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'If students can't learn the way we teach, we must teach the way they learn' (Ignacio Estrada, via Tomlinson)

GTAV Primary Conference: How do I teach the new Australian Curriculum?

Posted by Lisa Hill on May 30, 2014

Last Monday I attended the GTAV Primary Conference: How do I teach the new Australian Curriculum? at the Melbourne Museum.   I was very impressed by the level of support that the GTAV (Geography Teachers Association of Victoria) is offering to primary teachers.   The GTAV has always been more of a professional association for secondary teachers, but they are reaching out to primary teachers by offering free membership for 2014 and are obviously keen to help us to implement the new curriculum.

There was an excellent display of materials for browsing, and I was most impressed by the Pearson Discovering History series.  This series of 10 books comes in three levels – lower, middle and upper primary – and it’s written specifically for the Australian Curriculum, including teacher resource books, laminated cards, online content and a ‘Hot Topic’ book.  The supplementary topic books for independent student research look excellent.  I wish Pearson would send me (and my cash-strapped school) a set to review!

The GTAV showbag included heaps of other useful stuff including a glossy promo for getting involved in Commonwealth Class, which of course is linked to the Commonwealth Games.  There was also a CD with links to the Global Education Project (GEP) which I intend to explore further, and a stack of GEP units for me to put into the library, as well as a CD offering primary and secondary units of work, short films & photos and interactive multimedia resources.


As it happens, I’d had rather a rude awakening to the new Australian Curriculum requirements on the Friday before the conference.  I’m teaching my new Explorers unit to Years 3 & 4, and it soon dawned on me that the children were none too familiar with the oceans that Magellan et al were circumnavigating.  I downloaded a label-the-oceans activity from Enchanted Learning and was somewhat dispirited to discover that while the children knew north, south, east and west, some of them had no idea how to use them in a clue like this:

Atlantic Ocean – an ocean bordering western Europe, western Africa, Antarctica, and eastern North and South America.

Anyway, after school I cranked up my Excel assessment file to record the results and so went hunting at ACARA Geography, expecting to find the relevant  content description somewhere around Years 4-6. only to find *gasp* it was an expectation for Year 2:

The location of the major geographical divisions of the world in relation to Australia
  1. using geographical tools, for example, a globe and world map, or digital applications such as Google Earth, to locate and name the continents, oceans, equator, North and South Poles, tropics and hemispheres
  2. describing the location of continents relative to Australia using terms such as north, south, opposite, near, far

I should add that AusVELS for Year 2 expects no such thing, presumably because they haven’t signed off on geography yet, and so all we have is the old Humanities statement, and no standards either till level 4:

Students develop their awareness of spatial concepts and use terms that demonstrate an understanding of absolute and relative locations. With guidance, they recognise and point to their street, town or city and state on an appropriate map. They recognise the globe as a model representation of Earth and can locate Australia and other places with which they have links. Students learn to identify and name physical features and distinguish them on the basis of variables, including size (scale/height/distribution) and colour. Through observation, they investigate and describe elements of the natural and built environments in their local area.

Well, whether or not little kids in Year 2 are expected to name continents and oceans, clearly we are going to need to jazz up our teaching of geography in primary schools, so the conference was indeed timely.

The keynote speech, Walking the Country, Exploring the History, was by author Nadia Wheatley.   I was a little bit disappointed by the exclusive focus on her own books, My Place, Going Bush, Playground and Australians All, and I wasn’t entirely convinced that they are the answer to a very crowded curriculum.   The message is, of course, that geography needs to be centred on place, be inclusive especially of indigenous prior ownership, and integrated with other subjects.  I really liked the emphasis on the integration of art, poetry and science with geography, especially drawing on-site because I know how much kids really enjoy this, and learn from it.  (Years ago on a camp at Licola, I took a session on sketching in situ.  The other teachers thought it was really daggy, but the kids loved having time for a quiet, reflective activity and their sketches were wonderful, ranging from intimate sketches of plants and insects to astonishing landscapes).  Nadia Wheatley said that drawing in-situ is ‘walking into the landscape’, and whereas a photo is a split-second observation, a drawing observes also the sounds, the weather and other things that are going on – a holistic memory that is in harmony with country.

But no matter how good they may be, (and I was a bit concerned that in a global world, there was no mention of global geography) adding more integrated units isn’t a solution.  IMO what we need to do is to use opportunities to integrate geography into existing units that we’ve already developed using the content in the Australian Curriculum.   (Explorers is an obvious example, and I’ve done heaps of geography using the Aboriginal map of Australia in my Y3&4 Aboriginal Legends unit and also in my Y5&6 Indigenous Service unit.  The Habitat unit that I’m doing with Y1&2 has lots of possibilities too, as does the Natural Disasters unit we’re updating for Years 5&6.)

InteractionStephen Latham, Education Officer at the GTAV, gave an excellent presentation.   So good, that I wish the conference had been a full day rather than a half day and we’d had time to explore the resources that he told us about.  They have a portal at Facebook, a Twitter account @GeographyVic and a stack of member only resources at their website.   They produce a journal called Interaction, and amazingly, they had extracted pages and pages of content relevant to primary schools and bound this into a booklet for the ‘showbag’ that we received at registration.

From the slideshow notes that we were given, I can share the basic ideas of geography, and the things that a primary teacher needs to keep in mind:

Geography is about

  • The physical environment of the earth’s surface (landforms, weather and climate, ecosystems (plants, animals and soils) and environmental hazards)
  • The human patterns on the earth’s surface (population patterns, cities and settlements, agriculture and industries, and resources & their uses)
  • The interactions between physical and human processes
  • The results of these, such as distinctive regions, resource uses, food production, inequalities, hazards, conservation etc.

There is a geography inquiry process (which should be represented as a cycle, but I haven’t got the graphic):

  • observing and questioning
  • planning, collecting and evaluating
  • processing, analysing, interpreting and concluding
  • communicating
  • reflecting and responding

Sustainability is a major focus, one of seven major concepts which Stephen represented in a concept wheel:

  • place,
  • space,
  • change,
  • scale,
  • environment,
  • sustainability, and
  • interconnection

So much to think about, I really think that Stephen could have done an entire day all by himself.

I was not so thrilled by the next presentation.  Making and Using Maps seemed to be the major emphasis – and maybe this just proves that I am not a geography teacher’s shoelace –  but for the life of me, I cannot understand why in the technology-rich 21st century anyone expects students to spend time neatly colouring in maps using BOLTSS (borders, orientation, legend, title, scale and source).  19th century schoolroom stuff like that is guaranteed to put students off geography if you ask me.  Once again there was the ho-hum ‘plan your next holiday’ activity – and I wondered how many times students will do this during the course of their schooling, and how much geography do they actually learn as they do it?  Feeling rebellious, I also wondered: what is the point of planning the same trip that explorers took and explaining how it is different??  My kids are loving the Explorers unit that they’re doing at the moment, but they’re not asked to colour in any maps.  No, their assessment task is to use an iPad app called Explain Everything to trace the route of their explorer on a world map, including the place of origin and the stopovers they called in at on their way, and provide an oral explanation as they do it, naming the continents, countries and oceans, telling me the name of the ship/s, and explaining the perils they encountered.

I didn’t stay for the last session.  I feel bad about this because it’s really not fair to the presenter.  I have never skipped a conference session before but (thanks to my dodgy ankle) I had had a nasty fall en route to the museum from Melbourne Central, and although I’d had good first aid from the museum staff, I was starting to feel very sorry for myself and rang my husband to drive in and rescue me.  The doc next day gave me the rest of the week off to recover, so now I feel quite heroic for having pressed on to the conference in spite of it!




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