Engaging geography

– report

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Seminar No 5:  Communication Public Geographies Institute of Education, University of London

Organisers: Prof David Lambert and Dr John Morgan

A Report

This Report can be read with a couple of points in mind. Furthermore, it is very definitely tentative and a work in progress.

First, the day was set up to examine forms of geographical knowledge and how we can think about and communicate geographical knowledge. We invited several inputs from school students, teachers, teacher educators and academics to help us do this.

Second, the discussion hinged on Michael Young exploration of his notion of ‘powerful knowledge’. Seminar participants were in effect asked to think about ways in which geographical knowledge, which in the past has been described as the ‘knowledge of the powerful’, is also ‘powerful knowledge’ – and is thus potentially enabling and even transformational in the primary and secondary school curriculum.


The conscious decision was made to focus on ‘communicating public geography’ in education. Not necessarily through the school curriculum and classroom activity (more the concern of the 6th seminar in the series, on November 13 2010 in Leicester), but to the question of what counts as geographical knowledge – in the realm of public education in all its forms.

David Lambert briefly introduced the day with the following remarks:

1. Knowledge in education is under threat. Maybe later in the day we can explore that claim more fully, but for now just let’s ponder on these words from Mick Waters[1], the architect of the 2008 national curriculum reforms in secondary schools:

“A school shouldn’t start with curriculum content. It should start with designing a learning experience and then check it has met national curriculum requirements.”

Under this formulation knowledge is inert, given, almost passive in comparison with ‘learning activity’.

The new Coalition government appears to see things differently, intending to review the national curriculum with a heavier emphasis on what they call ‘core knowledge’, which, following E D Hirsch[2], is possible to define with precision We need to wait and see. In the meantime, see the ‘briefing’ written by David Lambert in the appendix to this Report.

2.  Thus, although we may wish to reclaim geographical knowledge as a component of education, we may also agree with Sally Eden[3] (p282) – and I suspect many in this room do – that ‘merely to assert geography’s importance is insufficient – there is no given or special claim to expertise.’ She makes this statement in the context of how to legitimate academic (and policy) ‘expertise’. The argument is how expertise has to be produced contingently often in the context of various publics and ‘users’. In contrast, the ideal of ‘gold standard’ academic knowledge (pure, independent and uncontaminated, and often very specialised) is less likely, these days, to be accepted by the public, at least at face value. Teachers, a key ‘public’, tend to find such knowledge difficult to use.

Hence, the idea of ‘boundary work’ is key. Thus, she goes on to write;

‘Geography therefore has no special claim to relevance or expertise in environmental debates – or any other debates. … expertise and relevance must be built politically through boundary work and not through simply having knowledge’. (p285)

It seems to me that school teachers are – or need to be – practised ‘boundary workers’. For school teachers to simply have knowledge is not enough. This is why the GA’s 2009 ‘Manifesto’ A Different View[4] talks of geography as a ‘curriculum resource’ – to be used and explored in an educational context by teachers as ‘curriculum makers’.

Teachers, therefore, need a pretty clear idea of education. They also need a good idea of how geography can contribute to the idea of education. This, then, sets the scene for the seminar.


Professor Alastair Bonnett, author of What is Geography? (2008) spoke about the importance of acknowledging and engaging public geographies. His starting point was that the question ‘what is geography?’ does matter and needs a clear answer so that academic and various public geographies can be linked up. The core of his argument is that ‘engagement’ requires the recognition and acknowledgment of public geographies. In an era in which geographical issues are prominent, and increasingly so in the public sphere (eg water, food and energy security; climate change; global financial crisis), Alastair’s argument is that we need ‘a BIG definition of geography as the world discipline, with two basic pillars of environmental and international knowledge.’

Geographers, he argued, have to cope with the scale and plenitude of their discipline and should not retreat into trying to narrow it into a ‘normal’ academic specialism. Nor is it good enough simply to sidestep the issue of definition by saying the discipline is ‘contested’. He noted that academic geographers have not given clear intellectual lead to the subject.

Interestingly, he made the case that without a clear definition and assertion of geography’s public field it will become content-free: the void will not be filled with ‘exciting’ interdisciplinary themes, but with ‘skills’.

It was strongly emphasised that in answering and communicating ‘what is geography?’ it is important to recognise that this is not about merely defending a discipline from perceived threat but about asserting the importance of geographical questions concerning environment and international knowledge. That is, the world discipline.

If Alastair Bonnett was asked to address geographies in the public sphere, Dr Jessica Pykett was asked to consider the public in geography. Her paper is available here in full. Not only does she remind us that ‘… it is very often our assumptions about young people that inform how we address them as a public, and this form of address is integral to setting expectations of behaviour, attitudes and identities which are available to young people to play out’ (p 2), but she shows us the insidious threat to the notion of public education from contemporary agenda such as personalisation, neuroeducation and moves to use the school curriculum to effect behaviour change.

Some of the subsequent shorter inputs (see programme) are available here, either as powerpoint slides or notes or both.

Seminar outcomes

The main purpose of this section is to summarise the outcomes of the discussion element of the seminar. Small group discussions took place after the keynotes, short inputs and Professor Michael Young’s challenging analysis of ‘powerful knowledge’[5]. Participants were asked to consider specific ways in which geography can be considered to be a powerful knowledge. I paper from Michael Young is available here which gives an indication of his main arguments in the context of state curriculum interventions and the ‘problem of knowledge’ in state education systems. Readers are also referred to his 2008 book Bringing Knowledge Back In.

However, before moving to the outcomes summary, it is worth recording an input from Margaret Roberts who was unable to attend owing to injury, but who sent in this comment:

“I agree that geography lessons can take people beyond their own worlds into wider knowledge, but I think the boundaries between their own worlds and school knowledge are more complex and blurred than might be suggested by advocates of ‘core knowledge’, or even ‘powerful knowledge’. I am interested in the kinds of knowledge that young people bring into the classroom about the wider world, the concepts, often naive, they use to interpret what they encounter and how teachers can connect with these worlds which are different for every individual in a class and what is new. I think it is as important for teachers to understand the knowledge and conceptual understanding within students’ minds as it is to get the students to grapple with what is in the teachers’ minds. So I see learning as a process of reconstruction rather than addition”.

This observation serves to re-emphasise two main points:

  1. The need to see teachers as boundary workers – that the possession of expert geographical knowledge (by teachers) is in itself of potentially little importance. Likewise, the mere acquisition or possession of knowledge by students may have limited significance[6], unless it can be turned into a means of understanding. Both teachers and students need to be ‘knowledge workers’.
  2. Although Michael Young and others urge a clearer distinction between questions of curriculum (what to teach, and why) and questions of pedagogy (how to teach), in practice this is very difficult to do. However, Roberts’ observation is mainly a pedagogic one. The teacher as curriculum maker needs to have a clear conception of the ways in which conceptual understanding of the students can grow and develop. This needs to be in ways that are special, and perhaps counterintuitive, to take the students beyond what they encounter in the everyday. The teacher gains this conceptual clarity from the subject.

So what did seminar participants think? In what ways is geography a powerful knowledge?

Twelve pages of hand written notes were left as records of the small group discussions (there was also oral feedback). These are in the process of being transcribed.

In advance of this we can attempt a summary of some themes that emerged:

  1. Several groups echoed the Roberts plea to acknowledge that geography needs acknowledge the pupils ‘as the starting point’. Some did so in a manner less carefully judged than Roberts: for instance, advocating that knowledge simply needs to be ‘relevant’ to children and young people.
  2. Some groups settled on specific topics (water, energy, Iraq …) rather than attempting to identify ideas or concepts.
  3. Very few advocated factual information as a powerful knowledge, although a couple of groups mentioned the subject’s ‘vocabulary’ as being essential (and powerful) and ‘spatial knowledge’.
  4. Some groups developed aspects of the subject that could be applied to a range of other subjects: in other words, generic skills and competencies such as ‘understanding change’ and dynamic environments, understanding ‘uncertainty’, ‘interconnectedness’ etc
  5. Some groups mentioned the ‘nervousness’ geographers appear to have about saying what they do – often in contradistinction to the ‘pub quiz’ view of geography (this was a point tackled by Alastair Bonnett in his keynote comments).
  6. Several groups wondered out loud about the rationale for the selection of knowledge to teach and also what to do with it once selected. For example, we may decide to teach some lessons of the Iceland volcanic ash cloud: but what for? To teach volcanic processes, or to teach aspects of globalisation and/or mobility.
  7. Similarly, one group thought that geographical knowledge may not be powerful unless it is ‘used powerfully’ – as in community decision making processes, influencing policy and practice
  8. One group attempted a pictogramme to relate what they saw as three aspects of geography as (potentially) powerful knowledge: its content (we assume this means something like ‘topics’ as in 2 above), concepts (especially, place space and environment) and contexts. With the latter the point made was essentially pedagogic – ie the context of the student. We are mindful that in earlier curriculum debates (eg Graves 1979[7]) context refers to place.
  9. 9.    nother group attempted to capture the ‘bigger’ role of geography in schools which is to introduce children and young people to ways of thinking critically about the world and ‘how it works’. This appeared to echo a contribution from one of the school students (Matt) who, when pushed by the Chair to specify the geography in his description of why he enjoyed and valued geography A level, described his fascination with global flows (of people, goods and money) and his need to understand material inequalities in people’s living standards. Intriguingly, he made reference to 3% compound growth rates discussed by David Harvey – and indeed his teacher has in fact read The Enigma of Capital, attracted by Chapter 6 ‘The Geography of it All’.

In conclusion

Of course, it is both premature and unwise to imagine a ready conclusion to such a seminar discussion is possible to achieve. What we can do is to suggest some tentative remarks in conclusion of the discussion at this stage.

  • Participants appeared to agree that a ‘big’ definition of geography, and the value of geographical knowledge, is helpful.
  • It was tacitly acknowledged (at least by many) that the danger of not defining geography, and promoting it as a powerful discipline was a resultant content ‘void’ being filled by the skills agenda (see Bonnetts comments [p3 above] and Appendix A)
  • There was a view expressed that this is, however, very difficult to communicate (although the GA ‘manifesto’ A Different View tries to do this)
  • Participants generally responded positively to the challenge of identifying geography as powerful knowledge
  • A minority view voiced the wish to re-assert the value of geography as a vehicle for teaching skills
  • Groups yielded material that shows ‘consensus’ about specific components of powerful knowledge in geography would be impossible to achieve – and is probably unnecessary to achieve (and inconsistent with a ‘big’ definition of the discipline).
  • Distinctions between curriculum and pedagogy, between schools and the everyday, and in ways of understanding the publics (as made by Pykett, Young and others) are very useful in refining arguments for geography in education.


Thanks to the ESRC for making this event possible. Thanks to the Engaging Geography network, in particular Kye Askins and the late Duncan Fuller for taking the initiative.



‘Core Knowledge’ Capability and the National Curriculum David Lambert November 2010

“A school shouldn’t start with curriculum content. It should start with designing a learning experience and then check it has met national curriculum requirements”

[Mick Waters, quoted in the Guardian, September 2010]

This reveals a formulation of knowledge which is inert, given and almost passive in relation to what is claimed for ‘learning activity’. It implies that teachers are not really in the knowledge business. They are more into the ‘activity’ business.

It can be argued that such an approach is anti-educational. This is because it is anti-intellectual. It is a betrayal of the promise of education to young people: the promise to provide access to a productive, engaged and fulfilled adult life.

There are obvious and not so obvious reasons why teachers have, in recent times, been discouraged from grappling with knowledge. Waters is voicing an orthodoxy, almost a spirit of the times (which incidentally has gained currency internationally). It has been fuelled partly by an incautious rush to ‘brain science’ to underpin an evidence-led approach to teaching and learning. It enthusiastically embraces ‘personalisation’  …  and let’s face it, a deep dissatisfaction with stuffy, traditional schooling that seems so unsuited to the digital age – easily caricatured by reference to a 1950s grammar school stereotype of a rigid subject-based curriculum.

The problem with overemphasising a personalised and psychologised sense of ‘learning’ is that it leaves a vacuum at the heart of the education process. Thus, learning is regarded as:

  • a good thing in itself: it is assumed to be value free in this sense. (Of course, it is not. Learning can be trivial, dangerous or wrong)
  • an essentially scientific or technical process – skills can be honed and practised, and learning ‘accelerated’, as if this were an end in itself. (Whatever happened to the ‘beautiful struggle’? Understanding aspects of science, history or art can be counter-intuitive, and require sustained, sometimes painstaking effort)
  • paramount. Teaching is subservient to, and led by, the learning. We become embarrassed by teaching, and instead talk only about ‘facilitating’ learning. (A society that abrogates responsibility in this way may be one that has lost confidence in itself)

E D Hirsch[8] critiques of the costs of a process oriented curriculum that places emphasis on ‘how-to knowledge’ over domain-specific ‘knowing what’.  Such a curriculum turns its back on ‘enabling’ core knowledge. It is based on orthodox (‘progressive’) educational thought. As Hirsch’s explains, the belief is that ‘a specific, factual curriculum is not needed for gaining all-purpose cognitive skills and strategies. Instead of burdening our minds with a lot of dead facts, we should become expert in solving problems, in thinking critically – in reading fluently – and then we will be able to learn anything we need’. (Hirsch 2007 p11)

The ‘surface plausibility’ of this position is based on:

‘… the fact that a good education can indeed create skilled and critical thinkers. The mistake is to think that these achievements are the result of formal, all-purpose skills rather than abilities that are completely dependent on broad factual knowledge … The thing that transforms reading skill and critical thinking skill into general all-purpose abilities is a person’s possession of general, all purpose knowledge’ (ibid p 12)

He argues a case for the schools (especially in primary and lower secondary age groups) to teach particular, precise core knowledge. It is important to acknowledge that nowhere does he advocate rote learning of facts, and in any case indicates that core knowledge may only be appropriate for around 40% – 60% of the curriculum time. Indeed, one of the benefits of core knowledge is that it would help break the tedium of formal process learning in which the focus is, repetitively, on a limited number of generic learning ‘strategies’ (‘… this soul killing drill of clarifying and summarizing’ ibid p 21).

The main impact of the core knowledge approach is that it enables a deeper form of literacy development. Reading with meaning, and in a way that enables engagement with the text, requires core knowledge. More advantaged homes often supply some of this, especially to younger children. If schools are to serve the aims of creating a more egalitarian society, then they should take seriously the need to introduce all children to knowledge that some of them may never otherwise encounter.

It is important to recognise that the ‘text’ may be words of fiction or of fact, but also could be a landscape, an historical narrative, scientific experiment or debate about a controversial issue. In all cases, the specific knowledge that can be brought to the ‘text’ enables a deeper engagement with it. Teachers cannot just assume such knowledge will be ‘picked up’ along the way, or that such knowledge does not matter.

Similar arguments underpin Hirsch’s ambitious idea of cultural literacy, which hinges on the need to create a public sphere of knowledge that enables all cultural groups to engage with common issues and debates: that is, issues that go beyond people’s local culture (perhaps based on ethnicity or class). Cultural literacy does not negate the ‘multicultural society’ but it does challenge the idea that local groups need not assimilate a wider ‘national’ culture.

Hirsch’s argument is convincing, up to a point. But it has attracted trenchant criticism. For example, a core knowledge approach to the school curriculum is said to:

  • confuse knowledge with closed ‘facts’ and thus undervalues a more open idea of understanding, which may deepen and change over time (but the ‘facts’ emphasis  appeals to common sense and the commonplace mistrust of liberal educational professionals)
  • endorse the very old fashioned idea of education based on the accumulation of fragmented, received information rather than the co-construction of coherent knowledge (in the latter, both teachers and students could be described as ‘knowledge workers’; in the former, there is no ‘conversation’, only ‘delivery’)
  • promote a timeless concept of education based on an unchanging cannon of facts, even though the rate of knowledge production continues to accelerate, relentlessly (and who decides this cannon? Who is in a position to decide?)

Criticism of a Hirschian curriculum is therefore wide-ranging and deep-seated. It is wrapped up in quotations like this well-known statement from Professor Stephen Ball:

‘… the preservation and transmission of the ‘best of all that has been said and written’; (this is) itself a pastiche, an edited, stereotypical, unreal, schoolbook past.  A curriculum which eschews relevance and the present, concentrating on ‘the heritage’ and ‘the canon’ …  A curriculum suspicious of the popular and the immediate, made up of echoes of past voices, the voices of a cultural and political elite.  A curriculum which ignores the pasts of women and the working class and the colonised – the curriculum of the dead [9]

Is there a way to reconcile such different views? Perhaps all sides can benefit from a careful reading of what the other is attempting to say. A case in point may exist in Professor Michael Young’s recent re-assessment of his and others’ ‘new sociology’ of education in the 1970s[10] in his 2008 book[11]. Whilst the influential critique in the late 20th century was of the controlling knowledge of the powerful – see the Ball quotation above – the perspective now is the need to provide access to powerful knowledge.

This includes (but us certainly not limited to) ‘enabling’ core knowledge that Hirsch refers to. The curriculum cannot consist solely of core knowledge, as Hirsch himself agrees. This is probably the main reason it would be ill-advised, in the English context, to propose a national curriculum based upon core knowledge. Hirsch’s well known’ core knowledge sequence’ (or curriculum)[12] applies to the US context where there is little chance of a national curriculum: it can be adopted, or not; in full or amended. Given statutory power a core knowledge curriculum could be misinterpreted.

Another approach may be to incorporate the notion of core knowledge into a broader based knowledge curriculum. The benefit of doing this is that it would provide the opportunity for teachers to grasp the purpose and the place of core knowledge in the context of the broad and balanced curriculum which they play a crucial part in making.

Thus, core knowledge is an element of powerful knowledge that contributes to students’ ‘capabilities’[13]. For geography, we can say ‘capability’ is enhanced through:

  • Acquisition and development of ‘world knowledge’ (this may be equated with ‘core knowledge’, or essential and enabling knowledge; it is worth noting that a lot of this is quite stable – although the world is a rapidly changing entity, the continents and major river systems, the oceans and global wind systems, the main biomes and even the distribution of population and main city systems do not change that quickly.)
  • Development of ‘inter-relational understanding’ – eg the basis of grasping global interdependence (captured by Prof Doreen Massey’s concept of a ‘global sense of place’)
  • Enhanced propensity to think, through ‘decision making’ and other applied pedagogic activities, about how places, societies and environments are made (this can incorporate a futures dimension)

Such a knowledge based view of the school curriculum has a key part to play in rectifying some of the deficiencies noted at the beginning of this critique. In addition to the transmission and development of statutory core geographical knowledge the capabilities approach knowingly recognises the need to use the subject discipline as a resource to co-construct deeper conceptual understanding. A ‘capabilities’ geography expresses geography in the service of particular educational goals. It could have a major impact on British school children in that it will give them an improved knowledge and understanding of the world and their relationship with it.

[2] See www.coreknowledge.org ; Also Hirsch E D (1987) Cultural Literacy, NY: Houghton Mifflen

[3] Eden S (2005) Green, gold and grey geography: legitimating academic and policy expertise, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 30, 3, pp 282-286

[5] This is usefully summarised in Roger Firth’s chapter in Butt G (ed) [forthcoming] Geography, Education and the Future, Continuum Press,  a book produced by the Geography Education Research Collective (GEReCo), further details of which can be found on www.geography.org.uk/gtip/gereco

[6] Although proponents of ‘core knowledge’ dispute this: see Appendix.

[7] Graves N 1979 Curriculum Planning in Geography, Heinemann

[8] 1987 Cultural Literacy, Houghton Mifflen; 2007 The Knowledge Deficit , Houghton Mifflen

[9] Ball, S. J. (1993) ‘Education, Majorism and ‘the Curriculum of the Dead’, Curriculum Studies, 1, 2, pp 195-214 [p 210]

[10] Young, M. (1971) Knowledge and Control. London: Collier Macmillan.

[11] Young, M. (2007) Bringing Knowledge Back In: From social constructivism to social realism in the sociology of    education. London: Routledge

[13] See Lambert D and Morgan J 2010 Teaching Geography 11-18: a conceptual approach, Open University Press

Written by Ian Cook et al

November 12, 2010 at 9:32 am

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