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The Teaching Of Geography

( Originally Published 1915 )

THE TEACHER must have correct ideas of the nature and scope of geography before he can understand and apply rational methods of teaching it. The old definition, " Geography is a description of the earth ", led teachers to regard the subject as a mere collection of facts, largely unconnected, to be memorized. From this point of view, the chief work in geography was the learning of definitions, boundaries of countries, names and locations of cities, rivers, capes, etc., with little attention to relationship.

Nothing could be more deadening to an active, inquiring mind than this method of teaching this subject. Fortunately in recent years a marked change has taken place in the point of view from which the subject is approached; but if teachers are to be judged by their actions rather than by their speech, geography is still, in the case of many teachers, a collection of facts to be memorized; the only difference lies in the endeavour to make the subject more attractive by adding some interesting information. When, however, the subject is given unity by some central idea, then geography ceases to need adventitious aids to make it interesting.

This central idea is supplied when we approach geography from the point of view of man's relation to his environment. Every mind, even that of the youngest pupil at school, is interested in the uses of things, or, in other words, their relations to one another and to man. In order, however, that these relations may be under-stood and that they may have a meaning when applied to distant peoples, it is necessary that they should be learned by actual observation rather than from books, especially in the early stages of the' subject. From this point of view, the study of the locality in which the pupil lives becomes the starting-point in the study of geography. If the pupil has gone about his own home region with his eyes closed, the words of the text-book in geography can have no real meaning for him ; and even if be is able to repeat the definitions or explanations of the book, it is not evidence that he really understands what he is saying.


The study of geography has two faces, one looking toward nature, the other toward man. It is thus- related on one side to nature study and elementary science, and on the other to history. At first it is a study of nature and man, not books. Land and water, vegetation and climate, products and transportation within the home district, furnish the subject-matter. The pupil observes the hills and valleys with their slopes, the streams and their direction. He examines the soils on the hilltops and in the valleys and notes differences. He observes the rains washing the soil down the slopes and the streams carrying part of it away. This is nature at work.

He observes woodland and pasture land, sees what crops are grown on the highlands and in the rich valleys, sees how the crops when reaped are carried away by road, railway, or water-way, and notes the interchange of goods between the farm and the town. He visits local industries, sees raw materials and the manufactured products, and learns about their transportation. He sees numbers of men combining for industrial ends and begins to realize the dependence of each upon his fellows. This is man at work.

From the early studies in geography to the latest these twofold aspects of the subject must be kept in view. For example, the influence of heat on man's life may be shown by a comparison of the peoples whose native home is on the borders of the Arctic Ocean, in Ontario, or in the West Indies. The influence of heat and moisture on vegetation may be illustrated by a comparison of the arid lands of the Sahara and the forest-laden plains of Brazil; their influence on man's occupations will follow naturally. The early British settlements in America lay along the Atlantic coast-line and were walled in by the Alleghany Mountains ; the French settlements lay along the St. Lawrence River—the open highway to the heart of the continent.

When a pupil realizes that a country like Great Britain has vast beds of coal and iron, he will soon connect, in thought, the presence of these two and the manufacture there of nails, knives, agricultural implements, steel rails, etc. ; he will see why Glasgow, Manchester, Sheffield, and Birmingham are popular centres. Another step, and he will see why the principal imports are wheat, flour, meat, and other food supplies. A step further, and he will see why there are great ports at Glasgow, Liverpool, Bristol, Hull,. and London. The physical and the human aspects go hand in hand.

Properly taught, geography trains the pupil's powers of observation, commands his interests, develops his imagination, and exercises his judgment. But while this subject trains the mind in the ways indicated, it is also of great practical utility in the affairs of life.

Without a fair knowledge of geography the current events of the day cannot be understood; many events of history will be unintelligible; and the student of literature will often be as much astray as the school-girl who, while reading The Merchant of Venice, placed Venice in the south of Russia. Even to know where places are and what the peoples of these places do, adds much to one's intelligence; but when the relation between climate and surface conditions and the people has been studied, and the pupil becomes conscious of a growing power which carries him on to higher stages of development, he feels that there are few problems of economics and history which his knowledge of geography does not help him to understand.

The pupils- of to-day will be the farmers, the manufacturers, and the merchants of to-morrow; and it is impossible for one to cope successfully with the complicated problems of supply and demand, of trade and commerce, without such a general knowledge of the part of the world to which his business is directed as will enable him profit-ably to make an intensive study of that region.

As all the natural sciences are founded upon observation of the ordinary phenomena, a careful study of home geography opens the door of these studies ; thus geography may be regarded as the key to all the elementary sciences.

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