Return to Madingley

UK geography teacher educators’ conference, January 2010.

There are some geography educationists for whom ‘Madingley’ (Madingley Hall just outside Cambridge, England) evokes memories of a golden time. The ‘Madingley lectures’ of the late 1960s anticipated a period of impressive ‘bottom up’ curriculum development in school geography and  an expansion of student numbers.

The so-called 1970s ‘new geography’ in schools, dedicated to seeking spatial patterns and regularities with the help of mathematics and models, was pretty well invented here via a series of summer schools led by young ambitious academics such as Chorley and Haggett. You can read about this process in Rex Walford’s history of school geography in England (published by Bloomsbury in 2001). It is a good story, written by one of the teacher participants and a man who was to become a major figure in geography education. He was for instance, on the panel that wrote the original national curriculum for England and Wales, introduced in 1991.

Madingley Hall was the sumptuous 2010 venue for the annual conference geography teacher educators. The slides and some papers from the presentations can be found on the Geographical Association website (see the Blog Roll): when you get to the GA, press the Teacher Education button. Rex Walford was the guest speaker, providing a backdrop and a touchstone for some reflective thought on the challenges facing geography teachers in schools today. I have three points:

  • The claim is often made that the new ‘scientific’ and ‘quantitative’ geography rescued geography as a discipline in the post second world war period. It gave geography respect and status by replacing regional description with spatial analysis. It was easy to excite young academics and undergraduates with this – and certain school teachers (those invited to attend the lectures were quite carefully chosen: young teachers, often in independent schools and in a postion to make their name). ‘New geography’ was a child of its time as we have tried to show in chapter 1 of our book: the setting, featuring the ‘white heat of technology’ and modernisation, invited the overturning of the discipline. And yet, to what extent was this innovative fervour focussing on the renewal of school geography almost oblivious of wider educational changes and developments? Was the new geography educationally justified? Put another way, was it all a bit self-indulgent, and did it, arguably, distort school geography and its underlying purpose?


  • One of the benefits to come from the ‘new geography’ revolution, was said to have been a new focus on teaching techniques: enquiries, the analysis of data and other evidence, the use of games and simulations  and decision making exercises – all these techniques flowed from and through the revolution.  They are useful and they have stood the test of time. There is today a great emphasis on what is now called ‘pedagogy’. But one of the sessions at the 2010 conference, led by Margaret Roberts (who has written an excellent [2003] book on geography and pedagogy: Learning Through Enquiry), caused pause for thought. So heavy is today‘s emphasis on ‘good teaching’ – with formulaic guidance on what this means – that new teachers being assessed near the beginning of their careers are routinely judged by school mentors to be excellent, even though the quality of the geography can be distinctly weak, unchallenging or even wrong. We think this requires serious attention. Geographers often complain that policy makers, school leadership teams and the general public do not understand the true scope of modern geography. There may be truth in this, but it may also be too defensive – and a little self-serving. To what extent is much contemporary geography in schools theoretically ill-informed and conceptually weak and, ironically, still within the thrall of ‘positivist science’?


  • Another fascinating session was with Nicola Walshe, describing her research with secondary age students using the technique of ‘dialogic diaries’. What this threw up for us was a seies of questions about role children and young people (who the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency insists on calling ‘learners’ which seems in a way to de-humanise school) need to play in the crucial process the Geographical Association calls ‘curriclum making’ – a process we decribe in chapter 3 of our book. The Madingley-led golden age was pretty well all about the subject, and this was a problem. Subsequently and into the present day, the system has become fixated by ‘pedagogy’. And there is also now a difficult and in some ways frustrating discourse on ‘personalisation’ and the ‘student voice’ which has the potential to drive out subject concerns even more.


What we conclude from these reflections is a need to focus on three simple questions:

a)      What should we be teaching children and young people (in geography)?

b)      To what degree should teachers reassert a greater measure of autonomy in deciding what to teach?

c)       How can teachers re-engage with the wider disciplinary resources – not to create a ‘new model army’ as in the 1970s, but in a way that brings the excitement and diversity of the subject  into school and college settings?


2 Responses to “Return to Madingley”

  1. 1 Kevin Cook February 12, 2010 at 11:01 am

    What should we be teaching children and young people (in geography) is a challenging question and is one that pre-suppposes that we have the teachers competent and able to deliver.

    A useful starting point is provoided by the division in the blog entitled ‘The geographical imagination of curriculum reform’ of the current state of the world we live into a dichotomy. The positive is seen as the need to prepare our children for a global-knowlefdge based economy with all its attractions and opportunities. The negative is aptly summarised by the Shakespeare/Marx dictum’ all that is solid melts into air’ I used to use this statement as the focus of a lecture on modernity when I taught first year undergraduates at St Mary’s Uniiversity College. I used as one of several expemplars, the way delightful Victorian and Edwardian houses in Strawberry Hill were being demolished to be replaced by ugly modern constructions.

    Perhaps we could devise a geographical curriculum that encourages our students to focus on these two approaches to modernity.

    Such a curriculum would be demanding and would require teachers able to disentangle the complexity of the modern world and to do so without fear of being labelled as indoctrinators. It would also require a cohort of geography educators who were aware of what was going on in the world and who were prepared to read widely.

    It would also presuppose that geography educators were getting their fact right. I have just finished reading one of the most enlightening and interesting geographical articles I have read for some time. It was written by a geographer and two chemists and appears in the latest edition of Geography and is entitled – The Concept of ‘heat’ in Physical Geography. (Geography Spring 2010 Vol 95 Part 1). Its message is simple and direct. It draws attention to common misconceptions in the teaching of physical geography and uses heat and energy as its examples. If we cannot get the basic facts right in our teaching, we are doing our students a grave dis-service. What we need now is a series of similar articles devoted to common misconceptions; not just in physical geography but in human geogarphy as well.

    • 2 DJ February 28, 2010 at 11:06 am

      Thanks for this comment Kevin. It captures well aspects of what John and I are attempting in our book. We agree that teachers are in the way you describe ‘public intellectuals’ – in the sense that they are paid by the state to think deeply about how to induct young people into the world of thought, information and ideas. It matters what we try to teach young people.
      We agree that geography has a contribution to make in helping us make curriculum selections.

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