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Recent Changes to the School Geography Curriculum: Policy, Processes and Subject Knowledge’

At the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference held at Exeter University in September 2015, members of GEReCo made a major contribution to a session on ‘The Impacts of Recent Changes to the School Geography Curriculum: Policy, Processes and Subject Knowledge’.

Convened by Eleanor Rawling, this session was sponsored by the Higher Education Research Group (HERG) of the RGS-IBG, and chaired by Jennifer Hill of HERG. It comprised of presentations on ‘School Geography: Policy, Processes and Curriculum Change’ (Eleanor Rawling); ‘What’s Going On?: Teachers’ Responses to Curriculum Change’ (Mary Biddulph); ‘Reconsidering Geography at the Schools-HE boundary – the ALCAB experience’ (Martin Evans) and ‘What Impact will changes in Teacher Education have on the Geography Curriculum in schools?’ (Graham Butt). It was well attended, despite competing in the programme with several other academic and research inputs.
GEReCo is extremely grateful to Martin, an academic geographer based at the University of Manchester and ex-Chair of the ALCAB Geography Panel, for his contribution to the session (and as a non GEReCo member!). Each presentation was followed by lively discussion focussed on the place of geography subject knowledge in schools, teacher education and higher education.

A particular theme emerging from the session was the need for professional engagement and debate about the future of the subject in schools, with particular reference to further contributions from academia. The opportunities for inputs into political debates about geography in schools, and indeed about curriculum development in geography at all levels, was also aired.

Off the Map?

Geographers often claim that ‘Places matter’. This sounds obvious enough, but what that actually means is less clear. In the 1970s geographers began to write about the rise of ‘placelessness’, and this concern that places were losing their distinctiveness heightened in the 1990s with the intensification of globalizing processes. Suddenly there was talk of ‘non-places’, ‘clone towns’ and ‘the geography of nowhere’ It is this that animates Alistair Bonnett’s new book Off the Map. He describes the feeling created from his journey from Epping (where he grew up) on the Central Line or on London’s Orbital road:
“I often felt as though I was travelling from nowhere to nowhere. Moving through landscapes that once meant an awful lot, but have been reduced to spaces of transit where everything is temporary and everyone is just passing through gave me a sense of unease and a hunger for places that matter”.
The book consists of 47 short essays about particular places – from ‘Traffic Islands’ to islands that were marked on maps but never actually existed, from the new desert created after the shrinking of the Aral Sea to cities which have changed their names and identities through political revolution. The effect is strange. Bonnett’s point is that to be human is to want to be involved in meaningful acts of place-making, but this is not an easy process. The forces that create placelessness are ever more powerful, and indeed many of the places Bonnett ‘visited’ via Google Earth! But even that is a serious point, since geographical imaginations are being shaped by a variety of media and everyday activities.
Off the Map, with its subtitle: ‘Lost spaces, invisible cities, forgotten islands, feral places (and what they tell us about the world)’ makes for an interesting read for geographers. It is the product of a fertile geographical imagination. Bonnett is a Professor of Social Geography at Newcastle University (UK) and has, since the early 1990s produced a series of books and articles that offer an idiosyncratic take on how ideas shape the world. I first encountered Bonnett at a teachers’ conference on Anti-racist education in Luton in the mid-1990s. I remember it well because Bonnett spoke about his research on whiteness as an ethnicity. The idea that whiteness could be the basis for an ethnic identity caused some puzzlement. This was before the growing interest among geographers about the geographies of whiteness. After that, I kept an eye out for his work, and next encountered it through a little known journal called ‘Transgressions: a journal of urban exploration’ which was a forerunner of the psychogeographical literature that became so fashionable in the late 1990s and 2000s. This involved seeing and experiencing places in non-standard ways, such as exploring one city using a map of another one! His next book was The idea of the West, and drew upon the notion of the ‘myth of continents’. That is, the regions such as continents that we assume are geographical entities are best seen as geopolitical constructions. Bonnett explored the changing defintions, represresentations and political constructions of the ‘west’. Next was his book What is Geography? Published in 2008 and which was his attempt to write a popular geographical text. It is an interesting book for teachers to read, not least because it sets out to argue that geography should be seen as a product of modernity, and that there exist both academic and popular geographical imaginations. In many ways, the institutions associated with geography are codifications of the popular geographical imagination. Bonnett makes it clear that no-one ‘owns’ geography, and at one point argues that attempts by geographers to claim ‘space’ as their own is a little bit rich. Who is to say that academic geographers, closeted in their Ivory Tower and drawn from a wealthy (thus narrow) social milieu, can claim to know places any better than ‘ordinary’ people. Left in the Past: radicalism and the politics of nostalgia, is a study of the way in which a yearning for the ‘world we have lost’ informs the political imaginations of even the most radical individuals who seek to sweep away the past and change the world – the ‘patricians of forgetting’. Interestingly, it is places and landscapes that produce this nostalgia, as in the work of ‘psychogeographers’ such as Ian Sinclair and his wanderings around the forgotten spaces of London. It is this sense of loss of place that is the springboard for Bonnett’s latest book, which seems to bring together a number of the threads in Bonnett’s recent work. It’s written for a popular audience, and makes the point that we all have an investment in places and landscapes. In addition, it recognises the nostalgia that the contemporary world can induce in us all.

Presiding over chaos

There is a famous apocryphal moment when the Soviet delegation, visiting New York City, asked in wonder and amazement, who it was that was able to organize the bread supply chain so brilliantly: everyday, without exception, fresh bread is delivered in extraordinary varieties to thousands of individual shops, cafes and supermarkets!  Who manages that? The answer, of course, was no one. It is the invisible hand of the market at work.

 So powerful is this idea these days it has dulled our ability to think. And it enables the UK Secretary of State to get away with murder. That is not an overstatement: the government is presiding over the murder of a national education system. Unless we think that providing education is nothing more complicated than supplying bread (and that is complicated enough!) then we do need a system, not just a free for all ‘market’. Why? Because education is very expensive (it cannot afford lots of waste, unlike the food industry); it is a form of sustained, social engagement not a form of individualized consumption (you cannot chop and change your education supplier on whim, or on a daily basis); and it is one of the best means we know to develop human potential – and we know that this takes community effort and collective will (it is of no great consequence if a bread shop is goes out of business – that is the game – but if schools are undermined, weakened or are closed it has dramatic effects).

 Even as I write this I can predict the rude and dismissive counter charge from some quarters that I am simply part of the problem – a kind of neo-Marxist, statist, ‘reactionary’ who needs to be stopped, put down, circumvented or simply ignored. But I am none of those things. Indeed, I am on record as cautiously welcoming the ‘knowledge turn’ that followed Mr Gove’s appointment as Secretary of State. I am intrigued by the possible long-term impact that may result from the government’s enthusiastic endorsement of Teach First. I am utterly sold on partnership training of teachers so that the majority of their training in conducted in schools (as has now been the case for twenty years). I am even in favour of ‘academies’, because ‘comprehensive schooling’ is a brand so damaged after sustained attack from successive governments that it cannot be retrieved.

 My issue is that you can introduce all the above, and reform the national curriculum, and restore rigour to the examination system (again, I am in favour) without dismantling the system. For that you need a kind of blind ideology: just look what is actually happening.

 The national curriculum, which we are told will restore knowledge and rigour in schools, does not have to be taught by free schools and academies (that is, by now most secondary schools in England). The inconsistency here is breathtaking. Can we conclude that Mr Gove, having introduced a radical curriculum review, is actually not interested in the curriculum? Probably not, although we might ask why should he be? He is after all only the Minister. The Minister does not need experience or specialist knowledge of curriculum matters – he should leave that to the professionals. But we know full well that he does indeed lay down what he thinks should be taught in schools – particularly in some subjects like English and history. He is extremely hands on. So why, in effect, undermine his own national curriculum? We are told that, in effect, it is because teachers need the ‘freedoms’ enjoyed by New York bread shops. This ideological position is contributing to the destruction of a national education system.

 There is a view, which I also have some sympathy for, which goes something like this. ‘Curriculum’ is one of the central ideas in education. As such, it should be owned by educationists – which means the teaching profession supported by academics, scholars and researchers whose job it is to continually critique and redesign such key ideas, so that what happens in practice remains fit for a changing world. It is, definitely, not for politicians to get too close to this (just as they should stay away from the detail in law, medicine, engineering and other parts of the social, economic and cultural infrastructure). I suspect Mr Gove would agree with this.

 But why then abolish, in the so-called ‘bonfire of the quangos’, the various agencies that were set up to handle the detail of the curriculum, at arm’s length from government? One of the first acts of this government was to dismantle the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority – so that for the first time in over 40 years England had no independent agency of experts overseeing the curriculum. None.  Thus, matters of teacher training, curriculum design and so on are conducted by civil servants inside the ministry.

 Why attack universities and teacher training establishments, so that research and scholarly endeavour in the field of education is undermined, ridiculed even? It’s not just about deregulation and ‘freedoms’, for ironically education policy making is now possibly closer to a Soviet model than it is to Singapore or Finland, those ‘jurisdictions’ whose PISA results we are so encouraged to emulate.

 What it has achieved is the destruction of the education system. Collective effort – and responsibility – is undermined and weakened. All markets have winners and losers, and as the market is given freer rein Headteachers are hired and fired like football managers, expected to ‘turn thing round’ in weeks or months if the results have been poor. The infrastructure of local democratic governance, university departments of education, curriculum quangos and so forth was established collectively to moderate its worst effects of teaching to the test. But we are going right back there. With no national system, warm words about social justice emerging though the market is just nonsense.

 Ok. What’s this got to do with geography education? That will be in my next post.

What is the ‘knowledge turn’ and why does it matter?

Over the past couple of years geography educators in the UK have become increasingly interested in some developments around the ‘sociology of knowledge’. In particular, they have taken up some of the recent writing of Michael Young, Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Education (London) and especially his 2008 book Bringing Knowledge Back In. Others have engaged with Young’s work, so my purpose here is to place the recent ‘knowledge turn’ in a slightly broader context, and raise some of my own concerns about this development.

A significant aspect of the move to ‘bring knowledge back in’ is that it represents an ‘about turn’ on the part of sociologists of education who were part of the influential ‘new sociology of education’ in the early 1970s. At that time, writers such as Michael Young were influential in popularizing the idea among teachers that the knowledge found in school subjects was ‘socially constructed’ and, crucially, the selections of knowledge that comprise such subjects reflected the interests of powerful groups in society. The implications of this are profound, since it suggests that (a) the poor performance of particular social groups can be accounted for by the fact that ‘their’ knowledge doesn’t find representation in the curriculum, and, (b) school knowledge can be constructed otherwise.

Given the context of a society that was becoming increasingly ‘de-traditionalised’ and a teaching that was made up of the socially progressive middle classes, it is understandable that these ideas gained interest and widespread acceptance. Indeed, by the time I came to teach geography in London schools in 1988 it was not ‘radical’ to argue that ‘traditional’ school geography was a conservative representation of the geographical world-views of white, middle-class, men and that, accordingly, there was a need to recognise and make visible ‘other’ geographies. As the books on my shelves from the 1990s remind me, the ‘postmodern’ and ‘cultural turns’ that geography experienced reflect the wide range of ‘local’ geographies that exist (e.g Places on the Body, Body Spaces, Mapping Desire, The globalization of sexuality, Mapping Men, The geographies of disability, Animal Geographies, Mind and Body Spaces, The geography of children and young people, Spaces of Hate etc.) 

It is this shift from “Geography’ to ‘geographies’ has led to moves to ‘Bring Knowledge Back In’. For Michael Young and colleagues  the celebration of ‘local’ knowledges, the relativism that is implied by this, and the refusal to accept the notion of accepted ‘Truth’ amounts to the rejection and loss of faith in the established and accepted ‘Truth’  – or powerful knowledge – that is offered by academic disciplines. The knowledge found within subjects may be socially constructed, but it has a durability, stability, and existence independent of any social interest; it is social realist.

This ‘social realist’ stance is particularly valuable for geography educators who, over the past decade or so, have been struggling to ensure that discussions of curriculum (the what of teaching) are not lost in the drive to ‘improve learning’ through pedagogical innovations. The difficulty though, as far as I can see, is that discussion of the ‘knowledge turn’ in school subjects very quickly leads to a retrogressive ‘return to tradition’ or what Stephen Ball a long time ago described as the ‘curriculum of the dead’. I write as someone who, in the 199os wrote a thesis called ‘Postmodernism and Geography Education’, which, as I re-read it, celebrated the de-stabilising of school geography and the potential for celebrating previously marginalised and ignored ways in which people construct and re-make space. This is an important gain. However, there is a danger of seeing all this flux and flow as inherently liberating (‘cool places’, as some geographers would have it) whereas a harder, more material geography is where power and control lie, and it is these ‘real’ social processes that are so often missing from geography lessons.

This reminds me of what was so exciting about discovering the key geographical texts of the 1980s (The Limits to Capital, Spatial Divisions of Labour, Arenas of Capital, Uneven Development); they offered a version of geographical knowledge which was powerful because it allowed us to explain the world in new ways. Though as a discipline geography has become increasingly ‘post-structural’, there are important challenges for geography educators in taking the notion of ‘social realism’ (at present little more an interesting angle to take in dinner party conversations) and turning it into a robust and defensible basis for curriculum-making.

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?

Gereco and the future of impolite geography

Vistors to impolitegeography in recent months will have noticed a quiet spell. This has been caused by several distractions – not least John Morgan emigrating to New Zealand this year. David Lambert is also stepping down from the GA. During these changes we have decided to broaden the base of impolite geography. It is now ‘hosted’ by Gereco – see the link to the right.

But we have not turned this into a committee blog! Individual members of gereco will occasionally write their own provocations. The ethos is the same: to record thoughtful short pieces on geographical perspectives. We do so in an educational context. That is, education in its broadest sense – and we are reminded of Alastair Bonnett’s recent point in Geography (vol 97, No 1, p 41) that geography, the ancient world subject, has always, ultimately, been about human survival.


The curriculum debate- again!

The Geographical Association’s website is currently bustling with responses to two ‘proposals’ for a restructured national curriculum for Geography in English schools.  This has been prompted by the coalition government’s concern to return the school curriculum to ‘traditional’ subjects and to stress the importance of ‘core knowledge’ (that which all students should be expected to know). There is an ongoing curriculum review, and the Geographical Association has set out to consult geography teachers. Its consultation document sets out a ‘typology’ of geographical knowledge. These are ‘core knowledge’ which refers to that knowledge ‘gleaned and created from the information communicated in globes and atlases’, ‘content knowledge’ which refers to concepts and generalisations, and which is the key to developing understanding of human and physical processes, and ‘procedural knowledge’ which refers to the methods of ‘thinking geographically’. The document seeks to set out a rationale and explanation for geography’s place in the curriculum.

In addition to this document, the GA website carries a proposal written by Alex Standish which was ‘compiled at the request of the Department for Education as a contribution to the national curriculum review’. Readers are invited to read and compare for themselves the two documents, but I think its fair to say they offer rather different answers to the key curriculum question – what knowledge is most worthwhile to teach in schools?  

This debate is important, but I think its important to recognise that its terms of reference and frames have been effectively set by a government that is unwilling or unable to widen the terms of the curriculum debate. Much of what has happened in educational policy in the ‘long decade’ of New Labour rule was geared to ‘raising Standards’ defined as getting more and more students through more and more exams, with the result that the fundamental question of what is to be taught, to whom, was effectively sidelined. The result is that school reform might better be termed school deform in that it skews the purposes of education, which is surely to create more knowledgeable people able to understand the natural and social world.

The debate is to be welcomed, as long as it is part of a sustained reflection on the educational purposes of the curriculum.