Discussing our book

As promised (see blog post: How Fragile We Are), we want to share some of the discussion on our book (for more on our book, see blog post: Why Write a Book on Geography Education? This is on page 2 of this archive).

What follows is Sallie Marston’s contribution to the session on our book at the AAG in April. We hope other contributors, or anyone who may have seen the book, will add to this commentary.

Comments on ‘Teaching Geography 11-18 : a conceptual approach’

From Professor Sallie A Marston

School of Geography & Development, Harvill 445C, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721

Before getting into the heart of this very engaging and important book, I want to tell a little story on myself.  I read the book over a few nights, in bed.  On the night I finished it I closed the cover and sighed. My partner asked me why I was sighing and I said that the book was very good but I didn’t really know how to approach it critically because I have no background in geographic education outside the US or at levels below the US university.  Moreover, I said: “This book is actually kind of depressing because the level of sophistication Dave and John propose for teaching 11-18 year olds about geography far exceeds what my co-authors and I do in our introductory human geography and world regional college texts! And there are all sorts of potential adopters who think our books are too theoretical.”  Laughing at my lament he replied: “Do you think there’s still time to send the kids to school in Britain?”

Well, it’s too late to send the kids away.  And instead of going down the path of comparative analysis, I’d like to talk about Teaching Geography as a document that provides something for any geographer, from any part of the world, interested in understanding where we have been as a discipline and where we are going. It also shows how our intellectual debates and conceptual frameworks shape our young people and the way they come to apprehend and appreciate the world around them, both near and far.

I would like to take the discussion questions David and John suggested to us and use them as a way of dipping into the book and considering its merits. And I shall say right from the start that I have nothing but good things to say about the book and this may in large part be because I feel somewhat unqualified to provide any substantive criticism.  But what I will do instead of offering a critique is identify what I think are the book’s strengths and pose a couple of questions that were stimulated by the book.

  • Does the way we position ‘geography’ resonate with you? &  Do the concepts we identify and address travel across the Atlantic?

Importantly, the argument that frames the book – how a geographical perspective shapes the way we see the world – is both incisive and engaging. It takes up the discipline of geography in all of its conceptual complexity and sorts it by using key concepts to approach a range of contemporary problems and emerging opportunities at work around the globe.  It’s a rich and lively compendium of the body of knowledge that is human geography in the twenty-first century.  And treated as a compendium as well as the foundation to a manifesto, it is an excellent resource.  It provides all sorts of interested readers with a broad understanding of what geography as an academic discipline is and how and why that matters to those who teach school geography.  By elaborating the key concepts of the discipline and their intellectual context and pedagogical value, the authors provide readers with not a “how to” kind of teaching practicum but a “why” kind of intellectual stimulus for fortifying the place of geography in the curriculum.

Question:  What do you think the limits of a conceptual approach are with respect to teaching? (I ask because it seems to me that concepts become cages quite rapidly and end up restricting the kinds of pedagogical goals you seem to be striving for.)

  • What is the relationship between geography in school and academic geography?

The first 66 pages of this 165 page book is largely directed to teachers or 11-18 education professionals. Despite my lack of familiarity with this literature in general, I found this section really interesting as it seems to contain many of the same objectives that occur in critical pedagogy at the US university level.  I was particularly interested in chapter 4 and the discussion of a “capability perspective” because it spoke directly to the kinds of teaching challenges I face at a large public university and how to begin to address them.  I am currently co-teaching an experimental course for university-level juniors – 19 and 20 year olds – that uses concepts from Marxist political economy and cultural studies, and the HBO television show “The Wire”, to understand all sorts of things about cities as places as well as urban economic, social and cultural life.  The course is my surrender, as it were, to a new way of teaching that enables the kinds of technologies and interests that young people have to be put to work in the classroom.  The course is, in its own way, about enhancing capabilities by helping students to use what they already know in new ways and with deeper understanding.  So, we use streaming video, radio broadcasts, youtube, Wikipedia, the online Encyclopedia or Marxist Terms, documentaries and even some journal articles and book chapters and organize the class meetings around a short  traditional lecture, accompanied by clips, presentations, group exercises, audio and visual readings, etc.  And though I think the course has been successful, I do have some concerns about the class that relate directly to arguments made by David and John in the book. These concerns orbit around the issues of capability and understanding as pedagogical goals.

Question:  I wonder how we balance the “action” that aligns with capability and the “thought” that is central to understanding? For instance, it happens in my class that capability has clearly been enhanced independent of understanding? How does one do both?

  • Does this book make any useful contribution to wider debates and to ‘public geographies’?

This is a question that I can only answer with another question. Let me contextualize the question first.  Having lived in or near London on several occasions for long periods of time, I think I have a fairly good sense of the relationship between academics and the public there.  It is not unusual in the UK to have geographers on the BBC talking about this or that problem or on important commissions undertaking government work, or even working in the private sector and admitting publicly that they are geographers!  It’s rare to see this sort of thing happening in the US with the consistency and ubiquity it does in Britain.

Question: How is that UK academics have been able to maintain (or is it assert?) a strong relationship with the public that is respectful and productive and that clearly draws on their disciplinary expertise?



1 Response to “Discussing our book”

  1. 1 Mary Biddulph June 1, 2010 at 10:42 am

    Rather like Sallie Marston, I too would like to start my ‘conversation’ about Teaching Geography 11-18 with a story.

    I interviewed a prospective student for a place on teacher training course in England who wanted to become a geography teacher in a secondary school. He was in his final year at University and was applying for a one-year PGCE course. He had quite a good academic profile and a generally positive reference. At the University where I work we ask candidates at interview to tell us something about their undergraduate dissertation, the intention being to give them time to talk about an aspect of geography with which they are very familiar, and in the main, we hope, motivated by. He briefly outlined a dissertation to do with the movement of microscopic creatures in a particular river. I asked him what made his dissertation geographical as opposed to biological, quite happy to accept that my own lack of knowledge was something he could help me with. He couldn’t answer the question. He couldn’t rationalise his dissertation within the context of a discipline he had been studying for three years and was supposed to be passionate about. Perhaps this book, which identifies in some detail what geography might possibly mean, could have helped him?

    The purpose behind telling this particular story is that it says something about a key dilemma facing school geography in the England today: namely, what do we mean by ‘geography’ within the context of what is taught and learned in schools. What follows is an attempt to explore this through the context of Teaching Geography 11-18, the intention being that the following will in some way contribute to, not just a debate about the potential of this particular book, but also to a debate about the meaning of school geography.
    The threads of my reflections on reading this book will include:
    • Something about assumptions in geography education
    • Something about curriculum making as an idea
    • Something about the engagement of wider publics

    Assumptions in geography education
    For me the book initiates a discussion within ourselves and between each other about what it means to be a ‘geographer in education’. .. What does it mean to be a geography educator (teacher) in the context of the discipline rather than in the context of the many other political, social and economic conditions that so heavily influence education today? It seems to me that the significance of this book is that unlike many other current education publications it is unique in foregrounding the discipline, geography, as a resource for education thus forcing us to re-visit our own philosophical beliefs /understandings about the both the discipline and about the discipline as an educational resource. Why is this important? Because in the current educational climate in England ‘subjects’ and what they contribute seem to me to have become stereotyped in the popular and political imagination for some time now, and so instead of subjects articulating the framework for an educational experience, other more generic, often very powerful and frequently ungrounded discourses have dominated English educational policy in the past 10 years. Within this book we are encouraged to question these dominant discourses and consider more carefully the potential (or as the book states, ‘the promise’) of geography in education. Such a process of questioning should also encourage us to resist the temptation of taking the subject for granted. ‘Taking it for granted’ is, I feel, the mistake the young interviewee described above probably made: ‘I’m doing a geography degree; this is my dissertation so it must be geography’. Not a good sign for a potential educator of young people.
    How does the book support a more critical disposition? For me it raises some deeply fundamental questions about the purpose of education (as opposed to schooling) and In many ways it challenges current emphasis in English education on very powerful accountability agendas, driven by, what to me, often feels like a genericisation of young peoples’ education. What this book is saying is that disciplinary knowledge (geographical knowledge) does have significant value other than as the means by which wider political agendas are enacted; and here geography (as opposed to school geography) is opened up as the opportunity to achieve educationally worthwhile learning for students in schools. The book says a lot about the relationship between every-day knowledge and specialist knowledge and it questions the basis as well as the value of this relationship. Making these connections, between the discipline and the school subject, is crucial for young people if geography is to really make a contribution to their wider educational adventure.
    In addition the book also contributes to building a shared vocabulary between the discipline and school geography and in turn possibly a longer-term commitment for common goals. For teachers it gives them permission to re-connect with the discipline and to think with their geographies rather than just with/about pedagogy.

    Curriculum making
    As well a being a distinct focus for the book, curriculum making is also an idea that resurfaces from time-to-time within other discussions. Curriculum making is the idea that teachers, students and the subject collectively ‘make’ school geography. I now want to pursue this a bit more.
    Education in the England has been in more recent times plagued by a ‘quick fix’ mentality and the chasing of short-term political goals: seeking simple (yet expensive) speedy solutions to complex problems. Against this backdrop the notion of ‘curriculum making’ is a powerful one as it re- centres the real authority for the curriculum in the hands of those who experience it – students, teachers and the discipline. However, this is where there is work to be done – such a model is dependent on several factors:
    A power shift in classrooms – whilst the idea of curriculum making in no way suggests that teachers relinquish their responsibilities for teaching, learning and managing classroom events, in order for the curriculum to be ‘made’ as the book suggests there would need to be some shift in the roles and responsibilities’ of all three ‘parties’. This is no bad thing. Teachers’ disciplinary ‘authority’ would need to be contingent on students’ disciplinary experiences and understanding IF curriculum making is to work as intended here, and the underlying message is that students also have something to bring to the curriculum making process; rather than being ‘victims’ of it they too have responsibilities. The model (Venn diagram on p50) focuses on the intersection of subject, students and teachers, however it seems to me that there also needs to be a conversation about what is happening beyond/around the Venn diagram as well as what might be happening to the curriculum other various intersections. The diagram is a helpful tool to think with, but it is highly dependent on the quality of teachers, aassuming, or perhaps more realistically hoping, that teachers can share their power, relinquish some control and take on the suggested risks. It also assumes that teachers’ grasp of geography is strong enough to enable them to do this; however, in the face of recent education initiatives professional development opportunities which locate subject development at their heart have been very few and far between. I acknowledge that the book can, in many ways make a contribution to this dearth of subject development opportunities, but I also suspect that there will be a need for more practical help.
    As well as the disconnect between teachers professional development and the subject, there has been an ongoing disconnect between school and university geography. New entrants to the teaching profession report that their ‘geography diet’ at university is unrecognisable against that studied in school and for many new undergraduates university geography is a whole new world of encounters. Whilst this book can provide is some confidence that it is appropriate in so many ways to reconnect school and university geography. To a certain extent the details in the text legitimises subject change and development in schools suggesting that teachers grounded scholarly disciplinary understanding is the lynch-pin to such changes. However the straight jacket of the policy agenda continues to do damage to teachers’ decision making capabilities resulting in many school students increasingly getting almost no access to high quality geographical learning as a consequence of policy and political pressures on the curriculum . We have to remember that the curriculum is also being made elsewhere..in Whitehall, in OfSTED offices and at the Training and Development Agency (TDA).

    Geography and publics
    One of the questions we were asked to consider was the to consider the connect ion between the ideas in the book and the notion of public geographies. For me, students and teachers are ‘publics’ for whom geography has a particular meaning within the context of school, but perhaps we need to think beyond ‘public geographies whereby the academy is involved in sharing its learning with wider publics, and perhaps consider what Kindon, Pain and Knaisby (2008) articulate as ‘participatory geographies whereby the academic and public co-construct geographical knowledge – this is what I understand curriculum making to be – more about inviting everyone to the geography party and in doing so cross a range of ‘boundaries’ including the school/university, but also teachers/students/, political/personal, personal knowledge/professional knowledge, young people/wider society. Within the context of participatory geographies what Kindon, Pain and Knaisby call for is the notion of ‘Slow geographies for urgent issues’, taking time to think through and develop a shared language and understanding between teachers, students, school geography and the wider discipline. This book actually supports this slowing down, encouraging reflection and quality thinking – it gives us the ‘space’ in which to explore both our own personal geographies as well as our professional geographies in education.
    Dewey’s notion of ‘collateral learning’, attitudes developed in and out of school, is significant the context of participatory geographies; how do the geographies articulated in the text take account of collateral learning ? Cornbleth( 1990)refers to ‘milieu namely ongoing social processes that enable students to develop socially (as opposed to academically) valued knowledge and skills. For me powerful ideas embedded within the text help us to think through important connections between collateral learning, milieu and geography, and the chapter on ‘media’, which I had to re-read to locate it in the overall discussion, actually locates young people in a wider cultural discourse –this is where, for me, the book actually starts to connect up.
    The media chapter is significant because it highlights the centrality of the cultural politics of young people –i.e what they ‘bring to the table’ alongside the discipline. This chapter focuses on technology and the ‘gap’ between adults/teachers and young people, with the latter often having a significantly more sophisticated understanding of technology than the former, but the underlying message is that this notion of milieu is important to school geography because of its potential contribution to the curriculum making framework.

    Some final thoughts.
    The book presents us with constructions of geography that is provisional, open to interpretation and also open to challenge (Roberts 2010); rather than being told what to think we are being invited into the discussion to question the provisionality of the subject, and therefore the provisionality of the school subject too. The geographies embedded in this book have significant implications for shifting the ‘teaching by formula’ discourse which seems so overwhelming at the present time, and the careful articulation of key geographical concepts presented here almost requires us to now begin the process of questioning what we do, how we do it and, most importantly, why we should do it all?

    Cornbleth. C (1990) Curriculum in Context, Basingstoke. Falmer Press
    Kinpaisby. M (2008) Taking Stock of participatory geographies: envisioning the communiversity. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers: 33, 292-299
    Roberts. M (2010) Geographical Enquiry. Teaching Geography. Spring edition pp 6-9

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