What’s behind Laikas’ success in the International Geography Olympiad?

When we report about the successes of Milestone students achieved in study contests we never miss out on the opportunity to provide insight into the work carried out at the Institute on the triumphs’ apropos. Experience tells us that Milestone’s pedagogical principles and practices (of course not by questioning but by supplementing and by building on the results of traditional secondary school education) provide students with such theoretical and practical knowledge that directly contributes to the success achieved either at competitions or at university admissions, but which goes way beyond those, too. The complex, dot-connecting and problem-solving approach, whose improvement is the primary aim of modules and mentoring, can be decisive throughout the entire lives of our students, moreover, it also gives the foundations of modern scientific thinking. An interdisciplinary approach is key in every scientific area whether it’s philosophy, mathematics, medical sciences or even geography.

Zsófi Balogh

Last month, Zsófia Balogh, senior year student of Győr’s Révai Miklós High School and of Milestone Institute won second place in HunGeoContest, a national competition organised by the Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences of the University of Pécs, the Hungarian Geographical Society and the Geography Teachers’ Association. The primary aim of the competition is to select the members of the team of four representing Hungary in the International Geography Olympiad (iGeo); thanks to her 2nd place, Zsófi is going to be one of the four Hungarian contestants. “HunGeoContest is practically the Olympiad in scale. Contestants have to carry out similar tasks under similar conditions and, of course, in English” module leader Dóra Bálint explains, who has already helped the competition preparation of several students (including Zsófi Balogh) either through her Milestone Geography Olympiad Learning Lab or outside the course’s framework. Although readers who are not immersed in geography may find HunGeoContest’s name unfamiliar, the competition is very well known within the Institute, and, as Dóra says, it is almost “a tradition that Milestone students qualify to be in the team competing in the Olympiad”.

Laikas’ regular good performance in HunGeoContest results from the nature of the competition itself. As Zsófi summarises this special characteristic very well in short: “for most questions there’s no one good answer; it’s creativity and strong reasoning that matter”. It is a typical task, for example, that contestants must physically walk through and familiarise with a certain geographical area, say, a town (in the special situation created by COVID-19 this physical familiarisation has transformed into a virtual exercise), and then they have to make development recommendations for that specific area underpinned by complex argumentation. Resolving such tasks requires not only extensive encyclopaedic knowledge from several areas from geology to sociology but also the skill with which factual knowledge can quickly and efficiently be transformed into practical recommendations and plans. And that skill is invaluable.

“Literature analysis, problem-solving or reasoning are important in every field, and these are exactly the skills we train at the Geography Olympiad Learning Lab through the discussion of such complex topics as climate change”

Dóra says. According to the module leader, one major reason for Milestone students’ success in HunGeoContest is that within the Institute’s educational framework natural- and social geography is processed along with their larger context and interconnections, and even though nowadays it seems that step by step Hungarian geography education is going in the same direction, currently chances for “average high school students” to get good results in international competitions without extra help from outside the school are minimal. And Dóra speaks from experience: as a PhD student of the University of Pécs she was an organiser of the Hungarian competition, and one of the team leaders of the Hungarian Olympic team, thus she has first-hand experience of what is needed for success.

The international olympiad’s Hungarian qualifier, HunGeoContest takes place in English, which can mean a serious additional obstacle to non-native English speakers, especially when it comes to a discipline with such a specialised expert vocabulary as geography. “This is likely a simpler case when it comes to maths” Zsófi says, as while in the case of a mathematical contest the universal language of numbers makes things a little bit easier for the contestants, Zsófi had to spend quite some time learning English geography jargon. According to Dóra, however, struggling with it is worth it because developing high-quality skills and expertise along with the related English vocabulary can be a major advantage not only at the Olympiad but also at university admissions or in the case of a potential academic career abroad. 

Zsófi would like to keep studying geography even after her graduation (currently she’s primarily interested in city planning, human geography and energy geography) at which she has a very good chance as she has already got an offer from Cambridge University’s Department of Geography. Nevertheless, if in the current post-Brexit situation (in which EU nationals have much less opportunity to get a scholarship in the UK than they used to have) she eventually couldn’t accept Cambridge’s offer, the Netherlands and the Liberal Arts & Sciences Programme of Leiden University might be the next step for her. Until then, besides studying for high-school graduation exams, she’s actively preparing for August’s Olympiad. Regardless of what the future will exactly bring for her, she’s really grateful to Milestone because, as she says,

“Milestone showed me how exciting geography is”.