Learning about distant places at key stage 1 - Sally Wood

Sally shares some key findings from her research with young children and reflects upon the implications for teaching and learning strategies.

During my training as a primary school teacher I noticed that even young children in key stage 1 were capable of expressing negative attitudes to other cultures and places. In an increasingly global world I feel that it is more important than ever to promote understanding and empathy of the world’s people and places. Having been part of a Tide~ study visit to The Gambia I had noticed that my own perceptions of distant places and people had changed considerably. It is, however, difficult to give young primary school children direct experience of distant places, I wanted to find out if and how teaching and learning could address misconceptions.

The National Curriculum states that the teaching of Geography has an importance in developing knowledge of places throughout the world, and there appears to be a heavy responsibility on Geography teachers to promote an awareness and interest in the world. On the other hand, there is also a widely held belief that young children are egocentric and fail to look at the world through any perspective other than their own. There is no formal requirement to teach about distant places until children reach KS2. In today’s world, however, children are exposed, from a very young age, to media influences, travel and attitudes and opinions of people around them. As a mother and a teacher at KS1 I felt that young children had the developmental maturity to be able to empathise and understand cultures beyond their own.

I was disappointed at first when I realised that my research had to be carried out in a school that had a link with a school in The Gambia. The children were middle class and well travelled. In addition to this, the majority were very articulate and there was an ethos of sharing knowledge and experiences in the school. I was convinced, at this stage, that the children I was working with would be very knowledgeable about The Gambia and very open minded. My first priority, therefore, was to assess what the children already knew and felt about distant places. This took place by way of interview. It quickly became apparent that my assumptions were wrong. It was clear from the interview that many children had formed negative and stereotypical attitudes to The Gambia and its people. Responses shocked me with their inaccuracy and it appeared that the majority of children had formed views of The Gambia as a primitive society; its people being poor and unhappy. Children would often speak of images they had seen on television "They do have skinny tummies … I’ve seen that on adverts".

They also recognised that charitable work had taken place in their school to raise funds for the school in The Gambia. This appeared to give them a sense that they were in a superior and privileged position to the children in The Gambian school. There was also a sense that the Gambian children’s needs were much more basic in comparison with their own.

As I was aware that my own perceptions had altered following direct experience of a place, I felt that what I needed to do was to bring a distant place into the classroom so that the children could also experience it. Firstly, I exposed the children to many images that I had collected in The Gambia. The photographs surprised the children as they studied images of well-fed Gambian people with possessions.

The use of photographs was particularly effective. I was able to ask the children the question "Is what we believe always true?" followed by another question such as "Do you think they have computers in The Gambia?" Responses to these type of questions could be addressed by actually showing images that gave a truer reflection of The Gambia.

I tried to show the children that there were similarities between themselves and Gambian children. Lessons were structured into activity days where the children could take part in games, cooking, art etc to give them a reflection of life in The Gambia.I also encouraged children to look for similarities between themselves and the Gambian children. Children will often look for difference. If difference was noticed they were encouraged to look for reasons why. As the children began to see links between themselves they were less inclined to focus on difference. Children’s attitudes began to change. There was now a high level of interest and motivation to find things out for themselves about The Gambia. They wanted to visit and there appeared to be a greater understanding of life in The Gambia.

Prior to the activity days, much of the information that the children received came from the media and from the school link. The maintenance of this link, however, appeared to be providing inaccurate information. Animals such as zebras, lions and elephants were displayed around school. None of these are native to The Gambia. There was also traditional craftwork scattered around the school. This was typically tourist souvenirs of crude workmanship. Visitors to the school concentrated on ways that the school could ‘help’ people in The Gambia. All this appeared to lead to an environment where the children saw themselves in a position of superiority.

My conclusion following my research was that many children at KS1 have already developed negative and stereotypical attitudes about distant places which may have been formed through subliminal messages and media influence. The school link environment can be a major factor in influencing attitudes either way. Teachers need to be aware of the messages they are giving to children. Teaching about other cultures does not necessarily address negative attitudes. There should be a balance to charitable days and activities by looking at what the distant place can offer. KS1 children are receptive to teaching about distant places and selected photographs work very well to provide a visual, dynamic resource that can quickly address misconceptions.

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See also Mary Ffield's article 2005, 'Making sense of the world around us', for further reading on this theme.