Padraig Carmody and Kevin Lynch: ‘More than ever, children need to learn geography’


Padraig Carmody and Kevin Lynch: ‘More than ever, children need to learn geography’

This is exactly the wrong moment in world history to be downgrading the subject in our schools, write Padraig Carmody and Kevin Lynch

IT’S THEIR FUTURE: Geography helps us better understand problems such as climate change. Stock picture
IT’S THEIR FUTURE: Geography helps us better understand problems such as climate change. Stock picture

The study of geography is central to understanding the modern world. The term literally means writing the earth – geo-graphy. However, the decision by the Department of Education and Skills to downgrade geography from a core to an optional subject for the Junior Certificate will compromise the ability of this and future generations of Irish people to understand pressing social and environmental issues and the relationships between them.

Internationally there is increasing recognition about the scale of the world’s problems, from climate change to ocean plastics and poverty. These are not easy problems to solve but geography brings a range of hard and soft skills to students which enable them to think analytically and practically about patterns, causes and potential solutions.

Part of the problem in effectively addressing socio-environmental issues has been their compartmentalisation. For example, an economist in a health ministry making strategic decisions about budget may not be trained to understand causes of illness or the often interrelated nature of its drivers.

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Climate change is predicted to increase the geographical scope and prevalence of malaria around the world, for example. While the skills and training of economists and other disciplines are vital in effectively addressing these issues, geographers excel at understanding complex socio-environmental interactions from a systems perspective. They can bring tools to bear, such as Geographic Information Systems which enable both mapping and geo-spatial data analysis.

Effectively addressing complex issues such as climate change, or the hazards and poverty it may bring, will increasingly require an understanding of both physical and socio-economic systems.

Take, for example, inland flooding. In the past, engineering solutions were put forward as the only options to ‘control’ our waterways. The environmental degradation that resulted from this compartmentalised approach, led us to re-examine the bigger system, incorporating all the factors that operate in a river catchment. This holistic view incorporates not only how water physically moves through the environment, but also looks at human systems where choices in say land use (vital to understanding flooding) are best understood using a social science lens and techniques.

Geography is the only discipline that draws these strands of scientific enquiry together, in the process discovering new solutions to old problems. This may involve changing current practices and adapting for a more resilient future.

We now live in what some have coined a new geologic era – the Anthropocene – where the impacts of humans are so significant on the environment that they can be measured by scientists, including in the geologic record.

Another way to think about this is that we live in an era of “great acceleration”. Of all the human-made greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, 50pc have been produced in the past 25 years. The size of the global economy, and with it ocean acidification and other environmental problems, is increasing rapidly.

According to a recent report by the World Wildlife Fund, we have lost more than half of the world’s wild animals with backbones (vertebrates) in the past few decades. The figure for Latin America is more than 80pc. Given the scale and complexity of these issues, it is vitally important that we understand the drivers and interrelationships between the natural and social worlds.

Geography is the subject that does this. It combines scientific understandings of the environment, with the social sciences and teaches us to think rigorously, systematically and analytically, grounding conclusions in facts and evidence. This is all the more important in an era of fake news and “alternative facts”.

Studying geography at secondary school is vital for all students so that they gain a grounded understanding of issues such as Ireland’s housing crisis. Unless we have an informed citizenry, there will not be public pressure, or governments elected who understand and respond to these pressing social and environmental issues.

Geography imparts vital, practical skills to students, such as map reading. It teaches them about their environment and the opportunities and challenges of technological change. Its spatial focus enables us to understand a rapidly changing world and to think systematically and creatively about how to respond to it.

Ireland now has world-class geography departments in its third level institutions. Downgrading the subject at school level will compromise the pipeline of students and future research in the country and reduce the supply of graduates trained to think in transdisciplinary ways.

At exactly the time when there is increasing recognition that we need to approach policy and planning through the lens of joined-up, holistic and systems approaches, the downgrading of geography as a school subject compromises this. We call on the Department of Education to review and reverse its decision as a matter of urgency. At a time when the need for an informed citizenry is ever more in evidence as a result of the rise of populism around the world, geography as a subject has become more, not less, important.

Padraig Carmody is Head of Geography at TCD and Kevin Lynch is Head of Geography at NUIG

Sunday Independent


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