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Australia needs a geographic revolution

By Brad Ruting - posted Tuesday, 22 April 2008


Geography is all around us. Where you live and work, why you go where you do to shop or have fun, how you move about, and what public and private spaces mean to you can be thought about geographically. So can globalisation, climate change, landforms, macroeconomics and events happening on the other side of the Earth. As can the view out the window. Being able to think geographically is an important skill; it helps us to make sense of our world.

The world is far from perfect, and these imperfections matter. Why places are different, the way people interact with their environment and with each other, and what places mean to different groups all constitute geography. Geography is the world, and knowing the world is important.

Most of us are able to think about our environments critically, to some extent, and understand something about how they work. Many people learnt geography at school years ago, where maps were drawn (and dreaded), trivial facts about place names were memorised and human-environment interactions were studied in abstracted and quantitative terms. That’s boring geography. Real geography is much more than this. It opens up skills and techniques that provide new ways of thinking not only about places, landscapes and environments, but also about people, societies and policies.

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Enhancing the geographic education of Australia is important if we are to have an innovative and productive future. It is important for all of us to know our own place, as well as the place of our towns, communities and our nation, in the bigger picture. Knowing how and why things happen, and being able to evaluate the effects of natural and human processes on different places and environments, leads to better policies and a better recognition of our strengths. Australia needs a Geographic revolution to ensure our economy is successful, our cities and regions are sustainable, and our government policies are both efficient and equitable.

This article presents my arguments in favour of fostering a more geographically aware Australia. This must start at the school level.

What is geography?

Essentially, geography is the study of how people interact with their environments - which include the natural, geophysical, biophysical, ecological, social, cultural, political and intellectual environments. Geography is not just about being able to read maps or identify landforms. It is not a subject, discipline or set of facts, but a way of thinking critically about the real world and understanding the varied processes and outcomes within it.

Geography involves an awareness of different places and people, and an understanding of the relationships between them. It is the where and the where not, and also the how, the why and the why not. Many have called geography an academic field without boundaries, or the interdisciplinary discipline. As a field of research, it brings together theories and techniques of other natural and social sciences. By linking together the natural world and the people and societies within it, geography spans the physical and the social sciences, building a bridge between them that allows both to be reached.

Perhaps the two fundamental concepts at the heart of geography are those of space and scale. Whatever we focus on - economic development, labour markets, environmental change, political identifications, migration, housing - there are always differences across places, and varied conclusions and perspectives that come from looking at phenomena at different scales, from the individual body to the nation, or from the local site to the globe itself.

Questions of space and scale apply to almost anything with a geographical aspect - Indeed, these concepts have fundamentally shaped Australia’s development as a nation. Our distance from Europe and Asia meant that we were colonised quite late and the transport of goods and people was expensive and time consuming (the ‘tyranny of distance’). Our enormous scale and physical geography determined where our cities formed, how they interacted and where people settled, farmed and worked.

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Even today, our physical geography is important for our place in world financial markets (we benefit from our timezone), the mineral resources in our earth, our tourism industry, agricultural productivity and the sustainability of our cities.

Why should geography be taught in school?

In the past couple of years there has been discussion in the media about the role of geography in schools. Many would agree that schools need dedicated geography courses and teachers, along with well-designed curricula. There’s a been a backlash against courses such as “studies of society and environment” (SOSE), which awkwardly lumped together and drastically simplified all history, geography and all manner of social sciences in many Australian states.

Yet geography needs to be taught in schools, and done so by dedicated teachers in a way that doesn’t send students to sleep with an excessive focus on map reading or memorising place names. Well designed courses encourage students to think differently about the world and help them to comprehend the complex things that happen.

Here’s a brief list of topics that have been in the news recently. I challenge anyone to argue that any of these are not important, or that all students in Australian schools should not be aware of them:

  • Climate change: How does it work, what are its impacts, and what are the effects of policy responses?
  • Drought and farming: What is sustainable in the long run? What needs to change?
  • Water use: How are river systems and rainfall patterns changing? How must cities and rural areas adapt?
  • The mining boom: Who is benefiting and who isn’t? What happens if or when resources run out?
  • Immigration: How much is enough? Where do migrants of different backgrounds live, and what challenges do they face? What are the implications of targeting skilled migrants through policy?
  • Cities and socio-economic disadvantage: Why are some suburbs poorer than others? What happens to the homeless?
  • Housing markets: Why is housing so unaffordable? What are the pros and cons of land releases, planning strategies and other government initiatives?
  • Declining regions: What are the effects of economic and population change on different regions? Why do some places do better out of economic restructuring than others, and what can or should be done for those places that lose out?

There are innumerable other things that could be added to this list, of course. We could also broaden our horizons and look beyond Australia. What are the implications of political developments in the Pacific Region? How will the Pacific be impacted by climate change, and what can Australia do to help?

We also need to consider geopolitics and understand the historical and environmental factors underlying conflicts in the world. As the recent focus on terrorism in the past seven years has shown us, other places and people clearly matter. We also know that billions of people live in poverty - what is the best way to help them, and what are the best strategies for development?

We might also inquire into the effects of the Internet and rapid technological development. Far from making place and space irrelevant, these technologies have made them more important than ever. Is being linked into the powerful global networks all about being in the right place at the right time, or can people, countries and regions learn from what others have done? More fundamentally, why do some people benefit from globalisation and others don’t?

Being geographically aware is also important for being an active and educated citizen. In a democracy like Australia, we need to understand what the government does, and what impacts this has. Knowing about other people and places also helps to develop a sense of local and national identity - and understanding others helps us to see that people across the world, no matter how different they might seem at first, have more in common than we often think. Such an awareness also helps us to learn from others’ mistakes, to appreciate what happens in alternative situations, and to be more aware of global ‘best practice’ and how to translate this into the contexts that matter for us.

So I’d like to suggest three steps for improving geography in schools. First, it should be incorporated into primary school curricula through a greater focus on the world’s places, cultures and current events. This must be followed in high school by compulsory geography education from years 7 to 10, which would encourage greater numbers of students to follow through to senior high school and university geography studies if their interest can be caught early on.

Second, dedicated geography teachers are needed to teach these courses, and the federal government thus needs to increase its funding of university geography or reduce the HECS fees payable (this would, of course, be desirable for all teaching courses). Geographically aware and educated teachers are essential.

Third, syllabuses and curricula need to be revised to make geography more relevant to students. Topics that many students find boring (the map reading) need to be alternated with more engaging topics that both broaden students’ understanding of the world whilst allowing them to see the usefulness of what they are learning.

Good geography education is not about learning trivial facts, but about understanding processes and techniques. Good teachers and courses that encourage students to participate and interact are an absolute necessity. More fieldwork would also be desirable when possible - what better way to study the world than to get out and see it?


How does being more geographically aware make us more innovative and productive?

This is the key question. An improved awareness and understanding of geography by the population would, I argue, improve the quality of political engagements and enhance social cohesion. But what are the economic benefits: How does an understanding of the world, its environments and its people make us more innovative or more productive?

First, geographic awareness is needed to fully understand how certain policy prescriptions, ideologies or strategies that have succeeded (or failed) elsewhere can be applied in new contexts. If a government policy has worked in another country, under what conditions will it work in Australia? Who will benefit, who will lose out, and how should we fine-tune it? By better targeting policy to the places and people it can benefit most, we can reduce the social, environmental and economic costs incurred while building on the strengths we have in our cities, our place in the world economy and our natural resources. Geographically aware policy can also ensure the costs of economic development are minimised while our adaptability and resilience to shocks is improved.

Second, geography can help companies operate more efficiently. With improvements in technology and the concentration of high-skilled service industries in large global cities, along with advances in transport and input sourcing, knowing where to locate operations is crucial. Understanding economic networks and their interaction throughout space and at different scales can be a big source of competitive advantage. Operating in other countries, or selling to foreign consumer markets, also requires knowledge about these places, their physical conditions and their cultures. Furthermore, Geographic Information Systems and related computing technologies can greatly enhance the prospects, planning and productivity of Australian companies.

Third, geographical skills can be useful for those at the forefront of innovation and research, and have an important role to play in the development and application of new technologies and scientific advances. For example, the spatial distribution of health attributes, energy sources and computer networks is crucial for developments in medicine, engineering and information technology respectively.

The challenges of understanding and guiding human development and human experience are fundamentally and irreducibly geographical. Geography as a skill is foremost about understanding the complexity of the real world. Australia needs a Geographic revolution to make these skills a national strength and competitive advantage.

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About the Author

Brad Ruting is a geographer and economist, with interests in the labour market, migration, tourism, urban change, sustainable development and economic policy. Email: bradruting@gmail.com.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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