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

Blog Editor, IOE Digital18 February 2020

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.  

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A word to the wise: what does it mean to be an educated school-leaver?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital21 January 2019

 
IOE Events.
Through our What if… debates we have endeavoured to tackle the big, longstanding debates in education. This month we took on perhaps the biggest of them all: ‘knowledge vs skills’. Recent commentaries have brought greater nuance to the question of whether the school curriculum should focus on building knowledge or on developing skills (or whether they are inextricable). Nevertheless, contrasting views persist on what the school curriculum should deliver.
We started with the question of how best to develop well-prepared and well-rounded school leavers. This meant looking at how the school curriculum can cultivate pupils’ knowledge, but also their understanding,  as well as other desirable dispositions and attributes, such as empathy and good judgement – qualities that when taken together might confer wisdom. What if…, as the title of the event went, our main objective in education was to build wisdom?
To tackle this question (more…)

Questioning the curriculum: here's to Michael Young's next 50 years at the IOE

Blog Editor, IOE Digital28 November 2017

Geoff Whitty. 
Last week the IOE celebrated Professor Michael Young’s 50 years at the IOE and the publication of a festschrift in his honour. I was one of a number of colleagues asked to speak at the event.  Having cancelled my flight to Australia to do so I thought I would be able to say that, as the result of the fare penalty, I was the only person who had actually paid to be there.  But in fact there were other people attending from overseas, which just goes to show the high esteem in which Michael is held throughout the world.
I haven’t known Michael quite 50 years – more like 49.  It would have been in October 1968 when I arrived at the IOE as a PGCE student training to be a history teacher, and Michael was one of a group of sociologists who inspired me to see my own future as a sociologist. His particular contribution was in encouraging us to question much of (more…)

The magic of a good science teacher

Blog Editor, IOE Digital13 September 2013

Sheila Curtis
This year more than 35,000 students completed A-level physics. This not only represents a  move towards meeting the need for a more scientifically literate population, it hit the Institute of Physics‘ 2014 target for increasing participation in the subject a year early. The increase represents a rise of 29.5% on the 2007 figure of 27,466 – a fantastic endorsement of the hard work of many teachers of physics. Clearly science teachers are doing something right.
What is it that expert teachers do?
As a student teacher of science I remember the day when the department head in the practice school managed to enthral two classes of students with a lesson on the subject of π (pi) with no preparation. He was able to tell a story of the history and use of an idea that the students could not only relate to and understand but that linked to the big picture of science.
Whilst this may not fit with the modern day view of an outstanding lesson the skill shown by this experienced teacher was something never to be forgotten. Many of us have these stories, as one Guardian letter writer commented (5 September), in response to the building that melted a Jaguar car: “My inspirational physics teacher told us the Archimedes and burnished shields story to explain the powerful properties of the concave mirror, which was followed shortly by me getting a right clump for setting our front fence on fire with my Dad’s shaving mirror!”
There is some debate about the nature of knowledge an expert teacher possesses as opposed to that of an expert scientist. What is content knowledge and what is pedagogic content knowledge? However, to my mind, the teacher who can draw out a story related to the curriculum, illustrate it with good activities and encourage young people to test out the ideas against their own is onto a winner. It is clear that having the best degree in a subject, whilst important, is not the only prerequisite for making a great teacher. Enhancing the uptake of subjects like physics, I believe, is not just about generating more highly qualified teachers with higher physics degrees.
For example, there are many teachers of science who are expected to teach outside their degree specialism, even up to post-16 courses, and often feel very challenged by this experience. These teachers need the time and space to reflect upon their practice within their specialism but also to relate practice to the less familiar subject disciplines.
The newspapers are full of the news that there are not enough physicists training to become teachers. In addition, non-specialists are being encouraged to retrain to teach mathematics, chemistry and physics through subject knowledge enhancement courses both prior to their PGCE and as qualified teachers. Likewise physics expertise is being developed through the Stimulating Physics programme.
Teachers involved in these programmes are keen to learn both about what it is they are trying to teach but also how to teach it. They are evaluating, adapting and incorporating tools and resources within their context and framework of experience. In other words they need to learn both the accepted subject content ideas alongside discussing the pedagogical ideas and storytelling exhibited by experts. We are beginning to see the evidence of the success of these programmes as the numbers achieving Physics A-level this year demonstrates.
Subject Knowledge Enhancement courses at the IOE are now recruiting. Thanks to funding from the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL), the course is free for practising teachers in state schools and there is also £900 towards cover.

Knowledge does not exist on the Internet. It only exists in the head

Blog Editor, IOE Digital27 November 2012

David Lambert
As a geographer, I find it interesting that it is politicians and thinkers on “the right” who appear to speak for knowledge in schools. In fact, geography tends to do well under Conservative governments. However, for me, the question of what has happened to the idea of education in recent years is much more important, a question that transcends party politics.
Although the 2010 White Paper The Importance of Teaching frequently mentions “core knowledge” as the substance of an enduring national curriculum, it does so in a way that is broadly based. It is the essential knowledge, concepts and understanding of school subjects, it says; teachers should know “how to convey knowledge effectively and how to unlock understanding” (para 4.8). However, it is clear how influential ED Hirsch has been in establishing “core knowledge” in the contemporary education lexicon. This is especially so now that Civitas has published its curriculum and its Years 1 and 2 books on “what your child needs to know”. It is no secret that Michael Gove, the education secretary, is a Hirsch fan.
I first came across the idea in a book shop in Boulder, Colorado – in 1992. A whole section was dedicated to the series of books on “what your child needs to know”. It seemed to be pandering to parental angst about the failure of schools to teach properly and their need to top up the experience to ensure educational advancement for their children. This appeared to be the main attraction of “core knowledge”:  as a silver-bullet solution to a deep-seated deficit model of state education.
I read more about it. Hirsch’s 1987 book, Cultural Literacy, describes a beguiling idea, with more to it than at first meets the eye. It makes sense that children need access to their national culture. Schools should teach a curriculum that takes children beyond what they already know and experience in their day to day lives.
As a geographer, I welcome the “knowledge turn” in schools. The story of the national curriculum since its introduction has been one of slimming down and reduction. Even if children experience lessons called geography, there are question marks about what makes it geographical.
What has replaced rigorous curriculum thinking (addressing the question of what we shall teach children) is the pedagogic adventure, wrapped up in some notion of “thinking skills” or “learning to learn”. I think it a wonder that children tolerate this at all.
However, what fuels the current core knowledge drive from government – at least in my subject – are questions such as: “Do 14-year-olds know the countries of Africa?” And statements like: “Children at 11 years old should know the rivers of England”. This is a shame, because it is mis-reads what Hirsch is saying. Thus, when I was told the rivers statement, all I could think of in reply was: “what, all of them?” It was meant as a light joke – but my serious point was: how many of the rivers of England would constitute a pass mark? Even more seriously: what do we mean by “know”?
Hirsch is brazen – and interesting – about this. Superficial core knowledge will do. It is almost as if Thames or Trent or Severn are simply words, to be used, more or less appropriately. The less you can do this with reasonable proficiency the less culturally literate you are – and the less enabled you are to converse, think and develop deeper, conceptual knowledge about … flood plains, electricity generation, transport, sewage disposal and so on.
My subject has a massive amount of potential “core knowledge” in this sense – every place name, feature, or wind pattern on Earth. We don’t need to know it all, but we do need to know some. It is embarrassing how little of this knowledge many children and adults seem able to draw on.
But perhaps core knowledge in the Hirschian sense holds less promise than its supporters allow. Like many ideas in education it gets over-invested in; we end up relying too heavily on it. I worry in particular about those lists!
I hope we can accept that geography (along with all subjects, surely) has its extensive facts. I hope we can hold this thought alongside the notion that our main priority in schools is to develop intensive deep knowledge (you may prefer “understanding”). I hope we can see that one feeds the other and that we need to teach them together. Core knowledge only becomes a problem if we marginalise it or ignore it as somehow low level or beneath us.
Geographers know what I am saying. “We can always look it up in at atlas” will not do, not if we want autonomous thinkers who know when they are being tricked. Knowledge does not exist in atlases or the internet. Knowledge only exists in the head.