Geography Teachers' Conceptions of Knowledge

By Puttick, Steve | Teaching Geography, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Geography Teachers' Conceptions of Knowledge


Puttick, Steve, Teaching Geography


Th /s article continues 'the knowledge debate' by reporting on an ongoing research project into teachers' conceptions of knowledge.

The knowledge debate is only just beginning. Michael Young (2007), whose sociology of knowledge has informed these emerging discussions (Morgan, 201 1 ), recently offered a frank critique of knowledge in geography education:

. . . nowhere in these chapters do I find the powerful concepts that geography offers referred to. is this a lack of confidence or are they taken for granted by geography educators? . . . [Brooks] is unable or unwilling to address the basic questions facing geography teachers - 'what is geographical knowledge?' and 'why is it important that students should have access to it?' (Young, 201 1 pp. 181-183.)

Firth (2007) has argued that knowledge and pedagogy are often (mistakenly) thought of as being separate, and pedagogy has dominated, prioritising issues about how to teach at the expense of questions about what to teach. He also recently argued that 'this neglect extends beyond questions about what knowledge to teach, to epistemological questions about the very nature of knowledge' (Firth, 201 1 , p.261 ).

Teachers' conceptions of geography

While there is little research focusing on knowledge in geography education, studies have explored teachers' broad understandings of geography. Walford (1996) asked 105 PGCE students one question: What is geography? He categorised responders as: spatialists; interactionists; synthesisers; and placeists. Recognised by Walford (ibid) as being only a 'glimpse behind the curtain', these broad categories have also been criticised for concealing more than they reveal. Nevertheless, his categories and open-question survey methodology have been widely replicated. Brooks (201 0) took a different approach, studying, in depth, six individual teachers. Her conclusion was that teachers have distinctive understandings of what geography is, and these views affect their teaching.

Chasms and divides

Goudie's (1 993) metaphor of a 'chasm' separating the academic discipline and the school subject has been influential. The evidence provided for this divide includes structural factors such as the RAE (research assessment exercise), which has focused academic geographers on activities such as publishing in certain journals (Teaching Geography would not qualify) rather than writing school textbooks or contributing to examination specifications. Changes to teaching are also cited: teachers are busier, more often held to account, and measured against narrower criteria, than previously. In both school and university, there seems to be a lack of time, or recognition of the need for developing relationships.

This raises a question about the origin of knowledge in school geography. If it is not from the academic discipline of geography, where does it come from? The BBC? Wikipedia? Specificationspecific textbooks? And does the origin (or context of production) of knowledge matter?

Teachers are often referred to as 'curriculum makers'. I take this as recognising at the very least that all policy, the National Curriculum, subject association manifestos and so on never have a direct influence in classrooms: they are interpreted by teachers. Therefore, understandings of teachers' conceptions of knowledge and the ways in which they construct a relationship between these fields are vitally important.

Summary of study design

This is a qualitative, small-scale study of one school geography department, involving individual and joint interviews and observation of the department's shared space. The department maybe judged as highly successful: they have outstanding results and inspections and the teachers play an active role in subject associations (RGS-IGB, GA). Findings from this department were also discussed in a joint interview with two geography education researchers. Pseudonyms have been used throughout. …

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