Continents

My class is busy with a unit on world geography. Of course the first step in looking at this massive topic is to understand the continents. After several weeks and some heated debate at school, I have become even MORE unsure of what those actually are….

As a child I learned that there are seven continents: North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Antarctica, and Australia. It seems that this is still common practice in many schools.  Yet, after moving to Australia, I found myself involved in some important discussions about the “continent” of Australia. If we define a continent as a continuous expanse of land then this makes sense.  However, it gets a little sticky when you start to look at all of those islands out there. For example, New Zealand falls under the continent label of “Australia,” but New Zealanders certainly DO NOT consider themselves part of Australia! Other island countries, like Madagascar off the coast of Africa, and Greenland, near North America, are not so contentious, as their “continent” is a name that is distinct from any of its countries. But with Australia that is not the case.

So, after much discussion, I decided to use the term “Oceania” (technically a geopolitical region) to refer to Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands in the area (Micronesia, Polynesia).

This sparked all sorts of debate in my school, where many of the Australians suggested that Oceania was incorrect.  Goodness! So of course we dug a bit deeper and found that, depending on where you are in the world, and who is teaching, there are several different versions of how many continents there are. You can have the four continent model: the Americas, Afro-Eurasia, Antarctica and Australia. There is the six continent version: Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas, Antarctica, and Australia. Or if you prefer: Africa, Eurasia, North America, South America, Antarctica, and Australia/Oceania. Then there are two different seven continent versions – the one I learned as a child, and the one I am teaching now: Africa, Asia, Europe, Antarctica, South America, North America, and Oceania.

The long and short of it is, the number of continents, and what you call them, really does depend on your perspective. The thing that I found interesting was the idea that, just because we learned this one way, then that is how we should teach it. Whereas I have come to learn that geography is really a changing thing. East and West Berlin are no longer, and the USSR is not to be found on a modern map. So why must we insist on sticking to names that do not really represent the modern world? Can’t we adapt to a continent called “Oceania” to respect and recognize island nations in the region? At the end of the day, the conversation about this with our students really is much more important than anything else, and we did have some great talks about why we call certain regions by a specific name.

How many continents do you teach, and what do you call them?

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