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Reinvigorating the global dimension of school geography

Pacific Ocean Horizon. Source: NASA; https://no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fil:Iss007e10807.jpg

What themes might reinvigorate the global dimension of geographical education?

How should geographical education engage with visions of the future?

These are the two concerns of this post, and they are intertwined.

The post mainly concerns geographical education, but the discipline is necessarily implicated.  It is meant as a discussion generator rather than as an academic article, so please excuse any clangers and unattributed notions!

The Geography of It All

The immediate trigger for this post is ‘The Geography of It All’, a recent article by David Lambert (2021), which poses the central question of “[W]hat does geographical study bring to the table, especially in our deliberations with young people about contemporary predicaments and existential challenges[?]”.

It is an accessible and thought-provoking piece which is open about geography’s predicament, warts and all.  So, for example, Lambert flags up geography’s physical-human divide, its involvement in ‘competing’ with history for students, and its complexity, which threatens to overwhelm the integrity of the discipline.  But he is insistent in promoting the value of geography – not just for students, but for the future of planet earth.  His concluding paragraph is worth quoting in full:

“An appropriate educational response to the human epoch needs to value geographical thinking: thinking that does not put human beings above (or even separate from) nature; that puts locales and nations into their global context; and which always seeks to understand interconnections. I believe reformed school geography, which seeks to enhance children and young people’s capabilities with regard to thinking about society and nature relationships and environmental futures, represents a profound educational response to the challenges of the human epoch.”

Lambert therefore sees global futures as integral to the future of geography.  I concur, and I offer some considerations that might inform the global dimension of ‘a reformed school geography’.

The symbiosis of History and Geography

Lambert notes how philosophers of history are increasingly recognising the role of earth systems in the story of humankind.  If the role of the ‘non-human’ is indeed becoming more salient in the discipline of history, then this raises the prospect that we might see this feed more explicitly into the school history curriculum in the years to come.  We must hope that this will see an appreciation of the importance of human/non-human interactions and planetary limits rather than a re-emergence of environmental determinism.

Just as history is coming to terms with the environment, I argue that geography should be more comfortable with temporality.  In a presentation to the recent GA Geography Teacher Educators Conference[1], I showed images of four two-page spreads from a current A Level textbook on the theme of human development.  There were a handful of maps, a smattering of tables and photographs, but no graphs showing change over time – and little recognition of trends in the text either.  This may be an extreme example, but could it be symptomatic of an underplaying of trends in some parts of the geography curriculum, particularly in global development?  Might this go some way to explaining why many students are so surprised when they are confronted with evidence for long-term improvements in a wide range of indicators of social flourishing, as presented by resources from the Gapminder Institute, Our World in Data, and so on?

Lifting our eyes up

Alongside a consideration of how much attention geographers could spend on long-term trends, it is timely to consider to who we claim to be speaking on behalf of.  Indeed, although Lambert’s article chimes with my thoughts on the subject’s global dimension, his comment that “we are browbeaten about the end of progress (when we can no longer assume our children will have ‘better’ lives than their parents)” deserves closer attention.  His use of ‘we’ and ‘our children’ appears to be made from the view of someone in the global north – and yes, from that standpoint, there has arguably been a narrowing of horizons, a questioning of progress, and a growing sense of unease, driven by inequality and widespread economic stagnation.

However, taking into account a broad sweep of socio-economic measures from a range of well-respected IGOs, and notwithstanding stubborn levels of inequality within countries, living conditions for most people in the global south have seen continual improvements over at least the past seventy years (Roser, 2018; Rosling et al, 2018), meaning that, in most respects, many global citizens are living ‘better lives’ than their parents, and many will expect their offspring to live ‘better lives’ in their turn.

Figure 1: The world is much better.  The world is awful.  The world can be much better (Roser, 2018)

Drawing students’ attention to these achievements (see, for example, Alcock, 2019a, 2019b; Standish, 2020), should not be seen as being dismissive of remaining problems, or as being ignorant of the huge challenges of the Anthropocene.  As Max Roser – the founder of Our World in Data – has written, “The world is much better.  The world is awful.  The world can be much better.  All three statements are true” (Roser, 2018; see Figure 1).  There is indeed a great opportunity for a rich and far-reaching debate to be had, not only amongst geography educators, but also between students, on the theme of ‘progress’.  This would draw on commentators who have responded critically to proponents of an ‘optimistic’ or, as Rosling would have it, a ‘possibilistic’ worldview (see, for example, Hickel, 2017; Paulsen, 2019a, 2019b; Aguilera, 2020).

A reformed school geography, I argue, should enable students to develop a more accurate and balanced evaluation of humanity’s achievements and failures over a prolonged period, and at a global scale.  Such a worldview would not be uncritical of economic and social failings or of environmental crises.  Instead, it would contextualise them.  It would not underplay young people’s anxieties about the future.  But it would embolden them to develop a sense of hope, as they would be able to draw confidence from previous successes – such as victories in human rights, reductions in child mortality, and increases in renewable energy supplies – with which to face the future.  This balanced evaluation would also assist them – and us, as teachers – to pursue our shared geographical journey to explore the challenges of the Anthropocene.

My other reflections on Lambert’s post come under three broad themes.

Three global themes

With the above comments in mind, and in response to Lambert’s provocation, what might the global element of a ‘reformed school geography’ look like?  I offer three very broad approaches.  These are rough and ready, incomplete, overlapping, and they piggyback on the ideas of many others.  Indeed, many elements are already taking place in classrooms – and remote learning environments – across the country!  My main aim is to stimulate a reaction, to help geography stay relevant, engaging and attractive, but moreover, so that it is able to be more responsive to the challenges facing the human and non-human world.

Big Picture Geographies

  • Big Picture Geography would entail an increased awareness of significant historical trends in ‘human’ geography (using data visualisations such as those on Our World in Data), accompanied by a focus on graphicacy skills.
  • It would also harness the power of ‘big picture’ narratives.  In a comment below Lambert’s piece, the historian Andreas Koerber identifies a new wave of large-scale popular historiography which he calls ‘Big History’ but whose contents are often deeply geographical (for example, Frankopan, 2015 and Diamond, 2011).   This appetite for popular narratives which explore long-term changes over space exposes a vein of curiosity which geographers should leap at the opportunity to tap into.  Geography teachers and students should take care not to be ‘prisoners of geography’ and look outside of our traditional literary domains.
  • Big Picture Geography should be informed by a decolonised approach to the subject: it should involve a wider range of perspectives, it should heed more voices, and it should acknowledge and problematise the long history of shifting power relationships.

Co-operative Geographies

  • For too long, Garrett Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ (1968) has been the go-to resource use theory for many geography teachers, myself included.  However, although it assumes innocent actors combining to cause large-scale problems, in its application, it heightens misanthropic prejudices and a pessimistic view of human co-operation.  It is time for a tilt towards co-operative geographies.  These would give due recognition to evidence showing the fundamental decency and collective mindedness of most humans.  Giving more saliency to Elinor Ostrom’s theories of small-scale co-operative management of common resources would not only be closer to what happens ‘on the ground’ in many cases, but it would restore some much-needed belief in humanity.  Rutger Bregman’s Humankind (2020) is another weapon in the geographer’s armoury against cynicism: he draws on a wide range of historical evidence to argue that believing in human kindness and altruism can change how we think and act.
  • An examination of different scales of co-operation would be a great geographical project, and a way to build a conceptual bridge from the local to the global.  It could draw parallels between small-scale community initiatives such as Friends groups and Green Flag projects, regional and national instances of altruistically pulling together (as shown by the high levels of adherence to social distancing rules in the Covid-19 pandemic), and international and global examples of co-operation, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
  • As Elise Boulding pointed out in 1988, IGOs and NGOs may be interpreted as aspects of a co-operative global civic culture which fosters ideals of global interdependence, sustainable development and peace – but how often do we refer to them as such?  And how have geography teachers framed largely successful co-operative endeavours such as the European Union?  Generations of students grew up thinking of the EU as creators of milk lakes and butter mountains and pesky imposers of fishing quotas, rather than as engines for peace and creators of social democratic norms.  (Did Boris Johnson bribe David Waugh?)
  • A more realistic, historical, and evidence-based awareness of how humans pull together, adapt, and respond to resource challenges would also enrich secondary school geography.  A move away from the discredited theories of Thomas Malthus to a more nuanced examination of the ideas of a range of thinkers, including
  • Ester Boserup, Kate Raworth and Ruth DeFries (see, for example, DeFries, 2014) would reveal different takes on the contentious issue of population/resource management.  This might then soothe pupils’ fears of a ‘population explosion’ (which, according to one KS3 Geography video on the otherwise commendable Oak Academy, is still happening!) and instead open up a new sense of optimism for engaging with the future.

Planetary Futures

  • Reinvigorating the ‘futures dimension’ is vital in reformed secondary school geography.  The groundwork for this has been laid down by David Hicks and others since the 1990s.  The theme of the 2007 GA Conference was Future Geographies, and there is a significant bank of resources and skilled practitioners that could be drawn upon from the past thirty years or so.  Francis Hutchinson (1996) is also a source of inspiration for geographers who are keen to get a handle on how to teach a futures-orientated curriculum.  An intriguing and agenda-setting article by Hoffman et al (2021), based on action research, found that “a futuring approach to education… contributes to an enhanced sense of agency among students in dealing with wicked problems”.
  • Sitting squarely alongside futures education, but also drawing from the ideas of ‘Big Picture’ and ‘Co-operative’ geographies, a reinvigorated and evidentially grounded ‘geography of hope’ should surely play a role in the education of future geographers: this would help students to evaluate progress, believe in humanity, and then, using these insights, help them to create a better world[2].
  • Climate change deserves a special place in the curriculum.  As the ultimate global ‘wicked problem’ – and one which is not going away any time soon, it deserves a permanent, significant, and guaranteed place at the table, and it should be repeatedly visited in the classroom.  The wording in the National Curriculum is not emphatic enough.  Climate change is a touchstone environmental issue and one which the public view as being inherently geographical.  It also allows for the development a panoply of hard and soft skills, as well as providing an opportunity to feed into ‘Big Picture’ and ‘Co-operative’ geographies.  Two of the most pressing needs are firstly for students to be able to have the skills to navigate the debate about ‘who is to blame’ for climate change, and secondly to appreciate the relative impact that different strategies might have on overcoming this challenge (see, for example, Project Drawdown): what use is recycling and turning lights off, if steel and concrete production continue unhindered, and animal products remain a mainstay of so many diets?
  • Planetary futures would also provide a suitable home for Late-covid and Post-covid geographies.  The resource bank developed by Alan Parkinson (2020) is a treasure trove for educators which could be used to help conceive of a post-covid world.  Applying some of the insights to other infectious diseases would help to bring up discussions in health geography which until now may, for many of our students, have been muted owing largely to the fact that diseases have mostly occurred ‘in other places’.

Bringing young people in

Lambert is passionate about developing children and young people’s capabilities; I agree, and they deserve a central and active role in the future of school geography, both as agents in the reformulation of the curriculum, and as citizens of the world it – and they – will help to shape.  If we are bold enough to reform the way we approach the global dimension of school geography, then we should involve young people in our journey.  Exactly how this could be done is beyond the scope of this piece!

As the world moves on, so must geography.  If we accept that the Anthropocene is indeed a ‘game-changer’ (as Lambert refers to it on a comment in the thread below his article), we need to continue with the pivot to the global and take the futures dimension seriously too.

I welcome feedback on these ideas.

David

References

Aguilera, R. (2020) The Glass Half-Empty – Debunking the Myth of Progress in the Twenty-First Century. London: Repeater

Alcock, D. (2019a) ‘An Optimistic Education: Rebalancing the curriculum to more accurately convey human progress’. Impact: Journal of Chartered College of Teaching, Issue 6: https://impact.chartered.college/article/an-optimistic-education-rebalancing-curriculum-accurately-convey-human-progress/

Alcock, D. (2019b) ‘Optimism, Progress and Geography – Celebration and Calibration’. Teaching Geography, 44(3), 118-120

Boulding, E. (1988) Building a Global Civic Culture: Education for an Interdependent World. Teachers College Press: Columbia University, New York.

Bregman, R. (2020) Humankind – A Hopeful History.  London: Bloomsbury

DeFries, R. (2014) The Big Ratchet – How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis.  New York: Basic Books

Diamond, J. (2011) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive.  London: Penguin

Frankopan, P. (2016) The Silk Roads: London: Bloomsbury

Hardin, G. (1968) The Tragedy of the Commons: Science, New Series, Vol. 162, No. 3859 (Dec. 13, 1968), pp. 1243-1248

Hickel, J. (2017) The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions. London: Heinemann

Hoffman, J., Pelzer, P., Albert, L., Béneker, T., Hajer, M., Mangnus, A. (2021) ‘A futuring approach to teaching wicked problems’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, January 2021 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03098265.2020.1869923

Hutchinson, F. (1996) Educating Beyond Violent Futures.  London: Routledge

Lambert, D. (2021) ‘The Geography of It All’, Public History Weekly 9:1 https://public-history-weekly.degruyter.com/9-2021-1/geography-anthropocene/ (Accessed 1.3.21)

Parkinson, A. (2020) New PC Geographies (Post Coronavirus) v10.0 September 2020 https://docs.google.com/document/d/12tYZmYIa0oUFIu9MzxF6Bt102uc0oasb3clShmpH7d8/edit (Accessed 3.3.21)

Paulsen, R. (2019a) ‘Better and better?  A comment on Hans Rosling’ YouTube: Better and better? A comment on Hans Rosling – YouTube (Accessed 1.3.21)

Paulsen, R. (2019b) ‘Why You Shouldn’t Listen to Self-Serving Optimists Like Hans Rosling and Steven Pinker’ In These Times, 27 March, 2019: Why You Shouldn’t Listen to Self-Serving Optimists Like Hans Rosling and Steven Pinker – In These Times (Accessed 1.3.21)

Roser, M. (2018) The world is much better.  The world is awful.  The world can be much better.  Webpage – https://ourworldindata.org/much-better-awful-can-be-better (Accessed 1.3.21)

Standish, A. (2020) ‘Time for geography to catch up with the world’, Geography, 105:3, 135-141, DOI: 10.1080/00167487.2020.12106475

By David Alcock (Geography Teacher at Bradford Grammar School and founder of Hopeful Education @HopefulEd)


[1] ‘What might a more hopeful geography look like?’ Presentation given to 2021 GA Geography Teacher Educators Conference: https://www.geography.org.uk/Previous-Conference-materials#16

[2] The author declares an interest here: see his presentation given to the 2021 GTE Conference, op cit, and www.twitter.com/HopefulEd

By alcockblog

Optimist, Geography teacher, teaching and learning champion, interested in progress, social and environmental sustainability and outdoor learning. Father, orienteer, fell runner. @DavidAlcock1

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