Why we need a politics of the curriculum

John Morgan


“It is a truth much forgotten that the point of education is to help ensure that the society which is home to us all is capable of carrying on and will continue into a recognisable future. Schools, universities, colleges; classes, seminars, libraries, computers; teachers, students, professors, technicians, cleaners, dinner ladies; books, essays, examinations, question-and-answer sessions, homework; the whole vast institution, sometimes crazy, sometimes dreary, often exhilarating, frequently boring, is intended to teach children, and the young men and women they become, how to keep the colossal show of a society on the historical road”. (Inglis, 2004: 23)

The curriculum – the knowledge, understanding and skills to be transmitted from one generation to the next – is part of this work of keeping ‘the colossal show of a society on the historical road’. In the midst of a global health pandemic that has closed borders to travel, confined whole populations to staying at home, and provoked a precipitous drop in economic activity, it should be all too apparent that the question of what is to be taught, is of tantamount important. If we hadn’t grasped it before, it is now clear; the curriculum is too important to be left to curriculum designers. Curriculum is a reflection of (and part of the production of) culture, and wherever there is culture there is politics. The task, noble and urgent, of educators is to grapple with the question of what we should teach to ensure that we all stay on ‘the historical road’.

This article takes an expansive approach to curriculum thinking. There are people who call themselves curriculum experts or curriculum theorists, but I am not one of them. I do have an intense interest in the curriculum though, which stems from my experience as a teacher, as a parent, as someone who works in a university department of education, and as a citizen. I want to think about where we have been, where we are now, and where we are going.

My guides as I start this journey are Fred Inglis (above cited) and the educational social historian Harold Silver (1980) who reminded us that:


“The most persistent dilemmas in educational debate in this [20th century] century have been concerned with kinds of knowledge. In terms of school or university curricula, in relation to reorganisation and democratisation of provision, in connection with the educational ideas of every variety, there has emerged the question of access to knowledge, to the most appropriate knowledge, to one curriculum or another… The school curriculum has been seen, rightly, as a vital battlefield on which competing social and cultural ideals wage war”.


This ‘battlefield’ is the subject of this chapter. As we start out as teachers, we see the curriculum as something to be covered, ‘got through’, or delivered. But as we clock up hours, days and years in schools and classrooms, it becomes clearer that the sometimes tense struggles and arguments about what to teach, to which groups of students, in what forms, and by whom, are intertwined with culture, politics and economy. I illustrate this with reference to Britain, though a similarly exercise could be applied to other nations.


Culture with a capital ‘C’


It is a truth universally acknowledged that, in Britain, it is impossible to discuss the curriculum without reference to class. That point is readily explained; Britain was the first nation to undertake the Industrial Revolution, and the struggles over production gave rise to a series of regional and class cultures that, although subject to erosion and change, remain important. Compulsory schooling was a   response to industrialization and the growth of cities, and increasing at once working-class access to education. at around the same time, the rapid growth and consolidation of the organised labour movement focused the attention of both liberal and socialist thinkers on the question of how to provide working-class access to culture. Influential liberal humanist thinkers saw a shared common culture as an antidote to class tensions, whilst representatives of the labour movement regarded access to culture as a basic workers’ right, because working class exclusion from culture was a source of spiritual and intellectual impoverishment.

Liberals and socialists thus had a shared understanding of culture: Culture in the singular and with a capital ‘C’. This was Culture as envisaged by Matthew Arnold as ‘the best that has been thought and known’.  Access to Culture was the source of struggle in the interwar period. At a time when British society was riven by deep class divisions, the democratic impulse to provide education to the masses was powerful and appealing. For many working-class people gaining access to education reflected a desire to ‘better themselves’, and, although their experience when confronted with the Great Tradition of literature may at times been one of alienation, literature classes remained popular. The working classes became active consumers of bourgeois culture.

Up until 1945, calls for autonomous, class conscious working-class cultural production were rare; the important issue was of how to bring working-class people to culture rather than to encourage them to produce art and literature themselves. Most Marxists accepted this. Whilst it was recognised that bourgeois culture was the product of class societies and reflected the social relations of the societies in which it was produced, learning and reading about bourgeois culture was important because it provided the resources to allow working-class people to read differently, to see culture as a reflection of class society and the process of history. Art and literature could help working-class people to understand capitalist social relations and the mechanisms of social and revolutionary change. The Second World War provided a challenge to this, and the struggle for the curriculum became more intense in the years after 1945.

Culture and curriculum in a changing world

War had a dramatic effect on British politics and society. The balance of power between capital and labour shifted, and as labour won concessions, it was widely accepted that after the war, the prospects for working people must improve. The 1944 Education Act marked the point at which ‘the people’, who had previously been excluded from many of the ‘good things’ in life were to be fully incorporated into a decent society, represented politically by a Labour government committed to reform, the construction of the welfare state and welfare capitalism. Education was one part of a wider set of social policies aimed at overcoming working class disadvantage and an important means of building a better world.

It is worth expanding a little more on the wider transformations that shaped what historian David Kynaston (2010) calls ‘Modernity Britain’, a time of great economic, social and cultural change. The establishment of the Keynesian post-war settlement, the rapid growth of economic output, the rise of the consumer society and the associated changes in industrial structure and organisation, served to undermine the assumptions of how life was lived and been established in the making of an industrial society. For instance, one of the most important changes was in the experiences of girls and women as the post-war settlement sought to find an answer to the challenges of increased consumerism and change patterns of working. In addition, the late 1950s saw the invention of the ‘teenager’ in a distinctive youth culture made possible by full employment and thus disposable income for working class youths. The visibility of distinctive subcultures within the affluent society offered the first signs of cracks in the consensus. With physical changes in the landscape because of slum clearance and the building of new towns, there was a sense of a modern Britain quite different from that of the first half of the twentieth century.

In this context of the ‘redistribution of esteem’ from the middle-class to the working-class, educational debate focused not only on the question of access but also to the question of whose culture should be represented in the curriculum. Educational expansion inevitably raised the question of whether all children be expected to grasp the same knowledge. As early as 1948, in Notes towards a definition of culture, the conservative cultural critic T.S. Eliot bemoaned the effects of ‘the headlong rush to educate everyone’, which, he feared, was leading to the deterioration and lowering of standards of the Culture as a whole. Eliot was swimming against the tide. The democratisation of society and culture that accompanied the expansion of education after the War brought gave rise to an expanded notion of culture as a way of life. Against the Cambridge literary critic F. R. Leavis’s insistence that Culture resided in a small but Great Tradition of canonical literature, his pupil, Raymond Williams, set out to document a rich and vibrant seam of cultural tradition within the working classes. Far from the possession of a narrow elite, Williams (1958) argued that ‘Culture is ordinary’:

“The bus stop was outside the cathedral. I had been looking at the Mappa Mundi, with its rivers out of Paradise, and at the chained library, where a party of clergymen had got in easily, but where I had waited an hour and cajoled a verger before I even saw the chains. Now, across the street, a cinema advertised the Six-Five Special and a cartoon version of Gulliver’s Travels. The bus arrived, with a driver and conductress deeply absorbed in each other. We went out of the city, over the old bridge, and on through the orchards and the green meadows and the fields red under the plough. Ahead were the Black Mountains, and we climbed among them, watching the steep fields end at the grey walls, beyond which the bracken and heather and whin had not yet been driven back. To the east, along the ridge, stood the line of grey Norman castles; to the west, the fortress walls of the mountains. Then, as we still climbed, the rock changed under us. Here, now, was limestone, and the line of the early iron workings along the scarp. The farming valleys, with their scattered white houses, fell away behind. Ahead of us were the narrower valleys: the steel-rolling mill, the gasworks, the grey terraces, the pitheads. The bus stopped, and the driver and conductress got out, still absorbed. They had done this journey so often, and seen all its stages. It is a journey, in fact, that in one form or another we have all made”.


This passage encapsulates the complex and varied ways in which culture has been thought in post-war society and education. Thus, there is the idea of culture as ‘a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development’, as referenced by the cathedral, the Mappa Mundi and the chained library. In the very first line, Williams references the process in which an individual seeks to acquire culture, to become ‘cultivated’, and at the same time draws attention to the almost matter of fact processes of exclusion from culture (the fact that there are ‘gate-keepers’, that some are seen by right to have access, whilst others have to wait their turn).  Even to make the journey to the cathedral signals a desire to acquire the right books and proper tastes. Williams juxtaposes this high culture with the low or popular culture made available through the cinema, the Six Five Special and the cartoon version of Gulliver’s Travels. Here is culture in a wider sense, as ‘the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity’. In the city, which brings together ancient and modern, we have the mixing of the high and the low, the sacred and the profane. Going further, Williams’ bus journey from the city to the country – the former as a site of cultivation and the latter as a cultivated place – references the idea of culture as ‘a particular way of life, whether of a people, a period or a group – and as the development of a society and the growth of an industrial culture and ways of life’.

Perhaps, in the end, it is the notion of the journey that comes through most strongly, since it points to mobility and cultural change. As Williams was so aware, when we become mobile we gain some things and lose others. Education is a means of social mobility; it is a journey that, ‘in one form or another, we have all made’. Here, in 1958, Williams set out the ‘battlefield’ that has been fought over, to this day, in English schools, just as the older shackles of Culture with a capital ‘C’ were being shaken. Williams’ essay pointed to an expansive notion of cultural production that had implications for how to think about the curriculum, about whose knowledge is of most worth.

From modern to postmodern curriculum studies

The modern society Williams was intuiting required a modern curriculum. The old subjects would have to change, and some of them would have to go. The modernization of the curriculum reflected rational processes – flow charts, boxes and arrows. Textbooks written to support the newly established teacher education courses reflected the optimism of post-war expansion and the challenge of incorporating previously excluded groups of students. Schools experimented with different patterns of pupil grouping, with the common core and different models of subject choices; they developed the pastoral curriculum to complement the academic curriculum. They adopted setting and streaming, experimented with new teaching styles and sought to develop relevant, often integrated curricula. The 1960s saw the growth of a wide range of educational innovations that still resonate. These included new learning technologies e.g. programmed learning, language, educational psychology, school-based curriculum development, new examinations, in-service training, and teachers’ centres.

In looking back at this period of educational innovation, it is easy to be lost in a welter of technical detail, and to lose sight of the fact that such innovations sought to solve particular problems. These were: how to manage a complex modern society, one that sought to prepare young people for a post-industrial economy, and at the same time promote social mobility as part of the ‘classless society’. Curriculum Studies was part of this (it is telling that the very first issue of the Journal of Curriculum Studies (established in 1969) ran with a paper entitled ‘How does the curriculum change?’). It gave rise to a new breed of pedagogues and curriculum technicians. Their efforts, though, were marred by the limits of the ‘stagnant society’, one in which organization theory would produce equilibrium levels of production and consumption, and inevitable problems of everyday life, of marriages, relationships, diet and health would be amenable to solution with the application of a functional sociology and psychology. Though the curriculum planners did not go so far as to don white coats, the coherent curriculum designs they came up with produced individuals who were supposed to know and accept their place in a regulated and ordered society.

Modern curriculum planning was, in the end, undermined by the forces that were set in accelerated motion by the engines of economic growth, the consumer revolution, and the advent of modern communications. These led, eventually, to what came, in the 1980s and 1990s, to be called ‘postmodernism’.

The first set of changes was in the development of knowledge, where the story of science as an empirical description of the world, along with its promise of prediction, came to be challenged, notably through Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) Structure of the Scientific Revolution. After this, ‘Science’ was regarded as just one story among a range of possibilities (albeit the dominant story). In this context, the social basis of knowledge was revealed as a sociological problem to be investigated, as evidenced through Berger and Luckmann’s (1966) The social construction of reality. This was part of a wider set of cultural changes related to the growth of feminism, the effect of migration, and the rise of the mass media and consumerism. These seemed to undermine, or at least erode the edges of the monolithic structures that constrained people. Suddenly, it seemed (even if this was over-optimistic), anything was possible. Basil Bernstein was one of the first to formulate this, noting that Western societies have been marked by a constant struggle between structure and flow, or between forms of life that are governed by rules and order and those that seek to undo challenge order. Building on Bernstein’s insight, Bernice Martin (1981) demonstrated how the 1960s saw the emergence of a counterculture, which drew upon themes and motifs of Romanticism that suffused British culture. The counterculture emphasised the Dionysian dismantling of arbitrary socially constructed categories and boundaries. Although this counterculture had lost much of its momentum by the 1970s, Martin argues that it had an afterlife that continued to inform the mood of the wider society and its institutions. There was a sense in which people were encouraged to get loose and express themselves. Significantly, this ‘expressive revolution’ took place in the professions, including the clergy, social work and education. In education, there were moves towards progressive and child-centred education, the relaxation of the formality between teachers and pupils, less concern with uniform and rules, a focus on constructivist pedagogy that regarded children’s experiences as valid, and recognition that the curriculum and its subjects could readily be replaced by integrated studies and project work.

All told, the effect of these developments was to render it common sense that Knowledge was not timeless and natural, but reflected the interests and values of those who produce it. From there, it was only a short step to reach the conclusion that the knowledge found in the school curriculum was ‘arbitrary’, a selection from the culture, and, from there, to surmise that if knowledge is a social construction, then surely the teachers charged with its transmission might reconstruct it in ways that are in the interests of students in schools. These hypotheses provided the basis for the ‘new sociology of education’, inaugurated by two books that emerged from the Proceedings of the British Sociological Association conference in 1968. The most successful of these – Knowledge and Control – prompted a revolution in the field (Young, 1971). The fact that its message dovetailed with the arguments of the New Left about the need to go beyond critique and understand school knowledge as part of a wider political struggle, meant that the struggles of the women’s movement and the urban new left were incorporated into curriculum debates. By the time Whitty and Young completed a successor volume, the economic and political climate had shifted to the right, and public sector professionalism, underpinned by a liberal humanism nurtured by welfare capitalism, inevitably became the object of new right derision and opprobrium as economic optimism faded and the social democratic settlement crumbled (Whitty and Young, 1977; CCCS, 1981).

With hindsight, what is striking about the 1980s and early 1990s is how quickly any residual faith in socialism as a radical possibility evaporated. Large sections of the educational left were drawn to post-Marxist accounts of the so-called ‘new times’, and subsequently educational postmodernism. As Terry Eagleton (2003) later wrote:

“Dreams of ambitious social change were denounced as illicit ‘grand narratives’, more likely to lead to totalitarianism than to liberty. From Sydney to San Diego, Cape Town to Tromso, everyone was thinking small. Micro-politics broke out on a global scale. A new epic fable of the end of epic fables unfurled across the globe. From one end of a diseased planet to the other, there were calls to abandon planetary thinking. Whatever linked us – whatever was the same – was noxious. Difference was the new catch-cry, in a world increasingly subject to the same indignities of starvation and disease, cloned cities, deadly weapons and CNN television” (pp.45-46).


Postmodernism and education

If neo-Conservativism was one well-documented response to the rise of cultural diversity and a widespread acceptance that knowledge is relative, postmodernism offered other possibilities for those educators who recognised the challenge that the collapse belief in grand narratives such as socialism represented. After all, the world did seem to be changing. The old industrial regions were in decline, taking with them the male, industrial working-class, and leaving the old factories to be demolished or to rise, Phoenix-like, as gentrified apartments, pleasure palaces, bars and cafes. There was a reaction against the ‘Brutalist’ architecture associated, right or wrong, with municipal socialism. The economic recovery embedded the consumer society, one where signs were as important to adding economic value to commodities as much as their use value. Older ways of thinking and being – identities – seemed in flux. Lifestyle was a choice.  As Benko (1997) summarised it, postmoderism:

“…combines a cultural logic which favours relativism and diversity, a set of intellectual processes which provide extremely fluid and dynamic structures of meaning to the world , and lastly a configuration of social traits which signifies the development of a movement of fundamental change within the modern condition (crisis of productive systems and rise in unemployment, demise of historicity before the atemporality of the ephemeral, crisis of modern individualism and omnipresence of narcissistic mass culture etc).”


The thing to say about these postmodern logics is that they are not simply concepts or ideas, but observable sociological developments that together comprise the ‘condition of postmodernity’.  They cannot be wished away.  In terms of education, postmodernism in its ‘progressive’ mode seemed, to many on the educational left, to compensate for the disappointments of modernity and the collapse of the social democratic settlement. It promised to:

(1) open the doors to different voices and different forms of knowledge;

(2) lead away from a censorious view of the media and consumer culture to one that celebrated, or at least recognised the pleasures and playfulness of ‘readers’ or ‘audiences’, who were able to make meaning out of what they made;

(3) dissolve institutional boundaries, so that learning could happen ‘anytime, anyplace, anywhere’.

Most importantly, the grey, monolithic centres of the culture were cracked open, as the fact that knowledge was multiple and plural became a cause for celebration. Anything that smacked of canonicity was out. The masculinist and Eurocentric pretensions of Science were undermined by alternative world-view and the attempts to explain the social construction of scientific knowledge. In History there was a move towards social and cultural history, and ‘history from below’, whilst Geography saw the move from Geography with a capital G to ‘multiple geographies’. As Neil Smith memorably put it:

“The Enlightenment is dead, Marxism is dead, the working class movement is dead…and the author does not feel very well either”.

These moves have accelerated, especially with the move from ‘read only’ literacy to ‘read- and write’ literacies associated with platform capitalism. All of these trends have continued well after postmodernism was considered passé. In 1997, Parker’s manifesto for education in postmodernity was strident in its assertion that, ‘as for the curriculum, get rid of it’:

“Postmodern schools will jettison the model of knowledge which curriculum carries: universally respectable categories of belief and opinion; necessarily worthwhile pursuits independent of situation or local interests; absolute and invariant steeping stones to citizenship and maturity;..organization around age-range categories which match children to content under universalised age-knowledge imperatives” (p.151).

Though this was written during ‘peak postmodernism’, everything that Parker rages against in the curriculum – universal knowledge, traditional subjects, examinations, age divisions – is still advocated by ‘progressives’ and ‘disruptive educators. Postmodernism is not dead, but lives on in the culture.

Social realism and the knowledge turn

Post-modern approaches to curriculum knowledge invariably produced a counter reaction. The last two decades have seen growing criticism of approaches to teaching and learning that seemed to downgrade the importance of knowledge. As Young and Lambert (2014) state:

“Knowledge is an uncomfortable world word for many in education today. for some teachers, knowledge has ‘elitist and exclusive connotations’. School subjects are regarded as suspicious because they are associated with ‘authority’ and can seem irrelevant to the lives of students growing up in a fast-changing world. In addition, the focus on raising attainment and demonstrating ‘value-added’ can mean there is a tendency to prioritise the how of teaching over the what of teaching. (P.12)

Young and Lambert’s book is an attempt to popularise Social realism, a sociological theory that can be traced back to Rob Moore’s 1996 article ‘Back to the future’.  Moore’s early work grappled with questions of access to knowledge in the context of social and economic change, and addressed the question of the correspondence between education and the economy. He was increasingly convinced that there was no necessary relationship. Moore’s paper attracted the attention of Michael Young, who, as has been mentioned, was a key figure in the new sociology of education. Whereas in the 1970s Young had pioneered the argument that knowledge is a social construction that reflects the world-views of the powerful – ‘knowledge of the powerful’, his 2008 book Bringing knowledge back in performed a dramatic volte face, so that the concern now was to ensure that all students gained access to ‘powerful knowledge’.

Viewed with a wider lens, we can see that Social Realism grew out of a dissatisfaction with the fact that, despite claims that we live in a knowledge society, teachers and educators paid little attention to the curriculum, focusing their energies of pedagogy and assessment. Standing back even farther, it us becoming clear that it is a reaction to the lack of concern for Truth in society. The ‘trick’ of Social Realism is to accept that knowledge is a social production, and thus is shaped by the conditions of the society that shaped it, but reject the idea that knowledge can be reduced to the standpoint of its producers. Knowledge has an ‘after-life’ of its own, which stems from it being produced in specialist communities of interest where claims and counter-claims are debated and clarified. Hence the shift from the idea that knowledge that reflects the interests and world-view of the powerful to the idea that knowledge itself is powerful.

It is important to note that whilst Young himself has always recognised that knowledge does have the potential to carry a political charge, others have tended to look to the task of taking knowledge and working out how it can be structured so as to develop rational and coherent curriculum choices, freed from troublesome questions of ‘whose knowledge’ or ideology. Whilst stressing the sanctity of knowledge is a welcome corrective to the cruder attempts to relate knowledge to the standpoint of those who produce it, it would be a tragedy if the lessons of the assiduous work of a scholar such as Perry Anderson (1967, 1990), who has provided detailed social and historical analyses of intellectual formations, was lost for educators, since this has driven curriculum debate and innovation over the past seventy years.

The growing movement of self-nominated ‘knowledge-rich’ schools appears to rely on a misunderstanding of Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of ‘cultural capital’. Here, the argument goes, not all students come from homes that give them the required language, experience and consumption choices that are necessary to take one’s place in a ‘cultured’ society (a trip to Covent Garden trumping anything that can be gained by listening to Stormzy’s modern operatics). At its extreme this is a kind of ‘militant culturalism’ that denies that young people bring anything of value into the classroom and sets schools up as oases of urbanity in a problem-strewn desert (see Lutz’s study of Dreamfield’s Academy for a dramatic account of this tendency).

How we live now

Once upon a time it may have seemed revolutionary to declare that knowledge (and school subjects) are social constructions. Later, it could be counter-revolutionary to reverse the terms and assert that knowledge describes social reality. But all this could be done without much reference to the fact that the forces of production are ripping the planet to pieces at a faster rate than before, that the very processes that keep the Earth moving are being re-ordered by human action, that the economic models and ideas of progress that have kept society of the historical road no longer seem to work for 99 percent of the world’s population, and that technology itself is redefining what it means to be human, and being used to challenge political systems that prided themselves on some semblance of democracy. A more critical gesture, it seems, would be to recognise that the social is reality constructed, and proceed our curriculum thinking from there.

I am conscious that this is an enormous challenge and, as the old joke has it, we probably wouldn’t start from here. But this is how we live now: the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the triple crisis of economy, sustainability and social reproduction.  Many teachers and students will return to school with a degree of uncertainty about what it all means, and though they will be met by an army of paid technocrats, ready with Gant charts, action plans and seating plans to ensure the required number of exam passes and levels are met, the real challenge for us all will be to collectively rethink what a curriculum that can keep us on the historical road will look like.





Benko, G. (1997). ‘Introduction: modernity, postmodernity and the social sciences’. In: G. Benko and Strohmayer (eds.) Space and social theory: interpreting modernity and postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell, 1-44.

Berger, P. and Luckmann, T. (1966) The social construction of reality.

Eagleton, T. (2003). After theory. London: Allen Lane.

Inglis, F. (2004) ‘Education and the good society (2)’. In F. Inglis (Ed.) Education and the Good society. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.23-41.

Martin, B. (1981). The sociology of contemporary culture. Cambridge: Polity.

Parker, S. (1997). Reflective teaching in the postmodern world: a manifesto for education in postmodernity. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Silver, H. (1980) Education and the social condition. London: Methuen.

Whitty, G. and Young, M. (Eds.) (1977). Society, state, schooling. Brighton: Falmer Press.

Williams, R. (1958/1993) Culture is ordinary. In R. Williams. Resources of Hope. London: Verso, pp.3-18.

Young, M. (Ed.) (1971) Knowledge and control. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Young, M. and Lambert, D. (2014). Knowledge and the future school. London: Bloomsbury.

Black Lives Matter and Geography Teaching


The video footage showing three white police officers forcibly restraining George Floyd leading to his death prompted a range of protests and demonstrations across the world. In Britain it led to the demolition of the statue of Edward Colston, a prominent philanthropist in the city of Bristol whose wealth was directly linked to the profits derived from slavery. The statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford has also now been removed, and there has been heightened awareness of the extent of racial inequality at all levels of society.

Countless commentators correctly assert that ‘education’ is clearly part of how society responds to these events and issue, so it is notable that the Geographical Association recently published a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter[1] campaign, and how geography teaching can be part of improving ‘inclusion’ as part of its detailed and wide ranging  ‘equal opportunities’ policy[2].

These moves are to be welcomed. They feel significant. They provide an opportunity to reflect on exactly how geography teaching can contribute to an understanding of the issues involved.


Geography education and ‘race’ in context

The first thing to say is that the Geographical Association’s vision of geography as a school subject should be seen in relation to a wider narrative about the development of a multicultural and culturally diverse society. In line with the current mood, the GA’s statement points to the role that geography played in shaping a racist geographical imagination from the earliest part of its history as an ever present component of the school curriculum. For example, many geography textbooks reflected a racial classification of people and a view of the world based on climatic determinism. Although the story is more complicated than it seems, not least because in the interwar period geography was seen as a vehicle for fostering international understanding and cooperation (Porter, 2004), it was almost certainly the case that an Anglo-centric viewpoint was adopted. Daniel Dorling and Sally Tomlinson (2019) note that the school curriculum failed to teach children growing up in the decades after World War Two about the process of decolonization. Not only has this resulted in widespread ignorance as to why people from across the world (and especially from Britain’s former colonies) had the right to come and live and work in Britain but there was a profound lack of preparedness to think about Britain’s evolving place in the contemporary world. They write, “(t)here was no explanation for the presence of black people, and the overt and covert racism and crude beliefs which were a legacy of empire continued in schools …” (p 00).

The fact is that, in the post-war period, immigration from what was designated the New Commonwealth and Pakistan (NCWP) resulted in an increasingly multicultural school population. The dominant model for education was that of assimilation, which assumed that the children of African, West Indian and Asian migrants should be helped to adapt to the cultures and habits of the ‘host’ society. Some voices were heard even then pointing to the way in which such ‘multiracial education’ was based on white liberal anxiety about racialised minorities and a tendency to pathologise black children (Stone 1981).

By 1977[3] an educational Green Paper (HMSO, 1977) explicitly recognised the need to teach for a multicultural society. Race relations, as it was called, took a turn for the worst in the early 1980s when, at a time of deindustrialisation and high youth unemployment, a series of urban disturbances took place on the streets of large British cities such as Bristol, London, Manchester, Liverpool, and later Birmingham. The ‘inner-city problem’ (as studied by geographers) had an important racial dimension and in large urban educational authorities where ‘immigrant’ settlement was more dense, developing an improved educational response became a priority. Two main approaches developed. First, there was ‘multicultural education’, which pointed to the importance of recognising the existence of a plurality of cultures and finding ways to makes sure these were represented in the school curriculum and classroom. Virtually from the start, the criticism of this approach was that it led to a superficial view of what was often termed ‘saris, samosas, and steel-bands’. The other, more ‘radical’ approach was ‘anti-racist education’, which stressed the importance of power and economic structure in creating racism. In its famous formulation, Racism = Prejudice + Power, anti-racist education attempted to acknowledge the roots of racism, which appeared to threaten the status quo and to some therefore was deemed ‘political’ (and so inappropriate for the classroom).  There was a third option, of course, adopted in many schools where there were no or few students from ethnic minorities, which was to declare that there is ‘no problem here’ and avoid discussion of the issue altogether.

Geography teachers got involved in these debates in the early 1980s, notably through the ‘GYSL[4] affair’. At the centre of this was Dawn Gill (a geography teacher at Quintin Kynaston School in Westminster), whom the Schools Council had commissioned to write a report  on ‘how syllabuses and examinations could meet the needs of all pupils in a multicultural society’. In her report Gill eschewed this definition and argued that examination courses which ensure better grades for non-whites will not necessarily have any effect on discrimination in employment; and that racism, not formal educational qualifications, was the main determinant of life chances for black students in the UK.

The Schools Council declined to publish the report, which caused outrage and a flurry of correspondence in pages of the Guardian newspaper. In the aftermath, the Association for Curriculum Development was formed, along with a new (and as it turns out, short-lived) journal – Contemporary Issues in Geography and Education – which took many of its insights from the ‘radical geography’ that was emerging at the time. A conference was held – entitled ‘Racist Society: Racist Geography’ – the proceedings of which featured a cartoon of a school building in which the geography teacher is introducing children to the topic of plantation agriculture, whilst outside there were demonstrators from the National Front protesting about immigrants taking British people’s jobs. The point, fairly obviously, was that school geography was unable even to see its contribution to the racist imaginary let alone deal with the reality of a diverse society that was becoming increasingly divided.

The juicy GYSL affair prompted the formation of a working group of the Geographical Association led by Rex Walford which published a document called Geographical Education for a Multicultural Society in 1985 (Walford, 1985). As might be expected, the document was measured and ‘fair-minded’ and attempted to look forward and assert the potential of the school subject to shape minds (for a multicultural society, not in) . However, looking back it was set within a framework of common sense liberalism and largely silent about the structural basis of racism in education and society. There was little sense in which the structural perspectives (based around conflict theory) that were increasingly animating and informing the work of geographers in the field (see Jackson and Smith 1984, for example) were recognised or drawn upon. Looking back, this was perhaps a missed opportunity.

At the turn of the century we attempted to update and summarise the state of the debate in an article in Geography (Morgan and Lambert, 2001). We were strongly influenced the argument that ‘race’ is not a given fact but a social construct, and that part of the challenge for geography educators was to help students to read the hidden text of places and spaces for the racial code. In addition, we drew upon the work of geographers such as Peter Jackson (1989) and Alistair Bonnett (2000) to stress that we should acknowledge and examine whiteness as an ethnic category. All this was underpinned by important if fractured academic debates taking place  at the time – also within antiracism education –  around the multiple construction of identity and ethnicities. The corollary of such socio-cultural perspectives was the argument that a rationalist approach to antiracist education, which assumed that presenting students with ‘facts’ and a rational argument would necessarily lead to change in attitude or belief, were at best hopeful and naïve – and at worst simply inept. We proposed in the article a challenging ‘deconstructive’ approach to pedagogy, but admitted that our article could be “read by some as another in a long line of discussions which leave the reader with no answer … it is one thing to argue for ‘new pedagogies’ but what do they look like? What things have been tried and what is being done now?” (Morgan and Lambert 2001, p245).  It is for this reason we went on to at least try draw out the pedagogical implications of our arguments in a book published in the Geographical Association’s Theory into Practice series (Morgan and Lambert 2003).

The events outlined above point to the fact that the Geographical Association has made attempted to grasp and address issues of ethnic disadvantage and racism in geography education. This should be acknowledged but at the same time it needs to be accepted that the wider community of geography educators has found it difficult to respond fully to this lead. These are after all truly difficult matters that require us to think not only about injustice and bias in an abstract professional sense, but accept the truth that black writers such as James Baldwin (for one) asked the dominant culture to understand: that “the power of the white world is threatened whenever a black man (sic) refuses to accept the white world’s definitions”. Baldwin was writing several decades ago, but his bald statement explains to a large extent why the Runnymede Trust’s recently published report Race and Racism in English Secondary Schools (Joseph-Salisbury, 2020) candidly observes that even now “the National Curriculum does not mandate for engagement with colonial legacies – or the racist underpinnings – of contemporary Britain” (p2).

So looking back, we can detect a degree of optimism in our earlier discussions of race and geography. Ours was part of the wider ‘postmodern’ challenge in geography, where it seemed to be that to critique (and perhaps hint at alternative design) was enough. Part of the Runneymede Trust’s recommendations are to increase the “racial literacy of teachers” – to fully grasp how race and racisms work in society. For without this the way teachers interpret and enact the curriculum will be limited: after all, ‘colonial legacies’ can be taught as a triumphalist moment of white supremacy. It really matters whose definitions we take and in what ways we interrogate the content of what is taught.


Geography education and Black Lives Matter


A key lesson, of course, is that racism does not stand still (Sivanandan, 2008). When one of us was recently preparing to write a chapter on race and education (Morgan, 2019: Ch 5) it was clear that the landscape had changed. The spur for the chapter was David Gillborn’s (2010) argument that educational policy itself was an act of white supremacy, a ‘political, economic  and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and resources’. At the time this seemed too sweeping a statement. It seemed to smooth over the twists and turns of race and ethnicity over the past 50 years. In the end, the chapter emphasised the process whereby, within a generation or two, West Indian immigrants had become Black Britons, and the growing presence of South Asian culture was seen as part of the increasing diverse multi-ethnic Britain. However, along the way, the chapter also showed how, despite making significant gains, both multicultural education and antiracist education may have run into the sand. It concluded, following the words of Stuart Hall (whose 1980 article, written for teachers, remains essential reading; Hall, 1980) that: “(I)n these times, one of the most important things that schools and teachers can offer their students is some understanding of the arguments and debates that attend to what it means to belong to a national culture.” (p91). Part of this is most definitely to ‘teach race’ but recognise that although race exists as a  category it cannot be disentangled from other issues, especially class. Thus, the curriculum should attend to both the historical formation and changing geographical patterns of British capitalism. In concrete terms, this would encourage us not to eschew geographical topics such as “UK manufacturing industry”, for example (on the grounds of ‘relevance’ – manufacturing accounted for less than 18% of the UK workforce in 2019). On the contrary, we can incorporate our racial literacy into reworking such topics. For example: How would we teach the topic after reading Sven Beckert’s (2015) Empire of Cotton?

One of the things we are suggesting here is not to condemn the curriculum as Gillborn urges. His position is that the school curriculum is organised around the ‘knowledge of the powerful’: that it is exclusive and it lies. Of course, there is a need to be attentive to this viewpoint. But we find it bleak and literally useless: what are teachers to do with this? What we choose to teach and how we do this are key.  Our assessment is that the geography curriculum, even as it currently stands, offers possibilities and opportunities to provide students with ‘powerful knowledge’ about how the UK space (always part of a global space and not an island ‘set in a silver sea’) has come to take the form that it currently takes, in ways that does not hide or silence complex questions of race. This is how we can make Black Lives Matter mean something enduring and real in geography teaching.


Beckert, S. (2015) Empire of Cotton: a new history of global capitalism. London: Penguin Books

Bonnett, A. (2000) Anti-racism. London: Routledge.

Dorling, D. and Tomlinson, S. (2019) Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire. Hull, UK: Biteback Publishing.

Fairgrieve, J. (1926) Geography in School. London: University of London Press.

Gillborn, D. (2010) Racism and Education: coincidence or conspiracy? London: Routledge.

Hall, S. (1981). ‘Teaching race’. In A. James and R. Jeffcoate (Eds.) The School in The Multicultural Society. London: Harper and Row.

HMSO (1977) Education in Schools: a consultative document. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/des1977/educinschools.html

Jackson, P. (1989) Maps of Meaning. London: London: Routledge.

Jackson, P. and Smith, S. (1984) Exploring Social Geography. Allen and Unwin.

Joseph-Salisbury, R. (2020) Runnymede Perspectives: Race and Racism in English Secondary Schools. London The Runneymede Trust. https://www.runnymedetrust.org/uploads/publications/pdfs/Runnymede%20Secondary%20Schools%20report%20FINAL.pdf

Morgan, J. (2019) Culture and the Political Economy of Schooling: what’s left for education? Abingdon: Routledge.

Morgan, J. and Lambert, D. (2001) Geography, ‘Race’ and Education. Geography, 86, 3, 235-246.

Morgan, J. and Lambert, D. (2003) Place, ‘Race’ and Teaching Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association.

Porter, B. (2004) The Absent-Minded Imperialists. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sivanandan, A. (2008) Catching History on the Wing: race, culture and globalisation. London: Pluto Press.

Stone, M. (1981) The Education of the Black Child in Britain. Fontana Paperback.

Walford, R. (Ed) (1985) Geographical Education for a Multicultural Society. Sheffield: Geographical Association.

[1] https://www.geography.org.uk/Announcements-and-updates/black-lives-matter



[3] Following the so-called ‘Great Debate’ on educational provision launched by Prime Minister James Callaghan in the mid-1970s  this discussion document makes observations still worth pondering today. For example, “Ours is now a multiracial and multicultural country, and one in which traditional social patterns are breaking down” (para 1.10) and “the education appropriate to our Imperial past cannot meet the requirements of modern Britain.” (para 1.11)

[4] Geography for the Young School Leaver (GYSL) was a highly successful Schools Council curriculum project designed to modernise school geography. See a recent retrospective on this in the pages of the GA’s journal, Geography (Higginbottom, 2018)

Recent Changes to the School Geography Curriculum: Policy, Processes and Subject Knowledge’

At the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference held at Exeter University in September 2015, members of GEReCo made a major contribution to a session on ‘The Impacts of Recent Changes to the School Geography Curriculum: Policy, Processes and Subject Knowledge’.

Convened by Eleanor Rawling, this session was sponsored by the Higher Education Research Group (HERG) of the RGS-IBG, and chaired by Jennifer Hill of HERG. It comprised of presentations on ‘School Geography: Policy, Processes and Curriculum Change’ (Eleanor Rawling); ‘What’s Going On?: Teachers’ Responses to Curriculum Change’ (Mary Biddulph); ‘Reconsidering Geography at the Schools-HE boundary – the ALCAB experience’ (Martin Evans) and ‘What Impact will changes in Teacher Education have on the Geography Curriculum in schools?’ (Graham Butt). It was well attended, despite competing in the programme with several other academic and research inputs.
GEReCo is extremely grateful to Martin, an academic geographer based at the University of Manchester and ex-Chair of the ALCAB Geography Panel, for his contribution to the session (and as a non GEReCo member!). Each presentation was followed by lively discussion focussed on the place of geography subject knowledge in schools, teacher education and higher education.

A particular theme emerging from the session was the need for professional engagement and debate about the future of the subject in schools, with particular reference to further contributions from academia. The opportunities for inputs into political debates about geography in schools, and indeed about curriculum development in geography at all levels, was also aired.

Off the Map?

Geographers often claim that ‘Places matter’. This sounds obvious enough, but what that actually means is less clear. In the 1970s geographers began to write about the rise of ‘placelessness’, and this concern that places were losing their distinctiveness heightened in the 1990s with the intensification of globalizing processes. Suddenly there was talk of ‘non-places’, ‘clone towns’ and ‘the geography of nowhere’ It is this that animates Alistair Bonnett’s new book Off the Map. He describes the feeling created from his journey from Epping (where he grew up) on the Central Line or on London’s Orbital road:
“I often felt as though I was travelling from nowhere to nowhere. Moving through landscapes that once meant an awful lot, but have been reduced to spaces of transit where everything is temporary and everyone is just passing through gave me a sense of unease and a hunger for places that matter”.
The book consists of 47 short essays about particular places – from ‘Traffic Islands’ to islands that were marked on maps but never actually existed, from the new desert created after the shrinking of the Aral Sea to cities which have changed their names and identities through political revolution. The effect is strange. Bonnett’s point is that to be human is to want to be involved in meaningful acts of place-making, but this is not an easy process. The forces that create placelessness are ever more powerful, and indeed many of the places Bonnett ‘visited’ via Google Earth! But even that is a serious point, since geographical imaginations are being shaped by a variety of media and everyday activities.
Off the Map, with its subtitle: ‘Lost spaces, invisible cities, forgotten islands, feral places (and what they tell us about the world)’ makes for an interesting read for geographers. It is the product of a fertile geographical imagination. Bonnett is a Professor of Social Geography at Newcastle University (UK) and has, since the early 1990s produced a series of books and articles that offer an idiosyncratic take on how ideas shape the world. I first encountered Bonnett at a teachers’ conference on Anti-racist education in Luton in the mid-1990s. I remember it well because Bonnett spoke about his research on whiteness as an ethnicity. The idea that whiteness could be the basis for an ethnic identity caused some puzzlement. This was before the growing interest among geographers about the geographies of whiteness. After that, I kept an eye out for his work, and next encountered it through a little known journal called ‘Transgressions: a journal of urban exploration’ which was a forerunner of the psychogeographical literature that became so fashionable in the late 1990s and 2000s. This involved seeing and experiencing places in non-standard ways, such as exploring one city using a map of another one! His next book was The idea of the West, and drew upon the notion of the ‘myth of continents’. That is, the regions such as continents that we assume are geographical entities are best seen as geopolitical constructions. Bonnett explored the changing defintions, represresentations and political constructions of the ‘west’. Next was his book What is Geography? Published in 2008 and which was his attempt to write a popular geographical text. It is an interesting book for teachers to read, not least because it sets out to argue that geography should be seen as a product of modernity, and that there exist both academic and popular geographical imaginations. In many ways, the institutions associated with geography are codifications of the popular geographical imagination. Bonnett makes it clear that no-one ‘owns’ geography, and at one point argues that attempts by geographers to claim ‘space’ as their own is a little bit rich. Who is to say that academic geographers, closeted in their Ivory Tower and drawn from a wealthy (thus narrow) social milieu, can claim to know places any better than ‘ordinary’ people. Left in the Past: radicalism and the politics of nostalgia, is a study of the way in which a yearning for the ‘world we have lost’ informs the political imaginations of even the most radical individuals who seek to sweep away the past and change the world – the ‘patricians of forgetting’. Interestingly, it is places and landscapes that produce this nostalgia, as in the work of ‘psychogeographers’ such as Ian Sinclair and his wanderings around the forgotten spaces of London. It is this sense of loss of place that is the springboard for Bonnett’s latest book, which seems to bring together a number of the threads in Bonnett’s recent work. It’s written for a popular audience, and makes the point that we all have an investment in places and landscapes. In addition, it recognises the nostalgia that the contemporary world can induce in us all.

Presiding over chaos

There is a famous apocryphal moment when the Soviet delegation, visiting New York City, asked in wonder and amazement, who it was that was able to organize the bread supply chain so brilliantly: everyday, without exception, fresh bread is delivered in extraordinary varieties to thousands of individual shops, cafes and supermarkets!  Who manages that? The answer, of course, was no one. It is the invisible hand of the market at work.

 So powerful is this idea these days it has dulled our ability to think. And it enables the UK Secretary of State to get away with murder. That is not an overstatement: the government is presiding over the murder of a national education system. Unless we think that providing education is nothing more complicated than supplying bread (and that is complicated enough!) then we do need a system, not just a free for all ‘market’. Why? Because education is very expensive (it cannot afford lots of waste, unlike the food industry); it is a form of sustained, social engagement not a form of individualized consumption (you cannot chop and change your education supplier on whim, or on a daily basis); and it is one of the best means we know to develop human potential – and we know that this takes community effort and collective will (it is of no great consequence if a bread shop is goes out of business – that is the game – but if schools are undermined, weakened or are closed it has dramatic effects).

 Even as I write this I can predict the rude and dismissive counter charge from some quarters that I am simply part of the problem – a kind of neo-Marxist, statist, ‘reactionary’ who needs to be stopped, put down, circumvented or simply ignored. But I am none of those things. Indeed, I am on record as cautiously welcoming the ‘knowledge turn’ that followed Mr Gove’s appointment as Secretary of State. I am intrigued by the possible long-term impact that may result from the government’s enthusiastic endorsement of Teach First. I am utterly sold on partnership training of teachers so that the majority of their training in conducted in schools (as has now been the case for twenty years). I am even in favour of ‘academies’, because ‘comprehensive schooling’ is a brand so damaged after sustained attack from successive governments that it cannot be retrieved.

 My issue is that you can introduce all the above, and reform the national curriculum, and restore rigour to the examination system (again, I am in favour) without dismantling the system. For that you need a kind of blind ideology: just look what is actually happening.

 The national curriculum, which we are told will restore knowledge and rigour in schools, does not have to be taught by free schools and academies (that is, by now most secondary schools in England). The inconsistency here is breathtaking. Can we conclude that Mr Gove, having introduced a radical curriculum review, is actually not interested in the curriculum? Probably not, although we might ask why should he be? He is after all only the Minister. The Minister does not need experience or specialist knowledge of curriculum matters – he should leave that to the professionals. But we know full well that he does indeed lay down what he thinks should be taught in schools – particularly in some subjects like English and history. He is extremely hands on. So why, in effect, undermine his own national curriculum? We are told that, in effect, it is because teachers need the ‘freedoms’ enjoyed by New York bread shops. This ideological position is contributing to the destruction of a national education system.

 There is a view, which I also have some sympathy for, which goes something like this. ‘Curriculum’ is one of the central ideas in education. As such, it should be owned by educationists – which means the teaching profession supported by academics, scholars and researchers whose job it is to continually critique and redesign such key ideas, so that what happens in practice remains fit for a changing world. It is, definitely, not for politicians to get too close to this (just as they should stay away from the detail in law, medicine, engineering and other parts of the social, economic and cultural infrastructure). I suspect Mr Gove would agree with this.

 But why then abolish, in the so-called ‘bonfire of the quangos’, the various agencies that were set up to handle the detail of the curriculum, at arm’s length from government? One of the first acts of this government was to dismantle the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority – so that for the first time in over 40 years England had no independent agency of experts overseeing the curriculum. None.  Thus, matters of teacher training, curriculum design and so on are conducted by civil servants inside the ministry.

 Why attack universities and teacher training establishments, so that research and scholarly endeavour in the field of education is undermined, ridiculed even? It’s not just about deregulation and ‘freedoms’, for ironically education policy making is now possibly closer to a Soviet model than it is to Singapore or Finland, those ‘jurisdictions’ whose PISA results we are so encouraged to emulate.

 What it has achieved is the destruction of the education system. Collective effort – and responsibility – is undermined and weakened. All markets have winners and losers, and as the market is given freer rein Headteachers are hired and fired like football managers, expected to ‘turn thing round’ in weeks or months if the results have been poor. The infrastructure of local democratic governance, university departments of education, curriculum quangos and so forth was established collectively to moderate its worst effects of teaching to the test. But we are going right back there. With no national system, warm words about social justice emerging though the market is just nonsense.

 Ok. What’s this got to do with geography education? That will be in my next post.

What is the ‘knowledge turn’ and why does it matter?

Over the past couple of years geography educators in the UK have become increasingly interested in some developments around the ‘sociology of knowledge’. In particular, they have taken up some of the recent writing of Michael Young, Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Education (London) and especially his 2008 book Bringing Knowledge Back In. Others have engaged with Young’s work, so my purpose here is to place the recent ‘knowledge turn’ in a slightly broader context, and raise some of my own concerns about this development.

A significant aspect of the move to ‘bring knowledge back in’ is that it represents an ‘about turn’ on the part of sociologists of education who were part of the influential ‘new sociology of education’ in the early 1970s. At that time, writers such as Michael Young were influential in popularizing the idea among teachers that the knowledge found in school subjects was ‘socially constructed’ and, crucially, the selections of knowledge that comprise such subjects reflected the interests of powerful groups in society. The implications of this are profound, since it suggests that (a) the poor performance of particular social groups can be accounted for by the fact that ‘their’ knowledge doesn’t find representation in the curriculum, and, (b) school knowledge can be constructed otherwise.

Given the context of a society that was becoming increasingly ‘de-traditionalised’ and a teaching that was made up of the socially progressive middle classes, it is understandable that these ideas gained interest and widespread acceptance. Indeed, by the time I came to teach geography in London schools in 1988 it was not ‘radical’ to argue that ‘traditional’ school geography was a conservative representation of the geographical world-views of white, middle-class, men and that, accordingly, there was a need to recognise and make visible ‘other’ geographies. As the books on my shelves from the 1990s remind me, the ‘postmodern’ and ‘cultural turns’ that geography experienced reflect the wide range of ‘local’ geographies that exist (e.g Places on the Body, Body Spaces, Mapping Desire, The globalization of sexuality, Mapping Men, The geographies of disability, Animal Geographies, Mind and Body Spaces, The geography of children and young people, Spaces of Hate etc.) 

It is this shift from “Geography’ to ‘geographies’ has led to moves to ‘Bring Knowledge Back In’. For Michael Young and colleagues  the celebration of ‘local’ knowledges, the relativism that is implied by this, and the refusal to accept the notion of accepted ‘Truth’ amounts to the rejection and loss of faith in the established and accepted ‘Truth’  – or powerful knowledge – that is offered by academic disciplines. The knowledge found within subjects may be socially constructed, but it has a durability, stability, and existence independent of any social interest; it is social realist.

This ‘social realist’ stance is particularly valuable for geography educators who, over the past decade or so, have been struggling to ensure that discussions of curriculum (the what of teaching) are not lost in the drive to ‘improve learning’ through pedagogical innovations. The difficulty though, as far as I can see, is that discussion of the ‘knowledge turn’ in school subjects very quickly leads to a retrogressive ‘return to tradition’ or what Stephen Ball a long time ago described as the ‘curriculum of the dead’. I write as someone who, in the 199os wrote a thesis called ‘Postmodernism and Geography Education’, which, as I re-read it, celebrated the de-stabilising of school geography and the potential for celebrating previously marginalised and ignored ways in which people construct and re-make space. This is an important gain. However, there is a danger of seeing all this flux and flow as inherently liberating (‘cool places’, as some geographers would have it) whereas a harder, more material geography is where power and control lie, and it is these ‘real’ social processes that are so often missing from geography lessons.

This reminds me of what was so exciting about discovering the key geographical texts of the 1980s (The Limits to Capital, Spatial Divisions of Labour, Arenas of Capital, Uneven Development); they offered a version of geographical knowledge which was powerful because it allowed us to explain the world in new ways. Though as a discipline geography has become increasingly ‘post-structural’, there are important challenges for geography educators in taking the notion of ‘social realism’ (at present little more an interesting angle to take in dinner party conversations) and turning it into a robust and defensible basis for curriculum-making.

Is everyone a geographer?

(David Lambert writes)

Joseph Kerski asked recently: “Isn’t everyone a geographer? And, what about the increasing number of professionals outside who are incorporating spatial thinking and GIS into their work—in business, history, mathematics, design, biology, engineering and other fields. Are they geographers? Do they need to be geographers?”

As Joseph knows, this got my goat a bit! But I think we can use this as a launch pad to debate geographical knowledge and the school curriculum. Have your say.

Why did it rile me? Well mainly because it seems to undermine geography school.

We could say everyone (almost) is an author (we can write shopping lists or stories), a scientist (we can make systematic observations and make inferences), an athlete (we can run for the bus and play football), an historian (we have a past, a family story, an historical setting) …

My problem is I just do not see why this matters or how it is in any way a significant thing to say – at least to an educationist. I also think it endangers what we might feel is of value about a discipline, what Michael Young calls powerful knowledge which, I think by definition, is not available in the everyday.

What is there to be gained by saying everyone is a geographer? There is certainly a lot to be lost if you think, like me, we should educate young people with geography. If being a geographer is that easy why spending enormous amounts of public money sending children to school to learn geography? (Or are we also de-schoolers too?)

As for saying everyone is a geographer but doesn’t realise it, (as others have suggested), this seems to me even more tricky! I can see the idea of education as being there to initiate people into ways of seeing etc, but I have difficulty in the idea of (merely) ‘unfolding the enfolded’ (that is borrowed from Roy Bhaskar) – as if all knowledge is somehow already there, just waiting to be released.

I don’t think there is much to be gained by saying being a geographer is just a part of being human – not in an educational setting anyhow. I find it undermines us as teachers.

Eleanor Rawling emailed me to say: “The whole point of education is to develop and expand our everyday knowledge, introducing us to the powerful ideas and ways of thinking that help us to move beyond the everyday and to have a deeper understanding of where everyday experiences fit into a wider context. This access to powerful and deep knowledge is the whole point of education and appearing to deny that it is necessary does us no favours. Children’s/students everyday understandings can be a starting point or hook for the educational journey but education is not just an exercise in ‘recognising this’ – that’s a pretty low level expectation. We, as geography (or history or any subject) educators have a far more significant responsibility”.

So, in what ways is geography powerful knowledge?

Gereco and the future of impolite geography

Vistors to impolitegeography in recent months will have noticed a quiet spell. This has been caused by several distractions – not least John Morgan emigrating to New Zealand this year. David Lambert is also stepping down from the GA. During these changes we have decided to broaden the base of impolite geography. It is now ‘hosted’ by Gereco – see the link to the right.

But we have not turned this into a committee blog! Individual members of gereco will occasionally write their own provocations. The ethos is the same: to record thoughtful short pieces on geographical perspectives. We do so in an educational context. That is, education in its broadest sense – and we are reminded of Alastair Bonnett’s recent point in Geography (vol 97, No 1, p 41) that geography, the ancient world subject, has always, ultimately, been about human survival.


The curriculum debate- again!

The Geographical Association’s website is currently bustling with responses to two ‘proposals’ for a restructured national curriculum for Geography in English schools.  This has been prompted by the coalition government’s concern to return the school curriculum to ‘traditional’ subjects and to stress the importance of ‘core knowledge’ (that which all students should be expected to know). There is an ongoing curriculum review, and the Geographical Association has set out to consult geography teachers. Its consultation document sets out a ‘typology’ of geographical knowledge. These are ‘core knowledge’ which refers to that knowledge ‘gleaned and created from the information communicated in globes and atlases’, ‘content knowledge’ which refers to concepts and generalisations, and which is the key to developing understanding of human and physical processes, and ‘procedural knowledge’ which refers to the methods of ‘thinking geographically’. The document seeks to set out a rationale and explanation for geography’s place in the curriculum.

In addition to this document, the GA website carries a proposal written by Alex Standish which was ‘compiled at the request of the Department for Education as a contribution to the national curriculum review’. Readers are invited to read and compare for themselves the two documents, but I think its fair to say they offer rather different answers to the key curriculum question – what knowledge is most worthwhile to teach in schools?  

This debate is important, but I think its important to recognise that its terms of reference and frames have been effectively set by a government that is unwilling or unable to widen the terms of the curriculum debate. Much of what has happened in educational policy in the ‘long decade’ of New Labour rule was geared to ‘raising Standards’ defined as getting more and more students through more and more exams, with the result that the fundamental question of what is to be taught, to whom, was effectively sidelined. The result is that school reform might better be termed school deform in that it skews the purposes of education, which is surely to create more knowledgeable people able to understand the natural and social world.

The debate is to be welcomed, as long as it is part of a sustained reflection on the educational purposes of the curriculum.


So you think you know about Britain?

That is the title of a new book by the geographer Danny Dorling, who last year published an important text called Injustice; why social inequality persists. In the opening pages, Dorling has somethings to say about geography teaching:

“The geography you may have been taught late on a Thursday afternoon at school is not the geography that is taught in universities today. When I was at school I was taught that an Ice Age was coming. I was taught things I might need to know if I were to rule West Africa: what crops grew there; what languages the people spoke; and how to dress to survive life in a desert (do not wear nylon in the Sahara, else the fabric will melt and stick to you). My teachers were enthusiastic and friendly but I  cannot remember much more than that. Geogrpahy then was about tea from Ceylon and rubber-tapping in the Amazon, about who we, the British, could exploit, about what they had, where they were, and how to rule them. The younger teachers told us that the textbooks were wrong but that we had to repeat such things to get good marks at A Level.”

He goes on to explain some of the ways in which the geography taught in schools has changed since then:

“the main concerns are how human life might be ending with climate catastrophe and the impact of the extinction of so many plant and animal species, and of how growing worldwide inequalities of resources unfairly shape all human life across the planet”.

Dorling’s book is supposed to be a ‘popular geography’, one that explains to the general reader why geography matters. His focus is on the changing human geography of Britain.