Know your geography: quantitative skills aren’t just about maths

Students need to apply numerical and statistical methods to real-world contexts, says Rita Gardner

March 6, 2016
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A recent blog post on students’ maths skills rightly highlighted the challenges that face many students as they transition from school into a broad range of degrees.

Equipping students with the skills and confidence to apply mathematical knowledge in their university studies, and also in their subsequent careers, is important and the new post-16 core maths courses will help support this. However, “data rich” subjects such as geography also play a key role in helping to enhance pupils’ skills and confidence as they move from school into university.

By providing a subject-specific context, geography enables the application of numerical and statistical methods to real-world contexts and issues. Such an approach – whether examining flood return periods, determining net migration flows or comparing life expectancy and incomes – helps students become both more precise in their geographical studies and also to understand more fully why data and data skills matter.

So, alongside the introduction of core maths, higher education colleagues will see a strengthening of quantitative skills within the new A-level specifications for geography, as well as in GCSE, which will be taught from September this year. The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) advocated strongly for this change, arguing for much greater inclusion of quantitative and statistical methods, embedded into the content of the courses; and also for students to understand the wider application and purpose of these skills.

All future A-Level geographers will also now be undertaking an individual investigation, through which they will be able to extend those skills of analysis, synthesis and presentation, drawing on their own field data and secondary sources. A good training at A level should enable students to enter their university courses with greater confidence and not to shy away from courses that are more demanding of data analytical skills.

So, yes, there is the need to build bridges between schools and higher education through which teachers and academic colleagues – such as those working within the Q-Step programme – can share their good practice and resources. However, further work is needed if the sector is to fully meet these new challenges. To that end, I am delighted that the Nuffield Foundation is kindly supporting our society’s “data skills in geography” programme. The main focus of this two-year project is to use expertise, largely from higher education, to offer upskilling opportunities to those teachers that need additional training in order to be able to teach and embed the required skills at A level, with confidence.

We are taking the view that the most effective way for graduates to emerge from university with the quantitative skills that employers need is to combine a good grounding at school in both maths and subjects in which the student is interested and can readily understand quantitative applications. Teachers need support to help make that happen, and training can be provided in undergraduate courses with a strong data element, such as geography. 

Rita Gardner is director of the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers).

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