Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/November 1887/Geikie on the Teaching of Geography

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GEOGRAPHY has been the last of the sciences which are studied in school to be affected by the modern demand that science shall be taught according to the scientific method. It is extremely important that this method of teaching the description of the earth should speedily become general, for most pupils study geography, and those who leave school at an early age may not otherwise obtain that quickening of the powers of observation and inference which the study of science gives.

Furthermore, to quote Professor Geikie, "Geography, in the wide and true sense of the word, offers admirable scope for this kind of training. It may be begun on the very threshold of school-life, and may be pursued in ever-increasing fullness of detail and breadth of view up to the end of that time. No other subject can for a moment be compared with it in this respect. It serves as common ground on which the claims of literature, history, and science may be reconciled." In order to aid teachers in leading their pupils into the study of geography by the natural method, Professor Geikie has written a little manual, which broadly sketches the plan to be adopted. The following paragraphs embody the principal features of this plan:

To begin the teaching of geography with formal lessons on the shape of the earth, parallels, meridians, equator, poles, and the rest, is to start at the wrong end. To the average boy or girl of six or seven years these details have no meaning and no interest. Their introduction on the very threshold of geographical instruction is a characteristic feature of our system, or rather want of system, in this department of education. They are very generally placed at the beginning of our class-books, and being there, they form, as a matter of course, the subjects of the first lessons usually given in geography. An altogether inordinate value is set by us upon class-books. Instead of serving, as they ought, merely to furnish the text for the fuller and more interesting exposition of the teacher, these books are for the most part slavishly followed.

The lesson of the day too often consists in the repetition by rote of so many sentences or paragraphs from the class-book, which are seldom expanded or made more attractive and intelligible by elucidation on the part of the teacher. Such instruction, if it may be so called, is bad for the teacher and worse for the taught. It is especially pernicious to the children in the earlier stages of their geographical studies, for it tortures their memories and brings no compensating advantage. It fosters idleness and listlessness on the part of the teacher, who, instead of exerting his faculties to invest the subject with a living interest, becomes for the time a mere machine, mechanically acting within the limits prescribed in the class-book.

In dealing with the young we should try to feel ourselves young again, to see things as they are seen by young eyes, to realize the difficulties that lie in the way of children's appreciation of the world around them, to be filled with an abounding sympathy which subdues all impatience on our side, and calls out on the side of the children their confidence and affection. Mutual sympathy and esteem are a pledge of enduring success. To cement this bond of union between teacher and taught there should be no set tasks for some considerable time. The lessons ought rather to be pleasant conversations about familiar things. The pupils should be asked questions such as they can readily answer, and the answering of which causes them to reflect, and gives them confidence in themselves and freedom with the teacher. The objects in the school-room, in the play-ground, on the road to school, should be made use of as subjects for such questionings, with the aim of drawing out the knowledge acquired by the pupils from their own observation. Every question should be one which requires for its answer that the children have actually seen something with their own eyes and have taken mental note of it. The putting of such questions stimulates the observing faculty, and not unfrequently gives a chance of distinction to boys and girls whose capabilities are not well tested by the ordinary lessons of school.

But, while laying his foundations broadly in this way and widening the knowledge of his pupils, the teacher will do well to keep clearly before him some definite goal toward which the discipline of the elementary stage is to lead up. Probably no object can be suggested more fitting for this purpose than the thorough comprehension of a map. The power of understanding a map, and getting from it all the information it can afford, is an acquisition which lies at the base of all sound geographical progress. Yet how large a proportion, even of the educated part of the community, have only a limited and imperfect conception of the full meaning and uses of a map!

There is happily now a growing recognition of the principle that adequate geographical conceptions are best gained by observations made at the home locality. The school and its surroundings form the natural basis from which all subsequent geographical acquirement proceeds. Upon a groundwork of actual observation and measurement the young mind is led forward in a firm and steady progress. The school-room and play-ground serve as units from which an estimate is gradually formed of the relative proportions of more distant objects and places.

During infancy we learn that things differ in size and in distance from us. How much they differ in these respects is found out more slowly, if indeed discovered at all. Among the peasantry many adults may be met with who have hardly advanced a step beyond the infantile stage of perception. And even among those who consider themselves educated, it is sometimes ludicrous to see how absolutely untrained they are to judge with even an approach to accuracy of the relative sizes and distances of things. One of the most useful lessons, therefore, in the elementary part of geographical instruction, is to accustom the pupils to appreciate differences of size and proportion by actual measurement. The most convenient unit of measure to start with is the length of a pace, while the school-room is the most convenient place to try the first experiments in mensuration. By multiplying the measurements they have taken at school, the pupils will appreciate how far it is from school to their homes, what distance separates their village or town from the next, what is the size of their parish or county, and so on to the country as a whole, and eventually to the dimensions of the earth itself, and of planetary space.

If want of accuracy in judging of the dimensions of things is a common failing, not less prevalent is want of accuracy in judging of their relative positions, or what is called orientation. We begin in infancy with the difference between our right and left hands, and recognize things and places as lying to the right or left of us. But many of us hardly get beyond this rudimentary stage. It is almost incredible how helpless even educated people often are if asked to tell whether one place lies to the north or south of another. They know that in passing between them you go to the right or left, as the case may be, but there their power of localization ends. What is needed is greater quickness and precision in orientation, and this ought to be acquired from early training at school.

When some progress has been made in elementary geographical conceptions, the blackboard should be brought into increasing use. After the school-room, for example, has been paced, and its dimensions and proportions have been thus ascertained, its plan should be drawn on the board by the teacher, with the relative positions of door, windows, and fireplace. From this beginning, gradual steps may be taken until the pupils can themselves draw on the board and on their slates rough plans of the school and of the play-ground. At first it will be sufficient to aim only at a general resemblance of proportion. The great object is to teach the young minds to realize the relations between the actual boundaries and the artificial representations of them. To succeed in this is by no means so easy as might be thought; but success in it is absolutely necessary, and must be attained no matter at what expenditure of time and labor. When it has been achieved, efforts should next be made to depict the plan to scale, and with a nearer approach to correctness.

It is desirable to ascertain and arrange the conceptions that children already possess as to time. They know that day and night follow each other in unbroken succession. They further know that each day has a morning, a noon, and an evening. These and their other notions should be drawn from them by questioning, and the answers, corrected by the class (or by the master if no member of the class has the requisite information), should be methodically summarized and repeated in the simplest language, as the basis of actual experience from which the pupils are to advance to further acquisitions of knowledge.

In taking the school surroundings as the basis of instruction, the teacher will readily recognize that, while the principle of his method remains the same, its details must necessarily vary according to the circumstances of the locality. The two most obvious distinctions are those of town and country. In a town, illustrations of the political side of geography are most prominent; in the country, it is the physical side that especially invites attention. The teacher should from the first realize that some of the most valuable parts of the training his pupils can receive are not attainable within the walls of the class-room. Where practicable, he should himself take walks with his pupils, and direct their attention to the objects to be seen as they go. There are, no doubt, practical difficulties in the way of carrying out this method, but these arc generally not insurmountable.

In all these lessons, the system of question and answer must be scrupulously followed. Anything approaching to a style of lecturing should be carefully avoided. Instead of appearing to discourse himself, the teacher should aim at obtaining clear, articulate expression of the knowledge and experience of the children. He may then judiciously sum up what has been gained during the lesson from the united experience of the whole class, and supplement it by filling in some of the more notable gaps. But the additions thus made by him to the common stock of acquirement should never be too preponderating a feature in the earlier lessons, and should come as naturally suggested by what has been obtained from the class.

It is often of advantage to let the lesson be suggested by some incident of the day, or something that has arrested notice since the previous lesson. The attention of the children is thereby riveted to the subject. They are ready to say all that they know about it, and eager to hear anything more which the teacher may tell them. A wet morning will profitably suggest a lesson on rain; the replenishing of the school-room fire with coal will furnish materials for another lesson, of a more advanced kind. The flitting of a butterfly through the open window of the school-room will suggest a lesson on insect-life, and give the teacher an opportunity of unfolding some of the wonders of the animal world and enforcing a reverence and sympathy for all living things. In short, his eye should be ever on the watch for materials on which he can train the observing and reflecting faculties of his scholars. If an incident likely to be of this useful kind should occur even in the midst of a lesson on another subject, he may profitably interrupt the work to direct attention to it that it may be distinctly seen, and he can afterward, at the proper time, return to the elucidation of it.

An observant teacher will not fail to notice that, long before children can understand or take any intelligent interest in the geography-lesson as ordinarily given in our schools, they are quite alive to the attractions of that large mass of phenomena embraced within the scope of what is called physical geography. They at first care little about the political boundaries or subdivisions of countries; but if you speak to them of the changes of the sky, the movements of the wind, the fall of rain, the nature of snow and frost, or of rivers, lakes, and glaciers, of waves and storms, of the soil and the plants that grow in it, of insects and birds and familiar quadrupeds, in short, of the outer world which they see around them from day to day, their attention is at once arrested. The subject is one that comes within the range of their own observation. And in education, the importance of connecting the subject of instruction with the personal experience of the pupils can hardly be overestimated. As the school district constitutes the basis from which, as far as possible, the pupils are to realize what the world is as a whole, early attention should be given to its natural features. Among these the configuration of the ground should claim special notice. In flat regions, it must obviously be less easy to find practical exemplifications of this branch of the subject; though, even there, observation of the flow of water will reveal differences of level, and determine the highest and lowest ground.

A knowledge of the great movements of the air we breathe, and of the general laws that govern these movements, ought obviously to form an elementary part of any liberal education. The subject has attractions for old and young, since it includes a consideration of many of the most familiar occurrences of every-day life. Variations of weather, changes of temperature and moisture, the gathering of clouds, the rise of winds and storms—these and many other phenomena, which have fixed our attention from infancy, ought not to be the objects of mere gaping wonder. They should be intelligently appreciated, and the due comprehension of them should be begun during the early years of school-life.

From the rainfall, the transition is natural and easy to the flow of water over the land. The part of the rain that runs off in runnels and brooks can readily be followed. Where a stream exists in the school locality it should be made the text for the lessons on the flow of rivers, and the action of running water upon the surface of the land. The portion of the rain that sinks underneath the surface is less easily followed. But if there are any springs in the neighborhood of the school, they may be made an effective means of explaining the underground circulation of water. They should be revisited at different seasons, more particularly after drought and after heavy rains, when any appreciable variation in the volume of water may be detected, and the relation of the outflow to the rainfall may be enforced. Should the school be situated near the sea, an inexhaustible field of illustrations may be found along the shore. The phenomenon of the tides, which elsewhere can only be more or less intelligently followed from diagram and description, can here be actually seen every day. Besides the tides, the formation of waves may be observed at the coast; also their action in wearing away the edge of the land in one part, and heaping up shingle and sand at another.

In our methods of geographical instruction it has been too much the practice to ignore the biological side of geography. Yet, if we think of it, the forms of the land, the nature and distribution of the soils, the variations of climate, the system's of drainage, and the other features of the surface of the earth, derive, after all, their chief interest for us from the way in which they determine the conditions under which the living plants and animals of a country exist and flourish. The flora and fauna include so much of what makes the earth habitable and pleasant to man, that the description of them may be regarded as the highest subdivision of geographical narrative which finds its goal or crown in the characteristics and operations of man himself. No description of a region, therefore, and no mode of geographical instruction can be looked upon as complete, which do not bring before us at least the more striking features in the general assemblage of plants and animals.

For the effective instruction of the young in that wide and important department of knowledge commonly but not very happily called political geography, the school locality forms an admirable center and starting-point. Such matters as the partitioning of the earth's surface into countries and parts of countries, the local names assigned to these subdivisions and to the natural features that diversify them, the position and growth of cities, towns, and villages, the distribution of population, the opening of communications by roads, canals, and railways, the distribution and increase of trades, manufactures, and commerce—these and other topics embraced within the same extensive subject can obviously be made at once intelligible and interesting if they are first considered with reference to the illustrations of them which the surroundings of school may supply.

The subjects treated of continuously and in logical sequence in the foregoing chapters need not, of course, be presented in such formal and methodical order to the pupils. As I have already insisted, they should be taught in a natural and spontaneous way. It is not, in the first instance, of such moment that any definite order should be followed, as that the subjects should be made attractive, and the interest of the pupils in them should be awakened and sustained. Whether the instruction has been given in a methodical or more desultory fashion, much varied information about the home locality will have been brought together. Before proceeding further, and enlarging the circle of vision by entering upon a wider geographical area beyond the personal acquaintance of the pupils, it will be found of great advantage to arrange and summarize this information. By so doing the teacher connects the scattered data, and illustrates in a memorable way the value of a principle of classification in helping us to deal intelligently with a multiplicity of facts. He, as it were, takes stock of the progress of his scholars at the end of the first stage of their geographical education, and makes an important forward step in the direction of more advanced teaching.

If I have succeeded in making clear ray conception of the plan of education, it will be seen that the same practical method of instruction, so advantageous with regard to the home environment, should be continued when the horizon of vision widens. Already, before the lessons are begun that deal with the geography of the fatherland, allusions and suggestions have been made that have prepared the way for the fuller treatment of that subject, which, therefore, when at last reached, is not by any means unfamiliar. Though actual journeys beyond the limits of the parish or immediately surrounding district may not be possible, much advantage will be found in making imaginary ones, the teacher acting as leader, and guiding the scholars in traverses across the map. In the course of a series of traverses in various directions from the school as a center, a considerable stock of miscellaneous information regarding the surrounding region will eventually be acquired by the pupils. Before they are ready to pass outward to a yet more extensive geographical survey, it will be desirable for them to pursue a similar course to that which they followed before quitting the consideration of the parish. They wall be asked to arrange in summary form the information they have gathered, so as to compile a geographical description of another definite area of ground. In the United Kingdom, and generally in English-speaking countries, the next area after the parish for purposes of this kind is the county. And what now remains to be accomplished is to do for the native county what has already been done for the native parish.

The teacher is now in a position to consider the most important step that his scholars have yet taken in their geographical training. They have now to realize the relation borne by their own surroundings to the whole country. As before, this step must be taken deliberately upon a map, which ought to be a large, clearly engraved wall map of the country, not overloaded with details. The first use of such a general map of the country probably requires a greater mental effort on the part of young learners than we usually suspect. It affords, however, according to the method of instruction here advocated, another and excellent opportunity of training the sense of proportion in geography. The faculty of readily appreciating the relation between the map and the area it represents; of recognizing the actual value of the distances expressed upon the map; of realizing from the engraved lines of water-course what must be the general disposition of the ground, should be sedulously cultivated from the very commencement of the employment of general maps of countries.

When the broad features of the country and the meaning of the more frequent geographical terms have been mastered by an attentive examination of the wall-map, there remains only the final step in the elementary stage of tuition, which is to pass outward from the country and realize its position upon the surface of the earth. I have alluded to the way in which the idea of the shape of the earth is to be impressed upon the minds of the learners. It is at the present stage of their training that this can most conveniently be accomplished. They have gradually had their ideas of geographical space extended from their own immediate surroundings, and are now prepared to realize the conception of the size and form of the whole planet. The simpler kinds of proof of the globular shape of the earth will be given, and the lesson will be illustrated from the school globe, which must now be brought into constant use. Having grasped the notion that they are living on a huge ball, the scholars will next be asked to find out upon the globe the position of their own country. Some little time should be spent in comparing the representation of the country there with that shown on the large wall-map already used. The outlines will be found to be still more generalized, and a crowd of details and names that occupied a place on the wall-map can no longer find room on the much smaller delineation of the country upon the globe. The lesson that was enforced in passing from the large parish plan to the county map, and from the county map to the general wall-map of the country, may now again be dwelt upon in advancing from the wall-map to the globe. And thus, by a continuous chain of illustration, the minds of the learners are led upward and outward from their school surroundings to realize the shape and dimensions of the earth.

In bringing to a close my remarks on the elementary stage of geographical teaching, let me allude to one great advantage which the method of instruction here advocated seems to me to possess. In too many cases the education of the young never advances much beyond the elementary stage. If the geography-lessons have consisted of mere pages of definitions and statistics mechanically learned by rote, they are pretty sure to be soon in great part forgotten, and they leave little or no permanent influence behind them. But if such a system as I have sketched be followed, a lasting benefit can not but remain on the minds and characters of the young learners, even though most of the facts that were familiar enough at school should eventually slip out of their memory. Trained to use their eyes, and to reflect upon what they observe, they start in the race of life with those faculties quickened that tell powerfully on success. They are furnished, too, with a source of perennial pleasure in that capacity for the perception and enjoyment of Nature which these early lessons will have fostered.

Fully to discuss advanced geographical education as it deserves would require an ample and exhaustive treatise. This it is no part of my present plan to attempt. What I wish to do is rather to show how the same guiding ideas may be pursued from the elementary into and through the advanced stage. The latter is broadly characterized by the use of class-books or readers, by the practice of written exercises and essays, and by greater precision, detail, and breadth in the manner of treatment. The line to be pursued will largely depend upon the individual predilections of the teacher himself. In some cases the historical, in others the literary, in others the scientific aspect will be most congenial. It is well that insight into each of these sides of geography should be gained by the pupils. But, above all, the instruction must be earnest and thorough. I come back once more to the idea expressed at the beginning of these chapters that, in the higher stages as well as in the lower, the success of the teacher of geography depends upon his own firm grasp of his subject, upon the living interest he takes in it, and upon the sympathy which he can awaken in the minds and hearts of the young.

  1. "The Teaching of Geography. Suggestions regarding Principles and Methods for the Use of Teachers." By Archibald Geikie, LL.D., F.R.S. London and New York: Macmillan & Co. Pp. 202. Price, 60 cents.