Geography must be put on the map

A diluted curriculum could be the reason why children are turning away from an important subject, writes Alex Standish.

Geography has lost its way. It is marginalised in primary schools and fewer pupils want to take it at GCSE. Its decline was confirmed last month by the Office for Standards in Education.

While the usual suspects have been wheeled out to account for this trend, such as "geography is too fact-based", the one explanation nobody is considering is the ambivalence of geographers themselves towards their subject.

Following publication of the report, the consensus of opinion has been that geography is failing to be sufficiently relevant or interesting to pupils.

David Bell, chief inspector of schools, asserts that "geography lacks relevance and appeal because it focuses on subject content and factual recall rather than stimulating pupils' interests in the world around them and the real issues which impact on their lives.

Ofsted itself suggests that the way forward for geography is to spend less time on content and more time allowing pupils to "express their own views and opinions".

However, nobody has asked whether the declining subject content of the geography curriculum could be the problem. The past decade has witnessed the narrowing down of geographical content in the curriculum as the subject has focused on issues of citizenship, sustainability, personal, social and health education (PSHE) and key skills. Where geography is taught, a focus on the application of knowledge to global issues is seen as the way to go, but frequently without sufficient theoretical background.

Teaching about global issues might involve learning about the problems of over-consumption, the impact of trans-national corporations in developing countries, global warming, and too high (developing world) or too low (developed world) fertility rates.

Both of these changes are said to make the subject more relevant to pupils because they are learning life skills and about issues that potentially have a direct impact on them. Nevertheless, that the curriculum is increasingly being filled with content that does not offer pupils a theoretical and intellectual framework for understanding the world may well go a long way to explaining why pupils are turning away from the subject.

Educational and geographical organisations must take some of the responsibility as they have continually sought to purge geography of its intellectual foundations. Exam boards have made a virtue of reducing the amount of geographical knowledge in their syllabuses.

David Lambert, of the Geographical Association, has openly called for teaching geography with less geographical content. Some geographers have argued that the subject should be more focused on the lives of the pupils.

They seek a children's geography that is, to quote Simon Catling, "in the world: about the child's own world; of the world: concerned with the wider world of children; about the world: concerning understanding by children of the ways the world works; and for the world: in relation to the future world for children".

Under this approach, pupils would learn about the lives of children and how change affects them. Yet few educationists have questioned what pupils learn from a curriculum that is more "relevant" to their interests.

They may learn more about their own lives and how society affects them.

They may also learn about the lives of other children. But how does this help them understand and interpret important changes in the adult world of which they will soon be a part?

Since the end of the Cold War there has been rapid geographical change, which geographers are struggling to keep up with. Pupils need to be taught not only facts but also concepts, principles, theories and geographical skills that will provide them with the intellectual tools to interpret this change. At present this is not always happening.

The Ofsted report also referred to the insufficient time devoted to training geography teachers. From my own teaching experience I can concur with the need for more training of geography teachers, particularly in primary schools.

The geographical associations should be taking a lead role here, by training non-specialist teachers in the theoretical and intellectual foundations of the subject. Yet it would seem they lack the confidence to assert the importance of their own subject to the intellectual and social development of children.

In no sense does geography need to turn back the clock to some non-existent golden age. Rather, geographers need new intellectual ideas and theories to grasp the significance of current geographical change.

We can hardly expect pupils to be excited about geography when many geographers are turning away from the discipline's ideas and knowledge themselves. The answers will not be found by dragging the subject down to the level of children, but rather by raising pupils' horizons beyond their own lives in the search for truth in a world shaped by adults. This is how we can inspire learning in pupils.

Alex Standish was formerly a geography teacher in the south-east of England and is now studying for a PhD in geographical education at Rutgers university, New Jersey

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