Updated JC geography curriculum worries some

Innova JC unveiled the updated curriculum at its open house. Some educators said the integrated approach is in line with the university style of learning but students who are grappling with content may find it hard.
Innova JC unveiled the updated curriculum at its open house. Some educators said the integrated approach is in line with the university style of learning but students who are grappling with content may find it hard.PHOTO: INNOVA JC

Students concerned it will be harder to score but teachers say the changes are necessary

Fewer students seem to be taking geography this year in junior colleges, with an updated curriculum for the subject kicking in.

The revised curriculum, which requires them to draw links between physical and human geography - and go beyond memorising facts - has made some think twice about taking the subject.

Several who were contacted said they think it could now be harder to do well in it, and were drawn to other humanities subjects, such as history and economics.

The Straits Times understands that interest in geography among first-year students has dipped across the JCs this year. Some have about 30 to 70 students taking the H2 subject in JC1; in the past they would have had upwards of 60.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) said that in the last few years - from 2012 to 2014 - the number of students taking H2 geography has remained at about 9.5 per cent of each cohort. About 14,000 students take the A levels every year.

One student who took geography in upper secondary chose economics instead when she got to JC .

"I like geography because it helps us have an informed view of the world. But my teacher told us that the changes are not as straightforward, and integrating human and physical geography means you can't be half-good at the subject," said the 17-year-old Integrated Programme student who declined to be named.

"My impression is that it will be harder to score. I thought about it quite hard but, in the end, students are practical - we still need subjects that will help us get As."

But Ms Helena Ting, a lead geography teacher at National JC, said the changes are not major as the focus is still on the physical and human aspects of geography.

Students' uncertainty is expected when there are syllabus changes, she said. "But content has not changed much; what's different is the emphasis. Now we try to incorporate both aspects in the discussion of environmental and human issues so that it's more realistic."

For example, the subject will be taught through themes such as tropical environment, sustainable development and globalisation. A fourth theme, geographical investigation, requires students to craft research questions, identify data needed to test their hypothesis and explain how they collect data.

Some educators contacted said the integrated approach is in line with the university style of learning but students who are grappling with content may find it hard.

But the changes are necessary to make the subject more relevant, said Ms Sabrina Teo, subject head of geography at Serangoon JC.

She said: "We hope that the new syllabus will get students to read up and be exposed to news and trends, beyond the fixed sets of readings."

Associate Professor Pow Choon Piew, from the National University of Singapore's geography department, said students are used to the human-physical geography divide, which is an "artificial" one.

"Contemporary issues, such as urban sustainability and climate change, straddle both fields," said Prof Pow, who was involved in MOE's latest review of the JC geography syllabus.

Ms Ting added: "Geography reflects issues in the real world. It's about understanding spatial patterns in and across places and observing variations.

"Teachers will need to help students of varying abilities in different ways," she said. "This is also a chance for us to collaborate across JCs and have conversations about how to teach the subject better."

Prof Pow added that, despite the initial worry, he is confident teachers will help students adapt to the new syllabus over the two years. "The hope is that the larger spirit of why the ministry is embarking on these changes is not lost."

First-year Innova JC student Sapphire Ong, 17, who is taking geography, said she enjoyed it in upper secondary school."As a geographer, it's important to understand both physical and human aspects as they're inter-dependent."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2016, with the headline 'Updated JC geography curriculum worries some'. Print Edition | Subscribe