Archive Page 2

So you think you know about Britain?

That is the title of a new book by the geographer Danny Dorling, who last year published an important text called Injustice; why social inequality persists. In the opening pages, Dorling has somethings to say about geography teaching:

“The geography you may have been taught late on a Thursday afternoon at school is not the geography that is taught in universities today. When I was at school I was taught that an Ice Age was coming. I was taught things I might need to know if I were to rule West Africa: what crops grew there; what languages the people spoke; and how to dress to survive life in a desert (do not wear nylon in the Sahara, else the fabric will melt and stick to you). My teachers were enthusiastic and friendly but I  cannot remember much more than that. Geogrpahy then was about tea from Ceylon and rubber-tapping in the Amazon, about who we, the British, could exploit, about what they had, where they were, and how to rule them. The younger teachers told us that the textbooks were wrong but that we had to repeat such things to get good marks at A Level.”

He goes on to explain some of the ways in which the geography taught in schools has changed since then:

“the main concerns are how human life might be ending with climate catastrophe and the impact of the extinction of so many plant and animal species, and of how growing worldwide inequalities of resources unfairly shape all human life across the planet”.

Dorling’s book is supposed to be a ‘popular geography’, one that explains to the general reader why geography matters. His focus is on the changing human geography of Britain.


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.


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’.

Do I need a teacher? – I have Google

We are very keen to hang onto the idea that what is taught and learned in schools (not necessarily the same things, of course) is important. A lot of contemporary educational debate, aware of the distorting impact of an over tested, over regulated, excessively bureaucratic school system, tends to undermine this. 

This issue is worth pursuing a little deeper with reference to Ian Gilbert’s entertaining book[1], in which he has a chapter called The Great Educational Lie. Following his account of joining in the national  debate on the curriculum, he writes:

“What did we recommend  as a result of our findings in the classroom? Grasping the opportunity to move away from the hegemony of content to a focus on skills and competences will contribute to increased commitment to learning if done well. ‘Whatever the subject I’m in, I’m developing skills and attitudes that will help me get a better job. Therefore, all lessons are important’ would be an important shift.

We’re not advocating content free lessons. The key will be to learn the content in a way that also develops the skills, attitudes and competences, something that the traditional chalk and talk lessons can’t do.” [p 20]

We could have chosen many passages such as this. For example, in the very next chapter we read:

In the good old days, knowledge was fixed. … But then two interesting and related things happened to knowledge. Like an egg in a microwave, it exploded and went everywhere. [p21]

This discourse needs unpacking. Let’s just throw out some questions. We have responded to each question in turn

  • Why is the tired old ‘chalk and talk’ image of teaching deployed?

Answer: because some kind of device is needed to rubbish subject knowledge – the writer has acknowledged the obvious fact that lessons cannot be ‘content free’. But this formulation suggests that the content is merely a vehicle for ‘developing skills and attitudes’. Nobody wants ‘chalk and talk’. But that doesn’t mean we need to dismiss knowledge as mere background, filling or context.

  • Why is knowledge spoken of as if it were material ‘stuff’, like the contents of an egg?

Answer: because some kind of device is needed to explode the myth of teachers as ‘sage’ and the fount of all knowledge. But nobody would propose a return to this model of teaching. Like ‘chalk and talk’ this is another straw man. On the other hand, that does not mean that teachers do not need to be knowledgeable and expert in their subject – not in order to ‘pass it on’ by drip feed, but to explore, use and apply with young people in order that their knowledge of the world and how it works is extended and deepened. This idea carries more moral seriousness than the image of scraping up bits of knowledge from where ever we can get them – like the content s of an egg off the inner wall of a microwave.

  • Why are we given the allusion of the ‘hegemony of content’, as if this were being controlled by some powers that be?

Answer: because the writer wants us to see school curriculum knowledge only in ‘traditional’ terms – as the knowledge of the powerful.  This allusion works if teachers are part of the plot. But teachers are themselves (potentially) agentive, as curriculum makers. It is true that the national curriculum has undermined this. It is true that examinations boards exert enormous power on what is taught. But teachers play the most important role in shaping the content: they need to be intellectually engaged with content questions. The problem with attacking ‘hegemony’ too carelessly is that it undermines this, suggesting that content doesn’t matter – in fact, that it is where we have been going wrong.

  • Why the link between skills and ‘better jobs’?

Answer: because this is one of the big ideas that underpins the book. The idea of education, as conducted by schools, has been totally merged with a utilitarian, economic function of preparing people for employment. There is a scientistic tone to the book, based on the findings of ‘brain science’, that focuses on learning faster and smarter in the context of a popular Shift Happens[3] type analysis of the priorities of education in a globalised world. Such is the power of this ideology that it is now hard to argue for a more liberal, enlightenment idea of education. And yet, human survival may depend on this.

Ian Gilbert kind of grudgingly accepts that teachers are important. He leaves it to the Any Questions Answered website to say: ’teachers express things in a way Google can’t. They can make dull subjects seem interesting whereas Google just supplies facts, not all of them correct.’ [p30]

Oh dear – ‘seem’ interesting? Again, are subjects just seen as inconvenient ‘content’?

We can develop a more serious grasp of teachers’ work and the contemporary purpose of subject disciplinary knowledge than this.


[1] Gilbert I (2010) Why do I need a teacher when I’ve got Google? Routledge. See also

[2] The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority was responsible for reforming the national curriculum in the early years of the 21st century, explicitly to reform a world class curriculum for the future. In 2010 the new Coalition government abolished the organisation in its ‘bonfire of the quangos’.

[3] From the wiki:

 ‘We want all children to be successful. We do not view the growing importance of India and China as negative but rather as additional opportunities for everyone in the world. We do not mean to gloss over the very real issues that countries such as India and China face, and we recognize that globalization and “flat world” factors have downsides just like other societal shifts. We prefer, however, to focus on the positive benefits and on doing what we can to help children learn and grow so that they may become successful digital, global citizens’

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.

Geography in schools

Over the years we have found that the case for subject specialism in the school curriculum (and geography in particular) has to be made and re-made constantly. In some ways this is surprising. It can be frustrating. But actually it is a useful discipline, for subjects do not have an automatic right to protected space on the curriculum.

Critics often argue that traditional subjects represent a nineteenth-century view of the curriculum, and that they are arbitrary in the way they divide knowledge.  This is not a sufficient reason for abandoning them: subjects may come and go, but we argue, with Alastair Bonnett, that geography is one of humanity’s big ideas, and can be traced as far back to Ptolemy at least.

A seminar will have chance to open this up with Michael:

Critics forget that subject disciplines are dynamic, not static; what you study in physics, or in geography, is very different in 2010 compared with 1910 – because of changes in the world and new thinking in the disciplines.  They remain provisional, anticipating the unknown, or un-thought-of, which will develop through disciplined innovation as society learns and develops.  Rather than simple agglomerations of facts, subject disciplines form powerful ways of thinking. The concepts and processes that underpin them provide a framework to help us make sense of the world in different ways. They are therefore an important source of cultural capital.

These are powerful arguments for subject-based learning at all levels.  There is a progressive place for subjects in the curriculum, especially where taught by specialists who can be relied on to make professional judgments about the content and development of the curriculum: what the subject is for, how it is taught, and how it connects with pupils’ learning needs in the world.

Subject discipline is therefore a key aspect of a teacher’s expertise and identity, especially (but not only) in secondary schools. It provides an important intellectual resource which helps subject specialists plan learning goals and guide progression, as well as ensuring breadth, balance and moral seriousness within their teaching.  Because they are familiar with the key principles and methods of enquiry (and are more likely to be members of a wider subject community like the Geographical Association), subject specialists tend to be better able to promote deeper understanding, rather than superficial knowledge acquisition.

For example, in considering questions associated with global climate change or uneven development or conflict in the Middle East, young people benefit from particular geographical knowledge and understanding. This is usually place specific, encouraging the ability to consider evidence in context, and to think critically about unique (though not necessarily singular) settings.

The 2010 Coalition government intend to review the national curriculum: there will be a White Paper later this year. We can anticipate strong support for ‘subjects’ from this government – but whether or not this means support for the kind of thinking alluded to in the above paragraph remains to be seen.

We need to coninue open and principled debate – for example see David’s TES piece published in late August :

This has caused some reaction elsewhere in the blogosphere:

Discussing our book

As promised (see blog post: How Fragile We Are), we want to share some of the discussion on our book (for more on our book, see blog post: Why Write a Book on Geography Education? This is on page 2 of this archive).

What follows is Sallie Marston’s contribution to the session on our book at the AAG in April. We hope other contributors, or anyone who may have seen the book, will add to this commentary.

Comments on ‘Teaching Geography 11-18 : a conceptual approach’

From Professor Sallie A Marston

School of Geography & Development, Harvill 445C, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721

Before getting into the heart of this very engaging and important book, I want to tell a little story on myself.  I read the book over a few nights, in bed.  On the night I finished it I closed the cover and sighed. My partner asked me why I was sighing and I said that the book was very good but I didn’t really know how to approach it critically because I have no background in geographic education outside the US or at levels below the US university.  Moreover, I said: “This book is actually kind of depressing because the level of sophistication Dave and John propose for teaching 11-18 year olds about geography far exceeds what my co-authors and I do in our introductory human geography and world regional college texts! And there are all sorts of potential adopters who think our books are too theoretical.”  Laughing at my lament he replied: “Do you think there’s still time to send the kids to school in Britain?”

Well, it’s too late to send the kids away.  And instead of going down the path of comparative analysis, I’d like to talk about Teaching Geography as a document that provides something for any geographer, from any part of the world, interested in understanding where we have been as a discipline and where we are going. It also shows how our intellectual debates and conceptual frameworks shape our young people and the way they come to apprehend and appreciate the world around them, both near and far.

I would like to take the discussion questions David and John suggested to us and use them as a way of dipping into the book and considering its merits. And I shall say right from the start that I have nothing but good things to say about the book and this may in large part be because I feel somewhat unqualified to provide any substantive criticism.  But what I will do instead of offering a critique is identify what I think are the book’s strengths and pose a couple of questions that were stimulated by the book.

  • Does the way we position ‘geography’ resonate with you? &  Do the concepts we identify and address travel across the Atlantic?

Importantly, the argument that frames the book – how a geographical perspective shapes the way we see the world – is both incisive and engaging. It takes up the discipline of geography in all of its conceptual complexity and sorts it by using key concepts to approach a range of contemporary problems and emerging opportunities at work around the globe.  It’s a rich and lively compendium of the body of knowledge that is human geography in the twenty-first century.  And treated as a compendium as well as the foundation to a manifesto, it is an excellent resource.  It provides all sorts of interested readers with a broad understanding of what geography as an academic discipline is and how and why that matters to those who teach school geography.  By elaborating the key concepts of the discipline and their intellectual context and pedagogical value, the authors provide readers with not a “how to” kind of teaching practicum but a “why” kind of intellectual stimulus for fortifying the place of geography in the curriculum.

Question:  What do you think the limits of a conceptual approach are with respect to teaching? (I ask because it seems to me that concepts become cages quite rapidly and end up restricting the kinds of pedagogical goals you seem to be striving for.)

  • What is the relationship between geography in school and academic geography?

The first 66 pages of this 165 page book is largely directed to teachers or 11-18 education professionals. Despite my lack of familiarity with this literature in general, I found this section really interesting as it seems to contain many of the same objectives that occur in critical pedagogy at the US university level.  I was particularly interested in chapter 4 and the discussion of a “capability perspective” because it spoke directly to the kinds of teaching challenges I face at a large public university and how to begin to address them.  I am currently co-teaching an experimental course for university-level juniors – 19 and 20 year olds – that uses concepts from Marxist political economy and cultural studies, and the HBO television show “The Wire”, to understand all sorts of things about cities as places as well as urban economic, social and cultural life.  The course is my surrender, as it were, to a new way of teaching that enables the kinds of technologies and interests that young people have to be put to work in the classroom.  The course is, in its own way, about enhancing capabilities by helping students to use what they already know in new ways and with deeper understanding.  So, we use streaming video, radio broadcasts, youtube, Wikipedia, the online Encyclopedia or Marxist Terms, documentaries and even some journal articles and book chapters and organize the class meetings around a short  traditional lecture, accompanied by clips, presentations, group exercises, audio and visual readings, etc.  And though I think the course has been successful, I do have some concerns about the class that relate directly to arguments made by David and John in the book. These concerns orbit around the issues of capability and understanding as pedagogical goals.

Question:  I wonder how we balance the “action” that aligns with capability and the “thought” that is central to understanding? For instance, it happens in my class that capability has clearly been enhanced independent of understanding? How does one do both?

  • Does this book make any useful contribution to wider debates and to ‘public geographies’?

This is a question that I can only answer with another question. Let me contextualize the question first.  Having lived in or near London on several occasions for long periods of time, I think I have a fairly good sense of the relationship between academics and the public there.  It is not unusual in the UK to have geographers on the BBC talking about this or that problem or on important commissions undertaking government work, or even working in the private sector and admitting publicly that they are geographers!  It’s rare to see this sort of thing happening in the US with the consistency and ubiquity it does in Britain.

Question: How is that UK academics have been able to maintain (or is it assert?) a strong relationship with the public that is respectful and productive and that clearly draws on their disciplinary expertise?