The geographical imagination of curriculum reform

In Britain at the present time, there is a question mark over the role that ‘traditional’ school subjects – such as geography – should play in the school curriculum. This is not unexpected, and not a bad thing; its important for educators to keep asking the question of why we are doing things, otherwise unthinking and ‘commonsense’ practices can get ‘sedimented’ (‘that’s what we’ve always done’).  In this post, we argue that recent moves to reform the national curriculum are based on a particular ‘geographical imagination’. There are two elements to this imagination. First, is the idea that we live in a global knowledge-economy where goods, people, images, capital and ideas are whizzing about at an ever-increasing rate, eroding artificial barriers and making the idea that nation-states can do much to control these flows seem out-of-date. This has implications for education, since it suggests that in order to be successful in this brave new world, schooling should do all they can to be ‘shape-shifting portfolio workers’ ready to accept that there’s no longer such a thing as a job-for-life and that, in order to be successful, we need to develop the ‘soft-skills’ of emotional literacy, team-work, creativity and ‘problem-solving’. The other part of the geographical imagination is linked to this, but in a way is dealing with the downside of this world where ‘all that is solid melts into air’. It recognises that global shift and industrial restructuring have had some negative effects on communities and individual’s lives – that some groups are excluded and that in some important sense, society is broken. This requires educational interventions to ensure that ‘Every Child Matters’, and in schools we see attempts to ensure that children take exercise and eat healthily, that they learn to control their feelings and act as responsible citizens.

If these are the two elements of the educational imagination, then subjects such as geography are to be welcomed so long as they contribute to the goals of producing ‘confident individuals’, ‘successful learners’ and ‘responsible citizens’ (in case you didn’t know, these are the overarching aims of the National Curriculum).

We suggest these are limited aims for geography as a subject, and lead to a quite uncritical acceptance of ‘how society is’ rather than helping students to develop a critical understanding of the forces that shape their lives.

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