Monday, 3 June 2013

Effective innovation in the Secondary Geography Curriculum

As promised, here is my review of Charles Rawding's new book for Routledge. I was sent a free review copy on publication in the middle of May 2013.

The book comes at an important time for geography, with teachers waiting for the next draft of the proposed curriculum. The GA has been involved with the consultation, and previous drafts have shown a focus on knowledge. A 'complication' this time round is the lack of compulsion for thousands of schools to follow whatever 'national' curriculum finally emerges.

Charles agrees with Bruner that there is no such thing as 'the curriculum' and that it requires negotiation. Teachers need to reclaim the curriculum to best serve their subject and their students, and enable students to understand how the world they are living in operates. Even this, it could be argued, needs a further tweak. Students will not be living most of their lives in 2013, but in the future - what should be on a curriculum to prepare them for that world ?

Chapters explore different aspects of geography, such as Physical, Human and Environmental, as well as a Holistic approach. The first three of those chapters owe a debt to a trio of publications that Charles wrote for Chris Kington publishing. They include plenty of examples where 'traditional' approaches can be brought up to date, and draw on presentations that Charles has done at the GA conference (and elsewhere) over the years bringing some of the older models into critical focus (or just throwing Burgess in the bin...) Good to see a mention for Richard Bustin's excellent Thirdspace work, for example.

I appreciated the discussion on Progression, which is a thorny area for teachers facing potential inspections of their shiny new curriculum units.

Charles' work on the PGCE course at Edge Hill University means that he sees a lot of teachers, and a range of departments, and this book is a timely distillation of his experiences over the decades. He includes snippets of practice that he has seen from various PGCE colleagues. At a time when a lot of attention has been placed on the 'best way' to prepare people for a career in the classroom, it is a reminder of the benefits of an association or affiliation with universities in addition to time spent in schools.

There are plenty of references for further reading, which teachers engaged in further study, or preliminary study for a PGCE or similar course, will find particularly useful. Practising teachers, particularly those who have been teaching a while may have preferred to see some practical examples of curriculum units, but this would have required some additional images and would have detracted from the overall format of the book. It's also a reminder of the difference between what teachers perhaps 'want' and what they 'need' professionally, which is to keep revisiting their practice. As Dylan Wiliam said recently: 'teachers need to improve not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better'.

There is a limited number of illustrations and images, a restriction which was probably imposed by the publisher, but which takes the reader back to the days when most geography textbooks had a few black and white illustrations.  It reminded me of an anecdote told by a colleague who was once using the front cover of a textbook with a class, and when asked why, pointed out that it was the only large-format colour image in the whole book.
It was interesting to see some extracts from previous textbooks in a section which explored how to use these resources, which retain their hold in many departments. It remains to be seen what support the publishers are preparing for any new 'national' curriculum, given the earlier comments on the number of schools who are not obliged to teach it. While working at the GA, I worked on a KS3 textbook series, but its fate is unknown.

There is currently a consultation ongoing on the possible dis-application of the curriculum for the next year. This would give time to develop and trial new approaches, and the book provides some useful background to what that process could involve. Curriculum making was always one of my favourite elements of the job. I was privileged recently to attend a seminar where Margaret Roberts talked about her recent work in geographical enquiry. I will be blogging about that in the next few weeks, but a lot of what Margaret said is embodied in this book. The curriculum needs to reflect the world that the students inhabit - now and in the future.

It would have been good, although I recognise this is a particular personal interest of mine, to see links to additional digital content, which might perhaps be added to over time as the new curriculum is developed. This is a reminder of the growing interface that publishers are currently exploring between print and digital content. The chapter on changing school geography ends with a mention for our Mission:Explore work, as an example of what 'could be' (and in some schools actually 'is' - which is a source of personal satisfaction) A website of some kind which connected to the book and hosted further documents would have been a useful additional element of the book's adoption by departments.

As a Head of Department, I set aside part of my capitation (along with some money that I negotiated with the librarian at the time) to create a professional library for myself and my colleagues. This is the sort of book that should go into such a resource, and be used by departments to inform group time / departmental meetings and subject related CPD. Each chapter comes with a useful series of questions to pose. The book could also support those departments who are preparing submissions for the GA's Secondary Geography Quality Mark, particularly the section on auditing the curriculum. They would also appreciate the checklist of suggestions on what makes an 'outstanding geography department'.

This is a timely book, which challenges and supports departments to rethink the geography they are teaching, and to adopt, adapt and innovate. Curriculum change should be a continuous process. Technology such as Google Drive enables the storage of curriculum units 'in the cloud' so they can be worked on and amended as each lesson is taught numerous times, and refined so that 'the next time' they are taught, they are improved - an idea which has gained currency recently under the name of 'marginal gains'. And don't forget to involve the students in this process...

The book is published by Routledge in 2013 (£24.99) - a few quid cheaper on Amazon...
Paperback, 183pp
ISBN: 0-415-51906-9

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