By Mary Biddulph (University of Nottingham), Senior Vice-President of the Geographical Association.
This contribution to the GEES blog concerns the teaching and learning of geography in schools. It is based on a conference session hosted by HERG at the 2015 RGS Annual Conference entitled: ‘The impacts of recent policy changes to the school geography curriculum: policy, processes and subject knowledge’. To put this session into context, curriculum change is now well-underway in schools in England: since 2014 a new national curriculum has been introduced in primary and secondary schools and currently secondary school geography departments are now considering which of the reformed GCSE and A levels specifications to teach from 2016.
Curriculum change inevitably generates debate, and the recent changes have certainly caused the geography education community to ask the question: What kind of geography(ies) should be taught to young people? The ‘what’ of geographical learning came under scrutiny following the publication of the 2010 White Paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’. In the White Paper the then coalition government proclaimed that a return to rigour in leaning could only be achieved via a return to the “core of essential knowledge” of subjects. The White Paper made no attempt to define these terms, but political rhetoric at the time left the geography subject community concerned that we were on the cusp of a return to a content heavy, gazetteer-type curriculum which would be dense with facts but strangely short on conceptual discipline. The Department for Education and education Ministers appeared to exert considerable political influence over the curriculum changes, and when finally published the 2014 national curriculum was a significant departure from the concept-led framework of its predecessor. Emphasising locational knowledge, regional study, traditional human and physical themes and making no explicit mention of geographical enquiry, the 2014 curriculum could be said to stress the ‘what’ of geography: what teachers need to teach, with rather less emphasis on what sense we expect children to make of this.
Conversations with geography teachers reveal that despite curriculum prescription, teachers remain committed to creating curriculum experiences for pupils that are engaging, interesting and enjoyable to learn. Teachers I have talked to in recent months see geography’s role in the broader educational endeavour as a moral one as well as an intellectual one. They are clear that learning geography provides structures (using geographical concepts) that allow students carefully and critically to examine important local, national and international themes. Themes such as European migration, climate change, national and international poverty and social inequalities are, they feel, central to teaching geography. They believe that they have a responsibility to raise important cultural, social, ethical and ecological questions with students and that school geography has a role to play in helping young people think about and engage with the world around them.
Some teachers express misgivings about the new level of prescription in part because many have received no subject-specific professional development in the last 5 years. They acknowledge that they feel less than confident to teach ‘new’ content such as soils, Russia, glaciation and geological timescales and in addition, some are frustrated that making way for new content is at the expense of topics and themes they feel are important and that their students enjoy. An further concern is that accommodating the new content may yet produce a shift in pedagogical approaches, away from more open-ended enquiry-led and discussion based learning to what is sometimes anachronistically labelled ‘chalk and talk’ (enabled these days by powerpoint!). Some teachers fear that an over-emphasis on content could jeopardise more critical pedagogies.
The curriculum changes described above are of some significance for colleagues in higher education. For most students entering higher education, the foundations of their geographical learning and their enthusiasm for the subject are laid down by their school experiences. However, if we accept that the role of school education is not just to serve as a preparation ground for a university degree, there is a deeper significance for higher education. It could be argued that providing all young people with an intellectual framework to help them make sense of super-complex world issues is the hall mark of an effective education – at any level. For geography to fulfil its educational potential, this implies the need for a closer relationship between school and university geography so that the ever-changing ‘what and the how’ of the discipline can serve to support more meaningful and better informed curriculum change in schools.