by Jim Bentley
Exploration, adventure, curiosity. Who wouldn’t want to go on expedition with National Geographic? Now you can, by launching a Geo-Inquiry project in your own class. Let’s run through the gear you’ll want to pack for this learning adventure.
See the world like an Explorer
The first essential item your students need is a geographic perspective. Think of this as a lens through which students view the world.
A common student misperception is that geography is simply memorizing places on maps and facts about those places. But National Geographic Explorers view the world in spatial terms, on varying scales, and through multiple perspectives. To develop this habit, when your students view maps, graphs, charts, or topics encourage them to ask: “Where is it? Why’s it there? Why should I care?” The graphic below has been helpful when explaining what geography is to my own students. We’ve come to understand geography is the space where the human and natural world interact.
For example, when my students learned less than 1% of batteries in our state were being properly recycled, they launched an inquiry into where spent batteries go. This lead to a series of discoveries: Most people toss batteries in the trash. There were few places in our community that accepted used batteries. They contaminate ground water. Municipalities compete for limited funding from our state to create battery disposal programs. Battery producers have no extended producer responsibilities to help with disposal of a product considered household hazardous waste. My students viewed the issue through cultural, spatial, ecological, economic, and political lenses on a local and regional scale. They viewed the topic from a geographic perspective.
Encourage your students to evaluate issues in your community from a geographic perspective. They may find a topic for a Geo-Inquiry. And honoring your students’ voice will strengthen the relevance and authenticity of the project and help foster a sense of engagement and empowerment.
Think like an Explorer
Consider this: National Geographic Explorers engage in PBL around the world. To connect what Explorers do and think in the field to what students might do and think in the classroom, National Geographic launched its Learning Framework in 2014.
This document outlines three key attitudes of an explorer: curiosity, responsibility, and empowerment. It describes four skills necessary for exploration: observation, communication, collaboration, and problem solving. It summarizes three key knowledge areas students must study “to understand how our ever-changing and interconnected world works in order to function effectively and act responsibly.” Those are: Our Changing Planet, The Human Journey, Wildlife and Wild Places.
This year my students are harnessing these attitudes, skills, and knowledge of Our Changing Planet to launch a Geo-Inquiry concerning accessibility to safe drinking water. It began by reading Linda Sue Park’s novel A Long Walk To Water and learning that 5,000 children die each day around the globe due to dirty drinking water. This led students to ask, “Why?” and “What can we do?”
Work like an Explorer
Geo-Inquiry is a five-step process. Step one: Ask. Students generate Need-to-Know questions based on the Geo-Inquiry Question which is either created as a whole class or provided by the teacher. A Geo-Inquiry question is like the “driving question” in Gold-Standard Project Based Learning. It captures the essence of the project and serves as a beacon for students as they navigate their way through the day-to-day work.
This year our Geo-Inquiry Question is How can we make water more accessible in our community? Need-To-Knows we have generated are: How accessible is water globally? Locally? Is water a human right? How can we as student entrepreneurs make clean water more accessible? How can we lobby our city and school district to make water more accessible?
By engaging in research, reading, writing, data collection and interpretation, my students will develop a deeper understanding of water accessibility.
Steps two and three: Collect and Visualize. Students collect geographic information related to their Need-To-Knows. In addition to research on the web, books, or interviews, students may venture out into the field using digital tools like Survey123 to gather geospatial data which will then be organized, analyzed and visualized using free, online mapping tools such as ArcGIS. Or students may use paper maps and poster presentations with graphs, charts, and data collected to showcase their learning. The point is to present information learned in a clear and compelling way.
This year my students’ data collection will focus on identifying just how accessible local potable water sources are. Field work will focus on mapping locations of drinking fountains, water bottle filling stations, and businesses providing free water to non-paying customers. This data will then be assembled in a map which will provide a visual representation of the topic.
The final step: Act. As we read A Long Walk To Water, students discussed how they wanted bottle filling stations in our school and to do something to support Water for South Sudan, a nonprofit organization created by Salva Dut, the real-life main character in the book.
Students will use their knowledge and visuals to lobby our district to retrofit old schools with bottle filling stations and include these devices in the design of new schools. They’ll also encourage our city to look at adding more bottle filling stations and public, potable water sources as well.
Ultimately, a Geo-Inquiry is an exploration that elevates our understanding of the world and how it works and obligates each of us to act.
Train like an Explorer
If you’ve attended a Buck Institute PBL 101 training or are familiar with the Center for Civic Education’s Project Citizen curriculum, you’ll likely see elements of each in the Geo-Inquiry Process. That’s no coincidence. National Geographic worked with both organizations as they designed Geo-Inquiry.
If you’d like to learn how to bring Geo-Inquiry into your classroom or district, you’ll want to visit the Geo-Inquiry Process website. You can sign up to receive more information, view the educator and student guide, and see how National Geographic Explorers Enrique Sala and Sarah Parcak use the Geo-Inquiry process in their own work. You can also view a film about my own students and a Geo-Inquiry they took part in last year. Finally, consider becoming a National Geographic Certified Educator to refine your own attitudes, skills, and knowledge and to join an educator community that is dedicated to teaching and empowering students.
Geo-Inquiry: It’s PBL with a geographic perspective and an emphasis on action. The motto on the wall of National Geographic Education could be the tagline for the process: “We teach kids about the world and how it works, empowering them to succeed and to make it a better place.”
Pack your bags and get ready to be curious, explore, and grow.
Jim Bentley is a teacher for Elk Grove Unified School District, a member of the National Faculty for the Buck Institute for Education, and a National Geographic Fellow. You can follow Jim and his students on Twitter at @Curiosity_Films.