Slogans for geography teachers

Its the first week of the PGCE geography course at the University of Bristol, and, as an ice-break activity, we looked at a list of claims that have been made by geography educators about why the subject is important. These include:

  • help children understand the big world stage
  • enable children to read their newspapers with understanding
  • play a key role in education for international understanding
  • get children to learn ‘through the soles of their boots’
  • help children to develop skills of reading, writing, numeracy and graphicacy
  • develop scientific approaches through hypothesis-testing – be objective
  • theorise
  • quantify
  • develop problem-solving and decision-making modes of thinking
  • recognise that people have their own perceptions or ‘mental maps’ of the world
  • take the major responsibility for development education and/or global awareness in the curriculum
  • help develop language and mathematics across the curriculum
  • encourage children to take action to protect and improve the environment
  • prepare children for the world of work
  • use geography to develop values education and political literacy
  • Teach geography for a better world

This list was derived from Michael Naish’s ‘postscript’ to John Fien and Rob Gerber’s edited book Teaching Geography for a better world, published in 1988. As soon as I saved the document in preparation for the session, I realised that there were some ‘slogans’ missing, such as to teach geography in ways that are anti-racist and anti-sexist, or prepare children for life in a digital age, or for an ‘uncertain future’.

Our discussion was wide-ranging and, of course, we didn’t reach any firm conclusions other than that geography educators have made lots of claims for their subject’s importance. Some of these claims just seem ‘too big’ to make concrete in actual schools, whilst others seem to be ‘commonsense’. They do make a good starting point for excavating the history of geography education. Reference to the ‘great world stage’ is from Fairgreive’s Geography in Schools, whilst the idea of ‘international understanding’ was prominent in the 1930s in the face of the threat of facism. The local historian W.G. Hoskins said that the way to learn about places was to get our boots muddy. Some raise interesting questions: what does it mean to ‘theorise’ in school geography today? And what is the role of ‘quantification’? In these post-modern times, is the idea of ‘teaching geography for a better world’ simply a meta-narrative to be knowingly deconstructed – who believes in it anyway?

The PGCE group’s discussion focused for a bit on what’s missing: geography as a preparation for citizenship, geography as a preparation for learning how to consume the planet through gap-years and tourism, or, more critically, geography for getting more and more children to pass more and  more exams, or, following the late Jim Blaut, geography’s role being ‘to lie to little children’?

Though there’s a limit to this type of activity, it perhaps serves as a way of raising questions of what we think we’re doing in geography lessons.

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