The Learning 2.0 School

Shifting Perceptions of Teaching and Learning in and out of the School Library

Reflections on Planning Authentic Teaching & Learning in Geography Class

Posted by Michelle Torrise on January 29, 2012

Last week I met with my colleagues to work on developing a collaborative geography unit that focuses on authentic learning.  The majority of our 3 hour meeting was spent on discussing the overarching themes and essential questions of the unit, which led to a discussion on rethinking the entire course.   I left the meeting excited about the project, but a little unsure of what we accomplished.

Then I came across a post in one of my favorite blogs, Thinking Mind, published by Neil Stephenson (PD Coordinator, Calgary Science School).  In a post on Student Centered Learning,  Neil talks about his experience when planning an inquiry unit on the Italian Renaissance with two grade 8 Humanities teachers.  He commented, “In our planning sessions, almost all the time was spent developing and clarifying the central question (and sub questions) of the inquiry. ”   I was relieved to learn that this planning is essential to creating authentic learning.   Neil further explains the importance of inquiry and authentic learning in his post Creating Authentic Learning.

This position of authentic learning is also supported by the National Council of Social Studies.  The NCSS states in their position statement of the qualities of a powerful and authentic SS curriculum, “(the) skills necessary to help our students thrive in a world of continuous and accelerating change are emphasized. These include discipline-based literacy, multi-disciplinary awareness, information gathering and analysis, inquiry and critical thinking, communication, data analysis and the prudent use of twenty-first century media and technology. Skills are embedded throughout meaningful social studies lessons, rather than added on at the end.”

Beyond my professional reading, my mind hasn’t stopped spinning about the conversations I had last week with my colleges on Bloom’s Taxonomy, essential questions, and developing critical thinking and problem solving skills in the Geography curriculum.    I wanted to share my thoughts on connecting our conversation and goals to the bigger picture.  As I reflect on our work,  my inquiring mind wants to know…

What is the ultimate goal of education?  My thoughts today (they’re always evolving) are, “whether we are teaching students who are rich or poor, white or brown, conservative or liberal, religious or atheist, gay or straight…high school teachers are in a unique position to engage and empower youth in ways that prepare them to be active and productive citizens of the world they will inherit.”

What does this mean at the high school level?  “This might mean something different within each content area, but I think we all should have the same goal of developing the skills students need to be “globally competent.”  Specifically towards Geography, I think Ryan Goble (who is part of our team) referenced the perfect term, “geo-literacy.”  This leads me to a follow-up question that is somewhat of a paradox in education, “How do we build global competency [or geo-literacy] while respecting the unique backgrounds of ALL students WITHOUT sterilizing the curriculum?”  One answer might be, “by encouraging students to share, develop, and synthesis their thoughts and ideas in a safe and culturally responsive environment, i.e., modeling cultural responsiveness in the classroom.”  See, Preparing Culturally Responsive Teachers (Villegas and Lucas, 2002).

Within this context, what geo-literacy skills might be taught in geography class? These skills might include: the ability to identify and value the unique aspects of a culture and land; being able to identifying a particular community’s needs, assets, and human resources; understanding how to do research within the field of sociology (e.g., what is the difference between big university/funded research and action or participatory research, etc.); assessing solutions and outcomes for community issues and growth; and, articulating how different agents impact particular communities.

What does this look like from a planning perspective? One example unit objective might be….”Students will develop, articulate, and support their own perspectives on the following guiding questions of inquiry within the context of specific geographic areas of study.”

How do everyday experiences shape quality of life and culture within society?
Why are some communities resistant to poverty while others are not?
Why are some communities able to develop sustainable resources while others are not?
How do communities draw on natural and human resources to strengthen communities?

What is the overarching essential question to frame the unit?  

An overarching essential question  (and there are many, e.g., insert big business, history, migration, etc.) to frame these questions as a unit might be, “Does [geography] play a positive or negative role shaping community and culture”?

The beauty of this question is there is no one answer because in reality there are many positive and negative aspects of geography (or business, government history, migration, etc.)…This essential question will engage students in some very relevant discussions on geography and its impact on cultures, societies, economics, environmental issues, industries, and sustainability.   The outcome, “students will uncover the interdisciplinary complexities and authentic study of geography, leaving with more questions then they started with. “

Just a few thoughts and ideas to share.


Villegas and Lucas. Preparing Culturally Responsive Teachers: Rethinking the Curriculum.  Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 53, No. 1, January/February 2002 20-32


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