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

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School geography: Exploring a definition

2.1 The significance of geography as a subject

It has been argued that geography ‘has been hijacked by environmentalists’. Following the publication of his original article, ‘Constructing a value map’ (see under the link below), Alex Standish (a former geography teacher) appeared on the Radio 4 Today programme to discuss this topic. Listen to the interview again and read the transcript again by clicking on the link below.

Read Alex Standish's 'Constructing a value map' by clicking 'view document' below.

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Listen again to the radio interview.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 2
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Transcript: Audio 2

Host
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?
Alex
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.
Host
So you are saying it’s more about attitudes than facts. It’s fundamentally biased, is your accusation, is it?
Alex
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.
Host
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.
David
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.
Host
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.
David
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.
Host
Alex Standish, the world moves on. Glacial sediments and deposits aren’t as important these days, global warming maybe is.
Alex
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.
David
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.
Host
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.
End transcript: Audio 2
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The discussion shows a three-way lack of a shared understanding of geography between Alex, the presenter and David Lambert.

The presenter worried that ‘there are children out there who maybe don't know what an oxbow lake is’. Both Alex and David agreed. Both were not too worried about this supposed lack of particular knowledge, but for different reasons.

The discussion began to show why a subject discipline like geography is important. As a form of 'disciplined enquiry' it can ensure against woolly environmental propaganda. What divided David and Alex was their take on ‘values’, and Alex's insistence that the teaching of ‘facts’ can be done in a value-free way.

The radio discussion begins with the provocative question/headline used on the previous screen: ‘Does the teaching of geography matter any more?’ Taken in its entirety, the discussion also shows the limits – and opportunities – of the popular media. All of us can provide a long and reasoned answer to the question. But can we provide the short and direct answer that listeners need at 8.20am, just before the sports news, to make it stick in the mind.

Without such clarity and directness, it could be argued that the public comprehension of geography and its significance will remain dull and blurred. The piece, in fact, showed three people almost talking at cross-purposes to each other!

Thus:

  • Standish asserts that school geography now ‘tells students how to think and act in relation to problems in the world’ (instead of) ‘giving them the knowledge and leaving it to them to make up their own minds about how they should behave and the decisions they should make.’

  • Lambert retorts that, ‘One reason to have geography in the curriculum is to guard against indoctrination and propaganda. If “environmental studies” were on the curriculum maybe what Alex is saying would come true.’

  • And the presenter worries about change – schools no longer teaching what he learned at school.

Several texts that extend the discussion are supplied in the links below.

Click 'view document' to read Alex Standish's 'Valuing (adult) geographic knowledge'.

Read David Lambert on 'The power and relevance of geography in education' by clicking on 'view document' below.

Read Alastair Bonnet's 'Geography as the world discipline: connecting popular and academic geographical imaginations' by clicking 'view document'.

But to argue that teaching geography can be accomplished simply by focusing on ‘the facts’ is in itself careless – of the need to show pupils how to use good description, analysis and evaluation in order to respond intelligently to disputes, controversies and arguments about issues.

Subjects like geography develop approaches to ‘disciplined enquiry’ that use a small number of very important concepts. When these are used and grown, using real data and examples, they do not ‘tell’ pupils what to think, but help them to think about matters that are truly complex.

A letter published by The Independent in June 2004 ('European apathy to the next generation'; click 'view document' below to read) illustrates what could be a problem when subjects – and their significance in helping us think more intelligently – get forgotten.

It is perhaps not too surprising to find youngsters turned off in a ‘Key Skills’ lesson for which ‘Europe’ was the vehicle. For isn't this the wrong way around? Shouldn't the skills be serving the content? And shouldn't the future of Europe (as a concept, as a place, as a market, as a source of identity.) be the content of geography lessons? Study Europe geographically and we can avoid all that anxiety about indoctrination.

And the key concepts? Go to the section on Geography's eductional power; page 5 of this course.

But first, explore the ideas in the radio interview and The Independent letter further in Activity 2.

Activity 2

Click "view document" to re-read the 'European apathy of the next generation'.

Remind yourself of the Radio 4Today programme interview.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 3
Skip transcript: Audio 3

Transcript: Audio 3

Host
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?
Alex
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.
Host
So you are saying it’s more about attitudes than facts. It’s fundamentally biased, is your accusation, is it?
Alex
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.
Host
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.
David
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.
Host
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.
David
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.
Host
Alex Standish, the world moves on. Glacial sediments and deposits aren’t as important these days, global warming maybe is.
Alex
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.
David
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.
Host
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.
End transcript: Audio 3
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Audio 3
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Now try to answer these questions:

  1. Do you agree with Standish's assertion that ‘geography is increasingly focused around values and less about knowledge'?

  2. Do you agree with his analysis of the resulting ‘problem’ – that geography becomes propaganda?

  3. What do you think Lambert means when he retorts that geography may be the safeguard against propaganda?

  4. Read the letter to The Independent newspaper (June 2004). Compose an imaginary response asserting the strengths of a curriculum that emphasises ‘disciplined enquiry’ (subjects) rather than ‘skills’.

  5. The Radio 4 presenter introduced his piece with the question: ‘Does the teaching of geography matter any more?’ Does it?

TL_GEOGSK6

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