Left out in geography lessons: let’s tackle the subject’s diversity problem

Hafsa Garcia and Alex Standish.

The outcry over Professor Danny Dorling’s suggestion that geography was for ‘posh’ but ‘dim’ students has furthered the discussion in the community about the lack of diversity within its student and teaching body. However, it is disingenuous to dismiss his claims as ‘entirely anecdotal and unsubstantiated’, as a group of colleagues has done in The THE.

The geography community has long been aware of its tendency to attract likeminded individuals from more wealthy families. Here, we share some research that looks at the reasons for this and how geography needs to change if it is going to become more inclusive.  

We believe geography’s relative lack of universal appeal is linked to changes within the subject itself. In particular, a drift away from objective, epistemological foundations and towards political and social causes and approaches to knowledge which tend to reflect the concerns and perspectives of the individuals working in geography departments. Here, we will examine how this shift has eroded the specialised character and status of geographical knowledge, and how it is contributing towards the perpetuation of a sociological monoculture. 

The tricky question posed by an issues-led curriculum is: who gets to decide which issues are studied, and why? If it takes a Western perspective on issues like global warming, resource use, fair trade, population growth, production and consumption, what does this say to students from diverse backgrounds who may not share the same views? 

In research carried out for my Master’s thesis (Garcia, 2018), I sought to understand the factors that may explain the low uptake of geography among pupils from certain backgrounds. Previous research (Weeden, 2011 and Singleton, 2012) indicates that the highest rates of participation in GCSE Geography are among pupils who live in more affluent and less ethnically diverse areas, while Kitchen (2017) notes that geography is often skewed towards those from selective schools. 

My research focussed on the lack of ethnic diversity in geography. At GCSE, the picture is varied. Indian and Chinese students are actually more likely to study GCSE geography than their White British counterparts, and those of Bangladeshi and Black African heritage are no longer underrepresented at this level. However, there are still far fewer BME students studying the subject beyond GCSE and the severity of underrepresentation increases with level of study.

When exploring the possible reasons for this, an important factor raised by the participants in my study was the desire of parents from disadvantaged backgrounds to provide their children with opportunities that they never had. Unfortunately, while geography degrees may well ‘prepare disadvantaged students for relevant careers’, many students and parents were yet to be convinced that geography could provide the opportunities they are looking for. One reason could be the perception of geography as a subject lacking in academic rigour, especially among those from minority ethnic backgrounds. As one student explained, ‘being from a Pakistani background, extended family and friends are quick to say that geography is a waste of time – to them it is as easy subject that doesn’t result in high profile/high paying jobs’.   

Issues that have come to dominate the curriculum include matters such as: sustainability, global warming, inequality, fair trade, ‘over-population’, resource use (recently plastics), pollution and deforestation. Issues are a very important part of the curriculum – they should enable students to gain some insight into the problems people face in particular locations and environments, rather than simply reflecting Western concerns. They are also challenging to comprehend because they are often multifaceted and demand an appreciation of different perspectives. 

Applying and synthesising knowledge is precisely the kind of thinking that geographers do well and that we want to foster in students. However, to do this well, students will need both breadth and depth of geographical knowledge (of topics such as geomorphology, climate, economic development and population), as well as research and analytical thinking skills. Having an opinion about an issue is not the same as demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of it, and assessment systems have been guilty of rewarding the former. This is why balance matters and why it is dangerous for issues to become the curriculum itself.

So, what happens when students from other countries come to the UK and sit in a geography classroom to be lectured about issues which may be different from the concerns people have in the countries they come from? Or when students of minority ethnic heritage find that the perspectives presented at school conflict with the ideas they have learnt at home or which present their communities and countries of origin in a biased or negative light? 

This was a concern for some of the participants I (Garcia) interviewed. For example, some pupils who had moved to the UK from abroad felt that their country of origin was viewed through a narrow or negative lens which did not match their own lived experience. Similarly, one parent commented that geography appeared to be dominated by people who have a particular background and may not share an Asian person’s perspective. 

Bill Marsden (1997) uses the example of British Imperialism to illustrate how the promotion of what was regarded by some geography teachers at the time as a ‘key force for the world’s good’ also ‘fostered negative stereotypes of other peoples’. While Imperialism is no longer regarded as a ‘good cause’ (quite the opposite), the narrative of global development in geography lessons commonly presents less developed countries as victims of misfortunedependent on Western benevolence (Tallon, 2015). 

Of course, it doesn’t have to play out like this. A good educator aims to develop understanding of an issue, which means understanding it from different points of view, rather than proselytising a particular standpoint. As the American academic Stanley Fish (2008) noted, ‘To academicize a topic is to detach it from the context of its real world urgency, where there is a vote to be taken or an agenda to be embraced, and insert it into a context of academic urgency, where there is an account to be offered or an analysis to be performed.’ Finding the line between education and politics is critical for our teaching to be successful in developing young people’s capacity to think for themselves. 

Hafsa Garcia is a geography teacher and a research student at UCL Institute of Education (IOE). Alex Standish is Senior Lecturer in Geography Education at the IOE. 

Reference: Garcia, H. (2018) Does Geography have an image problem? Exploring the perceptions and attitudes of minority ethnic groups towards geography education. Dissertation submitted for MA Geography Education, UCL Institute of Education.      

Photo by Frank Balsinger via Flickr Creative Commons                                         

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Posted in Teachers, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment, young people

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This blog was written by academics at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE), for anyone interested in current issues in education and related social sciences.
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