The value of multidisciplinary curricula conversations

This post has emerged from multidisciplinary curricula conversations that have taken place with the wonderful Lucy Austin. These conversations have proven to be extremely fruitful in terms of supporting curricular thinking that takes account of how our subjects work together to support a student’s journey through their geography and science education. It ultimately reveals how we can talk of one subject becoming another subject’s hinterland. 

From looking at the National Curriculum and GCSE specifications, I am sure it is clear to most teachers that there are some overlaps in content between geography, biology, chemistry, and physics. This is where for me this becomes a bit like a jigsaw puzzle but one that is worth pursuing because it is about a truly collaborative effort to support a student’s journey through both their geography and science education, without any crazy cross-curricularity in sight!

Building on students’ prior knowledge 

There are so many areas of geography where we would benefit from building on what is taught in biology, chemistry or physics. As a geography teacher about to teach “an example of a small-scale UK ecosystem illustrate the concept of interrelationships within a natural system, an understanding of producers, consumers, decomposers, food chain, food web and nutrient cycle”, I would benefit from knowing what students have studied around ecology in biology. More than this I would be better placed to activate schemata of students and draw on their prior knowledge if I was aware of how that subject content had been introduced and taught in biology. I liken this to the scenario of sharing a geography class with another teacher. Before teaching my lesson with the class I would want to know: what was taught in the preceding lesson, if there was anything the students struggled with and any misconceptions that arose.

Painting a richer picture

There are also examples where subjects have quite distinct offerings but we would benefit from making the connections explicit to students, so that they are supported to develop a richer picture across subject areas. For example, in chemistry students might learn about potable water (with a focus on how it is produced), whilst in geography students might learn about the global and UK balance between supply and demand, the impacts of water insecurity, strategies to increase water supply and how more sustainable use can be achieved. Together both subjects provide students with a richer picture of the resource management of water.

Providing hinterland

Another example revolves around distinguishing between the types of seismic waves involved in an earthquake. In geography knowing that there are different types of seismic waves (P- and S-waves) helps students understand why countries can invest systems to immediately slow down high-speed trains and shut-off gas lines as soon as the P-waves reach the surface, but before the more damaging S-waves hit. There is not any expectation that students should learn about P- and S-waves in this context (even at GCSE). Yet I have always found it provides students with a richer understanding of how the physical processes have shaped human responses and management, which is so fundamental to geography. At the same time by learning about P- and S-waves in the context of geography it provides students with a concrete example that can become hinterland for students when they learn more about different types of waves and their importance in detection and exploration in physics. As a geography teacher, I try to be aware of the “ultimate function” (Counsell, 2018) that this knowledge can serve beyond my subject, so that this thread can be picked up by a physics teacher.

If subject specialists have the time and space to enter into dialogue with each other, it  seems there are so many opportunities that can be discovered for where curricula in one subject can serve another. A nice example of this that Lucy spotted was that if students learn about glaciation in geography (and in particular the role water/ice plays within glacial processes), then this would provide supportive hinterland in chemistry when students begin to study chemical structures.

Curricula sequencing and knowledge structures

Curricula sequencing does need to be led by each individual subject, but it is fruitful to think about how decisions around sequencing can also serve to support the “indirect manifestation of knowledge” across subjects (Counsell, 2018). I think there is importance in ensuring students build on their prior knowledge and end up with a richer understanding of all their subjects, which can be achieved by making links explicit both to teachers and students.

Our curricula conversations were not just about finding areas of curricula overlap and interplay, but also went to the heart of thinking about the distinctiveness of our subjects and their knowledge structures. School geography is not easily defined as having either a hierarchical (vertical) or cumulative (horizontal) structure. However, it does appear that when thinking about the interplay possible between geography and the sciences (biology, chemistry and physics), the hierarchical nature of knowledge structures need to be more carefully navigated. In underplaying the significance of hierarchical structure where they exist, it seems that students’ knowledge is likely to end up being more superficial or insecure.

Has there been an absence of dialogue between geography and science teachers?

Margaret Roberts has repeatedly reminded geography educators of the value of engaging with science education literature and a few Teaching Geography articles from the 80s and 90s explored the overlap apparent within past iterations of the National Curriculum at Key Stage 3 (Mottershead & Hewitt, 1989; Adamczyk et al., 1994). I know that within my own PGCE I was encouraged to draw on relevant science education literature, especially around student misconceptions in areas that overlapped with geography. Around certain concepts, such as sustainability and sustainable development, there has been research that has taken place across geography and science education (e.g. Summers, Corney & Childs, 2004). More recently, the Geographical Association has launched their DfE Teaching and Learning Fund project that is running in partnership with the Association for Science Education. However, it does appear that there has been limited cross-fertilisation across geography and the sciences in terms of developing the curriculum in schools. So why is this? Firstly, school geography often tends to be perceived as a humanities subject and finds itself connected to history and religious studies within secondary school structures (Fordham, 2017). I wonder if this has limited the opportunity for sustained dialogue between science and geography teachers. Secondly, the complexity of geography teachers’ subject identity, means that some geography teachers are more well positioned than others to engage in curricula discussions that involve the sciences. Whilst, other geography teachers might be better placed to see the connections between geography and other subjects based on their experience and expertise.

Taking (geography) curriculum seriously – subject specialists, subject communities and sustaining subject expertise

So my inspiration to start blogging at this very moment is Christine Counsell’s momentous article on “Taking curriculum seriously”, which is found in the fourth issue of Impact. For me the article provides a springboard to consider the many significant opportunities and challenges when taking geography curriculum seriously. I think it is important to draw out these, because to take curriculum seriously, we must as Christine often emphasises be attentive to the distinctiveness of our subjects. Here I am just going to focus on the complexity of the disciplinary dimension in geography and how this is bound up with the importance of subject specialists, subject communities and sustaining subject expertise.

As a geography teacher I know that I need to be prepared to engage with how disciplinary practices work and ensure I teach with attentiveness to the nature of geographical knowledge, so that my students can fully appreciate that geographical knowledge is not something given, but is a product of scholarly research and critique. Without this disciplinary dimension, I fear we have immediately diminished the power of geography education for all our students. This also about the intellectual endeavour – as a geographer and geography teacher, I want to remain engaged with the disciplinary resource of geography. I do not want to merely be guided by exam board specifications. Steven Puttick’s research reminds us that chief examiners hold substantial power over school subjects and that this in turn can restrict access to certain aspects of geographical knowledge. In particular, there is the concern that chief examiners role in the recontexualisation of knowledge can “prevent engagement with disciplinary understandings and revisions of knowledge” (Puttick, 2015, p. 485) within school geography. This is why I find it most problematic that examination specifications can be sometimes represented as the gold standard of school geography. I also do not believe engaging with popular geography books or geography in the news is enough for me to remain conversant with the academic discipline of geography. Of course, that is not to say that these are not all valuable and/or necessary for geography teachers to draw upon, but there is something more. Clare Brooks’ research has powerfully illuminated the significant role teachers’ subject expertise plays in teacher identity and how this forms part of a teachers’ professional compass guiding teachers’ professional practice. I want to emphasise here that this subject expertise needs to be valued and sustained if we hope to do justice to disciplinary knowledge within the geography curriculum.

Schwab back in 1979 posed the questions: “What relevance may the structure of disciplines have for the purposes of education?” and “Why should the curriculum maker or teacher be concerned with the structure of the discipline with which he or she works” (p. 229).  These are two pertinent questions to revisit in the light of any endeavour to take curriculum seriously. There is a culture within the geography education community of positioning teachers as the final ‘curriculum makers’ and recognition for the importance of subject specialists that can take ownership and responsibility of the enacted geography curriculum.  For we need teachers that can “interpret the official intentions laid down in statute through the lens of their specialist knowledge” (Lambert, 2014, p. 167). Despite this in school geography, there has been a tendency to strip geographical knowledge of part of its integrity through disregarding the nature of this knowledge, and its production. It is well acknowledged that the ways “knowledge is created, tested and evaluated within geography” (Maude, 2016, p. 75) is an underdeveloped area of geography education (Lambert and Solem, 2018). This means that to some extent geography teachers have been disconnected with the structure of their discipline, which in turn means that the “distinctive pursuit of truth” (Counsell, 2018, p. 7) that the discipline of geography offers is sometimes obscured from students.

Yet, geography teachers have much to benefit from if they are able appreciate geography as an ever-evolving disciplinary resource. I would say as a geography teacher I am so grateful that we have such a vibrant, dynamic discipline and community of scholars to be inspired by. When I spent three days at the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference in August, it was an absolute pleasure to be able to see up close academic geographers talking about their research. Let me just take this one example. The Sustainable Development Goals were implemented in 2015 by the United Nations and are now being taught about within geography curriculum.* It was absolutely fascinating to see the scope of academic geographers’ research in this area. Geographers are exploring how landscapes are being changed and reproduced by this sustainable development agenda, as well as the power relations at play between different actors involved. In particular, Dr Jess Hope’s research involves analysing how non-governmental organisations work with social movements in Bolivia and how the SDGs encounter conflicts around energy mega projects. This points to teachers needing to enable students to see how the SDGs are enacted, who the stakeholders are, and how this is all mediated within the context of specific places and projects. For curricular thinking, this opens up issues around lots of the binaries that have been constructed in school geography: balancing breadth versus depth, deep versus superficial engagement with distant places, considering local versus global factors, and accounting for the human and the physical. Whilst there is great value in students being taught about the SDGs, I think it is necessary that they also understand the distinctive types of questions geographers are asking, and how geographers are making claims in their research around the implementation of the SDGs within specific geographical contexts.

There is much to be said about the differences and divides that characterise the relationship that has existed between school and academic geography. Gemma Collins and Graham Butt’s chapter in Debates in Geography Education provides a good overview around the gap between the two. I might have a blog post lined up for another day around the tensions that exist between the school subject and academic discipline of geography. But even if we acknowledge there is a complex relationship between the two, this does not let us of the hook –  there is great importance in teaching students about how geography remains in motion and how the body of geographical knowledge we teach has been influenced by the lenses through which geographers have viewed the world. This highlights the importance of subject specialists who have been fully inducted into the body of geography education scholarship that exists and are able to engage in debates around this within the geography subject community. Geography teachers need the time and space to sustain their subject expertise, so they can go some way to rendering the disciplinary visible to students. Ultimately this would contribute to the endeavour to make disciplinary knowledge explicit for all in the school geography curriculum.

*Stephen Scoffham’s contribution to the Autumn 2018 Geographical Association magazine entitled “Opening the door to the SDGs” provides a brief introduction to the opportunities and challenges of SDGs within the geography curriculum.