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: Why Teach Geography in Secondary Schools

Thea-Marie Williams-Black 

8 GEOGRAPHICAL EDUCATION VOLUME 30, 2017

Abstract
This paper arises from the Keynote we co-
delivered at the 2017 AGTA Conference in
Melbourne. In the paper, we outline the
main theoretical resources that underpin the
GeoCapabilities project (www.geocapabilities.org).
This project has sought to engage teachers and
teacher educators in geography with the principles
of curriculum leadership in order to realise and
release the power of geography as a component
of the school curriculum. Critics of the project
have argued that it over-claims on geography, and
offers little more than preaching to the converted
– a means of justifying geography to those already
convinced of its value in education. However,
in the paper we also advance the case that the
capabilities approach may well have potential in
helping non-specialist teachers grasp ways of
interpreting standards and curriculum guidelines,
as it requires that they first contextualise the
educational needs of children today, and then
reflect on the purposes and value of geographical
thought and practice. After exploring these issues,
geography teachers will, in theory, be better able
to consider what it is they should teach, and then
to think carefully about pedagogic techniques that
are fully fit for purpose.

Introduction
Geography is a well-established school subject
which is present in most education jurisdictions
around the world. In England, the subject is
supported by a particularly strong subject
association, the Geographical Association, but
it has nevertheless faced recurring questions
about its purpose and even its place in the
school curriculum. In Australia, the introduction
of integrated solutions to questions that arise
from time to time about the value of “traditional”
subjects such as geography in a progressive
curriculum (for example, studies in society and
environment in Queensland and elsewhere)
has undermined the subject in schools for a
generation or more. In the United States, it was
the complacency of geography and geographers
at the beginning of the twentieth century
(McDougall, 2015) that led to the marginalisation

of geography that persists to this day: aside
from a handful of states that require geography
in middle or high school, geography is “buried”
within the social studies. Although the subject
benefits from an impressive set of national
standards, it can be barely visible in some states
and is, frankly, frequently understood by teachers
to be little more than the background stage – the
map – on which history is enacted.

In this paper, we do not have the space fully to
unpack this state of affairs. We assume readers
are aware of geography’s vulnerability as a
school subject. There is certainly no room for
complacency, even in circumstances that seem to
support a resurgence of “knowledge-led” curricula
such as is the case in Australia and England.
No subject has an automatic “right” to scarce
curriculum space even if, to its practitioners and
enthusiasts, its value is self-evident. There is a
constant need, therefore, to renew the arguments
for geography in education. The challenge of
course is that neither of these ideas (geography
and education) is a stable and given entity. There
are plenty of ways of thinking about geography
which are in fact difficult to defend: for example,
neither of us would support school geography as
a body of pre-determined facts – a list of “things
we all need to know” (Hirsch, 1987, 2007) that
somehow we need to transmit for students to
absorb. Yet it is remarkable how enduring is
this image of school geography in the popular
imagination, and with some politicians and
policymakers. We therefore have to be very clear
about the grounds on which we are able and
willing to promote geography as a worthwhile
school subject.

Equally importantly, we need to be very clear
about what we mean by education. It is the feature
of this day and age that the purpose of education,
especially as it is articulated in school systems,
is deeply contested. Or rather, it should be.
Schools in England are now so narrowly focused
on preparing children for the world of work in
the fiercely competitive, neoliberal “system-
less system” of free schools and academies
it is uncertain how to articulate education in a
broader sense other than examination preparation

Rediscovering the Teaching of Geography
with the Focus on Quality
David Lambert
Professor of Geography Education, Institute of Education, University of London
Email: [email protected]

Michael Solem
Director of Educational Research and Programs, American Association of Geographers
Email: [email protected]

9GEOGRAPHICAL EDUCATION VOLUME 30, 2017

a curriculum of engagement with powerful
knowledge. This is distinguished from an
outcomes or competence-led curriculum which,
as we have seen, appears to stress learning as an
end in itself rather than a means to an end (this is
known as Future 2). However crucially, Future 3 is
also distinguished from a traditional, fact-based
curriculum of transmission (known as Future 1)
– often assumed to be the only possibility when
knowledge is said to lead the curriculum. Future
3 encourages productive, rigorous and critical
thought as developed in specialist disciplinary
communities such as geography. Thus, in a slight
finessing of Young’s original term, GeoCapabilities
described Future 3 as being based on “powerful
disciplinary knowledge” (Lambert, Solem, & Tani,
2015).

Powerful knowledge and Future 3
Curriculum Thinking
Powerful Disciplinary Knowledge (PDK) is quite a
difficult idea. It needs to be understood in terms
of its lineage, in direct contrast to the previous
formulation associated with Michael Young, when
he wrote of the “knowledge of the powerful” over
forty years ago (Young, 1971). The curriculum,
he argued then, was predicated on the interests
of those in power: the curriculum in effect exerted
power over those socially, economically or
culturally excluded. This has been an enormously
influential but incomplete idea, for the contents
of this “academic” curriculum determined by
the powerful elite is (Young now argues) also
powerful knowledge: that is, knowledge that gives
people the power to think (and gain access to the
professions, etc.). A crucial distinction, therefore,
between these terms (knowledge of the powerful
and powerful knowledge) is between the elite
curriculum that addresses some children through
a lens of “deficit” (and is therefore often perceived
by them to be alienating and even irrelevant),
and a curriculum whose purpose is to engage
all children with insights derived from the arts
and literature, the humanities, the sciences, and
mathematics. Abstract, theoretical, specialised
knowledge associated with the disciplines is,
owing to its potential “power”, something that
all children and young people have a right to,
no matter their circumstances or aspirations. It
almost certainly needs to be taught. That is, it
is risky to assume it can be somehow picked up
along the way – for us, the fundamental argument
against a curriculum based on competences
or problem-based learning. Access to PDK is
what Basil Bernstein called a “pedagogic right”
(Bernstein, 2000), for PDK is an essential
component of “enhancement” (or as we argue
capability) – “the means of critical understanding
and to new possibilities” (Bernstein, 2000, 30).

and “life skills”. In such circumstances, it is the
very identity of teaching as a profession that is
compromised. Are teachers required to take on
professional responsibilities demanding ethical
judgements about what to teach (Biesta, 2017),
or are teachers now seen only as highly skilful
technocrats implementing management policy
directives?

Such uncertainties are shared internationally as
economic globalisation and the logic of the market
inflict unrealistic and distorting pressures on
education systems across the world to perform.
In his work over recent years, Gert Biesta has
concluded that one of the core issues to arise here
is the learnification of education (Biesta, 2009),
whereby the learning of transversal competences
becomes the “outcome” of going to school,
supplanting questions of what should be taught:
learning becomes the end, rather than the means
to an end. His work has resulted in his book
The rediscovery of teaching in which he revisits
his analysis and arguments (Biesta, 2017).
It is a book that has suggested our title as it
reinforces the foundational principle in our paper:
that, with appropriate “curriculum leadership”,
geography can form an essential component
of a progressive, knowledge-led curriculum.
Like Biesta, we argue that teachers can (must?)
reassert their professional ownership rights over
the curriculum, in order to realise the educational
significance of teaching geography well.

We make this argument with reference to the
GeoCapabilities project (www.geocapabilities.org)
which explicitly tries to reconnect the teaching
of geography with questions of purpose in
education. To do this, the project (which ran from
2012 to 2017 with two phases of funding1) set
about thinking very carefully about the nature of
geographical knowledge in school, and the kind
of curriculum that would support geography of
the highest epistemic quality. In Knowledge and
the future school Michael Young and colleagues
(Young, Lambert, Roberts, & Roberts, 2014)
began to develop the notion of “Future 3”
curriculum thinking, based upon a social realist
proposition of powerful knowledge (Young 2008).
Future 3 is one of three alternative curriculum
scenarios offered as an heuristic to help
distinguish possible curriculum futures – that is,
the kind of curriculum we want. GeoCapabilities
took up the “three futures” heuristic because it
helps point up some fundamental distinctions
in curriculum thinking. Thus, Future 3 denotes

1 GeoCapabilities 1: Researching and improving geography teach-
er preparation through transatlantic collaborations. NSF Award
BCS-1155255.
GeoCapabilities 2: Teachers as curriculum leaders. A European
Comenius Multilateral Project. 539079-LLP-1-2013-1-UK-
COMENIUS-CMP/2013-3433.

10 GEOGRAPHICAL EDUCATION VOLUME 30, 2017

However, what is PDK in the arts and literature,
the humanities, the sciences and in mathematics?
Michael Young, as a former chemistry teacher,
has relatively little difficulty in expressing
powerful knowledge as objective, reliable,
abstract and independent of the context in
which it is made. For instance, it is now known
that there are 94 elements naturally occurring
on earth (although it is apparently accepted
that six more once occurred but are no longer
found: 95–100 on the Periodic Table) and a
further 18 can be synthesised in the laboratory.
This is a nice illustration, for it at once shows
that although the “fact” (of 94 elements) is
of enormous significance, it is not on its own
particularly powerful. What is potentially powerful
is understanding its systematicity, the part the
Periodic Table plays as a building block in how to
think truthfully about the material world. It also
nicely illustrates how even objective facts are
not beyond contention. Disciplinary knowledge
can always be contested; it is dynamic, not
a static, eternal given. Finally, what this little
example also shows is that even in the world of
“objective science”, powerful knowledge cannot
easily be identified or summarised in the form of
a Hirschian list of content or concepts that need
to be taught. To be sure, the school curriculum
probably requires a series of subject standards
or specifications, but publishing a list of laws,
principles and concepts that need to be taught
achieves little more than simply that: a list of
words on the page which in itself guarantees
nothing in terms of the curriculum as encountered
by the students.

Thus, in thinking about how geography can be
considered to be powerful knowledge, we may
look at standards and specifications, but in truth
this is probably not the place to start. Nor is a
blank piece of paper on which we might assemble
a list of key concepts or some such. For all we
end up with is a list, that may guarantee little in
terms of educational purpose and possibly result
in an inert, Future 1 type curriculum experience
for students (which many might find alienating
and difficult to see the point of). There is an
inherent difficulty in not specifying powerful
knowledge in geography, as has been discussed
briefly by Slater, Graves, and Lambert (2016).
However, how do we do this?

Asking in what way geographical knowledge
may be powerful is a good way of standing back
from the technical imperative of delivering the
given content. It focuses the teacher on why
she is teaching geography in the first place.
It is, crucially, a question about geography’s
educational purpose. It is the approach adopted
and developed by the GeoCapabilities project.
Thus, rather than search for a list of content
that might purport to be definitive (such as the

National Curriculum in England, or Geography
for Life national standards in the United States),
the GeoCapabilities project strongly endorses
the approach adopted by Alaric Maude (2016)
who analyses the characteristics that makes
(geographical) knowledge powerful in the first
place. From this beginning, he then explores
the kind of power this knowledge gives to those
who possess it. The result is a five-part typology
of powerful knowledge (see Figure 1). This is
presented not as some kind of curriculum audit
or device for directly helping with the planning
of geography lessons. The typology is proposed
instead as a professional thinking tool: that is,
thinking about the epistemic quality of what we
are to teach before getting to the more technical,
pedagogic questions about how we are to teach.

Perhaps the most significant – and challenging
– element of Maude’s typology is Type 3. As
he writes, the typology identifies “five types
of geographical knowledge that constitute
intellectually powerful ways of thinking,
analysing, explaining and finding out” (Maude
2016, 75). Although some are very familiar in
school geography – arguably, Type 4 for example
– Type 3 is probably not well done in school
geography lessons. It is, however, crucial, for
an essential element of powerful knowledge
is an understanding of its dynamic nature: in
geography, not only do the “facts” of the world
continue to change before our very eyes, but the
way we make sense of those facts evolves too.
Students need to grasp some of this. In Young’s
words,

Knowledge in the sense we are using the
word (here) allows those with access to it
to question it and the authority on which it
is based and gain a sense of the freedom
and excitement that it can offer. (Young et
al., 2014, 20)

Alaric Maude goes on to write that the five
knowledge types can,

be applied to thinking about the aims of
geographical education. However, except
perhaps for Type 5 the typology does
not lead to a list of content that must be
taught, but only to ways of thinking that
should be developed through whatever
content is selected (Maude, 2016, 75).

In this sense, we think the typology may have
enormous potential in helping teachers stand
back and organise their teaching with a clear
sense of purpose and “disciplinarity” (Firth
2013; 2017), which provides a secure basis on
which to interpret national standards and official
curriculum documents. The typology may help
teachers focus on what Brian Hudson calls the
“epistemic quality” of teaching – the serious

11GEOGRAPHICAL EDUCATION VOLUME 30, 2017

professional concern that underpins what north
European educationists term specialist subject
didactics (Hudson 2016). From the rather different
Anglo-American tradition (which places a negative
connotation on didactics), the GeoCapabilities
project calls this professional concern “curriculum
making” – the responsibility that falls to teachers
to interpret and enact the curriculum.

The Capabilities Approach
The GeoCapabilities project has been a significant
context in which several of the ideas presented

in the previous sections have been developed2.
In 2009, David Lambert first offered the
hypothesis that the capabilities approach, derived
from Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum’s
groundbreaking work in welfare economics
and the humanities (Nussbaum and Sen 1993),

2 The four training modules contain examples and illustration of
the ideas presented in this paper. The emphasis is on profes-
sional training and readers are encouraged to explore some of
the techniques, such as writing “powerful knowledge vignettes”
[module 1] or using curriculum artefacts [module 2], with
colleagues.

Type Characteristics

1. Knowledge that provides students with “new ways of
thinking about the world”.

Using big ideas such as:
• place
• space
• environment
• interconnection.
These are metaconcepts that are distinguished from substantive
concepts, like city or climate.

2. Knowledge that provides students with powerful ways
of analysing, explaining and understanding.

Using ideas to:
• analyse

− e.g. place, spatial distribution
• explain

− e.g. hierarchy, agglomeration
• generalise

− e.g. models such as push-pull models of migration, and
laws.

3. Knowledge that gives students some power over their
own knowledge.

To do this, students need to know something about the ways
knowledge is developed and tested in geography.

This is about having an answer to the question: how do
you know? This is an underdeveloped area of geographical
education, but is a crucial aspect of “epistemic quality”
(Hudson, 2016).

4. Knowledge that enables young people to follow and
participate in debates on significant local, national and
global issues.

School geography has a good record in teaching this
knowledge, partly because it combines the natural and social
sciences and the humanities. It also examines significant issues
such as food, water and energy security; climate change;
development.

5. Knowledge of the world. This takes students beyond their own experience – the world’s
diversity of environments, cultures, societies and economies.
In a sense, this knowledge is closest to how geography is
perceived in the popular imagination. It contributes strongly to
a student’s “general knowledge”.

Figure 1: A typology of geography’s powerful knowledge

Source: adapted from Maude, 2016.
This typology is based on an analysis of Michael Young’s writings on powerful knowledge. This is not some kind of technical
lesson planning tool. An individual lesson may show aspects of this typology, but over a whole course in geography we should
expect to find a balance across all five types.

12 GEOGRAPHICAL EDUCATION VOLUME 30, 2017

could provide a way to frame curriculum
thinking in geography (Lambert, 2009; 2010).
One of the attractions of Sen’s conception is
that he steadfastly refused to specify individual
“capabilities” – as if they were like discrete
competences. Although Nussbaum took a
different view, and listed a number of human
capabilities, it is Sen’s approach that appealed
to us. It enabled us to articulate education in
terms of its role in realising human potential –
enhancing the freedom of people “to be” and “to
do”. Human beings are more free, we continued,
when they are able (empowered) to think in
specialised ways – including when they can think
geographically; that is, to analyse, explain, etc.
with geography (see Maude above). In short,
the capabilities approach provides a progressive
way to link the contents of geography with the
notion of educational aims and purposes. The
project goes as far as to claim that, without high
quality geography as a component of young
people’s general education, their potential to think
about themselves in the world, and about the
changing relationship human beings have with the
environment (especially today, in what Friedman
(2016) calls the age of acceleration), is impaired.
This can be considered to be a form of capabilities
deprivation – quite a claim, and of course it
depends very heavily on the quality of what is
taught and learned in geography lessons.

Returning to the three futures scenarios, what
distinguishes F3 from F1 and F2 in geography
is the quality of the geography in the enacted
curriculum. As we have argued, it is therefore
useful to think how geographical knowledge can
be considered to be “powerful” and is able to take
children beyond their everyday experience and
encounters. For example,

• literally – investigating distant places,
distributions and patterns;

• conceptually – using new ways of seeing (e.g.
a global sense of place, glaciation, uneven
development);

• perceptually – appreciating different
perspectives (e.g. how “others” see “us”).

These points present a slightly different take on
the power of geography – and there are other
versions such as Lambert, Solem, & Tani, 2015,
or the Geographical Association, 2012 – but
all can be merged fairly straightforwardly into
Maude’s typology. However, whichever version
one might take, the point is that by extending
horizons and access to knowledge about people
and the planet enhances the capabilities of
young people – enabling more powerful thought
as a right and an expectation of the educational
encounter.

Curriculum Leadership
In a short article commissioned by SecEd, a free
professional news sheet, Michael Young and
David Lambert wrote that

. . . powerful knowledge bears little
relationship to the Gradgrind return to a
“curriculum of the dead” that critics tend to
assume such a subject-based curriculum
implies. “Powerful knowledge” is precious.
It is not made up of accumulated lists of
“facts”. In the form of subjects, powerful
knowledge is continually evolving as new
and tested concepts and explanations are
introduced” (Young and Lambert, 2014).

However, they both realised at the time that
powerful knowledge, the key idea that underpins
the notion of a Future 3 curriculum, was
troublesome and challenging:

. . . the biggest challenge of all is to the
education community as a whole. [Our]
book asks teachers and school leaders
to reclaim their professionalism and
express it in terms of the knowledge-led
school – and thus occupy the void that
has in effect allowed political meddling
and indeed various forms of non-
professional enterprise to exert too much
influence” (Young and Lambert, 2014).

The GeoCapabilities project encourages
knowledge-led professionalism through
articulating teachers as curriculum leaders. What
this means is that teachers take responsibility
for enacting the curriculum – they become
curriculum makers. This is to say that a key
component of teachers’ professionalism is their
identity as specialist knowledge workers, working
to develop powerful disciplinary knowledge in
what they teach. As we noted earlier in this paper,
this is unlikely to happen by simply delivering the
syllabus or specification: in this way, the project
advocates a curriculum of engagement. Adopting
a capabilities approach affords the possibility of
working with specialist knowledge in a way that
embraces broad educational goals, and in this
way the capabilities approach helps teachers to
operationalise Future 3 curriculum thinking. In
this sense, curriculum making lies at the heart of
teachers’ professional identity.

Implications for Non-Specialist
Teachers: Reflections from the United
States Context
A new project, directly inspired by
GeoCapabilities, is now underway in the United
States to develop innovative solutions to an
enduring challenge in providing high quality
geography instruction in schools. This problem

13GEOGRAPHICAL EDUCATION VOLUME 30, 2017

is the pronounced shortage of teachers with
geography backgrounds (it is a problem felt to
a greater or lesser degree in many jurisdictions,
including Australia). The project, named Powerful
Geography (www.powerfulgeography.org), aspires
to provide the empirical research basis to facilitate
the transfer of powerful geographical knowledge
in the form of voluntary national standards
into state-level curricula and teacher education
programs. In the US, this will require finding more
effective ways of engaging non-specialist teachers
and helping them first grasp, and then represent,
powerful geographical knowledge so that it is
understandable by students.

Students across the US often lack access to
geography education in schools. In some
states, this is a result of the subject’s complete
absence in the curriculum. Even in states where
geography is a required middle or high school
course, it is usually taught by non-specialist
teachers. Approximately 1,500,000 teachers may
be responsible for teaching geography, either as
part of social studies in grades K-6, as a stand-
alone or combined course in grades 7-8, or as a
stand-alone or combined course in grades 9-12
(Grosvenor Center for Geographic Education,
2015). Allowing for variations in certification
requirements across states and by grade level,
most teachers will only take one or two geography
courses during their teacher education program.
Typically, these courses are introductory-level,
either aimed at a general education audience or
intended as a first course in a major. Because of
this inadequate preparation, teachers have long
found it difficult to teach the subject in a way
that is consistent with the intentions of national
and state curriculum standards (Anderson
& Leinhardt, 2002; Chiodo, 1993; Diem,
1982; Reinfried, 2006; Segall, 2002; Bednarz,
2003; Schell, Roth, & Mohan, 2013; Segall &
Helfenbein, 2008).

The broader impacts of US federal research in
geography, especially as they relate to knowledge
transfer, education, and workforce preparation,
will remain severely curtailed until schools gain
greater capacity in the form of teachers who
are more fluent in the discipline’s conceptual
vocabulary and processes. Over several decades,
there have been multiple attempts to upgrade
school curricula based on advancements in
disciplinary thought, from the spatial scientific
approach of the National Science Foundation-
funded High School Geography Project in the
1960s (Helburn, 1965) to contemporary national
standards including Geography for life: National
geography standards (Heffron & Downs, 2012),
the Next generation science standards (NGSS
Lead States, 2013), the Common core state
standards for mathematics (National Governors
Association Center for Best Practices & Council

of Chief State School Officers, 2010), and The
college, career, and civic life (C3) framework for
inquiry in social studies state standards (National
Council for the Social Studies, 2013). All of these
documents in their different ways are impressive,
and yet in most state jurisdictions the curriculum
they envision will never be enacted as intended
until non-specialist teachers gain the disciplinary
knowledge necessary for their interpretation. Our
contention is that the idea of powerful knowledge,
possibly supported by tools such a Maude’s
typology, may provide a highly productive
means to induct non-specialist teachers into the
educational potential of geography.

The difficulty of implementing geography
standards in schools is underscored by twenty
years of contemporaneous data from the
National Assessment of Educational Progress in
Geography that confirms persistent low levels
of student performance and aptitude in the
subject, with aggregate test scores for Hispanic
students barely scoring above Basic (partial
mastery), and African American students as a
whole never reaching the Basic level (Government
Accountability Office, 2015). In the terms we set
out earlier in this paper, this is nothing less than
capabilities deprivation on a mass scale and a
direct consequence of curriculum thinking mired
in F1 and F2 practices.

There are of course many other factors
contributing to the United States’ present
challenges in providing K-12 geography
instruction: pressure to teach other subjects,
uneven quality of textbooks and other
instructional materials, poor public perceptions of
the subject, and a lack of support from the federal
government and other important stakeholders
(GAO, 2015). The Powerful Geography project
is not designed to address all of these issues
simultaneously. It does focus, however, on
providing the research basis for reforming …

geography.org.uk
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Reading for trainee teachers and NQTs

The value of geography

(Extract from: Day, A. ‘Geography: Challenges for its next century’, Teaching Geography, April 1995)

‘Geography – along with history – has a central role to play in helping to develop articulate, objective

and informed citizens. Schools have never been (could never be!) simply about fitting students for

the world of work. The broad and balanced curriculum means equipping the twenty-first century

citizen to become a fully effective and responsible participant in local, national and global

communities. Participatory democracies have to be worked at, and the preparation comes to a large

extent from the content and approach of subjects like geography.

But the strongest justification for retaining geography and active geographers is the type of world

we and our successors will inhabit in the twenty first century. As demographic and resource

pressures intensify; as environmental and ecological issues become more critical; as conflicts of land-

use multiply; and as the need to manage and plan the increasingly complex web of human and

environmental interactions over the surface of the planet become more urgent, then geographers

should increasingly be at the forefront of analysing what’s going on, explaining why, and proposing

alternative strategies with an accountant’s precision in detailing the costs and benefits of each

possible scenario. I do not think we need to be pessimistic when we consider the world we inhabit in

the future – much will be positive and of benefit. It would be pessimistic, however, to assume that

geographers will not be fully employed in advising the decision-makers of the likely environmental

impact of their decisions in human, physical and regional dimensions.

There is, however, an intervening stage which is necessary for the scenario above to become a

possibility, and that is for general acknowledgement of the contributions geography can make to

become recognised and accorded value. At the moment I do not feel that this is the case. Geography

is either deemed to be “valuable” – because it informs you where places are and what they are like;

or “interesting” – because it deals with topical issues such as rain forest destruction. At year 9

parents’ evenings it is nearly always a combination of these two reasons which makes parents

consider the subject a reasonable one for their daughter or son to pursue at GCSE. And 1 guess I go

along with them as I stress the importance of a student being interested in a subject to provide the

necessary motivation to obtain a good grade at the end of the course.

But if I talk about the “value” of the subject, it is often narrowly understood in terms of its value to

the tourism industry or, at a stretch, cartography. We are hard-pressed to come up with any other

areas in which geography, as it is popularly perceived, is put into direct practice.

If I have a receptive audience in front of me I may try to advise parents to consider geography as

more than an area of knowledge. I explain that the subject has a distinctive way of analysing issues,

has a problem-solving methodology, and involves research skills in disciplined fieldwork. In many

instances parents will nod, and one can see realisation spread across their faces as they grasp why

geography.org.uk
2

“geography is so different from when I was at school”. It is a short jump then to suggesting that

these skills and competencies are widely valued in all manner of vocational settings.

I imagine countless parents’ evenings follow this frequently repeated performance. 1 do not mind

explaining geography’s relevance in this way, but do feel concerned at the continuing need to do so:

that there is no core concept of what geography “does” or “is for” amongst the wider public’s

perception. Until geographers can offer a clear, unambiguous image of what the study of the subject

provides, then the contribution that geography and geographers can make in so many spheres of

economic, environmental and social life, will remain under-rated.

How many of us were delighted when Simon Jenkins wrote in The Times a few years ago about his

rediscovery of the joys of geography? For here was someone with the legitimacy of being rooted in

the real world who had come across our creation and judged it to be good. But we cannot for its

century afford to be the passive party in this dialogue. It is incumbent upon geographers to present a

model which is clearly defined and readily held in mind of what we can do, what we can contribute,

and what people will get when they employ one of us.

There has been one hundred years of fertile development in the subject by its practitioners. The

increasing rigour and academic weightiness of the subject has made it a force to be reckoned with in

the academic world. It has moved from being a subject which rarely appeared as a degree subject

before the 1920s, to one which commands major departments in nearly all universities, and whose

popularity as a GCSE and A-level subject places it up amongst the leaders. But there is now a wider

audience to convince of the legitimacy of what the subject.’

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