In which I offer some thoughts on the new GCSE Geography subject content – Part Two: A Comparison with National 5 Geography

This is my second post in response to the new GCSE subject content.[1] My wife and I are currently looking to relocate to Scotland, in order to live closer to her parents; as a result, in this particular post, I will reflect on the similarities and differences between the new subject content and the SQA’s National 5 Geography qualification. However, my hope is that this approach will have a wider appeal in that by holding a figurative mirror up to each document in turn, it will reflect what both qualifications are and what they could have been. The GCSE subject content is organised into the three broad sub-disciplines of physical, human and environmental geography; while the N5 specification physical and human geography plus a third unit on global issues.

Physical Geography

The GCSE subject content focus is on two main areas – geomorphology, and weather and climate. Paragraph 15 specifies that students should understand ‘How geomorphic processes at different scales, operating in combination with geology, climate and human activity have influenced and continue to influence the landscapes of the UK. This should include detailed reference to at least two different and distinctive physical landscapes in the UK.’[2]

Similarly, the N5 specification also focuses on weather and landscape types. Students should understand the formation of two different sets landscape features, from the following list:

  • glaciated upland — corrie, truncated spur, pyramidal peak, arête, u-shaped valley
  • upland limestone — limestone pavements, potholes/swallow holes, caverns, stalactites and stalagmites, intermittent drainage
  • coastal landscapes — cliffs, caves and arches, stacks, headlands and bays, spits
  • rivers and valleys — v-shaped valleys, waterfalls, meander, ox bow lake, levee.’

While the GCSE subject content stops short by only requiring the study of human activity as a causal factor in shaping UK landscape, the N5 goes beyond the GCSE subject content by also requiring students to study land uses relating to these two landscape types, from the following list:

  • farming
  • forestry
  • industry
  • recreation and tourism
  • water storage and supply
  • renewable energy.’

Furthermore, for one of these two landscape types, students ‘should be able to describe and explain:

  • the conflicts which can arise between land uses within this landscape
  • the solutions adopted to deal with the identified land use conflicts.’[3]

Meanwhile, paragraph 16 of the GCSE subject content specifies that students should understand ‘The causes, consequences of and responses to extreme weather conditions and natural weather hazards, recognising their changing distribution in time and space and drawing on an understanding of the global circulation of the atmosphere,’ and the‘spatial and temporal characteristics, of climatic change and evidence for different causes, including human activity, from the beginning of the Quaternary period (2.6 million years ago) to the present day.’[4]

Interestingly, while the GCSE subject content requires the geomorphology section to be centred on the UK, the N5 specification requires the weather section to be UK-centric. ‘Within the context of the United Kingdom,’ students should study:

  • the effect of latitude, relief, aspect and distance from sea on local weather conditions
  • the characteristics of the five main air masses affecting the UK
  • the characteristics of weather associated with depressions and anticyclones.’[5]

While the GCSE concentrates on contemporary issues (weather hazards, climate change), the N5 is more focused on understanding the basic processes of weather and climate. Environmental hazards and climate change feature instead amongst the list of optional topics in the environmental geography section of the N5 specification.

Human Geography

At GCSE, as with physical geography, the focus is on two main areas – cities and urban society, and global economic development issues. Paragraph 19 specifies that students should understand ‘the causes and effects of rapid urbanisation and contrasting urban trends in different parts of the world with varying characteristics of economic and social development, and that they should, for ‘at least one major city in an economically advanced country, and one major city in a poorer country or recently emerging economy, examine ways of life and contemporary challenges arising from and influencing urban change. Both city studies should be set within the context of their region, country and the wider world, including an understanding of the causes and impacts of national and international migration on the growth and character of these cities.’[6]

Similarly, the N5 specification has a section on urban areas, within which students should study:

  • characteristics of land use zones in cities in the developed world
  • recent developments in the CBD, inner city, rural/urban fringe in developed world cities
  • recent developments which deal with issues in shanty towns in developing world cities.’[7]

Which amounts to a much more concise way of saying exactly the same thing as the GCSE subject content.

Meanwhile, paragraph 20 of the GCSE subject content specifies that students should understand the ‘causes and consequences of uneven development at global level as the background for considering the changing context of population, economy and society and of technological and political development in at least one poorer country or one that is within a newly emerging economy.’ This country study ‘should include examination of the wider political, social and environmental context within which the country is placed, the changing nature of industry and investment, and the characteristics of international trade, aid and geo-political relationships with respect to that country.’[8]

Again, the N5 also has a section on developed and developing countries including the study of ‘social and economic indicators’ of development though, in comparison to the GCSE, this section is more narrowly focused on demographic issues including ‘physical and human factors influencing global population distribution’ and ‘factors affecting birth and death rates.’ Trade and globalisation features instead amongst the list of optional topics in the environmental geography section of the N5 specification.[9]

However, one significant area of divergence between the GCSE and the N5 is that the latter includes a section on rural areas, within which students should study:

  • changes in the rural landscape in developed countries, related to modern developments in farming such as: diversification, impact of new technology, organic farming, GM, current government policy
  • changes in the rural landscape in developing countries related to modern developments in farming such as: GM, impact of new technology, biofuels.’[10]

Environmental Geography / Global Issues

Finally, the environmental geography section of the GCSE subject content is divided into two main though clearly inter-related areas – global ecosystems and biodiversity, and resources and their management. Paragraph 17 specifies that students should study ‘the distribution and characteristics of large scale natural global ecosystems. For two selected ecosystems, [specifications should] draw out the interdependence of climate, soil, water, plants, animals and humans; the processes and interactions that operate within them at different scales; and issues related to biodiversity and to their sustainable use and management.’[11]

In addition, paragraph 18 specifies that students should study ‘how humans use, modify and change ecosystems and environments in order to obtain food, energy and water resources,’ and that they should complete a detailed study ‘of one of either food, energy or water, recognising the changing characteristics and distribution of demand and supply, past and present impacts of human intervention, and issues related to their sustainable use and management at a variety of scales.’[12]

As mentioned above, the global issues section of the N5 specification requires that students study two of a list of six issues. Three (climate change, environmental hazards, trade and globalisation) have already been mentioned – though it is worth pointing out that the climate change topic goes beyond the GCSE subject content by including the study of management strategies, that the environmental hazards topic goes beyond the GCSE subject content by also includes tectonic hazards, and that the trade and globalisation topic goes beyond the GCSE subject content by also including the study of ways to reduce global inequality.

The option that is most closely related to the environmental geography section of the GCSE is the ‘Impact of human activity on the natural environment’ unit, within which students should study:

  • tundra and equatorial climates and their ecosystems
  • use and misuse
  • effects of degradation on people and the environment
  • management — strategies to minimise impact/effects.’[13]

This covers the same ground as the GCSE subject content, although it is more restrictive in that it specifies the two ecosystems to be studied, while the GCSE leaves the choice open for exam boards and/or teachers to make for themselves.

The other two optional topics (both of which could be included within the global economic development issues section of the GCSE subject content, but neither of which are explicitly mentioned) are tourism:

  • mass tourism and eco-tourism
  • causes of/reasons for mass tourism and eco-tourism
  • impact of mass tourism and eco-tourism on people and the environment
  • strategies adopted to manage tourism’[14]

and health (which, it has to be pointed out, I have only taught as part of the current AQA AS Level specification):

  • distribution of a range of world diseases
  • causes, effects and strategies adopted to manage:

—     AIDS in developed and developing countries

—     one disease prevalent in a developed country (choose from: heart disease, cancer, asthma)

—     one disease prevalent in a developing country (choose from: malaria, cholera, kwashiorkor, pneumonia).’[15]

Overall Thoughts

Paradoxically, the N5 specification manages to be both more and less than the GCSE subject content. Less, in that the N5 specifications runs to a little over half the word count of the GCSE subject content, largely by being more concise in detailing the required knowledge and understanding. This lack of specific guidance might, in part, explain why (in the words of a recent article in The Scotsman) Scottish teachers are ‘on the verge of crisis’ over the implementation of the new National and Higher qualifications.[16]

More, in that the N5 encompasses a wider range of knowledge and understanding than the GCSE; but also less, in that the optional nature of the topics in the global issues section mean that students could complete the N5 course with a marginally narrower base of knowledge and understanding than might be the case with GCSE students. More, though, in that by having slightly less prescribed content, and by being significantly more concise in how it is outlined in the specification document, the N5 creates more opportunities to build a level of critical thinking on to the base of knowledge and understanding.

In the conclusion to my previous post [17], however, I expressed a concern that the GCSE subject content made no mention of the need for students to be able to mobilise their knowledge and understanding in order to demonstrate critical thinking. There is one mention, in the physical geography section of the N5, of the need to study solutions to managing conflict over landscape management; while both the GCSE and the N5 embed the idea of sustainable management strategies in the environmental geography and global issues sections, respectively. For the most part, though, the physical and human geography sections of both documents are largely devoid of any reference to students being taught to ask normative questions of the patterns and processes that they are describing and explaining, or to develop any sense that they (or anyone else) might have any kind of agency in order to be able to effect change in the world that they are studying.

Where is the study of the effects of UK weather on human activity – and a questioning of whether human activity in the UK (e.g. settlement, industry, leisure and recreation) is appropriately organised across society and space in order to account for, and make best use of, the weather? Where is the study of ways to manage issues around population change, land use patterns, urbanisation and counter-urbanisation, and a questioning of who these management strategies would really benefit? The onus is on teachers to go beyond the specifications, to recognise that the specifications are a minimum entitlement, and to provide this kind of teaching. My concern is that the same old external pressures of prescribed subject content and time will not allow it.

Notes

[1] C. Phillips (2014) ‘In which I offer some thoughts on the new GCSE Geography subject content – Part One: Progression across Key Stages 3, 4 and 5’, https://forwardsnotbackwards.wordpress.com/2014/04/10/in-which-i-offer-some-thoughts-on-the-new-gcse-geography-subject-content-part-one-progression-across-key-stages-3-4-and-5/ (post dated 4 April 2014)

[2] Department for Education (2014) Geography GSCE Subject Content, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/301253/GCSE_geography.pdf (site accessed 9 April 2014)

[3] SQA (2013) National 5 Geography Course Assessment Specification http://www.sqa.org.uk/files_ccc/CfE_CourseAssessSpec_N5_SocialStudies_Geography.pdf (site accessed 9 April 2014)

[4] DfE, Geography GSCE Subject Content

[5] SQA, National 5 Geography Course Assessment Specification

[6] DfE, Geography GSCE Subject Content

[7] SQA, National 5 Geography Course Assessment Specification

[8] DfE, Geography GSCE Subject Content

[9] SQA, National 5 Geography Course Assessment Specification

[10] SQA, National 5 Geography Course Assessment Specification

[11] DfE, Geography GSCE Subject Content

[12] DfE, Geography GSCE Subject Content

[13] SQA, National 5 Geography Course Assessment Specification

[14] SQA, National 5 Geography Course Assessment Specification

[15] SQA, National 5 Geography Course Assessment Specification

[16] S. MacNab (2014) Teachers are on the verge of crisis over new exams, http://www.scotsman.com/news/education/teachers-are-on-the-verge-of-crisis-over-new-exams-1-3373905 (article dated 12 April 2014; site accessed 12 April 2014)

[17] C. Phillips (2014) ‘In which I offer some thoughts on the new GCSE Geography subject content – Part One: Progression across Key Stages 3, 4 and 5’, https://forwardsnotbackwards.wordpress.com/2014/04/10/in-which-i-offer-some-thoughts-on-the-new-gcse-geography-subject-content-part-one-progression-across-key-stages-3-4-and-5/ (post dated 4 April 2014)

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About carljphillips

Geography teacher. PhD in cultural/historical geography (Nott'm., 2006). SF/F genre fiction fan. Liverpool FC supporter. Libertarian. Humanist. Etc. I blog about the theory and practice of Geography teaching, and teaching in general.
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