The National Geographic Kids magazine published results of a poll in October which revealed that 20 per cent of British students could not identify the British Isles on a world map. It drew the usual storm of interest in the teaching of geography in schools - and, as usual, the storm soon subsided. However, while it lasted, what a storm it was! Breakfast TV, the Jeremy Vine show and Radio Five Live all carried it. So did the Sun, the Daily Express and the Daily Mail. The Sunday Telegraph carried the story on its front page.
The reports illustrated great confusion. For example, Alan Smithers, director of the centre of education and employment research at Buckingham university, was said to have found the poll results "rather frightening"
while the NASUWT teachers' union dismissed them as "nonsense". The Sun called it a "shocking new survey". The celebrated botanist David Bellamy took a more measured tone, recognising that for children the world is "still an undiscovered place".
There is nothing "new" in the findings. They are not frightening, but neither are they nonsense. How does a conscientious teacher best respond, or indeed a subject association whose job it is occasionally to speak for the specialist subject community? The press can accurately report that "all 14-year-olds should be taught to use atlases and globes, and maps and plans at a range of scales" - this is on the national curriculum. But this does not quite address the concerns expressed by some, nor dispel the whiff of professional complacency coming from others.
All subject communities will experience similar crises. Notable in recent times has been the argument about scientific literacy as opposed to "real science". But far from being a media sideshow, these arguments raise serious matters that are central to the health of the education system.
There are influential voices saying with increasing certainty that the way to resolve the enduring challenges of a system intent on raising levels of achievement (especially for lower-achieving young people) is to face away from subjects, as if these were the problem. Instead, some say, we should ask employers to write the curriculum (at least for some students).
Alternatively, we should develop programmes that focus on "re-engaging"
students, "the skills they need for employment" and "skills they need for further learning". But we at the Geographical Association say, to learn what?
Subjects, with their insistence on an essential corpus of knowledge and a distinctive methodology for categorising and explaining this knowledge, are deemed by the "modernisers" to be out of date and elitist. But their approach to subjects is incomplete and potentially very damaging, and those who argue that the "traditional" subjects are a barrier to the educational progress of pupils need to re-think their view of subjects.
I would like to propose a balanced approach which tries to avoid ideological positioning, recognises progress where it has been made (for example in "professionalising" the way we talk about classroom processes) and, above all, acknowledges the crucial role of teachers as the curriculum-makers.
In productive classrooms there are three main bundles of energy that drive and shape outcomes. First, there are the students themselves and what we know about how they learn. Then there are teachers, who use knowledge and skill about teaching to organise lessons in the most accessible way. But perhaps the most important resource of all is the subject. Why is this subject significant to students? How does it contribute to educational achievement? What is it worthwhile trying to teach? What is it relevant to learn? How can my subject be motivating, rewarding and enjoyable to learn?
Teachers use all these resources. They draw from their teaching repertoire, knowledge of the students and knowledge of the subject to create lessons that engage and sometimes inspire.
Subjects are not great vats of "knowledge content" to be "delivered" by teachers; they are the means for making an enormous range of information comprehensible by selecting and organising it into meaningful categories, and using the expertise of scholars and teachers to differentiate the significant from the insignificant. Subject scholarship is concerned to get as close as possible to the truth of things.
A crucial role of teachers is to interpret these truths for young people.
In my subject this may include, for example, the process of migration around the world and its consequences. I reject completely that this cannot be made interesting and accessible to anyone, and I contend that anyone finishing school without some understanding of such processes is, well, uneducated.
I would like all 14-year-olds to be able to recognise the British Isles on a world map (but I also recognise the seed for disappointment in this statement; I remember the 14-year-old boy in my first year of teaching who simply could not see that his tracing of the British Isles was back-to-front). And I would like a whole lot else too. I want to engage all young people with the valuable ways of seeing and thinking that come through studying the world geographically. Others will rightly say "and historically", "and scientifically", and so on.
In a democracy, such opportunities should be for all schools and for all pupils. A move towards a curriculum founded on skills and capabilities, which jettisons subjects and their disciplines, will diminish the capacity of young people to comprehend the world in which they are growing up. This will impede their capacity to think intelligently about how to live.
David Lambert is president of the Geographical Association