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In
accordance with the Junior Cycle Reform, the introduction of a new Geography
Programme will be brought into secondary schools in Ireland from September 2018The
main aims of the Junior cycle reform is to ‘provide students with quality
learning opportunities that strike a balance between learning knowledge and
developing a wide range of skills and thinking abilities’ (Department of
Education and Skills, 2015). One of the main reasons geography was in need of a
reform at junior cycle is to keep students engaged with this increasingly
globalised world around them. The new geography specification reform aims at
preparing students for the fast changing world we now live in, helping them to
overcome ‘physical, language and cultural barriers to collaborate with their
colleagues and peers’ (NCCA, 2016).  It
is important for students to become active agents in their own learning, ‘challenged
to make connections, link ideas and ask questions to further their knowledge
and understanding’ (Mark Harris, 2017). With this being said the junior cycle
has placed the student at the centre of the learning making a few adjustments
to the curriculum in order to achieve this.

In
regards similarities and differences between the 1989 geography curriculum and
the newly reformed specification which will be in place from September 2018 there
was most certainly a larger emphasis placed on rote learning and the written
test in the old curriculum, resulting in students becoming disengaged. One of
the main differences to note is that, like all subjects in Junior cycle, there
now seems to be a much stronger focus towards active learning and getting
students to work cooperatively with each other. ‘When students have a voice and
degree of choice, and when they are asked to consider how their learning should
progress, they are likely to understand the importance of the learning process’
(Daniel’s and Bizar, 1998). When students learn cooperatively and actively we
are allowing for them to develop a whole range of skills and this is exactly
what the new geography specification for Junior cycle aims to do. The launch of
the Junior Cycle Student Award is also a great addition to the new
specification, aimed at creating independent thinkers, motivated to learn by reaching
their targets and achievements becoming ‘informed teenagers and citizens with
the tools to achieve their full potential’ (The Minister for Education and
Skills, Ruairí Quinn T.D, 2014)

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The
main aims of the Junior cycle reform is to ‘provide students with quality
learning opportunities that strike a balance between learning knowledge and
developing a wide range of skills and thinking abilities’ (Department of
Education and Skills, 2015). The learning at the centre of the New Junior Cycle
reform is described using 24 statements of learning (SOL) (see appendix 1).
These statements are a vital element of this reform and are ‘underpinned by the
eight principles, are central to planning for, the students’ experience of, and
the evaluation of the school’s junior cycle programme’ (Department of Education
and skills, 2015). Across these 24 statements of learning geography is
particularly linked with a select number of them.  The specification for Junior Cycle Geography
focuses on developing students’ knowledge and skills to explore and understand
the world around us, our role within it and recognise the interconnections
amongst systems (NCCA, 2016). The geography specification has links with at
least seven of these statements of learning namely SOL numbers 6, 7, 8, 9, 10,
16 and 18 (see appendix number2). These statements of learning show a clear
relevance across the topics in geography that students learn. Students learn
life skills such as learning to live sustainably and the importance of this, which
clearly links with SOL number 10. As students explore the world around them
through topics such as population and settlement patters or globalisation there
are some clear links with that of SOL number 9. The new geography specification
offers opportunities for students to discuss and stage debates on how a young
persons’ opportunities in life are greatly affected by where they are in the
world, linking in with the SOL number 6. In addition students achieve the SOL
number 7 when they study the role of development assistance, learning the value
of what it means to be an active citizen in the world. In showing linkages with
SOL number 8, the students are asked to look at the different influences that
would cause changes in human settlement based on origin, location and
sustainable change. The students are engaged with the SOL number 16 when they
observe topics relating to human and physical geography, developing their
ability to interpret, describe and predict patterns and relationships. Finally,
students engage with SOL number 18 through the geography curriculum when they
observe and identify how the landscape is shaped through geographical
processes. Through introducing these statements of learning it allows students
to create links between the curriculum and the world around them and so I feel
it is extremely important and relevant to their learning having them brought into
the new specification.

The
8 key skills as seen in Appendix 2 are another aspect of the junior cycle
reform and they serve an important role in preparing students in all aspects of
their education and life. ‘Key skills help learners develop the knowledge,
skills and attitudes to face the many challenges in today’s world’ (JCT
Reference Guide, 2017/2018). The key skills that are directly connected to the
geography specification would include student development in being creative,
literate, numerate, developing communication skills, managing information and
thinking, managing myself, staying well; and working with others. There are
many ways in which these skills are fostered through the teaching and learning
of geography and it is my job as a teacher to ensure that I facilitate the
opportunities during class time to develop these skills. For example,
encouraging the use of group work activities will aid in developing students’
abilities to both communicate and work well with others; this could include
assigning group projects on a particular topic within the geography course for
students to complete. When students are asked to analyse or gather information
on a research are within the specification they are learning how to manage
their information and thinking skills. Students will become more literate by
the inclusion of class debates on the opportunities young people have or have
not depending on where they grow up in the world. In getting students to create
a model of a how a volcano is formed or having them answer questions based on a
visual aid such as a video they are using their creativity skills. Geography
allows for the development of numeracy skills when students are asked to answer
questions based on data displayed on a graph or pie chart. Finally the new
junior cert reform has emphasised the importance of student wellbeing. It goes
without saying that when students are happy within the classroom environment
more learning will take place. As a result the geography specification allows
students to develop skills in managing themselves through reflection of their
learning, and staying well by choosing research on areas of experience or
interest as well as being responsible in their research.

The
Junior Cycle geography is split into three strands: Exploring the physical
world, Exploring how we interact with the physical world and Exploring people,
place and change, overarched by the main concept known as Geoliteracy. Similar
to the old Junior Cert curriculum these three strands are hugely linked with
each other, aiding in the students’ understanding and grasping of the
curricula. ‘Geoliteracy aims to develop cognitive, interpersonal and
intrapersonal competencies through the curriculum that are sustainable
throughout the students’ lives’ (NCCA, 2017).  Through the first strand exploring the
physical world students are required to develop skills and knowledge to explain
the physical world. In this strand they will look into aspects of physical
geography and explore the links between how some of the topics within physical
geography can relate to implications in their own lives. In integrating this
strand into the specification the students could look at for example the
effects a landslide may have on a small village taking into account the effect
it may have on those living or running businesses in the area. In strand two,
exploring how we interact with the physical world, the students will observe
how people interact with the physical world; they will understand how we depend
on, adapt and change the physical world. As a way of integrating this strand
the students could create a jigsaw worksheet (see appendix 3) on the economic
and social impacts of how we interact with the occurrence of volcanoes, Fold
Mountains or earthquakes with the assessment of the task being a group
presentation.  Finally the third strand
requires students to explore people, place and change. An example of one way
which would integrate an aspect of this strand would be to get the students to
create a visual aid for the wall in the geography room which explains some
factors affecting the location and origin of rural and urban settlement in
Ireland.

To
conclude, since observing the new specification of geography at Junior cycle
level the main adjustments that I have noted is that the student is at the
centre of all learning taking place. They are encouraged to become active
agents in their own learning by thinking as geographers and creating links with
the curriculum and their own surroundings within the world. The role of the
teacher is to foster the skills that students will require to grasp each strand
within the specification ensuring that the statements of learning are met and
the key skills associated with the specification are developed. In lacing the
students at the core of all learning taking place and giving them more
responsibility in their learning experience ‘these new approaches make it
possible for the majority of individuals to develop a deep understanding of
important subject matter’ (John D. Bransford et al, 2000). I am ending my essay
on a quote by Hallinan which although stated over thirty years ago, may be more
relevant than ever in the fast changing world that we live in today, noting
that ‘Geography is today, more than ever before, an essential part of the core
curriculum for every pupil. It, among other things, imparts a wide range of
skills, interests, knowledge and attitudes which enables pupils to develop as
responsible people and the lack of which would place each one of them at a
disadvantage’ (Hallinan, 1981). 

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