Is everyone a geographer?

(David Lambert writes)

Joseph Kerski asked recently: “Isn’t everyone a geographer? And, what about the increasing number of professionals outside who are incorporating spatial thinking and GIS into their work—in business, history, mathematics, design, biology, engineering and other fields. Are they geographers? Do they need to be geographers?”

As Joseph knows, this got my goat a bit! But I think we can use this as a launch pad to debate geographical knowledge and the school curriculum. Have your say.

Why did it rile me? Well mainly because it seems to undermine geography school.

We could say everyone (almost) is an author (we can write shopping lists or stories), a scientist (we can make systematic observations and make inferences), an athlete (we can run for the bus and play football), an historian (we have a past, a family story, an historical setting) …

My problem is I just do not see why this matters or how it is in any way a significant thing to say – at least to an educationist. I also think it endangers what we might feel is of value about a discipline, what Michael Young calls powerful knowledge which, I think by definition, is not available in the everyday.

What is there to be gained by saying everyone is a geographer? There is certainly a lot to be lost if you think, like me, we should educate young people with geography. If being a geographer is that easy why spending enormous amounts of public money sending children to school to learn geography? (Or are we also de-schoolers too?)

As for saying everyone is a geographer but doesn’t realise it, (as others have suggested), this seems to me even more tricky! I can see the idea of education as being there to initiate people into ways of seeing etc, but I have difficulty in the idea of (merely) ‘unfolding the enfolded’ (that is borrowed from Roy Bhaskar) – as if all knowledge is somehow already there, just waiting to be released.

I don’t think there is much to be gained by saying being a geographer is just a part of being human – not in an educational setting anyhow. I find it undermines us as teachers.

Eleanor Rawling emailed me to say: “The whole point of education is to develop and expand our everyday knowledge, introducing us to the powerful ideas and ways of thinking that help us to move beyond the everyday and to have a deeper understanding of where everyday experiences fit into a wider context. This access to powerful and deep knowledge is the whole point of education and appearing to deny that it is necessary does us no favours. Children’s/students everyday understandings can be a starting point or hook for the educational journey but education is not just an exercise in ‘recognising this’ – that’s a pretty low level expectation. We, as geography (or history or any subject) educators have a far more significant responsibility”.

So, in what ways is geography powerful knowledge?


1 Response to “Is everyone a geographer?”

  1. 1 Fran Martin July 6, 2012 at 6:30 am

    I also responded to Joseph’s question ‘Is everyone a geographer?’ I think it is important to this discussion to read his original post at

    My response at the time was:

    “My PhD studied the development of primary (elementary) school teachers in their training year and first year of teaching, looking at their conceptions of geography, knowledge and pedagogy and the relationship between these and their development as teachers of geography. The majority gave up geography at the ages of 14 or maybe 16 (if they did a GCSE). In short, my conclusions were that everyone is a geographer but they do not recognise this. I make a distinction between academic geography and everyday (or ethno-) geography (Martin, 2005; 2008; 2011). In terms of your three-legged stool, primary teachers’ everyday geographies are made up of all three elements, but due to their own schooling they focus on the content knowledge leg, have some awareness of the skills leg, and almost no awareness of the spatial (which I would break down as being about key concepts of space, place, scale) leg or its importance as a guiding framework for understanding the world as a geographer. That is not to say they don’t act spatially, but that explicit awareness of the importance of this dimension and how to support young people’s understanding is limited. It is this conceptual framework, along with more detailed knowledge & abilities associated with content and skills, that academic geography brings to the table. Pedagogically, I therefore propose a dialogue between the two ‘ways of knowing’ in which each has value and from which each can learn and develop.”

    I therefore think that the question of whether everyone is a geographer or not is absolutely crucial to educators. This position does not deny the ‘power’ of academic geography (in social justice terms as described by Michael Young); it is a question of relevance and how to engage young people in their geographical education in ways that do not alienate them or place them in a deficit position.

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