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How to Make Teaching the Weather Fun and Engaging in KS3 Geography

It’s a topic that teachers find challenging, and students dismiss as dull – but with the right approach, everyone can enjoy learning about Britain’s favourite fixation, says Jo Coles…

  • How to Make Teaching the Weather Fun and Engaging in KS3 Geography

Download free resources to accompany this feature here.

For a nation that is infamous for its obsession with predicting, discussing and complaining about the weather, you’d think we would also love teaching it – wouldn’t you?

And yet, when asked what topics teachers find dull to cover (particularly at Key Stage 3), or that students find difficult to grasp, one of the most frequently named is indeed the dear old weather!

On the surface, the weather seems easy. We see it all around us. We have ‘known’ what it is since we were tiny children.

It is one of the first things that toddlers learn to look at and talk about. We study it at primary school, and then again at secondary. Perhaps it is fatigued by overuse, by familiarity – by just being there.

It could also be that it’s difficult to consider the more complex matters of weather and climate because we already think we know it inside and out; we are used to treating it superficially, then when presented with the actual complexities we are daunted, deflated, and therefore defeated.

In fact, of course, the actual mechanics of atmospheric circulation, global currents, climate cycle oscillations, the difficult-to-say-and-even-harder-to-explain El Niño/La Niña phenomena, Milankovitch cycles, Hadley Cells, oceanic conveyor systems, Coriolis forces, global winds, solar variation, biochemistry, and all the multitude of variables that must be mathematically computed in order to make meteorological predictions are somewhat mind-blowing.

As the expression goes: “It ain’t rocket science… it’s harder”; and it’s not unusual for something that students find difficult to conceptualise to be perceived by them as ‘dull’.

An open remit

Let’s remind ourselves of what is explicitly required of us in the Key Stage 3 statutory orders.

We are to teach pupils to “…understand, through the use of detailed place-based exemplars at a variety of scales, the key process in physical geography relating to weather and climate, including the change in climate from the Ice Age to the present…” and to “understand how human and physical processes interact to influence, and change landscapes, environments and the climate…”.

Teaching about the weather could also be woven into explaining “…how geographical processes interact to create distinctive human and physical landscapes that change over time…”, used to demonstrate the use of “…geographical knowledge, approaches and concepts (such as models and theories) and geographical skills…”, and discussed in terms of “…environmental regions, including polar and hot deserts…” or the “…physical geography of a region within Africa, and of a region within Asia…”.

Pretty vague and open isn’t it? KS3 orders are an intentionally skeletal framework, that allows our professional judgement to determine how much depth we wish for particular aspects.

We can choose to spend weeks on the monsoon, UK climate, global climate zones, atmospheric circulation, the Ice Age, anticyclones, depressions, polar oceanic currents, etc. Or, we can choose not to.

Yes, we may be partly influenced by future GCSE considerations, and yes, we want students to understand their world and its processes, but this does not mean losing all creativity. We can battle the ‘dull’ and inspire the curiosity whilst imparting knowledge.

Try these…

So, with that in mind, here are some suggestions for activities that could be included within your weather units:

  • Layered UK climate mapping
    Take a blank UK outline map printed three times: once on white paper, and again on two pieces of tracing paper. Give students UK average temperature and precipitation choropleth maps, and a relief map. On the white paper outline, have them mark major areas of relief, as well as labelling seas and prevailing winds if desired. This is their base map. On one tracing paper, have them shade temperature variations, including a key. On another tracing paper outline, they should shade precipitation. Staple all three maps together, to form a multi-layered resource. Now ask students to interpret the maps, considering regional variations and their causes.
  • GIS links
    This site is a GIS visualisation of atmospheric and oceanic circulation. Students can explore and identify links between ocean temperatures and climate or climate hazards (useful when studying tropical storms). Meanwhile, the MET Office site is useful for visual mapping and data of UK weather, and you can contribute to community science by adding weather data to the site.
  • Climate ‘who am I’ mystery cards
    Have a selection of different mystery cards describing various climatic zones. Eg “Homes are built on stilts to avoid flooding by heavy monsoon rains”, “Few people live here due to winter temperatures of -22°C and winds in excess of 30mph”, etc. Students match the mystery cards to a global climate zone map and justify their answers.
  • Silent weather report
    Play a BBC weather report but mute the sound. Students watch in silence the first time. Allow five ‘Yes/No’ questions about what they have seen, then the second time they must provide a voiceover script themselves (by writing this in their books, speaking aloud to a partner, etc). Have high expectations about the use of key geographic terms, direction, place names, etc. Finally, play the report with the sound and see how accurate they are.
  • Mr Happy Air Masses
    Tony Cassidy created this idea some years back, and you can find a template here if needed. Basically, different Mr Happy templates represent each of the air masses affecting the UK. These are colour coded / clothed / annotated to explain how the air masses differ, then plotted on a map.
  • Chatterpix/ThingLink
    Create talking photos to describe and explain the weather. This requires students to explain the conditions they experience fully, and to consider what a static photograph will show and its limitations as evidence. It is tempting to say, “as you can see, the trees are moving in the wind” – but a static photo won’t show this and so learners are forced to consider carefully what they will capture to prove the weather conditions, and what commentary makes sense.
  • Climate zone maps vs graphs
    On A3 paper have a climate zone map in the centre. Give students a climate graph that matches each climate zone. They must identify the correct location from its graph, stick this onto the paper linked to the correct zone, and then annotate this with what the climate trend is and why they believe it is from this zone (link to numeracy skills).
  • Learning grids
    Provide learning grids to support extended writing / deliberate practice that prompt students to include information, key terms, command words, etc, from the learning grid. (Download an example, with instructions, here.)

A curious challenge

Above all, let us never forget that first statement of the statutory orders. We are required to “inspire a curiosity and fascination about the world and its people that will remain with them for the rest of their lives.”

This is the challenge. Not to ensure that students can memorise all the global climate zones or why monsoons occur, but that they should be inspired, curious, fascinated.

To me this is the biggest challenge of all. We can teach knowledge all day long, but if we do not also instil lifelong curiosity and fascination whilst doing so, then we have failed.

It is by far the harder box to tick. But the most rewarding.

Jo Coles is an assistant headteacher currently on maternity leave, geographer, RGS fellow and Chartered Geographer, GA consultant, award-winner, examiner and author.

Download free resources to accompany this feature here.

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