Why has geography lost its status? Dr. John Hopkin, chair of the Geographical Association’s Education Committee, looks at ways in which geography can be put back on the school map.

I bumped into an old friend the other day, an assistant head at a local secondary school. ‘Got to tell you John – I put my head out of the office today and was almost mown down by Year 8! Of course I asked what was going on: “We’ve got geography!” they cried and rushed off down the corridor’.

Those youngsters are lucky to be taught by an enthusiastic and innovative young team, convinced by the value of geography and leading users of ICT, who have managed to capture their curiosity, interest and enthusiasm. It goes without saying that their GCSE geography groups are bursting at the seams and that the results they achieve are outstanding.

Geography past and present

If only all students had these opportunities, in every school. For much of the 1980s and 1990s geography was one of the most popular optional subjects at GCSE. Its success was the result of topical and relevant subject matter, varied resources and practical, varied, hands-on learning style (well before VAK was invented). As a result it did well for boys’ as well as girls’ achievement and morale was high among most geography professionals.

But more recently geography has come under sustained pressure. At Key Stage 3, there is too much variation in the way students experience geography. A series of Ofsted reports have identified high-quality provision in many schools, alongside weak performance in others – commonly linked to inadequate curriculum time, weak curriculum planning, poor resources and over-use of non-specialist teachers. GCSE results overall are as good as in other subjects and it is still a popular option, but numbers taking geography have fallen year on year, with knock-on effects at A-level and degree level.

So what has gone wrong? For ex-HMCI David Bell, there is no more relevant subject than geography to prepare young people for the 21st century. But paradoxically, at a time when geography’s relevance to young people and their future might appear to be self-evident, the education system at all levels seems to have suffered a collective loss of confidence in what the subject can deliver.

Gradually but inexorably, geography has been relegated to the lower ranks of the subject status league. Partly this reflects the relentless pursuit of standards in the core subjects, partly the value placed on higher-profile areas of the curriculum such as sport and the arts. At GCSE, particularly, a greater range of subjects and the expansion of vocational courses have expanded the opportunities (although not always the choices) for students, whilst often constraining geography courses. Moreover, as awarding bodies have transformed themselves into commercial organizations interested more in market-share than the curriculum so, in common with other subjects, a number of geography specifications have become tired and uninspiring. Students who do opt for geography may find their courses too similar to what they studied at Key Stage 3; at worst their experience of GCSE geography can seem more like a version of recent history, rather than an opportunity to discover a rapidly changing world, relevant to their future.

Fieldwork, a cornerstone of geography in the real world, is also struggling. Although it is an entitlement for KS3 and integral to GCSE and A-level geography courses, it is under pressure from a combination of concerns about time, teacher workload and pupil safety. Yet fieldwork should be central to developing students’ direct experience, enjoyment and deep understanding of the environment; and good quality fieldwork has a clear impact on achievement. Geography field trips are for many students among the most memorable experiences of their school lives.

Outdated views?

But does geography really matter? Many geographers believe their subject is handicapped by an outdated view of what it has to offer – at worst a distant memory of endless facts (plus oxbow lakes), which is far removed from geography classrooms today.

Geography’s distinctive contribution is to develop students’ understanding of the relationships between people and their environment, together with a set of skills to investigate these, and a particular kind of spatial thinking. It affords wide-ranging opportunities to align students’ learning with their interests, with current events and with their futures. Geography teachers’ recent responses to the South Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina are good examples, as is the way many undoubtedly used the World Cup tournament to develop students’ understanding of place, location and globalization.

Geography classrooms are places where students develop their debating and decision-making skills and the understanding that society faces difficult choices, where solutions are often hard to find. Taken together, geography offers students relevance and significance, linking them to the real world in a way other subjects cannot match.

Missing links

Let’s put the question another way. What would students leaving school without a significant geographical education miss out on? Aside from not knowing about lots of interesting stuff from the causes of earthquakes to fair trade, from sustainable energy choices to coral reefs, at a very basic level the spatial dimension of their thinking will be less developed.

Without this conceptual scaffolding on which to hang their knowledge of places in the local area, the UK and the wider world, to add new places and events as they come across them, and figure out the relationships between them all, their geographical imaginations will be limited.

They will be less able to understand, question, and take advantage of an increasingly complex and interconnected world. For students from mobile – and usually better-off – families this will be less restricting than for those for whose experience is already more constrained. As 21st-century citizens, they will be bombarded with information from around the world, but will be less well equipped to make sense of it; they will likely be less well informed, perhaps less confident, and even less employable.

Geography resurgence

In spite of all these concerns, there is also much to celebrate. One is the standard of teachers – the quality of newly qualified teachers (NQTs) specializing in geography has never been higher. They are passionate about geography and keen to try out new ways of connecting the world with their students. At KS3, geographers have often been those teachers taking the lead in developing their pedagogy, whilst still finding time to renew the curriculum, for example by developing thinking skills. At GCSE, the success of the QCA’s popular pilot geography specification shows how support for curriculum development can dynamize the subject.

Geographers are also fortunate in having two of the most active of the subject associations, the Geographical Association (GA) and the Royal Geographical Society, campaigning strongly for geography. One result is the DfES’s Action Plan for Geography, launched in March, a £2m package of support to boost geography in schools.

The action plan’s goal is to enthuse young people and provide a clear vision of geography as a relevant and powerful part of the curriculum. The funding will support a new bank of inspirational teaching resources, together with guidance and training for teachers and subject leaders, and enable access to the Geographical Association’s Geography Quality Mark for geography departments.

Geography futures

By the time this article is published, the QCA’s curriculum review will be ready. To free up curriculum time and enable greater flexibility of study for students, there will be less prescription, including less detail in programs of study for subjects like geography. One scenario is for schools to opt for more of the same – using this freedom to release more time for the core and preparation for SATs, but with less time to the rest of the curriculum, and increased competition between other subjects for what time and resources are left.

A second, more optimistic outcome would be to see this review as a real opportunity to re-orientate KS3 towards an experience more fit for students in the 21st century. In this scenario, schools would take a fresh look at what we are trying to do with learning for this age group, perhaps designing a curriculum more customized to meet students’ current and future needs.

This second scenario would see subjects across the whole curriculum, not as a distraction, but as contributing to promoting excellence and enjoyment and as a key to raising attainment in the core. There would be more collaboration between subjects, looking at subject disciplines and the specialist knowledge of teachers as resources for learning, all contributing to achieving the school’s goals.

Take global warming. We know that by the time the students currently in our schools reach middle age, they will be living in a warmer world, our generation’s legacy to them. It will be a more hazardous world, with new patterns of migration, more pressure on ecosystems and on resources such as water and energy. There will be direct impacts on human wellbeing, affecting unequally the global haves and have-nots. It is the single most important problem facing young people. They will face some difficult choices – and we have an obligation to ensure their education equips them well with the knowledge, understanding and skills to make good decisions.

In the current curriculum model it is probable that students will learn something of climate change in both science and geography lessons. In some exceptional schools this work will be complementary, but in many collaboration is likely to be limited, so it is also probable that students will experience considerable repetition as well as gaps in their understanding.

Fresh thinking

The current curriculum revision is an opportunity for fresh thinking about big issues such as this. Geographers might argue that they have perhaps more to say about climate change than others, linking understanding of the physical processes which explain climate change with the human dimensions of impacts and choices. But new curriculum thinking should recognize that several subjects have their own perspective to offer and for learning to be most effective it is essential that they are involved.

In a more flexible curriculum framework, working in a more cross-curricular way is likely to improve pupils’ experience by focusing on the essential learning, pooling expertise, maximizing scarce time and resources and letting each discipline work to its strengths.

You could make a start now, perhaps by using the DfES’s Sustainable Schools initiative as a focus to get students actively involved in sustainability and futures thinking.

Without geography, students are nowhere – they will be missing out on some key experiences and life skills. So, in the panel (right), I have listed 10 things you can do as a critical friend to your geography team. With your support they will do great things for your students.

Ten ways headteachers can support geography

1. Look for specialists

It’s no easier for non-specialist teachers to develop your students’ geographical understanding than their scientific thinking or musical skills, so employ geographers if you possibly can. They will have an un-matched passion and enthusiasm for their subject and a much clearer idea about learning and progression. Your students will enjoy their geography more and you’ll get better results.

2. Curriculum thinking

Have another look at your school aims. They probably include something about developing a range of skills for employment and preparing young people to be citizens of the 21st century.  Geography can help you achieve these.

3. Curriculum mapping

QCA’s curriculum review is a great opportunity to develop complementary work between subjects. Geographers are used to thinking in this way: look for synergies with science, history and citizenship, maybe even with MFL and English. But look for repetition too – it’s no wonder students don’t find their curriculum motivating if they study topics like rainforests, erosion and energy resources in geography and again in science.

4. Subjects

Your specialist geography teachers are almost certainly pretty good classroom practitioners already. Being an enquiring lot, they have probably been busy renewing their teaching using the Secondary Strategy CPD materials. But it’s just as important to update subject knowledge – the new TDA standards emphasize this. So why not encourage them to seek out some geography CPD – for example at the GA annual conference in April 2007!

5. ICT

Most geographers are avid users of ICT – it’s often the best way of bringing the world into their classrooms, and they have paved the way in using interactive whiteboard technology to enhance their teaching. Talk to them about it – especially about whether students have enough hands-on opportunities to use ICT to enhance their geography learning.

6. Think GIS

Geographic Information Systems help your pizza delivery or taxi get to you quickly, police fight crime in your local area and Tesco plan their latest supermarket site. GIS is already a major employer in the UK, with geographers in great demand. There are some sensational GIS applications for schools – a real opportunity to contribute to geographical understanding whilst developing very marketable skills.

7. Think global

How well does your curriculum prepare young people for the world they are growing up in? China will be the 21st-century global superpower – its rise is already affecting all our lives. Encourage your geographers to take on the challenge.

8. Real world learning

High-quality fieldwork is an unbeatable learning experience and one that few students will forget, but it takes a determined geography department, and support from senior management to keep it alive.

9. Sustainable schools

DfES is launching a major initiative on sustainable schools: your geography department could be the focus of this learning across the curriculum; they are experts in getting the students involved through enquiry learning.

10. School linking

A great way to bring the world into the classroom, with unbeatable opportunities for students to make direct connections with, and learn from, young people from other cultures.

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