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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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The Teaching of Elementary Geography

by A.W. Gundry, M.A.
Volume 11, no. 3, 1900, pgs. 168-174


". . . a master who was talking of Aconcagua said, 'The mountain is 23,000 feet high, and no one has yet been up to it'--(this was true at that time). A boy of the class, with a desire for information tempered by impudence, asked--'Please, sir, if no one goes up a mountain how can you know the height?' The master, a smart Irishman, promptly rejoined--'Why, you go half-way up, and then multiply by two.'"


If the work that he has done in any particular subject awakens a sensation of pleasure in the instructor's subsequent reflections, that subject will naturally be one of his favourites; yet the same feeling forbids him to reckon it among the most important factors of educational training. For, the higher the work is, the greater the strain, and a great strain is not exactly pleasurable to him who supplies the energy. Ask a good teacher of classics or mathematics what are his sensations during the performance of his function, and he will answer:--"Sensations! I have none; no self-respecting school-master has." Further pressed, he may admit that, during his work, he was conscious only of pounding away to the best of his powers, and, when it ceased, of more or less exhaustion. Lighter subjects are a relief to him only by the contrast, and among these is geography. Here the master of his subject has no complex intellectual process to keep up while instructing, nor has he so much resistance to overcome on the part of sluggish or unwilling pupils, for the inertia or opposition offered by the boy, at least in this country, to his own education is a factor that deserves large consideration in the judgment of those who would educate. In geography, this resistance is considerably minimized. There are no intellectual difficulties here, over which the pupil must be brought by force; and, as it is now taught, it grants some employment to his restless fingers. So the happy instructor is permitted to indulge, while he teaches, in the interest called up by the associations of places brought up in his work; and this interest cannot afford him abounding pleasure both at the time and in after impressions left by his work.

But it is only of late years that geography has become a manageable subject; formerly, under a bad method, it was a terror to all concerned, and that within the recollection of most of us. No school dealt with it thoroughly; some, finding it troublesome in itself and nearly useless for public examinations, abandoned the teaching of it altogether, and this absence or only partial recognition of the value of geography still remains in many school schemes. It was the method of instruction that so disparaged an obviously important branch of knowledge. The plan adopted was to take a text-book like Cornwall's or [Alexander?] Mackay's, a mere compendium of geographical results, and to compel the pupil to learn long lists by heart. The master next day heard this lesson in the same manner as he heard repetition, or he bewildered the class with dry detached questions, such as:--"Name the chief manufactured exports of India," or, "Describe the general configuration of the West Indies." Small wonder, if a conscientious pupil was found in examination to have written down a complete and accurate list of the capes of Spain, when asked for a similar account of the rivers of Germany. Small wonder, too, if schools neglected such a burdensome subject especially when no scholarships or public appointments were to be gained by supporting it. Yet it has often been remarked that our national ignorance of geography has amounted to a national fault and materially injured our national interests. There is much to be said for such a contention, but it is too far outside the sphere of educational questions to be further investigated here. We can, at a glance, recognize the importance of geography amongst the departments of human knowledge without bringing in external considerations, however important.

At the same time, we can sympathize with the schools, for there is undoubtedly a formidable obstacle to be met in the teaching of geography. That is the multitude of the names that must be accepted and retained by memory. So in all subjects the elementary facts are work for the memory. It is the memory that tells us that the genitive of "Mensa" is "Mensae," or that nine times nine is eighty-one. Only in geography the number of such facts to be learnt is larger than in most subjects, and the memory cannot be refreshed in the same way by constant repetition. Under this burden, the teaching of geography halted.

If I mistake not, it was that largely and undeservedly maligned institution, the Army Examination, that first, by insisting on geography, made it necessary to teach it thoroughly. Then, under the pressure of this necessity, a new method gradually was evolved. It did not, of course, get rid of the necessity of remembering a large number of names, but it learnt to present these to the memory in a much more acceptable form, and to combine the whole into an organization much more easily retained. It is well known that the memory more easily takes hold when it is aided by the interest of observation and discovery, and that it easily retains large multitudes of information, if only these multitudes are welded together by the powers of association, whether the association be natural or artificial. The problem was to apply these principles to the particular science of geography; the solution of the problem established a new method. Let us now imagine a master of the new school at his work, giving ourselves also the privilege of looking into his secret thoughts as well as his open acts. For the sake of simplicity, suppose him to be instructing younger pupils, say boys of 14, and to be engaged in one of his earlier lessons. The boys are provided with pen, pencil and paper. Both they and the master have a class-book of geography, but this is only for reference; very often it is not used through the whole of the lesson. The merit of such a class-book will be that it knows what facts to omit, only retaining the more important, and presenting these in a convenient shape so that the boy can readily refer to them. The volumes of Messrs Longmans' Geographical Series appear to me to be excellent in this respect, but the real text-book is the atlas, and a good atlas must be in the hands of every member of the class. A good atlas is one that does justice to all parts of the world; so many inadequately represent the Malay Archipelago and the Pacific Islands or even the European countries. It must be well up to date in Africa and other partially explored lands. Above all it must be clear, so that a name, once given with some indication of its whereabouts, may catch the eye at once.

The master begins by naming the map to be learnt. He will not select at random. If it is an early lesson, he will avoid, for simplicity's sake, any land of rugged coast-line or high political development. The one is difficult to draw, the other has too many facts on the economic side for humble beginners. Asia or England are best let alone for the present. South America with simple shapes and simple political divisions may perhaps be selected for the first lesson. The subject stated, the master proceeds to sketch it from the atlas or his memory on the blackboard, at the same time each pupil sketches it for himself, first in pencil: afterwards the outline is inked in, and the pencil-mark rubbed out. New pupils will sometimes take half-an-hour over this operation; but after three or four lessons, five minutes suffice for a practical outline. A few clumsy-fingered boys may need help from the master, who walks round after he has finished his own sketch; some few need to be hurried, some restrained. The master endeavors as far as possible to make all finish together.

Next, one prominent line of latitude and one meridian shall be put in and numbered. It is enough for the present that the pupil should not make wild mistakes in latitude and longitude; the theory is left for another and a later lesson. This done, names are put into the map, not promiscuously, but under one heading at a time--capes, seas and bays, &c., islands, mountains, lakes, rivers, countries, towns, natural products, manufactures, exports and imports. Perhaps seas should theoretically come first; practically it is better to begin with capes for fear of the names overlapping. The master therefore tells the boys to mark in their outlines the following capes, and gives them one by one. He does not mark them in his own outline, but uses this to indicate the position of a point that any one boy fails to find; this, however, becomes less and less necessary in succeeding lessons. The boys are instructed to print the names in ink carefully and neatly. When the capes are all marked, the master bids the boys close the atlas, and learn the capes in order from their own maps. After a sufficient time he tells them to put away the maps also and write out a list of these capes. This they do, and the lists made are passed from one boy to another, that the names may be proved correct, the total added and the number recorded.

Then the next heading, seas, bay, &c., is treated in the same way, and so on, in succession. Products, imports and such like have to be taken from the class-book instead of the atlas, though some atlases give them. They should, however, be printed in the proper places in sketched outline, and learnt in the same way as the natural features. In this way, a country like South America will, perhaps, consume two hours. It does not matter if the two hours be not consecutive; the master can store away the sketches for the interval. [South America is a country??]

A third hour may be devoted to letting the boys sketch and fill in the map from memory, without the help of atlas or any other book. This result the master takes away and marks, (1) by judging the correctness of the drawing, (2) by merely counting the number of correct names in their right places. Then South America is disposed of, and the class is ready for another map.

Under this process it may be observed--that the shape of each country is taught by drawing it--that every name is seen and written often enough to impress it without trouble on the memory--that the act of the memory in reproducing it calls forth, not a bare name, but a map of some physical feature with its name attached--and, also, that such a connected idea of each map is given to the mind that it is almost impossible for a given name to stray in the pupil's mind to the wrong map, for, the eye glancing at the completed sketch, the mind grasps the parts and the whole at the same time, which, of course, is impossible for purely oral teaching.

Nineteen or twenty maps so treated will complete the elementary survey of the world. Some maps are more complicated than others, but not so much so as to make the method stated either impossible or difficult. One hour at least in the term must also be reserved for the teaching of "mathematical geography," more especially the theory of longitude and latitude. If another spare hour or two can be found, it is useful to devote them to map-drawing, insisting this time only on perfect accuracy and neatness in this important part of geography.

Practically I have found that knowledge acquired in the way described above is very firmly established in the memory. Boys generally become very keen in their competition in writing down lists of names, and this makes them work heartily. But the real good lies in the attention given by the eye to the atlas, or the outline, while they are engaged in copying or learning.

Such is the essential plan of work. Practically, of course, much that is non-essential to the method comes in. Notes are wanted here and there on various phenomena, as salt lakes or volcanos. Soil and climate require a comment now and again--What is Loess? or Tufa? Why is the Atacama rainless? All such notes are given orally by the master in a running comment as the lesson proceeds, and, if well treated, they add to the interest of the lesson without impairing the general system.

To the master, interest never flags. Every name that occurs brings with it charming associations from his reading or his actual experience. How far he ought to share that interest with his pupils is a question that cannot find a rigid answer to suit all cases. The amount of work to be got through is one consideration. In working with many pupils I find too much to do to allow of any digressions; but in general school work there is usually ample time for the task set, and all the commentary you please. In the latter case the judgment has to decide which of the various associations help the pupil to learn geography and which do not. I do not believe that the merely personal reminiscences of the master, whether gathered from his own experience or from books, do much good by being communicated to the pupils. But proverbs or stories connected with places, historical or romantic, have their value, if they are very striking or previously familiar to the pupil. The map of Scotland will serve for illustration. I note the birth-place of Thomas Carlyle if I think my pupils know anything about him; if not, I pass by this point in silence. The mention of the delightful phrase, "Peebles for pleasure," serves to fix the position of that grass-grown town in the pupils' memory for ever; the homely proverbs connected with Cupar, Loch Awe, and other places do the same service. I come on, say, to Elgin. I describe or draw its ruined Cathedral. But of what use is it to enlarge on the raids of the "Wolf of Badenoch," of whom the boy has never heard? I myself had a curious experience there, for on that broken tower, for the only time of my life, I felt the sensation of giddiness. The recollection is interesting to myself and stimulates me in my teaching, but I do not mention it, for how would it help my listeners to remember the position and important attributes of Elgin? In this way the useful associations may be separated from those which are useless for the present purpose. What remains along with that which accidentally occurs adds a great interest to the geography lesson, and gives it its attractive character.

The difficulty of memory is got over by our method; all else is a positive pleasure especially in the recollection. More good stories occur to me in connection with the teaching of geography than with any other subject; quaint expressions and a master who was talking of Aconcagua said, "The mountain is 23,000 feet high, and no one has yet been up to it"--(this was true at that time). A boy of the class, with a desire for information tempered by impudence, asked--"Please, sir, if no one goes up a mountain how can you know the height?" The master, a smart Irishman, promptly rejoined--"Why, you go half-way up, and then multiply by two." That was twenty years ago, and the boy of the story is still wondering whether the master was chaffing him or disguising his own ignorance. Such are the amenities of the class-room.

But to sum up our subject as a department of education, it may be said:
          (1) Geography imparts most useful and necessary knowledge.
          (2) With a proper method, it is a delightful subject to teach.
          (3) It does not, however, serve to develop any of the higher powers of the learner's mind. It is distinctly an "afternoon subject."


Proofread June 2011, LNL