Don’t get lost in the curriculum maze – a geographer’s guide

subtitle: It’s more than ‘maps and crayons’!

I will come clean on my position right at the start. I am a geographer. I did pretend for a good number of years that I could teach economics, but I cannot deny that my heart has always been as a geographer. Oh, that most maligned of subjects! I usually say that I teach ‘maps and crayons’ just to get control of the jokes first. However, as the Royal Geographical Society points out, my subject equips students with some of the most employable of skills and one could not wish for a more vibrant and exciting subject to study or to teach.

Transferable skills rule

Skills, to the geographer, have to be transferable. Our subject sits astride disciplines – humanities and science. It has often been noted that there is as much statistical use and application in geography as in many a stats module of maths exams and that there is as much argument and debate as in a history exam. However, please note the purpose of this blog is not to win the pseudo-battle over option subjects and some of my best friends are historians!

I was once challenged at interview, at a rather well-known independent school, that geography wasn’t a proper subject because it doesn’t have its own literature. Aside from being a ridiculous interview question, this simply showed great ignorance of the evolution of maps themselves, the concept of travel literature from authors such as Defoe, the scientific reports of Darwin, the profoundly obvious physical and social geography found in the novels of Thomas Hardy or in the cultural geography of Charles Dickens. However, back to the point …

Diversity is the key

The geographer’s toolkit has to be diverse. It has to be continually updated and it is, by definition, completely relevant to the present – we are living in geography and we are a product of past geographies – physical and human.

So what does this all mean for curriculum? My personal view is that children entering secondary school probably should be able to understand the basic concepts of mapping information – the interpretation of keys and simple, linear scales. They should probably know something of the facts of this country and a range of other countries – we are talking here about major cities, landmarks etc.. Beyond this, to be perfectly honest, I am not sure what I would really like my potential year 7s to know.

Perpetually curious

However, what I am absolutely sure is that I would like my students to have a curiosity about the world in which they live. I would like them to know that there is life outside their town or city or village, I would like them to know that the world’s resources are not evenly distributed and that there is inequality between countries and within countries. I would like them to realise that there is a reason for the physical appearance of the landscape which they inhabit and that this is part of a dynamic set of processes involving atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere and ecosphere … although I have no interest whatsoever in them knowing the meaning of these words!

In essence, I would like my students to be thoughtful and curious far more than I wish them to have any factual knowledge. I would also like them to have the growing skill of collaboration and the confidence to express their own opinion. Also, to realise that there are many questions that we pose in the geography classroom to which there is no single answer. Afterall, if they don’t know how to read a map or the capital of Estonia, I can point them to resolve that easily. Rebuilding curiosity? – well, that is a whole lot more difficult.

A view from one curriculum – the IB

IBDPIn my sixth form, I teach the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. The essence of geography is, in my view, represented by the most excellent and somewhat infamous (in the world of the IB geography student) ‘Paper 3: Global interactions’. This paper is rather human geography heavy but it allows students to engage with incredibly broad questions which they have to scope and define before they can begin to answer. They may illustrate their argument in widely varying ways, they may come to opposing conclusions, but the key thing is that they must reason. If this is the end product of the geograher’s school education, then I can only salute my subject and I am in no doubt as to why it is, more than ever before, one of the most powerfully equipping areas of academic study that is on offer.

PS I cannot remember when I last asked a class to colour-in either!


If you are curious about IB exam paper have a look at the excellent resources provided by Richard Allaway (@richardallaway)


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