Book Review: Mark Enser’s “Powerful Geography”

At A level, we studied peasant farming, I think. I remember Waugh’s chapter on it, at any rate, and learning about enclosure, and changes, and something else. I am embarrassed by my lack of recall; and have no idea what the unit was actually about. But we struggled on this for maybe a term – I know it felt longer. In my first term at university, I remember with startling clarity a lecture by Dr John Langton, where he told this story from start to finish in about 45 minutes. Each change was explained as a context and reaction to the problems of the one before – and the sequence of events was shockingly obvious, now I looked at it through his expert eyes.

My first ever blog post was a frustrated call for a “story of teaching”. As an undergraduate, I had studied a course called the “Philosophy, Nature and Practice of Geography”. I didn’t see the point of the course – which was to tell the story of Geography, and frame it as the output of people and ideas that changed through time – rather than an immutable “truth”. I was forced to read a lot of books that I couldn’t see the point of: Said’s “Orientalism”, or Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolution” weren’t going to help with my essay on arid geomorphology, were they? I looked at “big texts” like Johnston & Sidaway’s “Geography & Geographers” (now on seventh edition), or Livingston’s “Geographical Tradition” – and I didn’t see their relevance to me.

Looking back, of course, this was some of the most important reading and thinking that I ever did. As an A Level student, and even as an undergraduate to a certain extent, we were 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. My undergraduate self didn’t understand that I was stood on tectonic plates, in terms of philosophy and the approach of the discipline. It’s only through time that I could see how much they have moved, and hence, come to understand the changes.

Mark Enser, clearly, would have been a teacher in the mould of Dr John Langton, and his book “Powerful Geography” is the kind of reading and realisation that brings sharp clarity to the experiences of many Geography teachers in the UK over the last few years.

In Part One, Enser establishes his academic position as a master storyteller. With painful accuracy, he talks about the ‘problems’ of an ill-defined Geography curriculum of my early teaching career, and the debates of ‘sage on the stage’ versus ‘guide on the side’. Inspired by Biesta as much as Young, Enser writes about educational philosophy with confident sharpness – fluently exploring the discourse’s journey through Socrates, Roussea, Bruner and Locke with chronological insight. Arriving at Young’s view of “powerful knowledge” and “Future 1-3” models, Enser reflects on Lambert’s application of these ideas to Geography as a discipline.

The first chapters explore the journey to the present: unpicking the philosophical, geographical and curriculum policy debates that have shaped the subject. It is Johnston-esque in mastery: a clear sense of the pathway, without any missing steps, to the challenges of a modern un-rooted Geography curriculum. The analysis can sometimes feel painful: partly through the clarity of memories of teaching activities; but partly because of the sense of inevitability doomed by good intention. No one deliberately broke Geography as a school discipline – it just shuffled like a tectonic plate to a collision point.

In Part 2, Enser offers a clearly articulated vision of what Powerful Geography could be in a Future 3 model. He offers a disciplinary coherence through specific tools and examples. Here, the use of case studies – one of which, I should note, I was delighted to contribute – shows that this vision is more than abstract idealism. Choosing a wide range of places, schools and people, Enser shows how feasible it is to enact the curriculum he describes.

Enser has been thinking through blogging (since 2015), and previously written the Andy Tharby-inspired book “Making Every Geography Lesson Count” as part of that series, focusing on the “what and how” of classroom Geography teaching. In Part 2 of this book, he draws on all of that experience – and skilfully navigates the Geographical academy of thinkers – Rawlings, Standish, Roberts, Lambert et al. – to provide practical and clear examples of how the curriculum can be made meaningful again.

Ever alert to the risks of “performative rituals” of teaching, Enser’s conclusion deliberately asks the reader not to adopt his ideas unthinkingly; but provides a walk-through and road map for Departments, HoDs and teachers to critically reflect on their own curriculum and practice. There are no “do as I say” moments, or even a sense of this being “Mark Enser’s vision for the subject”. There’s no hard sell; no ego, no stories of what he’s done – only a personal sense of how these things have felt to teach and work through. He writes with great humility and without embellishment.

This is an excellent book – that should be read carefully by all ITT, subject leaders, Geographical thinkers and experienced teachers – as a context and story of our curriculum discipline. I think “Making Every Geography Lesson Count” is still the book I’d recommend to trainees. While it won’t hurt to read it (of course!), I think Powerful Geography – like my undergraduate experience of PNPG –  is the kind of book that won’t make so much sense until you have some lived experience, and you understand how skilfully the retrospective view has been constructed.

Professor Ron Johnston, Professor David Livingston and Dr John Langton would all recognise this book as a kindred spirit, I think. Powerful Geography, indeed.

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