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An axis to grind

What is worth teaching and why? Geographer David Lambert puts mastering a subject back on the map

In recent years the debate on education has too often been about specific teaching approaches and techniques. The Tomlinson Review, for example, was not concerned with providing a clear statement of educational aims or purposes, but on establishing workable and convincing mechanisms and structures. It is as if policy is trapped by the language of performance and that the question of what is worth teaching and learning is somehow settled or unimportant.

Of course, the pupil is the teacher's main concern. Unconditional positive regard for young people is what "explains" many brilliant teachers. So, forming and nurturing healthy, productive relationships with young people is what drives good teaching.

But I say it is out of this concern that teachers have to show the wit and determination to teach something that is worthwhile, relevant, enjoyable and motivating. What excites me as a geography teacher is how my subject can help young people make sense of the world and engage with it more intelligently.

If subjects are simply seen as the container or vehicle for "delivering" authorised content, and I am afraid they often are, then I am not surprised that many children respond appropriately - and sometimes with contempt.

It is important to select worthwhile and interesting things to teach. There are ways to argue about what constitutes "worthwhile learning", taking into account the ideas that young people could profitably be exposed to, the skills they will find useful in adult life, and the issues about which they need to gain some understanding and learn how to face intelligently and confidently. This is what subjects are for - to organise such learning.

Teachers' professional development hinges on their growing appreciation of learning. Thus, what teachers know about their subject has to be reworked on site, and in this way they will always have a key role in shaping curriculum subjects. In this sense, teachers are learners too. They are key players in curriculum development, or "curriculum making".

It is this point that has been forgotten in recent years since the curriculum was codified at a national level and the "teaching scientists" took over. My subject, geography, is a fantastic educational resource with extraordinary potential for informing future citizens. Geography not only helps pupils understand the savage power and differentiated impact of those tsunamis, but also the dilemmas in coping with the aftermath. It challenges students with "real world" issues from the local and often nearby, to the global and sometimes distant.

The subject is rich in multifaceted information and communication skills, and can induct students into the pound;20 billion GIS (geographic information systems) industry that underpins almost all economic activity in the modern world. So why is geography experiencing a mini crisis?

Like most subjects, geography is difficult to teach well if you are not sure about what it offers and where it can take you. And it is this that has emerged as a significant issue for geography in schools - especially primary schools -where few teachers have had much exposure to "thinking geographically" during their own professional preparation. We have the uncomfortable situation in which primary teachers are expected to teach geography well and yet have a training system through which it is possible to pass without touching on geography at all. This is unfair and unreasonable.

The particular problem with geography is that its power as an educational resource is not widely understood. Its full potential can be realised by teachers working in the company of others - geographers, colleagues and students themselves - encouraged that they can create mind-expanding experiences to develop understanding of the threshold concepts of the discipline.

These can literally change the way we see the world - for example, the meaning of place, the significance of scale (local, regional, national, international, global), sustainable development, interdependence and diversity.

The centre-led initiatives and strategies (perhaps unintentionally) suggest to teachers, curriculum managers and heads that teaching is a generic activity, a personalised set of skills that can be refined by application of the favoured formulae.

But the subject is where good teachers start their work. What is worth teaching and why? Only when we have found an answer to this does the "how shall I try to do this?" make any sense. To treat the subject merely as the vehicle for a pedagogic adventure is, morally, education without a heart.

TES Teacher 14

Dr David Lambert is chief executive of the Geographical Association

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