Losing the plot

'Children's geography' is a quagmire for both pupils and teachers.

Alex Standish

Topics Culture

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A new proposal in a special edition of the UK Geographical Association’s journal, Geography, suggests that the current primary school geography curriculum should be replaced by a child-centred curriculum of ‘children’s geographies’ (1). The current geography national curriculum, it argues, is ‘adult-centred’, which marginalises and disempowers children. Instead, ‘children’s geography’ is about the lives of children, is designed by children – and so would better relate to their understanding of the world, and empower them as active citizens.

New theories are reposing the aims of geography education. Back in 2000, Routledge published a book called Children’s Geographies: Playing, Living, Learning, edited by Sarah Holloway and Gill Valentine (2); while last year, a journal called Children’s Geographies was launched by Carfax Publishing. At the recent Association of American Geographers conference in Philadelphia, a series of sessions were dedicated to discussing children’s geographical experiences and understanding.

Children’s geography seeks to understand their lives and experiences better. This involves looking at factors such as: the boundaries within which children are allowed to roam; how mobile phones affect their communication; their use of streets for play and socialising; how they interact and move around the playground; how patriarchal family rules determine children’s movement in the home; children’s interpretations of community.

Enlightenment ideas of childhood are criticised for presenting children as not fully developed persons. Holloway and Valentine argue that it was wrong to view childhood as an induction into the adult world, because this devalues the lives and capabilities of children. They give examples to show the valuable contribution children can make – such as children helping the elderly, or child labour in developing countries that supports the family.

The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was instrumental in encouraging these views, with its assertion that ‘No longer the passive recipient of benefits, the child has become the subject or holder of rights’ (3). Building on this premise, children’s geography argues that children are adults’ marginalised ‘other’, the victims of cultural imperialism, lacking a voice and power in society. Children are presented as agents of social change, capable of decision-making and taking responsibility for shaping their environments. So Simon Catling, author of the Geography report, advocates ‘[w]orking with children as participants, partners and responsible members of the local and global community’ (4).

Catling argues that the geography national curriculum is irrelevant to children, because it was produced by politicians, educators and parents – and is based on a model of education that presumes children to be in ‘deficit’ to adults. His view is that conventional education means teaching children to accept social roles constructed by a white, Western, middle-class elite, and is tantamount to a form of marginalisation, resulting in acquiescent individuals. Instead, children should be allowed to determine their own values, attitudes, social habits and learning.

So what would a children’s geography curriculum look like? Catling describes it as: ‘in the world: about the child’s own world; of the world: concerned with the wider world of children; about the world: concerning understanding by children of the ways the world works; and for the world: in relation to the future world for children.’ (5) This means that it would draw upon the child’s personal experience and knowledge, incorporating their ‘ways of knowing’ – it would be about how geography affects the child, and would also include studies of far away places, especially the lives of other children.

Children’s geography takes an approach to learning that is student-centred, and issue- or enquiry-based. Here students investigate an issue for themselves – although teachers set parameters that guide their selection of what to study. The topics that students might choose from include: my classroom and how it is spatially organised; the use of the playground, especially included and excluded groups; managing and improving a part of the local environment; and use and availability of local shops and leisure facilities.

The idea that students know best what they should be learning is problematic when applied to university students, let alone to primary school kids. But the main problem with children’s geography is that it treats children like adults.

There is a very good reason why children in the modern era have been understood as not fully developed persons – which is, because they aren’t. Children don’t have adults’ intellectual capacity to comprehend complex social problems, the maturity and experience to fully understand the consequences of decision-making, or the same level of control over their emotions. That is why children are not legal subjects before the law, and do not have the power to vote. There are examples of children doing adult work, but that doesn’t mean that they are social agents with the same capacity to shape society as adults. The will of children is ultimately at the discretion of their parents, until they reach an age where they are given legal and political rights.

School can help prepare children for this adult world, by encouraging them to discuss social and political affairs, and introducing topical issues during lessons. Students can begin to understand that ideas and concepts have an application in the real world – and mock debates or elections are a good way of engaging them in political discussion. However, this is not the same as treating them as adults, in expectation that they will comprehend and take responsibility for complex issues.

The same problem arises when involving students in decisions about curricula content. How can a child possibly have the insight and overview of knowledge to be able to make decisions about what they should learn? This doesn’t mean that they should never be given any responsibility for learning, or involved with discussions about the direction a particular study should take. Individualised project work can be a good thing; children need to be given limited responsibility in order to learn how to handle it. In no sense, however, should they be involved in broader decisions about a subject’s curriculum – that must be the job of trained professional educators.

Students will learn little from a curriculum of children’s geography. They might develop a better awareness of how their lives relate to those around them, including the lives of other children. It might also make them ‘feel valued’ because somebody is listening to them. But it will teach them nothing about the changing geography of the world – because this is a world shaped by adults. How can children be expected to engage in the adult world unless adults teach them about it, including the knowledge that humanity has acquired over the course of its history? Children’s geography wrongly presumes that a child could have some insight from a position of innocence, without the knowledge and experience held by adults.

This represents adults’ abdication of responsibility for the adult world. These adults hide in the lives of children and pretend that solutions to their world can be found with children, instead of with them.

But however much they try to hide it, children’s geography is invented by adults, and motivated by adult concerns. So it is not surprising that in spite of all the talk about letting children think what they like, children’s geography bears a moral and political message.

There is an idea of the child as an ‘active learner’ or ‘engaged citizen’, who is socially or morally engaged with the topic of study. The emphasis is on the values and attitudes they are learning as much as the knowledge they acquire. The aim is to produce ‘globally minded’ individuals – so students should learn about far-away places and discuss their ‘feelings and attitudes’ about the wider world. It is claimed that global citizenship gives a voice to all individuals, especially marginalised people, through supranational human rights.

Educators attempting to ‘empower’ children as active citizens are actually teaching them to uphold a predetermined political agenda. They claim that they are developing children as politically aware individuals, drawing on their sense of ‘fairness’ and ‘social justice’. But children can’t be politically aware – they aren’t capable of developing their own political interests or views. So treating children as ‘engaged citizens’ often actually means dispatching a moral agenda – teaching the issues of environmentalism or cultural sensitivity simplistically as good (environmentally or culturally sensitive) verses evil (transnational corporations or industrial development).

The turn towards ethical issues in geography education took place during the early 1990s. The International Charter on Geographical Education adopted by the International Geographical Union proposed that geography education should nurture certain values and attitudes in students, such as a concern for the environment and respect for the rights of other people (6). The development of values and attitudes as a goal for the subject has been growing since the onset of the national curriculum. Children’s geography is the logical end point of a curriculum that sees no value in subject knowledge. It is devoid of any content that could take children beyond their limited experiences.

Fortunately, the national curriculum has not yet given way to children’s geography. Nevertheless, many educators have embraced aspects of its ideas as goals for geography, such as a child-centred learning, the development of values and attitudes, global citizenship education and enquiry-based learning. At the same time, they question the value of the content of their own discipline. It is a slippery path, at the bottom of which lies a hollow curriculum, devoid of meaningful content.

Alex Standish is doing postgraduate research on geographic
education at Rutgers University, New Jersey.

Read on:

Constructing a value map, by Alex Standish

spiked-issue: Education

(1) ‘Curriculum Contested: Primary Geography and Social Justice’, Simon Catling, Geography, 2003, vol. 88(3), p164-210

(2) Children’s Geographies: Playing, Living, Learning, Sarah Holloway and Gill Valentine, Routledge, 2000

(3) United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Unicef, 1989

(4) ‘Curriculum Contested: Primary Geography and Social Justice’, Simon Catling, Geography, 2003, vol. 88(3), p164-210

(5) ‘Curriculum Contested: Primary Geography and Social Justice’, Simon Catling, Geography, 2003, vol. 88(3), p164-210

(6) International Charter on Geographic Education, International Geographic Union, 1992

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