On publishing its ‘research reviews’, including the one on geography, Ofsted stated that the intention was to “set out the research that has informed our thinking on subject quality”. One of Ofsted’s so-called ‘filters’ in reviewing research was the recognition that “curriculum is different from pedagogy”. In other words, the official watchdog on standards recognises that a key element in judging quality in geography is the curriculum per se, defined as “what teachers teach and when, and what pupils learn”. We go on to read that in its future subject reports, inspectors will judge “the extent to which teaching supports the goals of the subject curriculum.”
Since its inception GEReCo has burned the flame for curriculum focussed scholarship and must continue to do so.
However, it needs to do so with a fierce independence, for what Ofsted means or implies by curriculum may not be entirely consistent with what some of us at least feel is at stake. John Morgan recently outlined this disjuncture in his review of the Ofsted document: because “… the curriculum is seen as an ‘object’ rather than as a ‘problem’, all that is left is to explain how best to organize it, plan for progression, and teach it – hence the overwhelming focus of the Review [is] on pedagogy and assessment.” But the curriculum problem remains, looming like the proverbial elephant in the room: how do teachers justify geography in the school curriculum and what should we teach?
Perhaps we need look no further than the following words to see the significance of John’s point. Ofsted states that “Progress in curricular terms means knowing more and remembering more, so a curriculum needs to carefully plan for that progress by considering the building blocks and sequence in each subject.”
This to me conjures images of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. There are doubtless other metaphors. But merely teaching geography efficiently and effectively to ‘ensure progression’ (which utterly defies precise, technocratic definition anyhow – at least beyond ‘remembering more’) is a woefully inadequate expression of an educational response to contemporary needs and challenges. For instance, how does teaching geography contribute to the education of children and young people in a world where
- colonial and imperial violence, and the enduring injustices that have followed, are now more widely understood and acknowledged;
- the climate emergency is causing death, economic mayhem and displacing tens of millions of people across the globe;
- biodiversity loss, again on a global scale, is already looking cataclysmic;
- human-nature relations are now so mixed up (partly a result of almost 8 billion people on the planet) that the Covid-19 pandemic is best not thought of as a ‘one-off’?
These are existential threats, not abstract ‘world problems’. They are all present in the here and now. That is, they are experiential. But all are also geographical, or at least have geographical dimensions. Geographers are amongst those contributing new knowledge, perspectives and insights across all of these areas. The school geography curriculum has the enormous challenge of responding to pupils’ lived experiences while at the same time enabling them better to understand these in broader contexts. This is where ‘school subject’ meets ‘discipline’. It is not so much about rewriting the curriculum with better, new or more up to date selections to teach in schools, but more to do with the relationship we have with knowledge and the infrastructure that exist to support teachers in the development of this relationship – and building that relationship to ‘what we know and how we know it’ with pupils too. This is not easy and is nothing less than grappling with the challenges and ambition of Future Three curriculum making – incidentally, the lynchpin of GeoCapabilities.
So GEReCo is definitely right in promoting and developing deeper and broader links with the wider discipline (along with the RGS-IBG and GA). But the particular strength of GEReCo must be to examine the school curriculum implications – because of course, as Zongyi Deng points out in his most recent paper, what is taught in school, even under the banner of that frequently misappropriated term ‘powerful knowledge’, is not just influenced by developments in the discipline. He makes a call for continued conceptual research on knowledge, how content selections are made and the role of teachers in curriculum making – in a manner that is not ‘above’ politics but neither is unaware of social, cultural, environmental and political contexts in which we live. It is for example noteworthy the surge of interest in issues of race and racism in society that has followed the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, and a growing number of individuals and groups are now thinking hard about how school geography must respond. It also is a matter of record the step change in popular understanding of the climate emergency and its differential effects around the world, including within the British Isles. Furthermore, Brexit has resulted in a political dynamic that requires recalibration of the UK’s relationship with Europe and the rest of the world – which clearly risks the very existence of the UK in its current form. These are all epochal issues, and it is interesting how reluctant educationist in general seem to be in confronting the question of what appropriate educational responses should be. Guy Claxton’s riveting new read on the ‘future of teaching’, for example, barely mentions such issues and neither does Debra Kidd’s ‘curriculum of hope’ whilst acknowledging we live in ‘trying times’.
Deng calls for empirical work on the curriculum and in geography this could – should maybe – address those matters alluded to in the previous paragraph. Easier said than done perhaps. But now is surely the time. It might therefore be appropriate for readers to use the comment box to make their own suggestions regarding this call. Comments might then take the form the basis of a further blog post – also taking into account gaps and silences noted in the Ofsted review of research in geography.
 All these quoted words are from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/principles-behind-ofsteds-research-reviews-and-subject-reports/principles-behind-ofsteds-research-reviews-and-subject-reports
 Morgan, J., Hoadley, U. and Horden, J. (2019) On the politics and ambition of the ‘turn’: unpacking the relations between Future 1 and Future 3. Curriculum Journal, 30 (2) DOI:10.1080/09585176.2019.1575254
 Deng, Z. (2021) Powerful knowledge, transformations and Didaktik/curriculum thinking, British Educational Research Journal DOI: 10.1002/berj.3748
 Claxton, G. (2021) The Future of Teaching – and the myths that hold it back. Abingdon: Routledge.
 Kidd, D. (2020) A curriculum of Hope. Independent Thinking Press.
2 replies on “GEReCo and research priorities”
This should get us all thinking hard about what we teach. Curriculum at the centre of all we do. Ofsted ‘s report shows it to be struck in an updated mode of ‘rational curriculum planning’ that seems to be a response to the Claxton-esque school ‘transformers’. Meanwhile, sociology of education, which grew up a little as it began to take knowledge seriously, has reverted to idea that knowledge belongs to the powerful, when what is much more important is ways to connect and present an integrated view of people and planet. That is a research agenda.
This is a thought-provoking post – thank you. ‘Progression’ in geography should indeed not be reduced to just ‘knowing more and remembering more’, and more research is indeed needed into the influences on, and the content of, the geography curriculum, and not just the effectiveness of its delivery.
I also believe that it is indeed possible and desirable – although tricky – to have a geography curriculum that is able to introduce ‘critical’ and ‘political’ issues without being accused of indoctrinating students into certain ideological positions.
Finally, the ‘contemporary needs and challenges’ that Lambert writes about should indeed be given much more salience in the geography curriculum, and I would support calls for more intensive lobbying from professional bodies and other educationalists for this to happen. In terms of climate change, for example, simply including a sentence in the KS3 Programme of Study (now eight years old) that pupils should be taught to “understand how human and physical processes interact to influence, and change landscapes, environments and the climate; and how human activity relies on effective functioning of natural systems” is inadequate when it comes to preparing our young people to live with, cope with, and ultimately influence our world.
For a few more of my embryonic thoughts, most of which chime with Lambert’s take, please see this post, which I wrote recently in response to another of his articles: https://alcock.blog/2021/03/05/reinvigorating-the-global-dimension-of-school-geography/
I also welcome feedback, and I hope that this debate will continue, and will eventually translate into curriculum change that will benefit students and the planet alike.