Geography in schools

Over the years we have found that the case for subject specialism in the school curriculum (and geography in particular) has to be made and re-made constantly. In some ways this is surprising. It can be frustrating. But actually it is a useful discipline, for subjects do not have an automatic right to protected space on the curriculum.

Critics often argue that traditional subjects represent a nineteenth-century view of the curriculum, and that they are arbitrary in the way they divide knowledge.  This is not a sufficient reason for abandoning them: subjects may come and go, but we argue, with Alastair Bonnett, that geography is one of humanity’s big ideas, and can be traced as far back to Ptolemy at least.

A seminar will have chance to open this up with Michael:

Critics forget that subject disciplines are dynamic, not static; what you study in physics, or in geography, is very different in 2010 compared with 1910 – because of changes in the world and new thinking in the disciplines.  They remain provisional, anticipating the unknown, or un-thought-of, which will develop through disciplined innovation as society learns and develops.  Rather than simple agglomerations of facts, subject disciplines form powerful ways of thinking. The concepts and processes that underpin them provide a framework to help us make sense of the world in different ways. They are therefore an important source of cultural capital.

These are powerful arguments for subject-based learning at all levels.  There is a progressive place for subjects in the curriculum, especially where taught by specialists who can be relied on to make professional judgments about the content and development of the curriculum: what the subject is for, how it is taught, and how it connects with pupils’ learning needs in the world.

Subject discipline is therefore a key aspect of a teacher’s expertise and identity, especially (but not only) in secondary schools. It provides an important intellectual resource which helps subject specialists plan learning goals and guide progression, as well as ensuring breadth, balance and moral seriousness within their teaching.  Because they are familiar with the key principles and methods of enquiry (and are more likely to be members of a wider subject community like the Geographical Association), subject specialists tend to be better able to promote deeper understanding, rather than superficial knowledge acquisition.

For example, in considering questions associated with global climate change or uneven development or conflict in the Middle East, young people benefit from particular geographical knowledge and understanding. This is usually place specific, encouraging the ability to consider evidence in context, and to think critically about unique (though not necessarily singular) settings.

The 2010 Coalition government intend to review the national curriculum: there will be a White Paper later this year. We can anticipate strong support for ‘subjects’ from this government – but whether or not this means support for the kind of thinking alluded to in the above paragraph remains to be seen.

We need to coninue open and principled debate – for example see David’s TES piece published in late August :

This has caused some reaction elsewhere in the blogosphere:


2 Responses to “Geography in schools”

  1. 1 Benjamin Major September 28, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    A few more words about tradition…

    We keep hearing from certain quarters the need for a return to ‘traditional subjects’. I’m not exactly sure what these people have in mind when they talk about tradition in the context of education, or even if they have taken the trouble to examine the term at all, but it seems to bring to mind the vision of a teacher, at the front of the class, reciting important dates, locations and other facts to be absorbed and regurgitated. But is this the only way we can think about tradition? Is the only alternative, as those pedagogues who talk about ‘learning for the 21st century’ seem to believe, to surrender ourselves to the future and to be urged along by passing fads and the pressing needs of the times? I don’t think this is so. As we are about to see, there is also a potentially radical sense of tradition that we can draw from.

    Jacques Derrida once talked about ‘an appeal to tradition that is in no way traditional’. What on Earth did he mean by this? The philosopher Simon Critchley explains it very well indeed. A conservative sees tradition as an inheritance (the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott actually defines education as a sort of inheritance) and something to be passed down, from generation to generation as a kind of doxa, or body of unquestioned knowledge that, at least in theory, every individual should have access to. However, a radical conception of tradition sees it in a very different light. Here, tradition is something produced through a critical or deconstructive engagement with that inheritance. Doxa is now interrogated, questioned and made to answer for itself.

    If we adopt this radical sense of tradition as an educator, we still, like the conservative, recognise the need for an inheritance of knowledge that helps us to make sense of the world, but rather than accepting it with blind faith, this sort of tradition calls for an attitude of critical engagement, a sifting through, or a recovery of sorts. As Critchley notes, “what this radical idea of tradition is trying to recover is something missing, forgotten or repressed in contemporary life” (Critchley, 2010: 32). The radical traditionalist understands that we have to sometimes look back in order to go forward. Engaging with tradition in this way might help us to avoid a situation in which education is reduced to a concern only with themes of contemporary relevance, and with preparing young people for ‘the 21st century’.

    This leads me to another point, that of society’s ongoing obsession with the future. Critchely makes the interesting claim that talk of the future is actually reactionary. A relentless insistence on the future tends to curtail interesting, original thought. We are discouraged to cultivate memory and engage with tradition. For Critchley, “the future is about amnesia, and that’s what’s behind this ludicrous love affair with technology and forms of social networking… these are forms of oblivion, the desire for oblivion” (Ibid: 116). These will sound like awfully strong claims, but I do see his point, for I too experience social networking as a kind of oblivion, an unworld in which our identities are surrendered and where people endlessly ‘communicate’ but rarely seem to actually say anything.

    Following from this, the frightening thing for me is any idea that education as we know it could be adequately replaced by the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter. This is perhaps not so far-fetched an idea, and Ian Gilbert (2011) has indeed just written a book on this very topic, which is mentioned elsewhere on this blog. What would such an ‘education’ look like? I suspect it would be defined largely by amnesia towards the past and a fixation with the everyday. Genuine education must look to tradition as well as the present and future, but do so in the radical, rather than the conservative, sense. This requires teachers who have a wide appreciation and understanding of their subject and who will be well equipped to engage their students critically with the various forms of human knowledge that are their inheritance.

    Critchley, S. (2010) How to Stop Living and Start Worrying. Polity.
    Gilbert, I. (2010) Why do I need a teacher when I’ve got Google? Routledge.

  2. 2 Vernell December 17, 2012 at 9:13 am

    Howdy! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this post to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

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