2013 with examples of students’ work. The CBBC Newsround website has information topical issues including migration, refugees and asylum seekers in a form that is accessible for young people.
- Refer to Biddulph et al (2021) pp 176-8; Brooks (2003); Harris (2017); Oakes and Wolton (2006) to read about what to consider when using newspapers as a teaching resource.
Teachers use a range of teaching strategies to teach ‘Geography in the news’. Several are outlined in Harris (2017) and Rogers (2017) including:
- Marketplace where students support and help each other working as expert teams investigating a current event;
- A Graffiti wall used for resources students have collected;
- Geography in the news displays;
- News flash where students write a commentary for news images that are provided without the audio.
- Select three examples of newspaper articles about a geography issue and try out Task 6.3 in Biddulph et al (2021) p 176.
WebQuests are enquiries which use information from the web. As Dodge wrote in 1995:
‘A WebQuest is an enquiry-oriented activity in which most or all of the information used by learners is drawn from the Web. WebQuests are designed to use learners’ time well, to focus on using information rather than looking for it, and to support learners’ thinking at the levels of analysis, synthesis and evaluation.’
These make good activities for geography lessons. Set students tasks that use information from websites such as solving a problem, producing a report, or designing a PowerPoint presentation or leaflet.
In completing the task, they ‘transform’ the information. When WebQuests are used in group activities it encourages discussion about the information and enables comparisons between the findings of different members of the group.
Students need to be taught the skills to search for and evaluate the best websites for their geography queries so that they can undertake good independent enquiries. If students have not yet acquired these skills, the WebQuests should be teacher-structured so students do not surf the web in a purposeless way.
However, if this approach is used the opportunity for student initiative and independence is lost. It is worth discussing with the computer studies department in your school what strategies they have been taught to use for web searches.
A helpful mnemonic for the five rules for writing a WebQuests is FOCUS:
- Find great sites.
- Orchestrate your learners and resources.
- Challenge your learners to think.
- Use the medium.
- Scaffold high expectations.
- Using WebQuests in schools. This is a PowerPoint from the 2016 GA Conference by Harriet Herbst who at the time was a student teacher at the Technical University Dresden, Germany. She introduces WebQuests using an example on plastic and pollution, shares her experiences of using WebQuests in school and discuss how they can be used to motivate and engage students in learning.
- ICT and enquiry in geography which is an extract from Fisher (2002) and gives an outline of a WebQuest on the National Forest.
- Try out the mini-research activity 2 on page 187 of Roberts (2013) to develop and evaluate a web enquiry.
- Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. London: Routledge. (See pp. 176-8).
- Brooks, C. (2003) ‘Investigating the geography behind the news’, Teaching Geography, April.
- Durbin, C. (2006) Media literacy and geographical imaginations in Balderstone, D. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association.
- Fisher, T. (2002) Theory into Practice: WebQuests in Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association.
- Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher, Routledge. Chapter 10 ‘Geography in the News’.
- Harris , R. (2018) ’From data to knowledge: teaching data skills in geography’, Geography, Spring.
- Leat, D. (1998) Thinking through geography. Cambridge: Chris Kington Publishing.
- Oakes, S. and Wolton, J. (2006) ‘Geography in the media and mediating in geography’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
- Oxfam Education (2018) Teaching Controversial Issues: A guide for teachers, Oxfam
- Roberts, M. (2013) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school. Sheffield: Geographical Association Chapter 7 and 21.
- Roberts, M. (2021) ‘Geographical sources in the digital world: Disinformation, representation and reliability’ in N. Walshe and G. Healy (eds), Geography Education in the Digital World. London: Routledge, pp.53–64.
- Rogers, D. (2017) 100 ideas for Secondary Teachers: Outstanding Geography Lessons, Bloomsbury Education, Ideas 90, 91.
Dodge, B. (1995). ‘WebQuests, A Technique for Internet Based Learning’. Distance Educator, (2), 10, 13.