By Dr C Nayeri (Editor-in-Chief) and Dr E Rushton (Managing Editor)
Ofsted’s curriculum research review for geography published on 17th June 2021 is concerned with the question of ‘what it means to get better at geography’ (2021: n.p). The aim is to provide a review of literature relating to the field of geography education and, from this review, identify aspects of best practice to share with teachers and the government.
A report into what makes an excellent geographical education has the potential to provide leadership that comes from having a country-wide purview of geography teaching in schools. Teachers, schools and academics generate a wealth of research on pedagogy and geography education that characterises a vibrant community of practitioners. There is therefore a genuine need for a review that spotlights the full scope of this work in a way that does justice to its national and global significance. This means presenting the unanswered questions and tensions in current work as well as thinking through the areas for future potential. Instead, the report does what it tells teachers not to- which is ‘portraying a single story’ (n.p.) of what makes high-quality geography education.
Rather than a review of geographical approaches, what is left is a selective list of geographical research that is used to assemble a particular, not uncontroversial, idea of what excellent geography looks like in schools. Whilst all reports must make decisions on their scope, there is no rationale (beyond a very basic set of principles), provided for the literature cited, the dates of the literature used, or the different parts of geography education analysed. In the 200 or so references, we are introduced to an eclectic mix of ideas that range from Barack Obama speeches to articles in the National Geographic magazine and reference to complex and problematic characters from geography’s past such as Halford Mackinder. For academic Steve Puttick, this is ‘problematic and ironic’ as the report advocates for a ‘appreciation of the discipline’ (2021, n.p), but does not unpack the ‘racist, environmental determinism, English exceptionalism and geography as a colonial subject that Mackinder worked so hard to promote’ (see also Kearns, 2009).
If teachers look to documents such as Ofsted’s curriculum research review for guidance, it is vital that they feel ideas such as teaching about topics such as race matter in the geography curriculum. The silences around race, in particular, are problematic, especially at a time when geography academics have highlighted its importance. In the words of Professor Gillian Rose, it is this attention to race and diversity that is at the heart of ‘what makes good geography’ (Rose, 2020, p. 140; Tooth & Viles, 2021). A report which cautions against the risks of ‘politicising teaching’ (2021, n.p.) whilst masking the politics of its own creation raises important and fundamental questions about the interests and ends of the report itself.
There is therefore the need to scrutinise both what is in the report and the geographical knowledge that the report excludes. Within geography’s disciplinary purview- or what the report terms ‘substantive knowledge’- are arguably our biggest strengths to make geography relevant in the twenty first century. These include the capacity for the discipline to explore and interrogate ideas of race, ethnicity and LGBT+ geographies, the inequalities and opportunities caused by COVID-19, climate change and biodiversity crises. These areas represent some of the most interesting and innovative recent developments in geography education and are being pioneered by teachers who have shared their resources such as Paul Turner whose climate change scheme of work has been downloaded over 7000 times (pers. coms.) and Sarah Trolley who has designed activities that enable students to explore the colonial histories of geography (Trolley, 2020), work recognised by the Geographical Association’s Excellence in Leading Geography Award.
It is not only the ideas of early career geographers that are missing from this report, but substantial areas of geographical scholarship. For example, the report is completely silent about leading geography educationalists’ work on wellbeing, play and geographical education (Moula, Walshe, & Lee, 2021; Rushton & Batchelder, 2020). The importance of compassion and kindness in geography (the theme of the Geographical Association’s 2021 conference) (Geographical Association, 2021). Health geographies in the curriculum (Winter, 2009). Geographies of the anthropocene (Nayeri, 2021; Rawding, 2017). The role of teacher identity(Rushton, 2021). This list is far from exhaustive and relates not only to work on disciplinary knowledge but contemporary developments in geographical pedagogy. What is most surprising is this work represents leading scholarship from UK academics in geography education, often supported by UK research council funding.
Whilst there is much that has been left out, that which is in the report is at times imprecise. For example, the term ‘relational geographies’ is used to describe geography in the early 20th century when the relational turn is a much more common expression to describe geographies post-2000 where ideas of the connections between Nature and Society have been scrutinised and debated. Other examples of this imprecision also abound around ideas of ‘place’ and ‘locational’ knowledge. Where locational knowledge is defined in part by helping pupils to ‘build their own identity and develop their sense of place’ (n.p.) and ‘place’ involves ‘a sense of place’ (n.p). A report which is at pains to be prescriptive about what good geography should look like has itself been tripped up by trying to engineer simplicity in a set of concepts whose strengths lie in their complexity.
This review of geography education by Ofsted matters to geography teachers and academics because of its significance for making judgements about what is and is not good geography teaching. These may well be judgements teachers make of themselves, heads of department make of their team, or perhaps most significantly, Ofsted make when inspecting schools. As geographers, we know through our (inter/ multi)disciplinary training that good geography comes through collaboration, conversation and diverse views which is why it would have been far better if teachers and students could have been invited to share the resources and research they use as part of these reviews. This is especially the case for geography as there is such a significant contribution made by teachers’, often unpublished, work to the discipline.
As geographers we are still left asking of the report: ‘to what ends was this report written?’ ‘How and by whom?’ What was the rationale for the literature cited’? ‘How will the report be used in practice?’ ‘Why are there so many omissions of work that shows the tensions, debates and richness that represents the current richness of geography education’?
Geographical Association. (2021). Compassionate Geographies.
Kearns, G. (2009). Geopolitics and Empire: The Legacy of Halford Mackinder. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Moula, Z., Walshe, N., & Lee, E. (2021). Making Nature Explicit in Children’s Drawings of Wellbeing and Happy Spaces. Child Indicators Research. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12187-021-09811-6
Nayeri, C. (2021). Teaching Geography in the Anthropocene. Teaching Geography, 46(2), 50–52.
OFSTED. (2021). Research review series: geography.
Rawding, C. (2017). The Anthropocene and the global. In D. Lambert & M. Jones (Eds.), Debates in Geography Education (2nd ed., pp. 239–249). Oxon: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315562452-18
Rose, G. (2020). Editorial introduction by Professor Gillian Rose: Diversity and Inclusion. Routes, 1(2), 138–141.
Rushton, E. A. C. (2021). Building Teacher Identity in Environmental and Sustainability Education: The Perspectives of Preservice Secondary School Geography Teachers. Sustainability, 13(9), 5321. https://doi.org/10.3390/su13095321
Rushton, E. A. C., & Batchelder, M. (2020). Education for Sustainable Development Through Extra-curricular or Non-curricular Contexts. In W. Leal Filho, A. . Azul, L. Brandli, P. G. Özuyar, & T. Wall (Eds.), Quality Education. Encyclopedia of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (pp. 249–258). Cham: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-95870-5_19
Tooth, S., & Viles, H. A. (2021). Equality, diversity, inclusion: ensuring a resilient future for geomorphology. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 46(1), 5–11. https://doi.org/10.1002/esp.5026
Trolley, S. (2020). How contextualising a book can develop students ’ understandings of geography. Teaching Geography, 72–74.
Winter, C. (2009). Geography and education I: the state of health of Geography in schools. Progress in Human Geography, 33(5), 667–676. https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132508101603
 https://twitter.com/Steve_Puttick/status/1405489297575362560 [Accessed 20/6/21]