What is ‘radical’ school geography today?

What is radical school geography today?


“All of us are now thinking how our lives could be run differently. This recession seems to be giving more cause for reflection than most – not only about how the economy is managed, but also about the environment and society more generally. Neo-liberalism has governed our lives for nearly thirty years. Many feel that its Right-wing ethos of deregulation, privatisation and liberation of corporate power has not only failed the world’s financial systems, but more fundamentally degraded the environment and the social fabric of life”. (Jonathan Pugh, 2009, What is radical politics today? Palgrave Macmillan)



     This post presents the outline of an argument presented at a recent ESRC seminar on ‘Public Geographies’. It was an effort to explore the fate of what, in the 1980s in Britain, was a move for ‘radical school geography’,

      In Britain, the  post-war dream of ‘education for all’ was seen to have failed by the late 1960s. The ‘new sociology of education’ shifted the focus to ‘school knowledge’, which, it argued, far from being disinterested and ‘neutral’, reflected the world-views of the socially privileged and powerful. Researchers in this field actively sought to make links with teachers in schools to re-construct school knowledge and curriculum.

 The leading figures in the creation of ‘modern’ geographical education from the 1970s, did not engage with these debates. Thus curriculum development in geography was largely a technical process. However, throughout the 1980s there were a series of ‘ideology critiques’ that challenged the ‘exclusions’ of school geography. The most persistent and theoretically-informed critique of school geography was provided by John Huckle, who reminded geography teachers that ‘changes in the nature of schooling, curriculum content, and methodology are not…simply a response to the growth of knowledge or the changing preoccupations of geographers and educationalists’. In 1985, Huckle argued:

“At a time when the state finds it increasingly necessary to link learning with productive work and raise economic and social awareness, there are significant opportunities for socialist teachers to exploit. The rhetoric of relevance, critical thinking, vocationalism and citizenship, which is being used to legitimate the restructuring of education, allows us to argue for genuinely polytechnic education. At the same time the mounting contradictions of schooling, particularly the credibility gap between its promises and outcomes, create a climate in which liberal and radical alternatives are more acceptable…The struggle to construct and implement a socialist school geography will face many setbacks as it has in the past, but it remains part of the overall struggle for a counter-hegemony and an alternative future”.

  With hindsight, this ‘restructuring’ of education was geared to the construction of new forms of education that were in line with a new regime of capital accumulation. The crisis of accumulation in the 1970s and 1980s precipitated a shift from ‘Fordism’ to ‘Post-Fordism’ and new forms of production and consumption. This required new types of students/workers/consumers and educational policies sought to construct a new consensus. This new consensus emerged around the social imaginary of ‘neoliberal globalization’, which held that national education systems should be geared to preparing students for life in a precarious and uncertain global ‘knowledge economy’, where there was no longer the assumption of a ‘job for life’, where learning needs to be lifelong, and ‘learning how to learn’ is more important than acquiring ‘stocks’ of knowledge.

      The consequences of this new consensus for schools and teachers are quite profound. First, as we have argued in previous posts, there has been a shift away from concern with questions of ‘curriculum’ to ‘pedagogy’. Second, and following on from this, teachers’ work and identity are less closely linked to their role as ‘subject experts’ with a deep and continuing engagement with their ‘discipline’.

      In addition, the advent of postmodernism in geography based on a perceived ‘crisis of representation’ , a concern with the ‘constructedness’ of knowledge, and the existence of many ‘geographies’ has led to understandable uncertainty about what represents the core of geographical knowledge and understanding. Schools and teachers are also under the influence of a broader ‘popular postmodernism’ which celebrates the relativity of knowledge and perspectives, and encourages personal and subjective responses to the world. The result of these developments is that school geography is: (a) frequently emptied of content rooted in the conceptual frameworks of the subject; (b) regarded as a convenient ‘vehicle’ for broader competences such as ‘thinking skills’, learning how to learn’, or ‘soft skills’; and (c) taught by teachers who are encouraged to adopt the position that, ‘I teach children, not geography’.

      Huckle argued that  school geography should help students to ‘understand how societies are made and remade, and how landscapes and human-environment relations change in the process’.  We are currently experiencing an epochal shift in the nature of the global economy, where the ideologies about what makes a ‘good society’ that have dominated for nearly three decades are increasingly challenged. These economic changes coincide with a growing awareness of the ecological consequences of the consumer society. As Jonathan Pugh says, ‘All of us are thinking about how our lives could be run differently’. However, in schools pupils are introduced to a ‘Zombie Geography’, based on content, concepts and models that no longer (if they ever did) help them to make sense of the world.

9.       There are four starting points for radical school geography, although these are not final and should be widely discussed and debated.

·         Economic geography – there is a substantive and important literature to inform curriculum development in geography. Excellent accounts of the ‘crisis’ are provided by Harvey (2010), Gamble (2008), which can be supplemented by political-economic accounts of the space-economy

·         The geographies of austerity – the traditional question of welfare geography (who gets what, where, and why?) is recast in the arguments about the ‘big society’ and ‘social recession’. The politics of housing, the spaces of consumption and the politics of inequality (e.g. Dorling 2010; Wilkinson and Pickett, 2008) will provide the basis for human geography teaching over the coming decade.

·         Consuming the planet to excess – commentators such as Elliott and Urry (2011) are analysing the consequences of high-carbon/high mobility systems and the prospect of a post-carbon social science. Consumption has become a major element in geography teaching in schools and there is a need to develop a powerful ‘pedagogy of consumption’.

·         Another world is possible – there is a need introduce students to the idea that there may be alternatives to ‘how we live now’ (Holloway 2010, Carlson 2009)

Together, these add up to an agenda for a radical geography education.



5 Responses to “What is ‘radical’ school geography today?”

  1. 1 John Shade February 11, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    The proposals don’t look very radical to me – they look like bog-standard green miserabilism – very much the ‘establishment view’ as far as I can see.

    It would, I suggest, be more radical to incorporate some of the ideas, writings, and conjectures of such as Julian Simon, Bjorn Lomborg and Matt Ridley, and to build up a library of failed doomsday predictions most relevant to geography.

    Children will enjoy a view of the world which is far more upbeat: the cornucopia perspective, rather than the catastrophe one.

    For example, the considerable benefits arising from growth of CO2 levels in the atmosphere could help counter-balance the relentless gloom of those who see only bad news there.

  2. 2 Anestis Kokkinidis March 15, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    I strongly believe that the geographies of austerity should be included in the human geography teaching, especially in the European countries (such as Greece) where schools and hospitals are being closed for austerity measures, despite protests. Let me share link with you on where “austerity grounds” have come to , and the protests that are ongoing (currently for closing schools).

    Note that the town of Ierapetra is located on the island of Crete, in Greece. The hospital serves over 40,000 people in the region and following protests in January 2011, bureaucrats bowed to protests and did not close the hospital.

    • 3 Anestis Kokkinidis May 27, 2011 at 11:02 pm

      Over the past days, there have been some developments in the issue with the Hospital of Ierapetra. Degradation and lack in doctors have sparked a new round of protests in the region, culminating in another rally and the storming of the town hall of Ierapetra.

      Around 1000 (local) people protested on May 26 and demanded to send more doctors and give more funds for the hospital rather than degrading it to a health centre or merging it with others in a remote area, where access to the main city is difficult. As of today, the town hall stays closed by the demonstrators.

      The socialist government in Greece have decided tough measures including pay cuts and slashes to the funds for schools and hospitals. Most needs of Greek schools are served by the parents and the citizens because the government cannot back them. People of any age, including pupils, students, doctors, nurses, municipal and local workers, trade unions and associations support the protests and demand to have access to health services.

  3. 4 Anestis Kokkinidis June 19, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    Just an update. On 10 June 2011 the occupation of the building came to an end after 16 consecutive days, following the signing in law of the decision to upgrade the Hospital of Ierapetra. The Head of the local Church, Evgenios went to Athens along with the Mayor of Ierapetra and met with the secretary of the ruling PASOK party, Mr Karchimakis, himself originally from Lasithi where Ierapetra is located. There they met with the undersecretary for health, Mr Timosakis and all of them decided to have the Hospital of Ierapetra upgraded, with four of its basic clinics in operation on a daily basis. Ierapetra won a battle but not the war; the authorities prosecuted the protestors and a trial of educators, teachers and citizens, who have been prosecuted following the mayor’s legal action against them, is due on July 11.

  4. 5 Anestis Kokkinidis March 24, 2014 at 9:26 pm

    On July 11 2011 all 14 citizens were unanimously found not guilty. It was the first such trial in the town to date. A series of protests followed in 2012 and 2013. Today, in 2014 the hospital is still open,

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