Thursday, April 25, 2013

Young Students and "the Fairyland in Geography"

"We talk of fairyland to the children, and they believe in it. There need be no fear of not finding a fairyland in Geography." 

In this section of Volume 1, Miss Mason discusses her method of geography study for young students, and she does so in a way that makes the subject seem positively exciting.  Not a word you would usually associate with geography?  Well, I promise you--read on and be inspired!

First, let's back up a moment: what does she mean by geography?  We usually think of geography as a lesser subject--basically just memorizing map facts.  It seems that even in Miss Mason's time, geography was handled the same way:
"Now, how is the subject commonly taught? The child learns the names of the capital cities of Europe, or of the rivers of England, or of the mountain-summits of Scotland, from some miserable text-book, with length in miles, and height in feet, and population, finding the names on his map or not, according as his teacher is more or less up to her work. Poor little fellow! the lesson is hard work to him; but as far as education goes––that is, the developing of power, the furnishing of the mind––he would be better employed in watching the progress of a fly across the window-pane." (Volume 1, page 272)
I think we can safely say she was not a fan of this approach. ;)  How is it that more than a century later, geography is still being taught in schools in the same deadly-dull way?  Instead, Miss Mason is talking about something much broader, including the study of...
:: the world's physical forms, and how those forms are affected by the weather, the seasons, the movements of the earth, etc.
:: the world's major cities, countries, waterways, mountain ranges, and other prominent features of each landscape
:: the world's peoples and how their dress, customs, habits, economy, languages, etc. are affected by their environment
:: how maps are made and how they function
:: the stories of explorers and travelers through history and in the present day
:: the locations of current events
and so on.   For her, geography involves anthropology, meteorology, politics, geometry, philology, geology, linguistics, history, and much, much more.  And her methods are probably a bit different than you remember from school as well.  In fact, they look a lot like how I would learn as an adult...but we'll get to that in a moment.

Instead of memorizing the imports and exports of the South American countries, she thinks about what we really want to know about geography.  What is its value for the student?  In what ways does it interest us?  As adults learning about far-off places, we demand stories of travel told in a way that is "interesting, graphic, with a spice of personal adventure."  The title of her next section is "Geography should be Interesting," and geography described in that way does sound awfully interesting, does it not?  "But none of this pleasant padding for the poor child, if you please; do not let him have little pictorial sentences that he may dream over; facts and names and figures––these are the pabulum for him!"  Oh, Miss Mason--gotta love a bit of Victorian sarcasm.  She's right, though--why should the child not learn in the same way, through exciting stories and lively descriptions?  Indeed the child should eventually know well the capital cities of Europe and the rivers of England.  But this information only has value if it is digested into the body in the form of mind-food.  A child may take a list of places into his "verbal memory" so that he can replicate that information on an exam...but that does not mean he knows it.  Does it matter to him?  Does it inspire him?  Does it furnish his mind with pictures and ideas?  If not, what is the point?  It is not that "facts" aren't important--they are.  But the mind must be prepared to receive this information before it can remember it.  If we succeed at that, then "the geography lesson becomes the most charming occupation of the child's day" (273).  And don't we wish that were so?

So how do we go about doing this?  Over the next few pages, she goes through the stages of learning for this age group (ages 6-9).  Her suggestions here are gentler than her geography program for older children, discussed in Volume 6, but they lay the foundation for that kind of learning, which comes easily to a child already excited about the topic.

First, geography for the young child starts with experiences out-of-doors: "A pool fed by a mere cutting in the fields will explain the nature of a lake, will carry the child to the lovely lakes of the Alps, to Livingston's great African lake" (273-4).  I'm sure this comes as no surprise--all the sciences find their start in the child's relationship with the natural world.  Now obviously, not all geographical phenomena are going to be available to us locally!  But the child just needs enough varied time outdoors to have a basis for further knowledge.  To provide a child with the definition of a river without his having ever seen water flowing in a local creek is a wasted educational moment.  But even that simple relationship with a local creek prepares him to understand the Amazon and the Nile.  The idea is there; the relationship has been formed; the mind has something to build upon.  We let him experience the beauty of a nearby mountainside so that when we give him the idea of the grandeur of the Pyrenees, his imagination is ready to supply the rest.  He can grasp the truth of such things; he can see them in his mind's eye.  And perhaps most importantly, his interest in them is piqued and he desires to know more.

But as educative as simply spending time outdoors is for the child, Miss Mason discusses how to use this time quite casually to prepare a child for the geography studies---and for this, we should revisit her earlier section from this volume on "Out-of-Doors Geography."  These opportunities arise naturally because as the child observes, he wants to know why things are as they are.  (And mother knows this to be true!)  Answers for these questions start with simple activities with the mother outdoors, described wonderfully in that chapter.  Through such activities, the child begins to understand the position of the sun, weather, distance, direction, boundaries, and maps.  More thorough study of such topics will come later, but they have their beginning here.

So the child is ready and interested, and his mind is prepared--how do we build upon these experiences?  The next element of geography lessons is pictorial geography, which she describes simply as "pleasant talk about places."  Sounds doable, no?  It basically consists of furnishing the child's mind with beautiful images and feeding his imagination through stories of places with which the mother/teacher is familiar:
"Especially, let these talks cover all the home scenery and interests you are acquainted with, so that, by-and-by, when he looks at the map of England, he finds a score of familiar names which suggest landscapes to him––places where 'mother has been,'––the woody, flowery islets of the Thames; the smooth Sussex downs, delightful to run and roll upon, with soft carpet of turf and nodding harebells; the York or Devon moors, with bilberries and heather:––and always give him a rough sketch-map of the route you took in a given journey." (274)
For example, mother tells the child about a road trip we took through the middle half of America, roughly sketching a map of the area as she goes; the child sees in his mind not a list of the state capitals from east to west, but mental vistas of the cities themselves.  Besides being engaging and educative for the student, this sounds like excellent narration work for the mother ;)

Eventually, these stories extend to include the words of others through reading and narrating "any interesting, well-written book of travel":
"But let him be at home in any single region; let him see, with the mind's eye, the people at their work and at their play, the flowers and fruits in their seasons, the beasts, each in its habitat; and let him see all sympathetically, that is, let him follow the adventures of a traveller; and he knows more, is better furnished with ideas, than if he had learnt all the names on all the maps." (275)
Alongside this reading, the student should do mapwork. The child sketches a map of the traveler's journey as he reads, looks up places that come up in his studies on a map of the world, and so on.  Again, this is consistent with her approach to other subjects.  This early mapwork acts as a visual scaffold for the information the child is receiving through his reading.  The importance of visual memory strikes me again and again in Miss Mason's writing in Volume 1--it seems like it cannot be overstated as an educational tool.  In geography, mental images and mapwork--both visual forms--serve as the basis for geographical memory. 

In the meantime, as he reads and makes sketch-maps, definitions come up and are discussed very naturally:
"In this way, too, he gets intelligent notions of physical geography; in the course of his readings he falls in with a description of a volcano, a glacier, a cañon, a hurricane; he hears all about, and asks and learns the how and the why, of such phenomena at the moment when his interest is excited." (275-6)
"The child observes a fact, as, for example, a wide stretch of flat ground; the teacher amplifies. He reads in his book about Pampas, the flat countries of the north-west of Europe, the Holland of our own eastern coast, and, by degrees, he is prepared to receive the idea of a plain, and to show it on his tray of sand." (277, emphasis mine)
Are you excited yet?  This kind of learning is inspiring even to me as an adult--and that's precisely the point.  And through this learning, the child eventually knows--with very little effort and no drudgery at all--the "name and nature of the great rivers and mountains, deserts and plains, the cities and countries of the world" (274).

Now, here she makes the distinction between these pleasant talks and living books, which might be done "in the Children's Hour" (276), and the more traditional lessons that should accompany them, which is the next stage.  The former provides the inspiration and piques the interest, but the latter is not boring--not by any means!  And both are crucial to a well-rounded education.  Underlining again the importance of visual memory, Miss Mason advises that geography lessons for the early-elementary student should have mapping as their focus.  She lists out some potential activities covered in such lessons:
:: drawing a plan of the schoolroom, the yard, the town, the region by scale
:: moving on from a plan to a map, with the understanding that a map is the creation of an explorer
:: finding directions as they relate the sun and stars
:: understanding latitude and longitude
:: recognizing how seas, land, rivers, mountains, and so on are represented on a map
:: using a compass
:: reading a map using the knowledge he has gained
:: making landforms in a tray of sand or drawing them on the chalkboard
These lessons are the companion to the Out-of-Doors geography activities done with the teacher earlier on.

Now, although Miss Mason endorses these kinds of lessons--and even wrote a whole series of geography texts for use in her schools--the Ambleside Online curriculum doesn't currently have any such books scheduled for the early grades.  It includes wonderful travel-narrative selections and suggests accompanying mapwork, but there aren't any formal geography lessons scheduled until Year 3.5, and then just a couple more for the duration of the child's schooling.  So if you're inclined, this might be something you would want to add to the reading list.  (ETA: AO now includes scheduled geography topics using Home Geography and Elementary Geography, which I have listed below.  We read through them lesson-by-lesson, but if you want to see how AO scheduled the topics over the course of Years 1-6, pop over to their site and take a look!)  

I want to mention two resources in particular that we have used personally and that I think cover these topics in just the way Miss Mason seems to have intended in this section:
:: C.C. Long's Home Geography for the Primary Grades.  We just finished this book, and I want to enthusiastically recommend it for the early years.  Not only is it conveniently divided into short, engaging lessons on a variety of geographical topics, but this little text also covers all of Miss Mason's suggestions here and more.  Even though it is scheduled for the optional Year 3.5, I found it perfectly suitable for even my kindergartener. (ETA: This is now one of AO's suggested resources for Years 1-6.)
:: The Kirbys' The World at Home.  This is the text Miss Mason herself recommends in this chapter "for lessons," and it's a delightful collection of little chapters providing "pictures and scenes from far-off lands," as its subtitle promises.  It is a bit dated in its discussion of various groups of people (as all of these are, to some degree), but with a bit of editing, I think it will make a charming and fun addition to early-elementary studies.  (ETA: We used this over two years, doing a couple chapters each week, and it is a favorite with all of my little students.  More here.)

And if you would like to add such lesson books to future years, there are plenty of other options:
:: Charlotte Mason's Elementary Geography. This is a bit more advanced that the two I already mentioned, so I'll be saving it for later on.
:: The Kirbys' The Sea and Its Wonders. The companion to The World at Home.  Again, suitable for young children.
:: Frank Owen Payne's Geographical Nature Studies.  This is very similar to Long's book but has less emphasis on mapping, which is why we haven't used it yet.  Chapters here and there would be useful additions, though.
:: The Kirbys' Aunt Martha's Corner Cupboard, Or Stories about Tea, Coffee, Sugar, Rice, etc.  How can you resist a title like that?  Semi-geographical stories centered around teatime staples--looks charming.
:: Sir Archibalnd Geikie's Physical Geography.  Mentioned in the PNEU writings for older children.
:: Perkins' Twins series.  Many families begin the easiest of these books in kindergarten, but some are written for an older audience and would be a fitting addition to geography reading.
:: Mater Amabilis includes many geography suggestions, including Barbara Taylor's books and region-specific fiction free reading.  I haven't used Taylor's books yet since there are so many good free options, but they sound wonderful.  (Thanks for the reminder, Amanda!)
:: Highroads of Geography is a short geography text told in letters from a traveling father to his family at home.  I used this last year, and my kids had such fun reading "Father's Letters" each week.  (Thanks for the tip, Eva!)

And as a side note: with all the discussion of visual memory and mapping in this chapter, I do want to touch briefly on the use of photos, illustrations, films, and other visual aids in geography lessons, particularly for younger children.  Some of the PNEU articles on this topic enthusiastically recommend using such aids to supplement study,
"A child is taught that a cape or headland is "land jutting out into the sea"; what idea does this bare fact convey? Little or none, unless we can show some pictures in illustration of the definition." (from A Lesson in Geography by Miss Stead)
while others see the need for them only in certain circumstances:
"To explain or illustrate what is so easily within comprehension of the children would be an educational error. Let them describe fully without the help of questions how Holland keeps out the sea, themselves drawing a diagrammatic map on the blackboard to show the sea-defences.  But here is a passage from the same volume, Reader IV, quoted from Ruskin ... This passage, on the contrary, will require much illustration by sketches on the blackboard with careful diagrams." (from The Uses of Books in Geography by Miss Heath)
The latter is more in line with Miss Mason's own words in Volume 6, where she states quite clearly that such additions may be counter-productive to the study of geography and, more than that, to the student as a learner in general:
"Great confidence is placed in diagrammatic and pictorial representation, and it is true that children enjoy diagrams and understand them as they enjoy and understand puzzles; but there is apt to be in their minds a great gulf between the diagram and the fact it illustrates. We trust much to pictures, lantern slides, cinematograph displays; but without labour there is no profit, and probably the pictures which remain with us are those which we have first conceived through the medium of words; pictures may help us to correct our notions, but the imagination does not work upon a visual presentation; we lay the phrases of a description on our palette and make our own pictures; (works of art belong to another category). We recollect how Dr. Arnold was uneasy until he got details enough to form a mental picture of a place new to him. So it is with children and all persons of original mind: a map to put the place in position, and then, all about it, is what we want." (340)
By presenting places to the child through visual aids, we may inadvertently hamper his imagination and dull his visual memory, two powers which are all-important in her vision of education.  So to follow her suggestions closely, we shouldn't rely too heavily on Google. ;)  Obviously, not all of the PNEU articles agree, so these is room for difference of opinion, but I think we can safely say that if there are visual images to be used, Miss Mason would prefer they be introduced only after a child has read an account and has a clear mental picture formed (has done the "labour," so to speak), and only if that picture needs correcting.  I'm very interested if any of you have more to say on this issue, so please feel free to chime in!

I want to finish here with Miss Mason's thoughts on the goal of geography studies, lest we get side-tracked too much in our discussion of methods and booklists: "Here, as elsewhere, the question is, not how many things does he know, but how much does he know about each thing" (275, emphasis mine).  And given how often she uses the idea of creating sympathy in the child through his geography studies, I think we might add here her famous words from Volume 3 as well: "The question is not,––how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education––but how much does he care?" (170, emphasis mine).  In Volume 6, she asks,"Do we wish every child in a class to say,––or, if he does not say, to feel,––"I was enlarged wonderfully" by a Geography lesson? Let him see the place with the eyes of those who have seen or conceived it; your barographs, thermographs, contour lines, relief models, sections, profiles and the like, will not do it" (Volume 6, pages 41-2).  It may seem far-fetched for a student to care about geography the way it is taught commonly, but if taught in the way Miss Mason recommends, I think it is very likely indeed.


  1. Great post! Thanks for the book recommendations! Do you know Highroads of Geography? This is actually a series of books, published in Great Britain by Nelson.

  2. What an absolutely fabulous post! Thank you for writing all this up. Wow.

  3. Did you get my comment? I suggested some extra books. Just wondering :).

    1. It came to my email, but when I hopped over to the blog to respond, it had disappeared. I thought maybe you had deleted it, since we don't have any moderation on? I suppose it was a Blogger issue. :/ Please do repost--I'm definitely interested in your suggestions!

    2. That's odd, I don't think I deleted it, if so, only by accident. I recommended the old British series Highroads of Geography. That link gives you some worksheets and also the text itself. This is the preliminary book to the series, a series which focuses mainly on Great Britain in the later books, but is quite good for general geography in the earlier grades. Book 1 is called "Sunshine and Shower," book 2 is "Scouting at Home," book 3 is "South Britain," book 4 is "The Continent of Europe," and book 5 is "Britain Overseas." They have very pleasing illustrations.

      I also thought that your suggestions were wonderful!

    3. This looks like such a great option, Eva! I like that it's told in the context of letters from a father to his family as he journeys along, which reminds me very much of CM's suggestion that the mother provide "pleasant talk about places" she's familiar with. And the map and image cards at that site are really helpful as well. Thank you for sharing it!

    4. You are welcome, I'm reading the first book of the series to my first grader right now and she is enjoying it a lot. Of course it's a bit dated, but still charming.

  4. Inspirational post! It wonderful to read Geography facts and descriptions that you have "discovered' or learnt while out looking and learning in real life!

  5. Still working/reading through this but I wanted to add that I think this is one area that Mater Amabiis really shines. The Geography/Earth Studies section is a good description and the lesson/book suggestions are great too, and not hard to find in print.

    1. Amanda, that is a great point--I had completely forgotten that MA does indeed have a series of geography recommendations for the early years. Thank you for reminding me! It still looks like only the first couple years have a lessons book (Barbara Taylor's--haven't seen this in person, so I'm not sure if it's "lessons" in the way CM talks about) and then it has a large selection of region-specific free reading to choose from each year. I'm going to take a closer look at their suggestions. (Actually, this makes me even more surprised that AO doesn't include all that much!)

    2. we've used the Taylor book, mostly as written, for several years. Its divided into 4 sections (rivers and Oceans, Mapping, Mountains and Volcanoes, and Weather) and each two page spread covers a topic. We've enjoyed it. The extensions/experiments are meaningful and simple. But I like the idea of adding something like Long, maybe as a morning basket/time read to my 7 and 9 year olds together. I was just reading over AO's new Geography recommendations and thinking about how they compare to MA.

    3. Yes, I think it's just so easy to add a little geography reading in, like Long's book--my kids learned quite a lot last year from the one short chapter a week (including all the topics covered in AO's new recommendations for the first three years!). It also piqued their interest in the topic, as they found the book to be very engaging. We'll be doing the same thing this year with the Kirbys' book and Highroads of Geography, which Eva suggested in the comments above. I'm also taking a page from MA this year and adding in a few region-specific free reads. I hope to check out Taylor at some point too--our library doesn't have those specific books, and I haven't been inclined to buy them yet with the free options out there.

    4. Taylor's book is more modern but with drawn pictures, rather than photos. Its OOP but usually not hard to find. The individual 4 books make up the book The Earth, the Geography of our World. Its nice because its updated and somewhat current compared to the older public domain books. Maps and Mapping starts with showing a "bird's eye" view drawing converted to a map, then suggests the student mapping their own room using a scale of their foot with instructions, as well as practice giving directions from their house to their friend's, or vice versa, to a family member or friend. It moves on to map scales, examples of railway maps, understanding symbols and colors, contour lines (build a hill out of sand or soil then measure it and create a contour map of the hill), direction (make your own compass and understand true north on globe), measuring angles (make a bearing board), what surveyors do, making maps (make your own treasure island map), latitude and longitude, the great meridian, map projections (look at atlases to compare, peel an orange and making the peel lie flat), using maps (maps of the moon)

    5. Thanks for the description, Amanda! That sounds like something my big kids would really enjoy, so I may need to add these to our schedule somewhere.... For Year 3, we're continuing our reading of a couple chapters a week of The World at Home--I'm doing this during our morning basket this year, as the short selections are appealing to all my kids. We're also doing more concentrated mapping alongside our reading, so I have maps of Europe, the US, and the world for them to chart the figures we're reading about, and we also have a dedicated map for our Marco Polo reading (ala AO) and map drills/study a couple times a week. I would save Taylor for next year, but I'm really looking forward to Hillyer's geography book as well as using CM's Elementary Geography maybe the year after that...too many good options for this topic! LOL But my kids really love geography so far, so Taylor's books will probably be a great addition.

    6. My kids have looked through The Earth on their own, as well as us using some of it more formally. So that's an option too. Its nice to have good nonfiction that they might pick up out of interest. I need to look at Marco Polo and Hillyer's geography. I really like his history book. So many books, so little time! Since I reference AO rather than follow it to a t, I probably miss some great books. If only I could buy and strew them all!

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