Textbooks: facts or inspiration?

There are plenty of excellent books out there full of information that students can learn, or that we can look up and then toss in students’ direction in lectures or tutorials if we so wish. Increasingly, we don’t even need to turn to books, as all the information they contain is available online. For some of us, and for some of our students, books and blogs and wikis full of information might be enough. Mr Gradgrind, the headteacher in Dickens’ Hard Times who saw his pupils as empty little jugs waiting to be filled with facts, would perhaps be very happy with the deep oceans of factual information that can be accessed instantly on mobile phones. Geographical knowledge is but a swipe or a click away. But many of us want more. We want to be inspired as well as informed, and we want the same for our students. I have no doubt that there are outstanding information sources out there packed with answers about every aspect of the Geographical environment, and that those resources can make great underpinnings for learning and teaching. But what if I want my book to give me questions, not answers? What if I want a book to make me wonder, and to make me want to know more? Where do we look for inspiration, if the facts alone are not enough? Yes, as a Geographer of course I agree that the world itself is our inspiration, but sometimes students need to be helped to see how exciting things are. Not all of us can learn about the power of meltwater rivers by being swept away in one, or about the smell of a volcano by breathing in hot sulphur close to an active vent. We can’t all, at an early age, learn about the properties of granular materials and fluids by seeing the last of our spilled water soak quickly and awfully into the desert sand. Sometimes we need a little help to bring the facts, the information, the knowledge to us in a meaningful way. Books can only go so far in this, of course, but they can go a certain way. When I pick up a newly published textbook, or discover a new blog, or find a battered old tome from the 1950s in the 2nd-hand bookshop I don’t just want to see what facts it has to offer, and if it is an old book I know that most of the information will be out of date (wrong) anyway. What I care more about is how the book makes me look at the information, how it makes me feel about it. A great teaching resource doesn’t just give students answers, it makes them want to ask questions. I am looking for books that don’t just tell us Geography, but make us fall in love with Geography. I want books that will make my students want to be better Geographers.  In future posts I will look at some Geography books, and we’ll see if they do the job.

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