Why Geography Teachers' Subject Expertise Matters

By Brooks, Clare | Geography, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

Why Geography Teachers' Subject Expertise Matters


Brooks, Clare, Geography


ABSTRACT:

Research has yet to pinpoint the role of geography teachers' subject expertise and the influence that it can have on practice. This article is based on research conducted with 'expert' or experienced geography teachers to explore how they use their subject expertise in their practice. The results from two teachers are presented here and illustrate how teachers can develop a personalised view of the subject which can then become important to them. The geography teachers described their geographical expertise as a guiding principle which influenced their practice and their decision making. The article argues that nurturing such a relationship with the subject is important for new teachers of geography.

Introduction

In discussions about subject content and the curriculum, the emphasis is often placed on lesson content as though it is separate from the teachers themselves. Kelly (2009) argues that because teachers are central to what happens in classrooms, they can 'make or break' curriculum policy. This means that understanding how teachers view their subject is crucial to understanding what happens in geography classrooms.

Research on teachers' subject knowledge in geography education has focused mainly on newlyqualified teachers (NQTs) and their understandings of geography. However, it has not been able to explain why teachers' subject expertise matters. The research upon which this article is based adopts a different approach. First, the emphasis is on the practice of experienced or 'expert' teachers, focusing on those who have had time to reflect on and refine their practice. This is not to suggest that their practice has stopped developing (on the contrary), but that their current practice is based on a variety of past experiences. Second, the research seeks to understand how teachers view and value geography, paying attention to their experiences as both students of geography and as teachers in schools. The emphasis is on their descriptions of the subject, rather than the way that geography is traditionally understood and categorised.

Geography teachers' subject knowledge

Teachers' experience of academic geography depends on where and when they studied. Academic geography, as a discipline, is a human creation, defined and maintained by people (Johnston, 1985; 1991). This means that there is no single, commonly-agreed definition of geography. As Goodson notes:

'Subjects are not monolithic entities, but shifting amalgamations of subgroups and traditions that through contestation and compromise influence the direction of change' (1987, p. 64).

Johnston (1991) argues that such rivalry of ideas and influences can come from both inside and outside the discipline. Therefore, how 'geography' has been understood changes over time (Johnston, 1991; Unwin, 1992; Livingstone, 1993). Indeed, Unwin (1992) identifies distinctive phases in geography's history which he labels: Regional, The Quantitative Revolution, Humanistic, Behavioural, Radical and Post-modem approaches. There is significant debate on how these phases have affected different aspects of the discipline in different ways (see e.g. Matthews and Herbert, 2004; Maude, 2006; Jackson, 1993), but broadly these changes have influenced how geography was studied and what content was considered valuable, as well as different methods for studying the subject.

School geography is similarly dynamic: its relationship with the academic subject (see Kent, 2000; Chalmers et al., 2002; Brown and Smith, 2000; Morgan and Lambert, 2005; Bonnett, 2003a, b; Stannard, 2003) has remained a significant, but not the sole, influence on how the subject is taught in schools. For instance, Walford (2001), analysing school geography from 18502000, observes that it has been influenced by broad changes and developments in pedagogy such as 'progressive' notions of teaching and learning. Focusing on school geography textbooks from the same period, Graves concludes that '[Geography school] textbooks tend to follow society, rather than lead it' (2001, p. …

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