Keep ‘global issues’ out of the classroom

The author of a new book on geography teaching says the subject should not be exploited to forcefeed kids ‘values’.

Alex Standish

Topics Politics

Why teach geography? It could be because of something intrinsic to the discipline itself, that there is something enlightening about learning geography. On the other hand, perhaps it is because it serves some ulterior or extrinsic purpose, such as for citizenship, values and attitudes, the environment, vocational training or developing global perspectives. Sometimes the latter may be an unintended consequence of the former, but it is important for teachers to understand the difference and where their professional responsibilities lie. It is my contention that the job of geography teachers is geographical education – not political activism, saving the environment, building citizenship, training or anything else.

Instrumental rationale are increasingly being cited to justify geography’s place in twenty-first century American and English/Welsh curricula. This fundamental revision of the nature and purpose of learning geography has been driven by politicians, education policymakers (like the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) in the UK), and some leading geographers, notably the UK Geographical Association. This development rests upon a second premise: that the geographical education of young people is being undermined by theorists and practitioners who use postmodern theory to challenge the notion of subjects as bodies of objective knowledge. Extrinsic aims are, in many cases, serving to fill a moral vacuum previously occupied by geographical knowledge and skills.

The outcome is that the intrinsic reasons for teaching geography are being lost to many teachers and students. In the instances where this has taken place, such as the English and Welsh national curriculum for geography, what is left is a fundamentally different subject, which goes by the name of geography, and may even involve learning about other places and people, but which does not even begin to teach students about the principles and essential ideas behind the subject.

Key to geography’s newfound instrumental purpose was the onset of globalisation. Policymakers and some subject leaders looked to geography to provide young people with a sense of global connectivity, global perspectives or global citizenship (1). Superficially, this sounds like a great idea. Who would be against replacing the national bias inherent to many twentieth-century curricula with a truly cosmopolitan approach that cuts across cultural differences?

But unfortunately, this is not what is being offered here. The ‘s’ at the end of global perspectives is all too significant: it means respecting the contributions of other cultures, viewing one’s culture as an equal among others, and learning about global issues and viewing these from the perspective of others. In other words, its central purpose is not to educate students about the world, but rather to shape the values, attitudes and behaviours of young people. Therefore, global perspectives means respecting differences of viewpoint and culture, rather than evaluating and challenging them. This redefines education as a set of attitudes and values (such as acquiescence to difference) rather than an intellectual pursuit (the search for truth). But how are geography students to describe and explain the world if they do not seek to understand it?

Geography in American and English/Welsh schools

It is important to note some significant differences between geography in American and English/Welsh schools. The introduction of social studies to the American curriculum early in the twentieth century had the effect of sidelining geography in schools. The primary focus of social studies was preparation for the role of citizens in the republic. Hence, the subject of history played a leading role, with economics, sociology, psychology and geography all playing supporting parts. Geography’s place in the curriculum varied from state to state, but overall it was, and continues to be, poorly represented in schools.

Ironically, its weaker position in American schools has left the subject more intact, at least among subject leaders, than its English/Welsh equivalent. Being less exposed to the political pressures under which schools have been placed, many American geographers continue to promote a knowledge- and skills-based curriculum. Hence, Geography for Life: The National Standards (1994) was produced through the contributions of some 350 leading geographers. This document, currently under revision, is presently the most authoritative geography curricula document. Nevertheless, geography textbooks and teaching in America have been subjected to some political and cultural pressures leading to a rise of ethical and vocational objectives in the curriculum.

Geography’s story in England and Wales is an entirely different matter. Since the time of the British Empire, geography has featured as an important discipline in English and Welsh schools. It is taught at both primary and secondary levels and features as a foundational national curriculum subject. Unlike the US national standards, the writing of the geography national curriculum was highly politicised from the start. However, in the mid-1990s, with declining numbers of students opting to take geography for GCSE (for 14- to 16-year-olds) and A Level (for 16- to 18-year-olds), concern grew about its place in the national curriculum.

This situation no doubt contributed to geography’s newfound alliance with the government education quango, the QCA, and some non-governmental organisations. Leading geographers began promoting geography’s potential to contribute to the citizenship national curriculum, introduced in the early 2000s. They were heavily influenced by Oxfam’s Curriculum for Global Citizenship, a document which highlighted the potential of subjects not traditionally associated with citizenship education, such as geography and English, to play a leading role in the delivery of its themes. The result has been that the geography curriculum in England and Wales has been taken over by these instrumental aims.

Global issues in the curriculum

‘Global perspectives’ in geography necessitates an exploration of global issues such as climate change, inequality, disease and ill-health, cultural conflict, poverty and natural disasters, the purpose of which is frequently to initiate a personal response or reaction from students rather than an attempt to understand the issue in its given geographical and political settings.

For instance, some geography curricula recommend that students take the global footprints quiz in order to measure their environmental impact. At the end of the quiz, the student is informed of ways in which he can modify his behaviour to lower his environmental impact. This is highlighted as a valuable educational tool because it will ‘encourage pupils to consider the impact of their own lifestyle on the possibility of a sustainable future’ (2). However, there is a strong moral imperative behind ‘considering the impact’ of one’s lifestyle on the environment, suggesting that the lifestyle needs to change.

This environmental ethic is further encouraged by teaching materials that advocate sustainable development and intermediate technology for less developed countries. In one common secondary education textbook, intermediate technology (read: less-advanced technology) is described as more ‘appropriate’ for these countries because it introduces ‘labour intensive projects’ and ‘low-cost schemes and technologies’ at ‘a pace the country can afford’ (3). The book cites the work of the non-governmental organisation Intermediate Technology Group in Kenya as exemplary, but fails to question why a different standard is being applied to poorer countries than those in the West.

Geography, as a subject that considers the interaction between people and their natural environment, has for a long time been concerned with natural disasters. However, some geography lessons today go beyond an understanding of the natural forces at work and how people respond to natural disasters. Instead, the focus is on the student making a connection with the event. One leading geographer encourages an ethical teaching approach because ‘some students find it challenging to connect their lives with the areas that have been affected by a disaster’ (4). Could that be because there is no connection? The 2004 Asian tsunami produced a flurry of teaching material seeking to cajole students into making some personal and emotional connection to the event, even if that wasn’t their own reaction. In one example, a photo journal of Sri Lankan tsunami survivor is used in conjunction with a ‘What’s this got to do with me?’ worksheet to help students develop a personal response.

Respecting or being tolerant of cultural diversity is a prominent theme in many geography courses today. Leading American high-school geography textbooks have embraced multiculturalism as an objective. The introduction to one textbook describes multicultural education as ‘a curriculum and way of teaching that acknowledges the cultural diversity of the United States and the world and sees this diversity as a positive fact of life’ (5). Because the goal is merely for students to respect other cultures, rather than analyse them, textbooks seek to include multiple cultures and present them in a positive light. This leads to superficial and banal representations of cultural achievements. It is as if cultures have been objectified as museum pieces to be gazed at rather than culture being taught as the transient product of human imagination and skill.

When the objective of lessons is to respect or to be tolerant of other cultures, then geography is not an academic pursuit but a lesson in values inculcation. The intellectual study of cultures necessitates exploration, analysis and evaluation of the cultural practices, institutions and ways of life. The aim is not to criticise them from a personal point of view but instead to ‘understand why, in specific historical circumstances, human beings behaved the ways they did’ (6).

While young people should learn about the challenges and problems faced by different people around the globe, the problem with global issues in today’s geography curricula is that their aim is to promote a predetermined set of ethics rather than a genuine exploration of the issues facing humanity. Here, society’s problems have been relocated from the wider political realm to the internal psychology of students themselves. These so called ‘global ethics’ include respect for the environment, respect for cultural diversity, tolerance of other viewpoints, a concern for social justice and empathy towards those in need or who are different. With global perspective these values, as curricular objectives, are forced upon students, rather than being something they are allowed to realise for themselves. Such an imposed view of the world can only lead to values that are superficial and insincere.

Upon closer inspection, there is also nothing global or inclusive about these ethics. They are entirely Western in origin and reflective of a contemporary political culture that has given up on the idea of social and political progress. While in national liberal democracies morality and meaning were derived from the potential of nation states to advance the lives of its citizens individually and collectively, the global model of citizenship situates morality and meaning outside of the individual and their society. Each of the global ethics described above are external to the self and/or our current society. Hence, with global perspectives there is no place to advance the lives of young people or society in general. The only vision offered in global perspectives is that we should all be subservient to an Other: the natural environment, people of other culture, minorities or victims. Here, the global dimension is about ‘decreasing pupils’ egocentricity’ (7). In other words teaching young people to think that one version of events is no better than another.

But knowledge becomes meaningless without a relationship to truth. Therefore, while the national liberal model of education sought to create (and influence) moral citizens, global citizenship undermines the moral self of young people, in that the state and professionals have taken responsibility for fundamental aspects of personality, such as values and emotional responses, away from the individual.

Therefore, learning global ethics through global issues in geography curricula inhibits the ability of students to explore the real issues people face in their given locality, gain an understanding of their lives and maybe achieve genuine respect and empathy for them. Instead, global ethics reinforces the misanthropic mindset that prevails in Western society today, seeking to place limits on our expectations and the horizons of those in the developing world.

This is also the purpose of global perspectives in the geography curriculum, which demands that students conform to this new model of identity and conferring membership of its ‘global’ (ie, Western) community. This is a community which has lost faith in the moral self of individuals and their potential for social advancement.

Reclaiming the moral case for geography

Fortunately, not all geography classes teach global perspectives, global issues, cultural diversity or global citizenship. Thankfully, there are many well-trained geography teachers who know what a good geography lesson looks like and can write a sound academic curriculum. However, others have been swept along by the global perspectives bandwagon, or at least aspects of it.

There are two essential steps that need to be taken for geography to re-establish its intrinsic worth to the education of students. Firstly, a clear separation needs to be made between the world of politics and the lives of children. As Hannah Arendt cautioned, a ‘destruction of the real living space occurs wherever the attempt is made to turn children themselves into a kind of real world’ (8). In effect, this demands that all political, social and economic extrinsic aims for geography are expelled from the discipline.

Schools need to be recognised as institutions of education, not places to fix social and political problems which arise in the adult political sphere. Children need ‘a place of security where they can grow’ (9). They need the sanctity from the real world that schools can offer them while simultaneously providing insight into the adult world. Only by shielding children from the real world of political responsibility and public attention will they be able to focus on the task of education and be given the space to act as children, not adults. Such a space is essential for young people to experiment, to learn, to enquire, to hypothesise and find their feet in the world, without political consequences. This is why many skilled teachers frequently mimic real-life scenarios in lessons, but without real-life consequences.

The second step for geography to reclaim its moral worth is that educators must take responsibility themselves both for the world around them and how their discipline enlightens students about this world. This means its inclusion in the curriculum needs to be based on its inherent academic qualities. Geography is a discipline that deals with the science of space. Its foundational concepts include location, place, and links between different places and regions (10). Through these concepts students learn to know where things are (location), understand different places (place), understand connections between different locations (links), and identify and comprehend spatial patterns (region). In the course of studying geography students will also learn to think spatially using concepts such as distribution, density, orientation, transition, diffusion and buffering, as well as develop skills of map-reading and map-making.

Failure to take these steps means that young people will grow up without a geographical perspective on the world.

Alex Standish is an assistant professor of geography at Western Connecticut State University and author of Global Perspectives in the Geography Curriculum: Reviewing the Moral Case for Geography, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Wilbanks, T. (1994) ‘Sustainable Development in Geographic Context.’ Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 84, 541-557

(2) Lambert, D., Morgan, A., Swift, D. and Brownlie, A. (2004) Geography: The Global Dimension: Key Stage 3, London: Development Education Association

(3) Waugh, D. and Bushell, T. (2002) New Key Geography for GCSE, Cheltenham, UK: Nelson Thornes

(4) Swift, D. (2005) ‘Linking Lives Through Disaster and Recovery’, Teaching Geography, 30(2): 78-81

(5) Baerwald, T. and Fraser, C. (1995) World Geography: Building a Global Perspective. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall

(6) Dunn, R. (2002) ‘Growing Good Citizens with a World-Centred Curriculum’, Educational Leadership, 60(2): 10-13

(7) Lambert, D., Morgan, A., Swift, D. and Brownlie, A. (2004) Geography: The Global Dimension: Key Stage 3, London: Development Education Association

(8) Arendt, H. (1968) Between Past and Future, with an introduction by J. Kohn (2006), New York: Penguin

(9) Arendt, H. (1968) Between Past and Future, with an introduction by J. Kohn (2006), New York: Penguin

(10) Gersmehl, P. (2005) Teaching Geography, New York: Guildford Press

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Topics Politics


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