Physical Geography

Rating: ★★★★☆

Charles Fletcher. 2011. Physical Geology: The Science of the Earth. Wiley. ISBN 978 0 471 22037 4.

Perhaps the most interesting idea when first picking up the book is the statement by the author ‘why have another text on physical geology’? Given the volume of material published (not to mention the legion of resources on the net), it appears to be overload. It’s worth exploring this before looking at the contents.

The author argues that there are two elements. The first that it is truly reader-focussed with each chapter broken down into topics which are only two pages long. This ensures that material is concise and precise; there’s no room for frills. The second is that it explicitly uses Bloom’s Taxonomy to drive the learning resources in the book. It would appear that every part, especially the artwork (always a key feature in US-centric texts like this) is related in some way to Bloom and critical thinking. In addition, there are a range of learning resources from critical thinking exercises to “civics” – the role of geology in our lives. Students can take this even further with online resources.

These are bold claims. It seems reasonable to take a chapter for a test drive to see what it looks like. Although the first two chapters look at the basics of geology (range of the subject, geological time etc.) and the solar system, since the author argues that plate tectonics is central to all geology (although that might be because he’s in Hawaii!) it seems worthwhile starting there. The two opening pages do set the scene. A large image of Iceland poses the question of the dangers of living there and the immediate impact of plate tectonics in our lives is noted. Finally, there are 10 learning objectives which cover the basic concepts e.g. earth’s layers, plates, rock cycle. For the beginner, nothing seems to be obviously missing. The nest two pages look at the first objective (in this case the Earth during the Hadean era). There are graphs of the relative abundance of elements and a diagram of the earth’s cross-section. The writing is closely bound to previous chapters so at this stage it’s not a book to dip into. The next two pages focus of the 3 layers of the Earth (which is simplistic) and the 3-dimensional nature of convection (which is not). A critical thinking task deals with the controversial idea of mantle plumes, using a lava lamp to explain it. Moving on gets us to plate processes and a spread on critical thinking dealing with plate boundaries. This last exercise does seem to live up to its name with a map used to get the reader to think about evidence. The pattern continues with images linked to a range of learning devices such as ‘expand your thinking’ questions . More ideas are brought in such as the impact of plate tectonics on people (earthquakes, volcanoes etc.). At the end, there’s a review section with a study guide highlighting key parts of the chapter, a list of key terms, some questions based on the text and some for web research with a few on-line resources to finish with. Does this add up to the innovative system espoused. Largely one would have to agree. There is very certainly an attempt to engage the reader. The text is full of colour illustrations of extremely high quality. The learning devices promised are all there and they seem to fit in. The only issue is the content which although accessible does tend to go from the simplistic (reasonable, because this is a beginners text)  to the more complex without necessarily any reason why and I think here is the inherent issue with any enterprise like this: you cannot have brief, image-laden text with depth of writing. There is much to value here but this must be bourne in mind.

Looking at further chapters, we go from plates to minerals. There’s some very basic assumptions about atomic structure but some good tables of key mineral groups, main rock-forming minerals and an idea of mineral environments. There’s a spread on the impact of mining reinforcing the author’s focus on the application of this knowledge to our everyday lives. Subsequent chapter tease out the key rock types along with the principle issues of volcanoes, earthquakes, weathering and mountain building before finishing with a look at geologic time and earth history. Given that this is a US text, the next chapter on US geologic history makes sense (and helps those outside understand some key processes). From this point the book turns to surface processes starting with global warming and moving on to glaciers (and climate), wasting, water and deserts. Two final sections of coastal and marine geology complete the text.

There is much to like in this text. Given that it’s a US college primer, the content seems appropriate and the constant reference to pedagogy is refreshing even though it might not always work. It’s a very bright and lively text which even those outside the US would find of interest. It’s value to us is the way in which it treats its subject matter and the interaction of that with the reader/learner.

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