One Geography to Rule them All?

I happened across the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)’s consultation documents this week. That’s not a promising start for a story, but I hope it gets more interesting at some stage!

I think the QAA offers universities a combination of exam board specification and OFSTED role for secondary schools – though I’m happy to be corrected on this. While I think they are potentially less prescriptive than an exam spec, allowing universities more flexibility to design a course reflecting their interests, values and experience of their teaching staff, they nonetheless seem to want to explore and identify a sense of what does it mean to “do a Geography degree” with all the potential routes that offers. Hence, the QAA quality codes, and the documents that are drafted for review. I’ve also looked at the one for Environmental/Earth Sciences, just out of mild curiosity.

The key thing that struck me, reading some of these sections, is the practical and philosophical variance between this outlined approach, and the recent OFSTED Research Review Series for Secondary Geography. There are some really interesting contrasts, and lovely things to share – and I wanted to pull out some key thoughts and highlights to share with a wider secondary audience, centred around:

  1. The purpose of Geography
  2. The legacy of colonialism in the discipline of Geography
  3. The graduated approach and wider sense of progression model thinking

What is the purpose of Geography?

A major intellectual task within the subject is to encompass the diversity of contexts and the different types of knowledge that inform the study of environments and societies, and the interactions between the two, at a range of scales. Consequently, Geography programmes encourage holistic thinking across social and natural sciences, arts and humanities. They provide the intellectual foundations, tools and practical experience to enable graduates to integrate and apply a variety of fields of knowledge and forms of enquiry and to gather and evaluate evidence in the creation of innovative, inclusive and equitable solutions. Geography courses also develop a range of personal attributes, geocapabilities and skills with applied, real-world relevance beyond higher education. Geography is a STEM subject, and its courses produce graduates who use their geospatial awareness and data science, mapping and modelling skills to lead the response to the UK’s emerging economic and strategic priorities. As such, Geography courses produce graduates who are well placed to help identify and address environmental and social challenges at a range of scales. The specialist research skills provided by Geography courses also make geographers adept at assessing risks, considering ethics and participating in civic engagement. This leads to a rewarding, self-determined professional life.

QAA Consultation Document: (2021: 3)

I really like the wide range and ambitious statement of some of these disciplinary statements – there are plenty of schools who could draw inspiration from this in terms of forming their Department vision for Geography, and recognise the complexity and range.

But there’s an interesting and contestable statement about Geography as a STEM subject – wonder if this is funding related? – and it feels like a number of the more qualitative and experiential Geographies might be a little miffed at this characterization!

Legacies of Colonialism in Geography:

There are two really powerful paragraphs here, which I’d like to reproduce in full.

Contemporary geography draws from knowledge traditions formed through colonial enlightenment science. Geographical concepts and techniques contributed to the overseas expansion of British and European empires, which was justified using narratives of white, able and heteronormative superiority. Colonial and imperial geographies, and their contemporary legacies of systemic disadvantage, for example, racism, classism, disablism, homophobia and patriarchy, must therefore be acknowledged and countered by fostering an inclusive learning community encompassing a range of participants, such as students, academics, technicians, professional staff, visitors and external partners.

QAA Consultation Document (2021: 4)

What a powerful statement this is! How different to our tacit understanding of it at secondary level, but without the same head on confrontation of disciplinary legacy. In part, I think that reflects a university-level “community of practice” approach that is founded on disciplinary context and understanding. I remember studying (and writing about) my own studies of the “philosophy, nature and practice of Geography” at university, and how I had come to appreciate that disciplinary induction much more with distance and immersion.

Indeed, the QAA go on to note that:

Geographers have a critical understanding of the history of the subject, the social, cultural, economic and political context of past and present knowledge production; and the people and forms of knowledge excluded under conditions of coloniality. Central to this is a critical awareness of the discipline’s place within wider histories of colonialism and imperialism, meaning that Geographers possess a critical understanding of knowledge practices formed through colonial enlightenment science; the distinctive contributions the discipline made to this; related contemporary legacies of systemic disadvantage and injustice and the lived experience of this; and how the discipline can address these legacies. A geographical education requires that learners examine their own place in the world and the responsibilities this entails, recognising injustices and reflecting on ways to build inclusive, transformative practices of solidarity and justice. Decolonial approaches and practice provide a way to support this learning and reflection and foster anti-racist praxis within the learning community when integrated across the entire curricula.

QAA Consultation Document (2021: 11)

I really appreciate the ambition and coherence of this as a philosophical approach – to assess and understand the discipline as a constructed subject, with epistemic and ontologic positionalities that need to be explored. I wonder what a similar statement might look like for A Level Geography specifications, and hence, an ambition for secondary Geography?

What is excellent Geography?

Unlike the OFSTED report, which focuses on the discipline, the “exam board” bit of the QAA report also offers some standardisation language, and gives a sense of what good Geography graduates may go on to do. There’s an awful lot of excellent thinking about skills, attributes, teaching & learning approaches (and fieldwork) to be recommended.

I’ve shown some examples of their benchmark standards here, but I strongly recommend you read the full report for fuller thinking.

Geography graduates that achieve excellence beyond the typical standard are distinguished primarily by superior intellectual skills, which are deployed in the context of wide-ranging knowledge of the various aspects of the subject. The strength of Geography’s methodological breadth is most clearly demonstrated in its best graduates, who bring originality, insight and superior critical and reflective abilities to bear upon this knowledge, and have the capacity to link theory and practice in identifying and tackling research problems. This quality is evident across the spectrum of assessed work, but is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in independent work, especially dissertations, which may produce outcomes that are at or close to the levels of publishable research, and which represent an advance within subject knowledge.

QAA Consultation Document (2021: 18)

I really like the aspirations and synoptic approach here, and I think there’s a lot that both ITE providers and secondary colleagues alike could learn from this and apply to their own contexts.

Reflections:

I think one of the key differences in the QAA document is the sophisticated and nuanced way in which they recognise the plurality of pathways that specialist expertise will want to follow in developing a Geography curriculum at university level with 100% volunteer participants, smaller numbers, and fulltime specialist staff to deliver it. A lot of the “best bets” and pragmatic advice from the OFSTED guidance is neither present, nor needed.

I really liked the collaborative and pluralistic views from the QAA compared to the OFSTED approach – something I know others have already written on. It feels very much more advanced in scholarship and decolonialism, and the sense of there being many Geographies available to study and explore. There are some strong statements about the utilization of colonial enlightenment science which are really not echoed at secondary level – and I think this is a big part of the conversation that we should be having at the connective layers.

This, I think, is perhaps my biggest query, and one that requires much greater analysis and understanding of the process. I am left with two powerful questions:

  1. To what extent do the QAA and OFSTED approaches join up?
  2. To what extent should they? Recognising the very different contexts, and how they work, should we have “cradle to grave” ambition for the disciplinary coherence, or is that unnecessarily complex (or over simplification) for something that is fundamentally very different in place and study.

This has been a really powerful document to read – both in terms of my thinking as a former secondary HoD, but also in terms of starting to think about the ITE and Geography Education spaces – about what our subject offers. Restricting the view only to secondary level OFSTED reviews offers one perspective, and I’d strongly recommend that Geographers at all levels have a look at this document, and see what they might learn or how it might shape their thinking.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s