School geography: Exploring a definition
School geography: Exploring a definition

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School geography: Exploring a definition

1 Mapping geography

1.1 Chasms and great divides: can we imagine a world without geography?

Many school systems around the world do not have geography with the status of a separate subject. Schools in England and Wales are different. Here, geography is a national curriculum subject (5–14 years) and the former Minister for Schools (Stephen Twigg) has asserted the subject's importance in several speeches in 2004. For example, he says:

‘The unique contribution of geography is preparing young people to engage with the real world, to make judgements about events, to make responsible personal decisions and to understand the complicated interactions between places and people.’

(Twigg, 2004)

Click 'view document' to open and read all of Stephen Twigg's speech.

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So, what is the power of school geography? This course is concerned with how geography is understood. What particular educational value does it have?

The subject of geography goes on developing and changing in the universities. In 1993, exactly one hundred years after the Geographical Association was set up to ‘further the study and teaching of geography’, Andrew Goudie declared there was a ‘chasm’ between university geography and school geography. Read his short article by clicking on the link below.

Click 'view document' to open the file in a new window

This was not to argue for schools following whatever direction universities choose to take. Far from it. But it was a call for different academic communities to stay connected. Without the wider discipline, school geography will lose its way (and vice versa?).

Goudie probably underestimated the extent of the additional pressures on teachers. For example, if we become too subject focused we may lose sight of the individual needs of children (and indeed, the ways schools serve wider societal goals).

Thus, the student voice is important and the subject can seem fragmented and distant.

See what one student, Jessica, had to say by clicking on 'view document' below.

Wider and deeper considerations are also important. In a significant article, Bill Marsden points out some of the dangers of teaching ‘for a good cause’ – such as citizenship or sustainable development. It is vital to maintain a clear distinction between propaganda and education, he argues, and rigorous disciplined enquiry is the best insurance that exists that we can avoid indoctrination.

Click 'view document' to read Bill Marsden's essay ‘On taking the geography out of geographical education’.

We could argue that it is for this reason that schools need subject specialists, so that what is taught and what is learned stays independent of central authority telling us what to teach (or how to teach it).

It follows from this that teachers need to be learners, and work hard at refining their specialist subject knowledge. Can ‘anyone’ really teach geography? I don't think so!

Follow up your thinking on these issues by doing the tasks in Activity 1.

Activity 1

Click 'view document' to read David Lambert on Mapping geography.

You can re-read Jessica's story by clicking on 'view document' below.

Click on 'view document' below to re-read Bill Marsden's essay.

The audio clip below contains a discussion on the teaching of geography in schools taken from BBC Radio 4's Today programme, 16 December 2002.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 1
Skip transcript: Audio 1

Transcript: Audio 1

Now here’s a question – does the teaching of geography matter any more?
The Government it seems is reducing the number of teacher training places in geography in England over the next few years and now one ex-teacher who has carried out a survey of geography teachers across south-east England is claiming that the subject has been hijacked by environmentalists. Geography (is) no longer, as it was in my day, about maps, rock formations, glaciers and meandering rivers but more about pollution, global warming and world citizenship. Well, Alex Standish is here in the studio, David Lambert, the chief executive of the Geography Association, is in our Cambridge studio. Alex Standish, first of all you’ve carried out this survey. Is geography not what it used to be, then, in your view, or in the view of the teachers you’ve been speaking to?
Yeah, I’d agree with that statement. My concern about geography is that it is becoming increasingly focused around values and less about knowledge, and the problem with that is that it’s telling students how they should think and act in relation to problems in the world, instead of giving them the knowledge and leaving it up to them to make up their own minds about how they should behave and what decisions they should make.
So you are saying it’s more about attitudes than facts. It’s fundamentally biased, is your accusation, is it?
If you look at something like development – development is taught very much in the language of sustainable development which is about environmentalism and cultural values. And this sort of suggests that cultures and less developed countries shouldn’t try and transform themselves in a significant way; that development should be in tune with cultural conditions, they shouldn’t be disruptive. But if you want significant development to take place then you are going to need to transform culture and you are also going to need to change significantly economically and I think that the problem with sustainable development is it’s a very limited – has limited aspirations and is not really going to significantly improve the lives of people in less developed countries.
Well let’s bring David Lambert in here. Is he right? Is this a new approach? Maybe we should call geography – I don’t know – give it a new name – environmental studies.
Oh, I hope not. No, no geography is on the curriculum because it is a very valuable, disciplined enquiry. In fact, one of the reasons to have geography on the curriculum is to guard against indoctrination and propaganda. If we had environmental studies on the curriculum, maybe what Alex Standish is saying would come true.
No, geography is vital, geography is to be valued. It is about factual knowledge of the world – where we are in the world, how we are placed in relation to others, what links us to others, but it’s also about understanding and the geography curriculum has a pretty big job to do – to introduce children to a complex, rapidly-changing and very uncertain world.
But it’s a different sort of geography, isn’t it. There are children out there now who presumably don’t know what an ox-bow lake is or how it was formed, or how glaciers deposit sediment. It is a different sort of subject that is being taught.
I wouldn’t deny that. I think when you’ve got one hour or so a week to teach geography in, you have a difficult decision to make about what to include and what to exclude. And in a finite curriculum, choices have to be made and what Alex Standish is saying is useful from one point of view, and that is, that what decides what is taught is always the basis of some sort of value decision – we decide what is right to teach.
Alex Standish, the world moves on. Glacial sediments and deposits aren’t as important these days, global warming maybe is.
I agree that the world should move on and I think geography should change. I’m not arguing that geography needs to turn the clock back and sort of be solely about rocks and rivers and things, but there are a lot of significant change happening in the world today. Socially things are changing very rapidly and, if anything, geography needs to change significantly to keep up with these changes.
But if we are going to prepare young people for a rapidly changing and complex world we have to introduce them to the fact that facts themselves are contingent – I mean, we had the foreign secretary on this program on Friday talking about Europe as a geographic entity, but also Europe as a concept. I mean, where is the boundaries of Europe? These are things to be argued about.
David Lambert, Alex Standish I’m afraid we must leave it there. Obviously, no doubt we’ll be having emails from our listeners who have got their own views on geography past and present.
Host 2
Absolutely, interrupting the work of the latest geography project.
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These tasks can be done on your own, but they are best done in a group, if possible.

  1. Draw your own ‘map’ of geography, referring to the resource on 'Mapping geography' above.

  2. Do you consider there to be a ‘chasm’ between geography as a discipline and the teaching of geography in school?

  3. What is your initial reaction to:

    • the Today programme question? ‘Does the teaching of geography matter anymore?’ (Listen to the interview by clicking on the link above.)

    • Charles Gritzner's question, ‘Can “anyone” (really) teach geography?’

    • Jessica's story.

  4. In what ways can teaching geography become propaganda? Think back to Bill Marsden's article called ‘On taking the geography out of geographical education’.


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