The ideology of school geography

In 1980 Rex Walford described a series of ‘ideologies’ which, he argued, underpinned geographical teaching in schools.  Ideology is sometimes seen as an unhelpful term, but refers to an ethical set of ideals, principles or myths that explains how society should work, and which offer a vision of how society should be organised. At a time when more and more school students are achieving success at school (measured by GCSE and A level results), yet their futures (both economically and environmentally) are looking decidedly risky, it might be worth re-visiting Walford’s categories to see if they offer any insight into the purposes of school geography.

  1.  The ‘liberal humanitarian’ tradition

 This tradition includes those who view education as primarily concerned with the passing on the ‘cultural heritage’ from one generation to another. Importance is attached to maintaining a continuity of worthwhile ideas and there is a defined curriculum which students ought to be taught. Such a map of knowledge is usually made up of strong subject disciplines. Teachers are seen as the guardians and gate-keepers of knowledge and their role is to initiate children into an appreciation of them. Acquiring an understanding of an academic discipline involves learning its content, conceptual frameworks, and ways of thinking. Teachers should be scholars who have a deep understanding of their discipline and can clearly and accurately present it to children 

2. The child-centred tradition

 This tradition sees education as a process of the self-development or the bringing to maturity of the individual student. Accordingly, the need for the pupil to discover self-autonomy and social harmony is strongly valued. Within this tradition there is a valuing of direct contact with the outside world and the cherishing of subjective experience. Childhood is regarded as a state worthy in itself and is to be enjoyed for its own sake. There is more emphasis on the process of education than on the product. Geography teachers who have been influenced by this tradition may claim that they are teachers of children rather than teachers of geography. They would see their role as educating the ‘whole’ person, breaking down artificial barriers of subjects. Where the subject remains important, the focus would be on constructing a curriculum and teaching that builds upon children’s subjective or ‘personal geographies’.

3. The utilitarian tradition

 This tradition sees the main job of education as preparing pupils to go well-equipped into society. The school should provide skills and knowledge which are useful in helping the individual ‘get a job’ and ‘earn a living’. Utilitarians believe the essence of learners lies in their competencies and the activities they are capable of performing, Teachers are to select and use educational strategies designed to help learners acquire the behaviours prescribed by the curriculum.Subjects with a strong vocational significance are highly valued in this view of education. Within geography there have been calls to stress the vocational relevance of the subject, but increasingly the focus is more on generic skills that can be taught through geography. These generic skills include: ‘thinking skills’, learning how to learn, Information-handling, numeracy, and communications skills. More specific geographical skills might include literacy in GIS. In this version, geography is a vehicle for developing more general skills to enable individuals to play a useful role in society. 

4. The ‘reconstructionist’ tradition

 The final tradition holds out the possibility that education is a potential agent for changing society. In this view, according to Walford, the role of the teacher is to engender a kind of ‘divine discontent’ in the student, so that they do not accept things as they are. A more generous interpretation would be that students are encouraged to critically examine the claims to ‘truth’ that are offered in geography lessons and texts. This tradition is conscious of the problems of our society and the injustices that are done to its members. A geography based on reconstructionist ideas might emphasise spatial imbalances and injustices and have a strong desire to develop social and environmental concern in pupils. There would be a focus on developing students’ values and on teaching in ways that promote democratic involvement.

 All of these ‘ideologies’ have played their part in the development of school geography in Britain. At present, it might be argued that the utilitarian approach tends to dominate within schools, though many teachers would say they hold on to the idea that knowledge matters. In reality, it would be unlikely to find a geography department where there was a ‘pure’  ideology. We have recently used Walford’s article with beginning geography teachers. It’s been a useful exercise in highlighting the contested traditions of school geography and helping to clarify different arguments about why and how ‘geography matters’.


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