Academic journal article Geography

Curriculum Development in 'New Times'

Academic journal article Geography

Curriculum Development in 'New Times'

Article excerpt


This article is intended to stimulate discussion about the type of geography curriculum appropriate to young people growing up in Britain in the twenty-first century. It starts from the position that there is a gap between the type of geography taught in schools and that taught in universities. This gap is a spur to reflection as to what should be taught in schools. The article provides an historical analysis of curriculum change in geography, and seeks to place these changes in their wider economic and social contexts.

Geography's new frontiers

My starting point is the record of a little-remembered conference held at Queen Mary's College just over 30 years ago. The papers collected in Change and Tradition: Geography's new frontiers provide a useful starting point for an analysis of curriculum change in schools and for thinking about the relationship between geography as studied and taught in universities and in schools. The conference was a response to the changes that had taken place in the academic subject since the mid1960s and looked to explore the implications of these changes for school geography.

In their contribution to the conference, entitled 'Reformation and revolution in human geography', David Smith and Philip Ogden stated the problem clearly:

'The past two decades have seen a number of important changes in human geography. While their major impact has been on the conduct of research and on the teaching of geography at the university level, these changes also have important implications for geography in school. Some of the new approaches have been slow to spread into school textbooks and teaching, with the result that students entering university are often unprepared for the kind of geography that awaits them' (1977, P. 47).

What is striking about this statement is that although the 'important changes' are those brought about by the change from 'old style' regional geography to the new 'scientific' geography, it could apply just as well to the various 'isms' associated with what, for the sake of brevity, I will call the 'cultural turn'. Smith and Ogden continued:

'Responsibility for the gap between human geography at school and in university lies in both institutions. Schools are bound by a syllabus designed de facto by a board of examiners who may be unfamiliar with recent developments in the field or disinclined to accept them. School teachers may be understandably reluctant to change their approach to accommodate every shift in the thinking of the avant garde of the profession. In the universities, those pioneering and adopting new approaches tend to write for colleagues rather than for students. Even university students may have to wait some years for a textbook that adequately explains a new method of analysis at a level that they can understand' (p. 47).

Smith and Ogden's paper was concerned to outline some of the important changes taking place in human geography and suggest their implications for teaching. They stressed that changes in the objects of study and the methods used to study them do not emanate simply from the discipline, but reflect in some way the conditions of the time. They pointed out that changes in academic disciplines do not occur in isolation, but reflect the society in which they take place. From this perspective, the quantitative revolution and its focus on spatial science reflected an era of faith in technological progress.

However, the late 1960s and early 1970s saw the 'rediscovery of poverty' in the United States, and the advent of the so-called 'relevance' debate in geography led to heightened concern with spatial and social justice. This led to divisions between those who adopted a liberal view of society that saw it as amenable to manipulation and reform (e.g. problem areas had distinctive characteristics) and those who adopted a more radical perspective which argued the need for system transformation (e. …

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