Telling the Story of Teaching

Geography is a broad discipline, and at the secondary level, tends to be an amalgam of Human Geography and Physical Geography topics. For many of the students I teach now, there’s typically a preference for one or the other, and the sense of excitement (or relief?) when they learn that they can study either a Human Geography or Physical Geography degree specialism at university is palpable.

It was the same when I was an undergraduate. Except, we had some compulsory courses – one of which was known as the “Philosophy, Nature and Practice of Geography”. At the time, I don’t think I fully appreciated the aim of the course – which was to tell the story of Geography as an academic discipline of people and ideas that changed through time. Reading Said on Orientalism, or Johnson’s Anglo American Geography, or even Kuhn’s Structures of Scientific Revolution don’t make you a better Geographer immediately – and I think my undergraduate self didn’t grasp that fully. But what they do is tell you the story of the tectonic plates you’re standing on in terms of the philosophy and approach of your discipline; and help you to understand the way they have shifted through time.

As an A Level student, and even as an undergraduate to a certain extent, we are taught ideas and asked to critique the concept/how it’s been applied – but how often do we critically examine the narrative that has shaped them? To understand that we went towards x idea as a reactionary move because of the problems that y caused doesn’t help a better understanding of either x or y independently, but it certainly helps you to see how and why the shift has happened and to be able to contextualise within the wider field of learning.

Like Geography, education and teaching is an often contentious subject that has trends and disciplinary thinking and change. It meanders between ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’, ‘knowledge’ or ‘skills’, and makes assertions about research, privileges certain voices, and creates disciplinary factions and coherence to greater or lesser extents.

But I don’t think we really ever study or tell that story. It’s been a while since I did my teacher training, I’ll readily admit, but that was a time of learning ideas and principles (we weren’t too research focused at that point!) and then our narratives were all about how to best apply them to the classroom in front of us. I never learned about the progression of one set of ideas and thinkers to the next; never knew the story, never really could understand why my older colleague loved a particular method of teaching, but my other friends on my placement thought it to be completely outrageous. 

Increasingly, as the professional focus on curriculum and narrative sharpens, we are starting to have this conversation in understanding subject-specific and disciplinary story telling. We must, to build the best curriculum possible, understand why certain elements come to the fore, and others do not. In various articles, Grace Healy (@GraceEHealy) has argued for this narrative in Geography curriculum development, and for this to be a focus for subject teacher development and coaching. Elsewhere, Christine Counsell (@Counsell_C) has argued for this as part of her work as an historian, and then as a curriculum leader. And yet, we don’t seem to shift this conversation as part of Initial Teacher Education as a whole. I cannot claim to know what goes on in all providers, but we don’t seem to have a coherent narrative – and to teach, assess and get people to understand our collective and collaborative story.

Every profession has – or, I believe, should have – a story of their discipline. An understanding of where they’ve come from – how the tectonic plates have shifted through time, how the different trends of approach and style came about, and what moved them. Knowing the forces and knowing the process – these aren’t critical to the students in front of us on a daily basis – but they help site our philosophies and approaches in a way that is grounding and professionally beneficial. They help us to understand where we have come from as a discipline, to help contextualise why certain people work and think in a particular way, and perhaps to heal some of the divisions that can exist between different philosophies of education.

There will never be, and arguably, never should be, “one vision” of what is ‘right’. But surely, knowing the stories helps us to understand each other better – and that can’t be a bad thing?

2 thoughts on “Telling the Story of Teaching

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Mark Enser’s “Powerful Geography” |

  2. Pingback: One Geography to Rule them All? |

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