W(h)ither education?

W(h)ither education?

In his article describing the historical ignorance of young people leaving school today (‘Once upon a time there was a subject called history’ The Daily Telegraph 15.9.09), Dominic Sandbrook quotes LP Hartley’s famous phrase ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there’. He then goes on to extend the geographical analogy exhorting the importance of young people to explore of ‘that vast and impossibly rich continent’ … of history.

My eye was caught by his use of geography as an idea. For whenever I read about the lack of knowledge amongst the young I am always led to think about the geographical parallels. But we should try to focus on something deeper than ‘exam howlers’. I am sure there is someone out there who thinks Winston Churchill landed on the moon, just as I am sure there is someone out there who thinks the Britain is not an island [discuss!]

Much more important is the way we seem to have turned away from the very idea of education that sustains a healthy, vibrant liberal democracy. As I write this I am conscious of how unfashionable it sounds. However, there has been a steady erosion of the notion that education can and should fuel our individual ability to think critically about the world as we find it – which requires knowledge and understanding of how the world has come to be. We are swamped with a language of targets, skills and 21st century ‘learning to learn’, but have forgotten what it is that distinguishes learning (a word that now seems to carry huge weight and always deemed a good thing in itself, when clearly it is not) from education. All worthwhile education is, in the end self-education, based on the student’s curiosity, their need to know and readiness to rise to the challenge of finding out. Indeed, offering challenge to young people is one way to motivate them – so different from today’s orthodoxy which says we should make learning accessible, bite-sized and achievable by all.

We seem to have forgotten about education for the moment. The renaming of the Department for Education some years ago to become the Department for Children, Schools and Families is in a way symbolic of this. I understand why this was done, but regret the airbrushing away the idea of education. Education is not about ‘learning to learn’ as if you can do this in the abstract. You do not learn-to-learn how to ride a bike: you learn how to ride the bike. What is worse, in hundreds of schools teachers have mark books in which they are asked to record the ‘preferred learning style’ of each pupil – ostensibly so they can plan lessons to suit individual needs. This is the mistaken application of a perfectly good idea by bureaucrats who have lost sight of education.

I do not want my child’s history or geography teacher encumbered by the worry of providing ‘kinaesthetic learning opportunities’ every time they meet a class. What I want is a teacher who is committed to finding ways to excite genuine interest in and commitment to making sense of ourselves in the world.

A geography teacher does this through a selection of geographical themes and events with a close eye on human decisions and actions, and analysing their effects and consequences in places and environments, both near and far. This is not easy work. It is work for confident and highly motivated subject specialists in schools. These are folk who think about what they teach, aren’t they?

In our book we attempt to illustrate what we mean through a commentary that applies geographical thought to this photograph of a chalk landscape in SE England. Have a go. See if you agree with our version of the ‘promise’ of geography in education.

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2 Responses to “W(h)ither education?”


  1. 1 David Lambert January 29, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    This is the text of a letter to the Indepenedent newspaper that makes a point relevant to the w(h)ither education piece:

    It was interesting to juxtapose two articles in Thursday’s Independent (28.01.10). First, we had Sir David Melville explaining in the Education pages how teachers and students are ‘immersed in a knowledge economy, centered on Google and social networking’. They access knowledge from the internet and contribute to ‘the creation of knowledge through their own online presence.’ Secondly, we had Nicholas Lezard on p 39 warning of ‘The invasion of the brain snatchers’ – ie the success of the makers of digital gadgets to convince us of their exaggerated transformative power. It seemed to me that Melville’s claims about knowledge creation serves to prove the point.
    We are pushed helter-skelter into accepting the vibrant, noisy, just-in-time economy as inevitable. What we need to compete is ‘21st century skills’. If you don’t join it you will get left behind. It will be your fault. You will pay the price. This neo-liberal orthodoxy, which dulls our capacity to think beyond ourselves, has profound implications on education. We should worry a little more about some important distinctions – between information, ‘skills’, knowledge and understanding for example.


  1. 1 Geography education vs. geography learning « Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub Trackback on January 29, 2010 at 12:55 pm

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