Time to make more space for knowledge production in geography education?

 William Quirke, Dan Swanton, Sarah Trolley, Lauren Hammond, and Grace Healy


Beginning in their very early years, children explore material and social spaces, asking questions and engaging with stories as they inquire in, and about, the world (Owens et al., 2023; Puttick, 2023). Geography speaks ‘directly to children’s curiosity, wonder and concern for the world around them’ (Owens et al., 2022, p. 20). From exploring the micro-ecological worlds of schools through citizen science (Dunkley, 2023) to participatory mapping with young people in cities (Swords et al., 2019), geography education in formal and informal education spaces can play an important role in nurturing this curiosity and (re)orientating young people’s attention in, and with, the world (Biesta, 2021). These illustrative examples highlight that studying geography involves developing deeper knowledge and understanding of the discipline, and increasing agency in inquiring in, and about, geography (Firth, 2014; Roberts, 2023).

In this article, we consider the value of supporting students to engage with knowledge production in geography education through providing them with opportunities for thinking geographically, being geographers and doing geography. Geography education in schools has sometimes failed to engage with epistemic nature of geography, or the nature of geographical knowledge (Firth, 2014), meaning that knowledge production has – at times – been left under-explored in curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment. This raises important questions about areas including, but not limited to; educators agency and confidence in teaching geographical methods; whether the nature of education spaces support students and educators in doing geography; and whether the geographical methods represented in geography curricula actively engage with disciplinary turns and thinking – for example, feminist, queer, decolonial and radical ways of inquiring – and how this shapes experiences and imaginations of knowledge production, as well as the representation of people and places in school geography.

The article draws upon contributions to an online seminar organised through the Geography Education Research Collective (GEReCo) in Spring 2024. Following a merger in 2019, GEReCo acts as the UK’s sub-committee of the International Geographical Union’s Commission on Geographical Education (IGU-CGE). It is significant to note that all current members of the collective have a primary affiliation to an education institution/association based in England, with some (honorary) members also working/researching in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and/or internationally. GEReCo seminars seek to contribute to academic debate in, and about, geography education through engaging with people working in a variety of roles and spaces, and/or who have different perspectives on, and experiences of, geography education[1]. For example, the Spring 2024 seminar had contributions from colleagues working in England and Scotland to support critical consideration of how the construction of geography as a school subject in national education policy shapes how it is taught, learnt, and assessed.

In the following section, William Quirke (Teaching Fellow: PGDE Geography & Sustainable Development Education in the Institute of Education, University of Strathclyde), Dr Dan Swanton (Senior Lecturer in Human Geography and Head of Teaching and Learning in the School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh), and Sarah Trolley (Senior Social Researcher at Defra and a recent geography teacher and MEd student at the University of Cambridge) – share a vignette from their research/practice, as they engage with these debates. We conclude the blog by reflecting on the importance of these discussions for young people and educators, also suggesting next steps for this work.

William Quirke: Opportunities and challenges for knowledge production in the Scottish geography classroom.  

Scottish education is currently experiencing a period of reform instigated by a number of recent reports and national consultations (Hayward 2023, Muir 2022). As such, there is much thought about the purpose of education and the range of knowledge and skills that ought to be included and assessed in the Curriculum for Excellence, Scotland’s national curriculum.

In relation to geography in the Broad General Education (BGE) phase in secondary school (ages 12-15), there are many opportunities for geography teachers to support learners in developing geographical skills to produce knowledge of their own. However, the extent to which this can be achieved is arguably supressed by current educational policy structures. Scotland has a robust policy foundation regarding the skills development of young people. To provide an example, published in 2009, Building the Curriculum 4 is a policy document which promotes ‘effective learning for children and young people enabling them to develop skills for learning, life and work across all aspects of the curriculum at all levels’ (Scottish Government, 2009). By focusing on nine key messages, the document highlights learner entitlements in this area and states the importance of learners being aware of and understanding the value of the skills they are developing within their educational careers. Although there is explicit mention of skills development in all curricular areas, my observations suggest that, in practice, this translates to a focus on the development of general skills such as time management, organisation, communication and leadership rather than distinct disciplinary skills related to a particular subject area such as disciplinary literacies or numeracies. This view is supported through other policy documents such as Developing the Young Workforce: Scotland’s Youth Employment Strategy (Scottish Government, 2014) and Developing the Young Workforce Career Education Standard (Education Scotland, 2015) which feature a focus on skills development in pursuit of future employability as opposed to the creation of knowledge.

Thus, geography teachers in Scotland may find themselves in a situation where value is only placed on geographical skills that are interdisciplinary and transferable to the world of work. A consequence of this may be an incentive for teachers to deliver lessons that forgo opportunities to develop skills for geographical enquiry in favour of a ‘jug and mug’ or ‘chalk and talk’ model of teaching geographical knowledge where learners are passive recipients of teacher knowledge. There is only one Experience and Outcome (a statement which outlines progression in learning) mentioning geographical enquiry: ‘SOC 4-12b I can carry out a geographical enquiry to assess the impact and possible outcomes of climate change on a selected region and can propose strategies to slow or reverse the impact’ (Education Scotland, n.d. p10). Apart from this, there is little to mandate teachers to facilitate knowledge creation in BGE geography lessons. However, despite these challenges, it is important to note that there is a lot of flexibility within the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence and geography teachers have a high level of autonomy. They are free to choose their own case studies, examples, pedagogical approaches, and modes of delivery to engage with the curriculum and have the freedom to engage with learning through local, national and international contexts of their own choosing. With this in mind, there is opportunity for teachers to take full advantage of this autonomy and find their own ways to make space for knowledge production in their own geography classrooms.

Dan Swanton: Using a zine assessment to make space for student curiosity

In this vignette I share some reflections on a zine assessment ( that I use with Year 3 and 4 undergraduate students to assess fieldwork on an optional course on cities. In the course we read, make and share zines as part of fieldwork assessment.  The fieldwork element is designed to build student confidence in the key theories and ideas by inviting students to design a half-day group fieldwork project focusing on a neighbourhood in Edinburgh. The students then make individual zines to document and share their fieldwork experience.

Zines are home-made, self-published magazines. They are made by folding a sheet of A3 paper into an 8-sided booklet. Making a zine typically involves folding, writing, drawing, collaging, cutting and pasting. Zines combine text with drawn and found images to create a visual and material artefact. One appeal is that zines offer a creative medium for students to document and reflect on their experiences of doing fieldwork and their responses to the ideas, methods, place, people and practices that they encounter. Another appeal is that zines are a type of participatory media. They are participatory in two senses. First, zines make space for personal and political stories that matter to whoever makes them.  Second, zines are participatory because they invested in public sharing (Piepmeier, 2008, p.58), zines are made to be shared and read.

Inspired by the writing of Sarah Ahmed (2019) and Rosmarie Garland-Thomson (2011) I’ve come to think of zines as a misfit assessment. It’s a misfit because it is out of sorts with many of the norms, assumptions and infrastructures that have developed around assessment in higher education. Zines breaks plagiarism-detection software; they sit uncomfortably with grade-related marking criteria; they challenge expectations of student academic writing. But these misfitting qualities of zines are generative. The zine assessment makes space for student curiosity, creativity and collaboration.

Zines make space for student curiosity in at least two ways. First, introducing zines and zine culture in an academic course can spark a searching and critical curiosity amongst students about different perspectives, voices and experiences. Zines can foreground people and stories that are often marginalised in curricula and encourage students to question the practices through which knowledge is produced and authorised contributing to important work decolonising and diversifying the curriculum (Gebrial, 2018; Second, when paired with student-designed fieldwork the zine assessment makes space for co-creation allowing students to make their learning relevant to them personally and to others. Zines become a vehicle for embedding engaged and critical pedagogies that emphasises the ‘need to actively transform knowledge, rather than passively come to it’ and value the ‘experiences, histories, and resources that students bring to the classroom’ (Giroux, 1983, p.7). The zine assessment works helps moving away from what Freire (1970) characterised as a banking model of teaching. The assessments help break down barriers between the classroom learning and everyday life. The material form of the zine, alongside its place in participatory cultures of knowledge sharing and organisation, challenges the students to reflect on, and practice, an ethics and politics of knowledge production. The zines assessment follows a more hopeful, ‘life-affirming’ approach that values students as partners and co-creators. It makes space for student agency in the learning process and pushes them to think about how knowledge should be an active force in shaping. A more just world.

Sarah Trolley: Beginning to explore A-level student’s ideas of knowledge in geography

When welcoming new Year 12 students (16-17 years old) at the start of their A level course to the Geography Department one September, I asked the class a few questions to get to know them. One of my questions was ‘what is your favourite topic in geography?’. One student said they preferred human geography, their explanation was particularly interesting: they enjoyed human geography because it is ‘all opinions’, whereas physical geography is ‘all facts’.

This made me curious. How do students’ view geography; specifically, how do they make sense of the nature of knowledge in human and physical geography.  This sparked a research project – as part of a Master in Education (MEd) course – consisting of 11 semi-structured interviews with Year 12 students. During the interviews students discussed their ideas about human and physical geography. One student, for example, said that for them human geography is like a ‘food web’ that has ‘no set place to start’, whereas physical geography was more like a ‘flow chart’. As I reflected on these ideas, I wondered where the student’s ideas had originated. Had I been teaching human geography as a ‘food web’ and physical geography as a ‘flow chart? It seemed clear, however, that the participating students held complex ideas about physical and human geography.

This research made me more determined to discuss knowledge in my classroom and make space for students to question the nature of geographical knowledge. I am still pondering how to best integrate these discussions into lessons and schemes of work, but have so far found Non-Exam Assessment (NEA) lessons fruitful in discussing what it is possible to know in geography and where geographical knowledge comes from with students.


Professor Pat Noxolo’s (2017, p.319) argues that “knowledge is not ‘universal and independent of context’, but is always deeply imbricated in power, and in the contingencies of its time, location and relations of production”. This emphasises how fundamental teaching about and engaging with forms of knowledge production is for geographical education. Within the short seminar and this blog post, we cannot do justice to the breadth and depth of knowledge, perspectives and experiences that exist around knowledge production in geography, rather we see this as a contribution to provoke reflection and enable others to consider absences and challenges in discussions so far.

We hope that if you engaged with the seminar and/or read this post, you might be able to reflect on your own research/practice as geography teachers/researchers/academics like Will, Dan and Sarah have about the space you give to engaging with knowledge production;

Firstly, you might consider what shapes the ways you think about knowledge production, and what influences your practice. For example: Is it what is written in national curricula/specifications? Is it formal professional development or informal conversations with colleagues?

Secondly, you might be inspired by the ways Sarah’s students were able to talk about their experiences and engage in discussions with children and young people about what they understand about knowledge production.

Thirdly, you might think about the artefacts you use that provide insights into knowledge production (as Dan does) and the ways in which assessment demonstrates importance of this aspect of geographical education.


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[1] You can access recordings of some of the previous seminars through the GEReCo blog: GEReCo Blog – GEReCo UK IGU-CGE

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