A Simple Geography Map Task Exploring your Local Area can Produce Beautifully Complex Results

Published in full in Teach Primary, here. Thanks TP for the stunning image to accompany this piece too. All credit to you and the artist.

With heavy exhalations and after much eye-rubbing, I had finished drafting the curriculum map for the whole school for geography. I looked over it first with a sense of relief, and then immediately afterwards with a mild sense of encroaching woe: it was blisteringly dull.

The coverage was there, sure, but essentially, I had just rewritten the entire national curriculum in a different font.

In certain areas it lacked freshness, or anything to really hook in the children. I thought about what it was that made me excited about geography, and realised these things were absent from the curriculum: a sense of curiosity about the space in which we live and a knowledge of local stories.

The Y4 unit on urban settlements included a walk around Spitalfields and Whitechapel; we explored the blending of new and old architecture, tracked the history of migration onto Brick Lane, we looked at how religion changed the look of the area and we had lunch in the city farm, a little dollop of the rural in the heart of the urban.

This was good but it still required us to get on the tube. Despite the fact that our kids live in the shadow of the Olympic Park, they don’t see themselves as Londoners or even East Londoners, so visiting this area still felt like an exotic day out to them.

I needed something really local, a walk from school, that would give pupils a better understanding of their own area. That’s when I remembered reading about psychogeography, the pursuit of the eccentric Situationist movement that originated in 1950s Paris.

Going exploring

Outlining the principles behind the movement, Guy Debord wrote about it as being about ‘transient passage through varied ambiances’. Sadie Plant explored it as a method to comprehend how ‘certain areas, streets, or buildings resonate with states of mind, inclinations, and desires, and to seek out reasons for movement other than those for which an environment was designed’.

As I dug a little deeper, I found Robert MacFarlane’s explanation of a simple psychogeographical ‘dérive’:

‘Unfold a street map… Place a glass, rim down, anywhere on the map, and draw round its edge. Pick up the map, go out in the city, and walk the circle, keeping as close as you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favour.’

Read on, young psychogeographical explorer. More needs to be said. 

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