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HDI 2014

What is Geography?

Geographers lead a dual life manoeuvring back and forth between the sciences and the humanities. Physical geographers look at Earth Sciences and try to make sense of how natural features, processes and systems work. Human geographers look at the socio-cultural world trying to understand how we work, that is, our human systems.
But geography is really about both: how people and the natural world interact.
Learning Geography is all about               
          asking the right questions.
Personally, I've never quite understood the "Five Themes of Geography" introduced decades ago by the AAG; my students always struggle to connect and put into practice these abstract ideas except on paper. I've always found that a more investigative approach to geography works better. Students love being detectives, so let's put that to use.

     I've used this definition for over 20 years now with great success. The definiton itself incorporates the two major themes of physical and human geography, and creates a Venn diagram approach of how the two themes interact by introducing a third theme: the environment. Significantly, this definition also introduces the notion that these interactions occur at different scales.
     Furthermore, students have a clear focus to their learning. The four questions create an investigative framework for researching any geographic feature, process or system. It moves students from the known to the unknown, from factual to conceptual questions, up the hierarchy from simple to complex, allowing students to find their place, then move to the next level knowing what's expected of them.
Take rivers, for example:
1.  What are rivers? (define & describe)
     A river is a ___ that ___s
     What do rivers look like?
     What are the main features of a river?
2.  Where are they found?
     Where are rivers located relative to mountains
     and plains?
     What is the absolute location of an example
     river? What are the features of this location?
3.  Why are rivers found there?
     What processes create rivers?
     What patterns are created? How?
     How do rivers change from source to mouth?
     How do those patterns change over time? 4.  How are they important?
     How do people depend on rivers?
     How are rivers a part of culture?
     How are rivers an economic benefit
     and an economic cost?
     How do rivers affect the environment?
     What issues arise from our use of rivers?
     What are the geopolitics of rivers?
Now, replace "rivers" with any geographic concept – how about "migration"? Voilà – you have the ultimate framework for investigative learning.

Towards a new definition of Geography...

Geographers study physical and human features, processes and systems and how they interact in the environment at the local, regional and global scales in an attempt to answer four key questions:

  • What is the feature, process or system? (Identify & Describe)
  • Where is it found? (Location: absolute & relative)
  • Why is it found there? (Processes at work, both natural and human)
  • How is it important from different perspectives?
      •  socio-cultural;
      •  economic;
      •  political; and
      •  environmental.