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Teaching Geography Using the DI Approach

By Michael Maloney
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #78, 2007.

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Michael Maloney


Oftentimes geography is taught almost as a series of case studies rather than a discipline with consistent rules and their application. In textbooks, in studies of physical geography, chapters are dedicated to covering a particular area or some fairly specific phenomenon like orographic rainfall (which happens when moist air hits mountains). This leaves the student with a wealth of somewhat unrelated facts, but without a set of usable principles to allow them to predict outcomes given certain amounts of information. It might be more beneficial to students if the curriculum designers who create the textbooks and unit studies in geography adopted a Direct Instruction approach to teaching the application of general principles of geography.

What is this Direct Instruction

Direct Instruction is an instructional design methodology developed by Siegfried Engelmann and his many colleagues at the University of Oregon during the past 40 years. Direct Instruction demonstrated itself to be the most effective teaching method in the largest, most expensive, comparative, educational research study ever done-the Follow Through Study. This one method led all others in the teaching of reading, math, spelling, and language skills to children who were at risk of school failure. It did so with such dominance that the National Office of Education refused to believe the results and redid the entire experiment. The results of several replications were equally consistent in their support of Direct Instruction as the world's most potent teaching method. Despite these towering and repeated successes, Direct Instruction, known as DI to its users, has never been widely taught to teachers or adopted by public schools. Currently there are approximately 50 Direct Instruction programs to cover reading, reading comprehension, math, spelling, writing, language development and cursive writing. Unfortunately they are published by McGraw-Hill and are difficult, if not impossible, to order as homeschooling parents.

The DI Difference

Direct Instruction derives its power from its design. That design attempts to isolate laws or rules about a particular phenomenon. It then teaches those laws or rules to the student explicitly and demands that the student be able to repeat the laws or rules verbatim.

Once the rule has been teased out of the information, the student is systematically presented with a range of examples that demonstrate the rule and another range of examples that demonstrate the conditions under which the rule does not apply. Having seen where the rule applies and also the conditions under which it does not apply, the student then learns to discriminate between examples of the rule and non-examples of the rule. Part of the power of this method is that it allows the student to accurately deal with a wide range of examples and non-examples that were not part of the teaching set, because they can apply the rule and be reasonably certain of getting it right. The rule usually is sufficiently general to cover most examples. That leaves only a small set of exceptions that will have to be taught separately.

Direct Instruction and Geography

How could we apply the DI method to the teaching of geography?

First we would have to isolate the rules or laws that pertain to various phenomena. Let's look at one example.

If we were to take the concept of orographic rainfall, we would need to isolate several rules and principles.

First, orographic rainfall only relates to precipitation that results from moisture rising over landforms. If the landform is high enough, it forces the clouds to a height where the temperature drops sufficiently to cause condensation and its resulting precipitation. We would need to know the height of the cliffs or mountains, and its base temperature for that period of time. Since we also know that temperatures drop about 3 degrees for each 1000 feet of altitude, we could begin to determine the altitude at which condensation would occur at various times of the year. The condensation would occur at higher levels in the summer than in the winter. The amounts and even the type of condensation would change as a result of these fluctuations in temperatures from one season to the next.

If we added to that information the direction of the prevailing winds, we could then predict which side of the mountain will be the windward side which receives most of the rainfall, and which would be the leeward side of the mountains which would be in the rainshadow and receive relatively little rainfall.

Given this information we can apply these principles to any set of mountains in the world and make fairly accurate predictions about a number of other phenomenon.

An Example

The Rocky Mountains of the United States are a good example of orographic rainfall. The predominant winds blow from across the Pacific, where they pick up lots of moisture. As they rise over the Rockies, they meet cooler air, condense, and leave a trail of moisture. Having lost most of their moisture in the climb over the mountains, there is little left for the areas beyond the Eastern slopes of this mountain range. As a result, there is a large area of desert and semi-desert on the eastern side of the mountains.

Knowing the prevailing winds, the height of the mountains and the base seasonal temperatures, we can make predictions about any area where orographic rainfall plays a role in the weather.

If we look further north to the Canadian Rockies, we see exactly the same pattern as we do with the American Rockies. These principles provide a general case about orographic rainfall that can be applied universally.

Using the General Case

If we look at the Atlas Mountains of North Africa with their prevailing westerly winds coming from the Atlantic Ocean, it is easy to determine that the northern and western slopes are to windward and the southern and eastern slopes are in the leeward rainshadow. The major cities of these countries are all located on the windward side of this range. The huge Sahara desert spreads out below these mountains. The effects on the peoples living on either side of these mountains is quite dramatic, largely because of the amount of rainfall each receives.

Once we can determine those effects, it becomes easier to understand other aspects of the cultural and economic geography in those regions. We could more easily predict which areas will be used for farming and which might be used for herding of animals, which peoples are settled and which are nomadic. Such information might help explain which areas will suffer drought and which may be threatened by flood. The source and flow of rivers from these mountains will also be affected by their windward or leeward position. The extent to which having sufficient water to serve large numbers of people will affect settlement patterns or the lack of settlements.

Direct Instruction, as an instructional design methodology, helps to put the pieces together so that they can be used to explain a wider range of examples. Almost any discipline would be more easily learned by students if these principles were taught explicitly using a variety of examples that demonstrate them and non-examples that show when one or more of the principles are absent.


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