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Vol 32 No 2, April - June 1994
Page 39

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English and Geography: A Report on an Interdisciplinary Experience
by Ulrich Gerber and Jurg Alean

In Switzerland, most English teachers at pre-university level do not limit themselves only to teaching grammar and reading "good" literature. They also widen their scope, offering students a varied diet of newspaper articles and other factual texts from all branches of knowledge. This article reports how two teachers of completely different subjects joined efforts to give an interdisciplinary course in English and geography.

We are both friends and teachers at the same school. J. Alean's subject is geography, U. Gerber's, English. We are both, to some extent, experts in southern Africa. We wanted to put our knowledge to good use and thought it would be enlightening for the pupils to see how two teachers of different subjects (arts vs. science) approached the same topic.

Our school is a Swiss "gymnasium" a selective state school at which students have to take at least 11 subjects up to the final exam, the "matura," which entitles them to study any of these 11 subjects at a Swiss university.

Pupils in their sixth year (i.e., fourth year of English) not only attend their "normal" classes but have to choose one so-called "elective course," in which performance is less intensively assessed, i.e., there are no tests and no marks other than a "passing grade." Courses are usually advertised in all subjects and range from "Oedipus" in Latin and "genetic engineering" in Biology to "sundials" in Maths and "the Swiss political parties" in History. We offered an interdisciplinary course in geography/English on South Africa and Namibia.

Advertising our course

Brief descriptions of all courses are published and students sign up on the basis of this information. We were confident that our programme would be attractive for three reasons:

First, the topic as such is of common interest. South Africa is mentioned in the press almost daily in connection with apartheid and economic sanctions. Namibia became a prominent subject of media coverage because of its move toward independence, which came to a successful conclusion early in 1990.

Second, having two subjects and two teachers and using a foreign language (English) under different circumstances offered the pupils considerable variety.

Third, the teachers were able to draw upon first-hand experience and to utilize their own authentic teaching materials, i.e., interviews with black and white South Africans of such varied backgrounds as a university president and a tourist guide who lives in Soweto, extensive photographic coverage, mineral specimens and gemstones, etc. Sixteen pupils eventually signed on, which is above the average.

The detailed programme was as follows (roughly in chronological order): geographical survey of both countries / what is apartheid? / a historical overview / everyday life today and in the Stone Age (Bushmen culture) / the Namib Desert / wildlife and its conservation / tourism / geology and gold and diamond mining / Granny Smith (the apple) / languages spoken / economic relationship of Switzerland with South Africa / Namibia's independence process and the role played by the UN and Switzerland / encounters with prominent personalities (authentic interviews made and recorded in South Africa) / political forces / perspectives for the future.

One of our goals was to develop the students' understanding of scientific texts of moderate difficulty. Double lessons allowed for some intensive studies but did not excessively tax the students' stamina. Pair work (further detailed in Figure 1) ensured that students had to actively use the foreign language despite some unfamiliar topics. Listening comprehension, naturally, was practised when working with the interviews. When German texts had to be used (such as press coverage of current events), the discussions were conducted in that language also.

What we taught

Right from the start we took care to show more than just the problem areas of life in southern Africa. There were pictures of squatters' villages and reports of violence, but there were also many smiling faces of black and white people alike, and hopeful developments were shown where appropriate.

Since the material available to us was so plentiful and varied, we tried to show some interesting connections between seemingly unrelated facts. For example, the rock engravings and paintings found in the Namib Desert were a clue to the preserving effect of a highly arid desert climate. (Beautiful pictures and illuminating descriptions can be found in Woodhouse 1984.) Then we discussed how "primitive" people were able to cope in such an extreme environment. This naturally led to the question why anybody would choose such a hostile habitat which, in turn, touched upon historical conflicts that have occurred between indigenous African peoples. Bushmen art is of such high quality that animals can be studied in great detail, and the comparison with "modern" photographs was one of the highlights of the programme.

Apartheid, naturally, was a major topic. A series of slides took us into Soweto and the students realized the sharp contrast between the housing conditions in this township and some white areas of Johannesburg.

For one explanation of apartheid, we listened to an interview with a black guide (Gerber 1990). He made us aware of the harsh living conditions of Sowetans who find employment in the white man's gold mines or factories. He also pointed out that apartheid laws had excluded them from owning property in Johannesburg, which, in turn, meant long, expensive, and often dangerous journeys to their jobs every day.

Another interview with Dr. A. Treurnicht (Gerber 1990) put this topic in a wider perspective. As the leader of the South African Conservative Party he was a staunch advocate of apartheid, and our students were able to hear what politicians like him envision with their policies.

The teachers' interdisciplinary experience

When we set out on our teaching project, each of us expected to profit from his colleague's knowledge of related but different areas of southern Africa. (After all, we think that there is nothing wrong with teachers also learning along with the pupils.) The geography teacher expected to make English scientific texts including a Namibian geography school book (Mthoko et al. 1990) accessible to the students; whereas the English teacher expected to get a more "geographical foundation" for his discussion of today's South Africa and its problems. However, during the course, we became more and more aware of other, equally important, benefits of our cooperation.

For example, each of us was impressed when he observed how well students responded to teaching techniques used in a "foreign" subject. The geography teacher has since experimented with "pair work" (typically used in language teaching) in regular geography lessons. He has become more aware of language problems that his students face, even in their mother tongue. He was also surprised at the students' willingness to speak only English in class. Even when the temptation would have been great to translate a difficult word, they tried to make do with their limited English vocabulary.

The English teacher was impressed by the way seemingly "dry" statistical facts or climatic or geological details came to life when they were presented in an interesting context or illustrated by captivating photographs. He also observed how pupils were able to find relevant data through careful reading of maps and diagrams. He became more aware of how the natural environment has influenced peoples' lives in southern Africa.


At the outset of the experiment, we anticipated that our students would profit from the unorthodox use of attractive teaching materials. However, we were most pleased to find that we as teachers benefited from this experience too. Why had it worked so well? First, each teacher was competent and at ease with his own subject. Second, both of us were happy to rely on each other's expertise. In addition, we were both full of enthusiasm for the same topic and equally willing to take the initiative. We felt that the results of our combined efforts were disproportionately higher than expected.

Last but not least, this interdisciplinary experiment challenged us in new and different ways. It proved a fruitful change from our daily routine. For once the "lonely-wolf syndrome" disappeared. Both teachers experienced less isolation in their work, finding themselves on a par with a colleague, sharing responsibility in the classroom.

In the discussion at the end of the course, the students were unanimous in their appreciation of the experience. They said that having to find out about two new countries through the medium of English had been profitable. In particular, the authentic visual and aural material appealed to them very much.

All in all we warmly recommend interdisciplinary teaching. We are convinced that the task of combining the knowledge and skills of different subject areas should not be left to the students alone. Teachers should set an example by adopting an interdisciplinary approach drawing upon different sources of information and different processing strategies to understand more about any given topic.


  • Gerber, U. 1990. Unpublished interviews in Soweto and Pretoria.
  • Mthoko, A., H. Noisser and W. Rebentisch. 1990. Geography of NamibiaJunior secondary geography book. Windhoek, Namibia: Gamsberg Macmillan Publishers.
  • South African Bureau for Information. 1990. South Africa 1989/90: Official yearbook of the Republic of South Africa. Pretoria: Department of Foreign Affairs.
  • Woodhouse, B. 1984. When animals were people A - Z of animals of southern Africa as the Bushmen saw and thought them and as the camera sees them today. Melville, South Africa: Chris van Rensburg Publications.

Ulrich Gerber has been teaching English at pre-university level in Switzerland for 17 years. He now teaches at the Kantonsschule Zurcher Unterland. He is interested in finding more efficient and interesting ways of teaching English.
Jurg Alean has been teaching geography at the Kantonsschule Zurcher Unterland since 1982. He has taught in an English-language school near Zurich, and has done field work in both Americas, Asia, and recently, southern Africa.


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