Subject specialists, subject communities and sustaining subject expertise
So my inspiration to start blogging at this very moment is Christine Counsell’s momentous article on “Taking curriculum seriously”, which is found in the fourth issue of Impact. For me the article provides a springboard to consider the many significant opportunities and challenges when taking geography curriculum seriously. I think it is important to draw out these, because to take curriculum seriously, we must as Christine often emphasises be attentive to the distinctiveness of our subjects. Here I am just going to focus on the complexity of the disciplinary dimension in geography and how this is bound up with the importance of subject specialists, subject communities and sustaining subject expertise.
As a geography teacher I know that I need to be prepared to engage with how disciplinary practices work and ensure I teach with attentiveness to the nature of geographical knowledge, so that my students can fully appreciate that geographical knowledge is not something given, but is a product of scholarly research and critique. Without this disciplinary dimension, I fear we have immediately diminished the power of geography education for all our students. This also about the intellectual endeavour – as a geographer and geography teacher, I want to remain engaged with the disciplinary resource of geography. I do not want to merely be guided by exam board specifications. Steven Puttick’s research reminds us that chief examiners hold substantial power over school subjects and that this in turn can restrict access to certain aspects of geographical knowledge. In particular, there is the concern that chief examiners role in the recontexualisation of knowledge can “prevent engagement with disciplinary understandings and revisions of knowledge” (Puttick, 2015, p. 485) within school geography. This is why I find it most problematic that examination specifications can be sometimes represented as the gold standard of school geography. I also do not believe engaging with popular geography books or geography in the news is enough for me to remain conversant with the academic discipline of geography. Of course, that is not to say that these are not all valuable and/or necessary for geography teachers to draw upon, but there is something more. Clare Brooks’ research has powerfully illuminated the significant role teachers’ subject expertise plays in teacher identity and how this forms part of a teachers’ professional compass guiding teachers’ professional practice. I want to emphasise here that this subject expertise needs to be valued and sustained if we hope to do justice to disciplinary knowledge within the geography curriculum.
Schwab back in 1979 posed the questions: “What relevance may the structure of disciplines have for the purposes of education?” and “Why should the curriculum maker or teacher be concerned with the structure of the discipline with which he or she works” (p. 229). These are two pertinent questions to revisit in the light of any endeavour to take curriculum seriously. There is a culture within the geography education community of positioning teachers as the final ‘curriculum makers’ and recognition for the importance of subject specialists that can take ownership and responsibility of the enacted geography curriculum. For we need teachers that can “interpret the official intentions laid down in statute through the lens of their specialist knowledge” (Lambert, 2014, p. 167). Despite this in school geography, there has been a tendency to strip geographical knowledge of part of its integrity through disregarding the nature of this knowledge, and its production. It is well acknowledged that the ways “knowledge is created, tested and evaluated within geography” (Maude, 2016, p. 75) is an underdeveloped area of geography education (Lambert and Solem, 2018). This means that to some extent geography teachers have been disconnected with the structure of their discipline, which in turn means that the “distinctive pursuit of truth” (Counsell, 2018, p. 7) that the discipline of geography offers is sometimes obscured from students.
Yet, geography teachers have much to benefit from if they are able appreciate geography as an ever-evolving disciplinary resource. I would say as a geography teacher I am so grateful that we have such a vibrant, dynamic discipline and community of scholars to be inspired by. When I spent three days at the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference in August, it was an absolute pleasure to be able to see up close academic geographers talking about their research. Let me just take this one example. The Sustainable Development Goals were implemented in 2015 by the United Nations and are now being taught about within geography curriculum.* It was absolutely fascinating to see the scope of academic geographers’ research in this area. Geographers are exploring how landscapes are being changed and reproduced by this sustainable development agenda, as well as the power relations at play between different actors involved. In particular, Dr Jess Hope’s research involves analysing how non-governmental organisations work with social movements in Bolivia and how the SDGs encounter conflicts around energy mega projects. This points to teachers needing to enable students to see how the SDGs are enacted, who the stakeholders are, and how this is all mediated within the context of specific places and projects. For curricular thinking, this opens up issues around lots of the binaries that have been constructed in school geography: balancing breadth versus depth, deep versus superficial engagement with distant places, considering local versus global factors, and accounting for the human and the physical. Whilst there is great value in students being taught about the SDGs, I think it is necessary that they also understand the distinctive types of questions geographers are asking, and how geographers are making claims in their research around the implementation of the SDGs within specific geographical contexts.
There is much to be said about the differences and divides that characterise the relationship that has existed between school and academic geography. Gemma Collins and Graham Butt’s chapter in Debates in Geography Education provides a good overview around the gap between the two. I might have a blog post lined up for another day around the tensions that exist between the school subject and academic discipline of geography. But even if we acknowledge there is a complex relationship between the two, this does not let us of the hook – there is great importance in teaching students about how geography remains in motion and how the body of geographical knowledge we teach has been influenced by the lenses through which geographers have viewed the world. This highlights the importance of subject specialists who have been fully inducted into the body of geography education scholarship that exists and are able to engage in debates around this within the geography subject community. Geography teachers need the time and space to sustain their subject expertise, so they can go some way to rendering the disciplinary visible to students. Ultimately this would contribute to the endeavour to make disciplinary knowledge explicit for all in the school geography curriculum.
FIRST PUBLISHED HERE
*Stephen Scoffham’s contribution to the Autumn 2018 Geographical Association magazine entitled “Opening the door to the SDGs” provides a brief introduction to the opportunities and challenges of SDGs within the geography curriculum.
Grace Healy, Subject Specialist Associate (Geography)
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