Geoinspirations: Dr. Aikaterini Klonari - Geography was Born in Greece. It Nearly Died There, Too.

February 5, 2020
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Editor’s note: The Ancient Greeks were the first to study Geography systematically. Today, only two Greek universities have geography departments; only one trains secondary teachers. In this edition of GeoInspirations, our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, speaks with Dr. Aikaterini Klonari, a pioneering professor of geography education at the University of the Aegean, Greece.

About 15 years ago, during my involvement with the European geography community, I met Dr. Aikaterini Klonari. Attending her presentations and talking with her over the years, it became clear to me that she is a leader in geography education and research. It is my great pleasure to introduce Dr. Klonari to Directions Magazine readers and, through her story, inspire you to enter, or deepen, your career in geography.

“I am currently a professor in the geography department at the University of the Aegean, Greece, the first department of geography in Greece, founded in 1994, on the island of Lesvos,” Dr. Klonari told me. “My B.Sc. is in Geology and my Ph.D., in Teaching Geography. I have been involved in education all my life.”

I could not resist asking Dr. Klonari, “What is it like to be teaching and researching geography in Greece, the home of where much of geography began? Does it give you a different spatiotemporal sense of purpose? What are your favorite places and landscapes in Greece?” She was very patient with all of my questions, and responded, “Although the geographical discipline dates back to the antiquities, geography is a fairly new academic discipline in Greece. So far, only two universities feature geography departments, the University of the Aegean, since 1994, and Harokopio University of Athens, since 2000. The former was also chronologically the first department of geography and is currently the only one offering four courses related to geography education, training student teachers for secondary education.

“This accounts for the very small number of school geography educators and researchers in the country, which is still far from creating a strong geographic community of teachers. In fact, all research on the implementation of innovative teaching methods in school geography, as well as the introduction of GIS in secondary education, in Greece, is due to the efforts of three or four of us who pioneered this effort as academic staff in Greek universities.

“Thus, at the home of where much of geography began, geography as a school subject in the Greek educational system still remains rudimentary and suffers from the preconception, but also the sustained reputation, of being a boring, descriptive teaching subject, based on memorization of endless map facts. Despite significant attempts in the past few decades towards the improvement and modernization of the geographical knowledge provided at schools, geography’s image has not improved in Greece, while substantial change in teaching this subject at schools has yet to take place. This makes our work towards these goals even more valuable and timely.

“Greece is a land of spectacular beauty and endless landscape diversity—from rugged snow-capped mountains and ancient ruins to turquoise waters and white sandy beaches. My favorite landscape is the Greek island landscape, and especially the Aegean Islands, with their arid hills, sandy coves and jagged coastlines in the deep-blue sea, their picturesque towns and villages with whitewashed cubic houses, with wooden painted windows and doors, and their small churches on hilltops or ancient, Byzantine and Venetian castles,” Dr. Klonari said.

I asked Dr. Klonari whether there was a specific thing, or person, that inspired her to enter the fields she did. She said, “Yes, of course—more than one! My biggest appreciation and dues are to Professor Konstantinos Koutsopoulos, who was the first to introduce GIS in his courses in higher education, at the National Technical University of Athens, the most prestigious academic institution in the country, in the late 1980s. He led me to see and realize all the possible contributions of this ‘tool’ to secondary education. At that time, I was a young science teacher in upper secondary education, thirsty for personal academic growth and skill acquisition. He also showed me, by example, many years ago, that mastering GIS technology is not enough. Much more significantly, it is crucial to apply this technology towards the achievement of specific goals, such as using GIS as a tool to facilitate the process of teaching geography. Nowadays, WebGIS offers and enables this possibility in a very simple way. (Author’s note: I have also met Dr. Koutsopoulos and agree—he is an amazing individual!)

She continued, “With my election and appointment to the Department of Geography at the University of the Aegean, a series of opportunities concerning my involvement with GIS opened up for me through collaboration with several excellent colleagues specializing in teaching GIS, from whom I learned a lot and mainly started feeling at ease and confident using them in my courses, ‘Teaching Geography’ and ‘Using New Technologies in Teaching and Learning.’ Teaching elicits learning for both sides involved in the process; I have been extremely fortunate in this way, all my life.

“Another very critical point in my conviction of the power of implementing GIS in teaching and learning came when I participated, through Karl Donert, in the European project, ‘iGuess.eu,’ introducing GIS in school practice. Karl Donert has been another great mentor in my career as a geography educator—an extraordinary man with many innovative ideas who welcomed me and helped me feel that I belong to the geography community, both European and international. He was a dynamic and enthusiastic leader in learning and teaching, as demonstrated by his National Teaching Fellowship Award. Additionally, he has been an advocate for the discipline through his work and [the] projects he has coordinated. He led one of the largest Bologna Thematic Networks for higher education, HERODOT. I am very proud to I have been a pioneer in the usage of [Esri’s] ArcMap and ArcGIS Online in primary and secondary schools in Greece, especially in collaboration with teachers trained through the iGuess project. Since then, I have participated in several scientific networks and research projects related to the implementation of GIS in education, such as ‘digital-earth.eu,’ ‘school on the cloud,’ ‘i-use.eu,’ etc.,” she explained.

I asked Dr. Klonari to share the person, class, or topic that has most inspired her during her career. She said, “It all started with [a] brilliant science teacher I had as a 14-year-old student in lower secondary education. Mr. Ioannis Bouroutis inspired me—through his teaching enthusiasm, collaborative and hands-on activities, lab work (science experiments in the classroom) and his commitment—to love science and geography and want to be a teacher! So it was very early on that I decided that the only thing I would like to do professionally in my life was to be a teacher!

“From then on I followed the conventional steps of the Greek educational system by taking the national exams to enter the Department of Geology and Geoenvironment of the School of Science at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens—there was no department of geography in Greece at the time—since studies in geology and geoenvironment were the closest to the scientific field that held my interest and fascination.

“I was a secondary school teacher for almost 20 years. Throughout this period, I was heavily involved in writing geography textbooks, compiling national geography curricula and participating in projects for the creation of educational material, for primary and lower secondary education. This was an especially fertile period for me in developing my future teaching skills and commitment in practice, while at the same time I was writing my doctoral thesis, which I supported in 1996. From that point on, urged by my mentor, Prof. Koutsopoulos, I decided to apply to the, at that time newly-instituted, Department of Geography at the University of the Aegean for the post of ‘Education and Teaching Geography,’ which I have successfully filled since 2000, as a member of the academic staff, for almost 20 years now.”

I wondered about the project or initiative that Dr. Klonari is most proud of being a part, and she said, “Clearly, the first European scientific/research network I joined in 2000, as an academician, HERODOT. That was where I first met Karl Donnert, who was to become a life-long collaborator and mentor for me. Karl participated and still participates in several European-funded research projects, where he always invited me to join as a partner! I firmly believe that my work and collaboration with the EUROGEO network has been the most decisive factor to bring me to the point where I now find myself, both scientifically and academically. Thus, HERODOT was an inspiration to me and a good start to what followed all these years!”

Given Dr. Klonari’s experience, I asked her to advise us—the education, GIS, and geography community—on what she thinks is the most important thing on which we need to work. She replied, “Upgrading the role of geography in school and the society, in general, has been and continues to be a constant pursuit, especially in countries where it has not yet been fully institutionalized, but also where it has lost ground in the past few decades due to financial cutbacks and curriculum re-prioritization in education. Such efforts need to be sustained and fortified by interventions to policy- and decision-makers, in order to sensitize them as to how important geography is to future citizens and to commit them to this long-term goal."

“Secondly, no such progress or revolution can ever be achieved in a socio-cultural system without better-trained geography teachers, appropriately formed in the subject matter and in the use of geographic tools to achieve the goals and objectives of the courses, the curricula, and the society as a whole. Education of the educators, thus, precedes all other educational goals."

“These objectives ought to be pursued through the opening up of the academic world and scientific knowledge to the society at large. In other words, geography must find its due place and multiple roles in the public/collective sphere and in everyday life, but also, and more specifically, in a multitude of areas of human concern, such as economic development, the labor market, geostrategic and geopolitical conflict, disaster and conflict mitigation, renewable energy planning, climatic change, etc.”

Dr. Klonari’s advice to a new professional in these fields? “Place your work in your heart: First of all, to love and to be passionate about what you have chosen to do in your life. If you are happy with your choice, you will be a good and successful professional. And always place yourself in a learning process. For example, monitor developments in the field of mapping, science, education, GIS. Always strive to better yourself. ‘I learn as long as I live.’”

What is Dr. Klonari’s favorite book? “Learning to Think Spatially,” published in 2006 by the National Research Council.

I also asked her to share a favorite quote:

“Love responsibility. Say: It is my duty, and mine alone, to save the earth. If it is not saved, then I alone am to blame." — Nikos Kazantzakis in “The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises,” originally published in 1927, and more recently published in 2012 by Simon & Schuster.

 

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