Planning with a purpose

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
The 'importance statement' for geography in the national curriculum lacks passion and clarity, argues David Lambert

When did you last read the "importance statement" for geography in the national curriculum? It appears in the programmes of study, delivered to schools after the last revision, some five years ago. It aims to capture what is vital and essential about the subject. It should show, in no uncertain terms, why a curriculum without geography would be severely impoverished. Does it do this? The statement is reproduced here, so decide for yourself. It is worthy, but drained of the passion and the clarity of purpose that subject enthusiasts bring to their teaching. This is arguably inevitable when a committee takes over.

We need to look at this again, in light of the current curriculum reviews. If, as seems likely, teachers are given more flexibility in a less restrictive framework, new opportunities will open up. The main opportunity is for enthusiasm to return as one of the driving forces of curriculum renewal. No longer will the curriculum be seen as the authorised content to be delivered. Geography lessons will become more surprising, challenging and talked about.

I recently attended a lecture by David Leat on "really useful geography"

and was alarmed at the almost complete lack of geographical content.

Instead, he emphasised a range of transferable, generic skills. As the national curriculum appears to define the subject's core content, we seem to have collectively adopted the attitude to think through geography - and stopped thinking sufficiently about it and how knowledge and understanding of the subject can indeed be "really useful" in helping us encounter the world more intelligently.

The fundamental questions for teachers are: what is worth teaching, and why? I hope the review of key stage 3 will return this question to teachers. A revised "importance statement" should provide an inspirational setting that will encourage them to aspire to making school geography strong and confident - not least, to withstand comments such as those of the former Chief Inspector who recently claimed that citizenship could help enliven geography. Surely it should be the other way around.

One of the current challenges in geography is how to make pupils' subject experience at each key stage more distinctive. The problem has arisen (and it is not confined to geography) because of the bureaucratisation of the curriculum, whereby a committee not only lays down the content, but also tries to define, through "levels", the enormously complicated notion of progression. With a new, less specified approach, issues of content and sequencing do not go away, of course, but more could be done to provide an overview of progression in geography by expressing its educational purpose at different stages:

* KS12 - exploring the world (the physical and the human, and some of the links between the two);

* KS3 - geographical "literacy" or capability (developing the grammar and vocabulary of the subject as a resource for understanding the world);

* GCSE - geography for informed citizens (developing further geographical capability, and engaging significantly with issues and dilemmas from the local to the global scale);

* A-level - critical understanding (seeking process-based explanations of phenomena on the Earth's surface and more deeply appreciating spatial patterns through the use of maps, and realising the significance of place, space and interdependence).

This year is set to be a year of resurgence for geography in schools. The Geographical Association is working closely with the RGS-IBG to design and implement with the DfES a national action plan for geography, to be announced later this term. In the meantime, have your say either via the website forum or at the GA's annual conference and exhibition in April.

David Lambert is chief executive of the Geographical Association

The importance of geography

Geography provokes and answers questions about the natural and human worlds, using different scales of enquiry to view them from different perspectives. It develops knowledge of places and environments throughout the world, an understanding of maps, and a range of investigative and problem-solving skills both inside and outside the classroom. As such, it prepares pupils for adult life and employment. Geography is a focus within the curriculum for understanding and resolving issues about the environment and sustainable development. It is also an important link between the natural and social sciences. As pupils study geography, they encounter different societies and cultures. This helps them realise how nations rely on each other. It can inspire them to think about their own place in the world, their values, and their rights and responsibilities to other people and the environment.

lTaken from The School Curriculum and the National Curriculum: values, aims and purposes, 1999, DfESQCA (page 154).

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