Representation and distortion of the world: the European Union and the multicultural dimension of school geography in England as taught and conceived by students

Emma Rawlings Smith

After living and working in the Middle East, I have decided to move back to the UK and focus my time researching the representation and distortion of the world as seen in school geography. This brief paper lays out the proposed research context, approach and methods to be used for the PhD qualification.


 

This proposal is likely to change as the research evolves. If this is of interest please contact me at rawlings.emma@hotmail.co.uk

1    Introduction

National curricula are being challenged and transformed by both the impact of increasing global interdependence, European integration and migration-related cultural diversity. The deindustrialization of the advanced economies of the European Union and the rapid emergence of a ‘knowledge society’ (Giovannini, 2007) has meant that education has never been so important. The role of schools is not only to successfully educate our young people, but also to produce skilled, innovative, workers, who have greater freedoms to travel for work in other member states of the European Union and beyond. This research will examine the representation and distortion of the global, European and multicultural dimensions of school geography in England, comparing schools in at least two multi-cultural cities. Leicester is ideal, as it is a city with 329,600 residents (according to official census data), of which only 45 per cent are a white British population (ONS 2012); it has, at 28 per cent, the highest proportion of Asian or British Asian Indians anywhere in England. In Birmingham, 22 per cent of1,073,045 residents were born abroad in places as diverse as India, Ireland, Jamaica and Bangladesh (ibid.).

The most recent European enlargement in 2004 and 2007 increased the number of member countries of the European Union to 28; eleven of which are former Soviet State accession countries. By July 2012, more than one million people born in Eastern Europe were resident in England (ONS, 2012), making up three per cent of the total population in Leicester and numbering 16,532 in Birmingham (ibid.). This recent migration flow opens up a new opportunity to carry out research focused on young peoples’ conceptions of the global, European and multicultural dimensions of school geography of which there is currently a lack of research (Bourn and Hunt, 2011; Marshall, 2007). Child migrants are not a homogeneous group; they are a group of individuals with unique stories. Some children migrate to England when their parents get economic or educational opportunities. Some children are being reunited with family and others travel as asylum seekers moving away from family and dangerous places. It seems that the one million children in English state schools who speak English as a second language (ONS, 2013) are often overlooked in migration studies as research has tended to focus on the mobile adults (Gardner, 2012). With the emergence of focused research into childhood and young peoples’ geographies (Holloway and Valentine, 2000; Hopkins, 2010), children’s world awareness, knowledge and values (Hicks, 2005; Palmer and Birch, 2004) and with significant activity in many schools on learning about global and European issues (Carter and Clarke, 2010), now an ideal time to conduct educational research focused on the representation and distortion of the world and multicultural dimension of school geography in England.

 

1.1   Preliminary Objectives

This research will explore several interrelated themes, reflected in the three empirical sections; whilst these will require further refinement; at this initial stage, they are as follows:

  1. The changing shape of the world as written in successive versions of the Geography National Curriculum and European Union educational policy documents focusing on Global Learning and the European Dimension.
  2. The changing shape of the world as taught or enacted within school geography in England, focusing on the form of the learning and the impact it has on students and the extent to which the world is represented and distorted in key resources created to support successive versions of the curriculum.
  3. National and migrant students’ conceptions of the global, European and national dimension of school geography and their ‘sense of place’ (Relph, 1976) at different spatial scales from global to local.

2    The Research Context

This research proposal builds on my MA dissertation focusing on students’ conceptions of geography, an international education comparison MA essay and a personal interest in young peoples’ sense of place.

2.1 European integration

Today, the European Union (EU) is a major trading power with 28 member states and a goods and services GDP of €12 945 402 million, accounting for around 16 per cent of global imports and exports. This is impressive considering it has only seven per cent of the global population (Eurostat, 2012). The political and economic turmoil as a consequence of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the establishment and enlargement of the European Union and the Single Market in 1993; with the ‘four freedoms’ of movement, of goods, services, people and money; encouraged a continuous wave of migration from east to west. The strong desire for Eastern Europeans to experience life abroad combined with a sense of being ‘forced’ to leave localities, ‘where the transition to a market economy has resulted in a contraction of employment opportunities’ (White, 2010, p.565) has resulted in more than one million people born in Eastern Europe becoming resident in England, as of July 2012 (ONS, 2013). On 1 January 2014, the temporary job restrictions in place for the last seven years for Romanian and Bulgarian nationals has been dropped. The expectation of a ‘flood’ of migrants, as headlined by the rightwing British press (Henley, 2013), is unlikely to become reality. However, the media coverage has initiated debate, with David Cameron and the coalition government responding by tightening migration benefit rules. Critics of such rushed policy include Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat cabinet minister, who has accused senior Tories of ‘pandering’ to anti-European sentiment (Graham, 2013). A decade ago, Scoffham wrote in the book Issues in Geography Teaching that the British ‘are ambivalent in our attitude towards Europe’ (2000, p219). Seemingly, the fault lines that were there at the dawn of the new Millennium are widening, with the current negative political and media reactions (Henley, 2013).

2.2   Students’ conceptions of the European, national and multicultural dimensions of school geography and their global sense of place

Since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, the EU itself has emphasized that the process of European integration should not just be seen as the result of an intergovernmental institution building process, but embedded in the process of education and developed by its citizens (Painter 1998). The British Geography National Curriculum was first published in 1991 and has subsequently been transformed by successive governments in content, structure and political stance (Walford, 2001; Rawling, 2001). It has been shown that not all education systems in Europe provide the same kind of information about the EU (Georgi, 2008; Philippou et al., 2009), even if they did, in practice there is often a gap between the formal curriculum and what is actually learnt in the classroom (Kelley 2009). The ‘formal curriculum’ is all that should be taught, the officially prescribed curriculum (Goodlad, 1977). This often differs from the ‘enacted curriculum’ as experienced by both pupils and teachers, which is what actually takes place in a classroom (Eisner 1985). Even though ‘teachers are expected to follow the formal curricula, empirical research has convincingly shown that not all of them actually do so’ (Verhaegen et al., 2013, p.839), even if they did, it is a well-established idea that children do not always learn what we teach (Black and Wiliam, 1998). A useful framework for the research is outlined by Hicks (2007) who sees the Global Dimension in terms of four linked dimensions: issues, spatial, temporal and process; rather than around global citizenship, sustainable development, conflict resolution, values and perceptions, diversity, human rights, social justice, and interdependence; the eight concepts constructed as the Global Dimension by the Department for Education and Skills (2000; 2005). Hicks outlines a minimum requirement for students to study relevant contemporary global issues, that are spatially related and connected over time, with ‘pedagogy that is most appropriate for investigating such matters’ (Hicks, 2007, p26), thus avoiding a case-study approach to the global dimension, where some places are stereotyped and marginalized (Roberts, 2013). Education authorities have various control instruments at their disposal to ascertain whether schools and teachers actually follow the rules (Benavot and Resh 2001), but the easiest method is to ask the students directly.

Young people’s lives have been firmly on the geographical agenda, since the publication of Skelton and Valentine’s Cool Places: Geographies of Youth Cultures (1998), which emphasised the potential for young people to inform wider geographical debates (Hopkins, 2010). Providing opportunities to listen to young people’s perspectives is now more embedded in education policy since the publication of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child Article 12 and 13 (UN, 1989) and the UK Children Act (DfES, 1989). If, in a rapidly changing knowledge society interconnections are to become more complex as technology advances and if we see education as having a role to play in enabling young people to play a successful role as global citizens, then it would be sensible to not only listen to young people’s views and conceptions (Dowgill, 1998; Biddulph and Adey, 2003; Hopwood, 2009) but to integrate young peoples ideas into the curriculum-making process (Hopkins, 2010) and engaging young people in the process (Biddulph, 2011).

A young person’s global sense of place describes the feeling a person links to a place already visited (Massey, 1993). The significance young people attach to particular local places may be further influenced by feelings of belonging or alienation, the feeling of being an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ (Relph, 1976), feelings of history and tradition or of novelty and unfamiliarity and an individual’s ‘rootedness’ (Tuan, 1974). Drawing on this theoretical framework, I will examine some of the processes that are shaping young peoples’ global and European sense of place, specifically their place identity.

3    The contribution this research will make to the field of education

The key outcome of this research will be a better understanding of how the process of migration impacts on young people living in multicultural areas, their sense of place and level of understanding and respect for other places, people, cultures, values and beliefs.

The potential impact on professional practice will be real information about students’ views of the European, national and multicultural dimensions of school geography. When students reflect on their own perceptions of other people and better understand the factors that influence their own national and European identity, they can better avoid ethnocentric stereotyping and prejudice in education. As Roberts (2013, p.68) points out ‘Students get to know the world partly through what is presented to them in school geography so we need to be critically aware of how we represent it’.

4    Research methodology and methods

Michael Crotty (2003) in his book The Foundations of Social Research frames the research process using the four basic elements: epistemology, theoretical perspective, methodology and methods. The philosophical stance shapes not only the research strategy but also informs the methodology and the procedures that follow (Saunders et al., 2009).

4.1   Epistemology and the Theoretical Perspective

Research is the systematic, controlled, empirical and critical investigation of hypothetical propositions, about the presumed relations among natural phenomena (Kerlinger, 1970). Hitchcock and Hughes (1995) suggest that the assumptions we form about the nature of reality (ontology) give rise to epistemological assumptions, or ways of researching into the nature of reality. Following the paradigmatic shift, termed the New Social Studies of Childhood by James and Prout (1997), it is worth remembering that the views of young people are worthy of study; there are a multiplicity of childhoods and these views have been actively and socially constructed. Students’ conceptions of global, European and national identity are therefore constructed with others, classrooms and homes being two of many contexts for this construction. Associated to the more modern interpretivist approach, this research will, in essence, seek ‘verstehen’ or deep understanding (Giddens and Turner, 1997) of different students’ conceptions of the European, national and multicultural dimensions of school geography. This can be attributed to a social constructivist epistemology, such that there is not a universal truth to discover, but rather an intention to examine social attitudes, experiences and understandings (Flick, 2004). Constructivist theory sets out that we learn about the world by actively ‘making sense of it for ourselves’ (Roberts, 2013, p.70), new knowledge collected in this research will be integrated with existing knowledge and can therefore be defined as theory building. The fact that individuals’ own beliefs and attitudes are being studied, raises the consideration that human-beings are individualistic and unpredictable, thus the focus of this study is to seek meaning, not facts (Cohen et al., 2011).

4.2   Methodological approach

In line with the philosophical stance, the research will aim to engage with participants in order to explore their perceptions and understanding (Cohen et al., 2011 Such a methodological approach is considered to be phenomenological research insofar as it considers the ideas and experiences of humans (Saldaña, 2011) and attributes subjective meanings to these social phenomena following the ideas of Max Weber (Macionis and Gerber, 2010).

4.3   Research Methods

A mixed-method approach will be selected given the de-centralized, national nature of geography curriculum development within England. A significant section of this research will use the Policy Cycle Approach (Bowe, Ball and Gold, 1992) as a framework to trace the sequence of ethnocentrism and Europeanism found in policy text production for the European, national and multicultural dimensions of European and national educational policy. Primary data used to inform this research will follow a range of data collection methodologies to investigate the following:

  • The perceived size of the European Union will be obtained by asking students to construct a mind map of the European Union on a blank piece of paper, following research by Gould and White (1974), then label an outline map of Europe with the 28 members of the European Union.
  • Student experiences of the European, national and multicultural dimensions of school geography, aimed at 13/14 year old students in their last final year of compulsory Geography education in the UK will be collected through a survey of closed and open questions, some knowledge based, some experience-based and others asking for opinions focused on global and European issues.

Semi-structured interviews will then take place with a small sample of the students who took part in the previous survey, developing narratives of their personal conceptions, to better understand the shape of the world and level of global citizenship and European identity felt by students. This can be expressed as their sense of belonging of the EU (Risse 2010), revealing the multiplicity of imaginations (Massey 2005) students have for ‘other’ places studied in school. During the data collection stage of this research, it is important that students, when asked about European and national identity, describe a wide range of aspects without being limited (Stodolsky and Grossman, 1995). Researchers should not be ‘prescriptive in predetermining what participants can talk or write about’ (Hopwood, 2009, p. 189). Driver et al. (1996), when discussing science as a subject, suggest that students’ ideas are often ‘personal and incoherent’ and will ‘draw on a range of characteristics in different contexts’ (p. 16). Data analysis will not assume structure or coherence to responses, but will rather look for similarities and recurring themes. Such participatory methodologies support the idea of pupil voice and bring students into the heart of research enquiries, placing the power in their hands to ‘analyze and transform their own lives’ (Cahill 2007, p.297).


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The changing nature of the British Geography National Curriculum from conception to 2014

I have just been awarded a Distinction for my MA in Education dissertation, which I completed over the last 26 months. I disagree with hard work hiding away and so I have added a link to my work stored in Dropbox here. The abstract is below so you can see what I have been researching.

Abstract

The Geography National Curriculum (GNC) was first published in 1991 and has subsequently been transformed by successive governments in content, structure and political stance. Since the publication of the 2010 White Paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’ (DfE, 2010), there has been an opportunity for dialogue between the government, subject associations and teachers in the preparation of the new Geography National Curriculum for 2014. This research will give an overview of the changes that have taken place in school geography in Britain since 1991. It will then provide a detailed perspective of how secondary students in a British school in the Middle East conceive the subject of geography, in order to inform the curriculum-making process in school. The study draws on a mixed-methods approach, using surveys and posters created by 65 13-14 year-old students, followed-up by semi-structured interviews held with three students. Findings indicate that students hold a wide-range of ideas, influenced by factors such as their personal travels, educational and family experiences. Students saw geography as about places, such as China and Kenya, people and themes including development, world biomes, natural disasters, weather and climate change. It was also seen as a subject where learning about important issues and current world events takes place alongside learning how to solve them, with opportunities to listen to and understand other people’s viewpoints. Map skills were perceived to be the main skill type associated with the subject. The dissertation concludes that students’ conceptions are extremely varied and complex and as it is difficult to form generalisations, conceptions may be better understood through individual in-depth student case studies.

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The geography of my Blog

The geography of my Blog

I am guilty of neglecting my blog, for that I apologies. While I was uploading my latest post, I looked in on the blog statistics and I was amazed by the number of different countries viewers came from. Although I live in Abu Dhabi and my teaching is based on a British curriculum, the visitors to my site have come from 82 nations, spread across the world. I hope this will diversify in 2014, as I find a few more minutes in the week to blog a little more!

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A comparative analysis of the educational systems of Finland, the UK and Turkey

This is a recent MA essay I wrote, comparing three education systems in Europe – I hope it is a useful read!

Emma Rawlings Smith

 

Abstract

The deindustrialization of the advanced economies of Europe and the rapid emergence of a knowledge economy has meant that education has never been so important. The role of schools is not only to successfully educate our young people, but also to produce skilled, innovative, workers. International school comparisons are a vital tool in this process as they provide a quantitative snapshot of a range of aspects of education in different countries, based on a small sample of student surveys. One of the significant outcomes of international comparisons has been the high placement of countries such as Finland and a consequent shift in international political influence, focused on education. The new geography of educational policies has seen a move away from American and British domination, to be replaced by strong performing north European and Asian countries. This study seeks to analyse three national education systems; the Finnish education ‘miracle’ (Sahlberg, 2011), the ‘failing’ education system of the United Kingdom (Pring, 2013) and the low-achieving education system of the Republic of Turkey (OECD, 2010). Now more than ever, in a competitive global economy, educational performance is tantamount to success or failure. With a bank of educational data available it is now possible to observe the features of a good educational system. These successful characteristics can then be used to improve the performance of low-placing countries. Such a move would potentially help countries such as Turkey with their accession negotiations to join the European Union.

 

Learning from the best

Since the 1970s, the advanced economies of Europe have seen both rapid deindustrialization and an economic transition from Fordism to post-Fordism and an emerging ‘knowledge economy’ (Drucker, 1969). The move away from stable life-long careers in mass industrial production and capital accumulation (Lambert and Morgan, 2010) toward both economic freedom and increased competition in an advanced globalised economy has meant that the role of school education, in preparing the next generation of workers for the global knowledge-based economy, has never been more important. In order for schools to successfully educate our young people and also produce skilled, innovative, workers we must carry out international comparisons and learn lessons from the most successful education systems.

This study seeks to analyse three national education systems; the Finnish education ‘miracle’ (Sahlberg, 2011), the ‘failing’ education system of the United Kingdom (Pring, 2013) and the low-achieving education system of the Republic of Turkey (OECD, 2010), a country where improvements in education are a vital requirement for joining the European Union.

 ‘During the next 10 years about 1.2 billion young 15-to-30-year-olds will be entering the job market and with the means now at our disposal about 300 million will get a job. What will we offer these young, about a billion of them?’    

                                                                                                                    Martti Ahtisaari – Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (cited in Sahlberg, 2011, p. 1)

It is well understood that recent changes in contemporary education have been unable to keep pace with economic developments and yet the importance politicians place on schools as ‘factories for learning in an economy in which innovation will be critical’ (Leadbetter 2008, p. 147) has never been greater. In countries where the school curriculum has been more able to follow the changes happening in society, a continually evolving and diversifying curriculum has formed and as a consequence student achievement has been higher. Finland is one such country, 30 years ago their economy was reliant on trade with their Soviet neighbour and education was mediocre. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, foreign trade ceased, the economy dived into recession and the government quickly realized that it was time for drastic change. The seeds for the Finnish ‘educational miracle’ (Sahlberg, 2011) had been sown, with the introduction of peruskoulu, the 9-year comprehensive basic school, along with a raft of educational reforms valuing and supporting teachers whilst providing a productive, interactive and creative education for life in a knowledge society. With a population today of 5.5 million people, this small Northern European nation only has 1.1 million children to educate (World Bank, 2011). The establishment of education committees moved curriculum development from a focus on content knowledge to the process of teaching and learning, as well as integrating research into educational policy making. Peruskoulu merged a range of previous schools into a single comprehensive 9-year basic municipal school, governed by local educational authorities and overseen by the Finnish National Board of Education (FNBE). At 16, students could then opt to learn in a general upper secondary school, the next step towards university, or a vocational secondary school with progression to vocational college or the world of work at 18 or 19 years of age (Hanhijoki et al., 2012).

Finnish school reforms were constructed using four key aims, those of quality, efficiency, equity and internationalization (Hanhijoki et al., 2012), solid foundations for any successful educational system. Peruskoulu removed teaching in ability grouping and also encouraged students with very different life circumstances to learn together in the same schools and in the same classrooms. This equal opportunity principle also paved the way towards a modular curriculum structure where students successfully complete 75 different courses of 38 lessons, with the opportunity both to repeat individual courses, and to choose the order of course completion, with the option to have extra tuition and support for as much or as little time as required (Sahlberg, 2011). Standardised testing has been kept to a minimum, with the terminal National Matriculation Examination results providing the only formal qualifications at 18 years of age. Minimal testing has allowed teachers to be more creative in the classroom. Students often learn by constructivism principles such as decision-making exercises, and as such, they have the skills to ‘solve the problems that we do not even know exist’ (Lambert and Morgan, 2010, p.21). Knowledge is perceived to be a process rather than a product, it is collectively created; it is dynamic, changing (Gilbert, 2005) and vital for such successful education systems.

Not all education and curriculum reforms that have taken place over the last few decades have been so successful as the Finnish ‘miracle’. If we consider that the curriculum by definition is all the learning that is planned and guided by the school (Kerr, 1968, p16) and the hidden curriculum is the unintentional learning that takes place in a school, which is often just as important (Snyder, 1970). Then successful education systems are those that have been carefully planned from a constructive learning perspective, where active participation in a broad range of activities within and outside the classroom takes place and individual needs are catered for (Yasar and Seremet, 2009; UNESCO-IBE, 2011).

Recent educational publications such as Lessons from PISA for the United States (OECD, 2010), the British School’s White Paper (DfE, 2010) and the global Education Strategy 2020 (World Bank, 2011) all note similar characteristics of high-performing education systems as a means of providing desired criteria for all who want to make progress. Cooperation and equity are both characteristics of a traditional society (Diamond, 2012) and seem to be preferable characteristics of successful systems and yet it is competition and choice that drives our capitalist free-market economy and contemporary education systems. Thus, experienced educators in countries such as the UK end up teaching to the test in order to maintain comparative school placements and feel unable to fully engage students in the best ways of learning. Educational results are thus diverging and a huge gap is emerging between the transferable skills and knowledge school students have and those that they need in the knowledge economy (Marriott, 2007).

The UK, with a population of 62.3 million (World Bank, 2011), has 13.3 million children and a migrant population of 13 per cent. Full-time education is compulsory for children aged between 5 and 17 years of age, the upper age rising to 18 by 2015 due to the Education and Skills Act of 2008 (DfE, 2010). This legislation would in theory reduce inequality in education. However, there is a new transition taking place in the UK, state-controlled comprehensive schools are being converted to state-funded independent schools known as academies, free school and paid-for public schools. As of November 2012, there were 2551 academies, up from 1449 just 12 months earlier (DfE, 2013). The National Curriculum first introduced to improve the standards of teaching, after the Education Act of 1988, does not have to be followed by academies. Thus standards strived for just 25 years ago, are likely to be eroded and inequalities are bound to increase, a poor legacy for the future. The UK is the country with the most standardised testing. National Curriculum assessments (SATs) for 7 and 11 year olds provide valuable base-line student data. Then, at 16 years of age, students then sit compulsory GCSEs or IGCSEs examinations and two years later they sit GCE A-levels or other equivalent examinations if they remain in education.

Measuring school effectiveness and improvement

The demand for improvements in both teaching and learning and a more equal and efficient school system is universal (Sahlberg, 2011), even if the reasoning for it is often politically motivated. Finland is one of the 34 OECD countries that has successfully raised standards and improved educational performance; as measured by international comparisons over the last couple of decades, while others nations such as the UK have struggled and seen their ranking fall. With the publication of the Schools White Paper (DfE, 2010) and the government’s National Curriculum review (DfE, 2011), the international placing of the British Education system is a hot topic for debate. The White Paper starts by saying ‘What really matters is how we’re doing with our international competitors. That is what will define our economic growth and our country’s future’ (DfE, 2010, p.3). Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Education, has used England’s apparent plunge down the PISA league tables as the central ‘justification for his sweeping school reforms’ (Stewart, 2012), even when the data from 2000 and 2003 has been proven to be statistically unreliable. Understandably, the Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg points out that ‘Michael Gove’s department needs to be very careful in its use of official statistics… Running down our teachers and schools is not the best way to raise standards’ (Stewart, 2012). Sahlberg does a good job of outlining the problems with the British education system when he says:

‘Force, pressure, shame, top-down interventions, markets, competition, standardization, testing and easier and quicker passages into teaching, closure of failing schools, the firing of ineffective teachers and principles, and fresh start with young teachers and newly established schools – the very reform strategies that have failed dismally over two decades in many Anglo-Saxon nations are being reinvented and re-imposed and with even greater force and determination’ (2011, p. xv)

Alongside the backdrop of international comparisons, educationalists and politicians are now questioning ‘how’ they can quickly raise standards in education. For the last 30 years, the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) has focused on the concepts of making schools more effective and improving the process of teaching and learning. In the European Union (EC, 2000), member countries have agreed on 16 quality indicators to facilitate the analysis of school effectiveness at national level. Indicators include attainment in mathematics, reading, science, information and communication technology (ICT); successful completion of upper secondary education; monitoring of school education; resources; training for teachers and infrastructure. Some European countries have successfully embedded policies to measure effectiveness and improvement. Exam results are used to rank schools in league tables and value-added assessment modeling (VAM) is available to calculate a measure of school effectiveness based on a comparison of student IQ and external examination results. School effectiveness is therefore concerned with the outcomes of schooling, whereas school improvement considers the various contextual factors such as day-to-day academic decisions or curriculum implementation, which influence schooling (Harris and Bennett, 2005). Valuable research on school improvement has focused on a range of issues including, increasing student motivation, high achievement for all pupils, seeking positive parental involvement, school decision-making, providing focused and sustained professional development (Hopkins and Levin, 2000; Hoachlander et al., 2000) and personalising educational experiences (Aksit, 2007, p.130). It is clear that there has been a great deal of movement in the right direction, now educational reforms must work to improve schools for all.

International benchmarks

International achievement tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) have, some would argue, too narrow a focus and are not reflective of the whole student or the education that they receive. International comparisons are less likely to measure competencies such as digital literacy, creativity and social skills. They tell very little about how students achieve, but rather how education systems differ across the developed world. Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard University reminds us to be cautious with the use of student assessment studies, contending that results are purely a reflection of the subject-area tested with a particular methodology and not much else (cited in Sahlberg, 2011).

In Finland spending on education is high at 6.9 per cent of GDP and attainment is also high. Finland scored first in science, second in reading and mathematics on the standardised test administered by PISA. In Turkey, public expenditure on education is lower, at 2.9 per cent of GDP; unsurprisingly, attainment is also low. In 2009 Turkey placed 32nd among 34 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. After new legislation, introduced by the Ministry of National Education (MONE), primary school enrolment rates in Turkey have increased in-line with other OECD countries. Turkey with a young population of 75.6 million people is predicted to reach 84 million by 2023 (TÜİK, 2013). Although the number of students enrolled in secondary school has increased from 1.3 million in 1971 to 6.7 million in 2008 (UNESCO-IBE, 2011, p. 56), there is still work to do, as the graduation rate is only 65 per cent, much lower than the 93 per cent graduation rates in Finland (UNESCO, 2011, p.16). A compulsory upper secondary education in Turkey could increase graduation rates, but the financial cost may be prohibitive.

Country

Finland

United Kingdom

Turkey

Pre-primary Enrolment %

68

83

26

Primary Education Enrolment %

98

100

99

Secondary Education Enrolment %

94

98

79 F76 M81

Tertiary Education Enrolment %

94

60

55 F50 M61

GDP per capita (PPP) $US

36 030

35 316

15 830

Expenditure on Education (% GDP)

6.8 (2009)

5.6 (2009)

2.9 (2006)

Data from UNESCO-IBE, 2011

The situation for Turkey is not completely bleak; they have made substantial gains in PISA scores over time. Science and mathematics scores both increased from 424 points in 2006 to 456 and 445 in 2009 (OECD, 2010). In reading tests, the improvement in PISA scores was 17 points from 447 in 2006 to 464 in 2009 (OECD, 2010). Many factors can help explain Turkey’s improved performance. The Basic Education Reform of 1997 and the Teaching Programs Reform initiated in 2004 are making a difference, as the percentage of children below the basic competency level decreased across all tests. On the other hand, the number of students who were able to reach Levels 4, 5 and 6, which are considered to be the levels in which high-level learning skills have been attained, are still very low. The differences seen between public and private schools reveals differences of between 120 – 150 points in reading, science and mathematics suggesting huge inequalities within schools and significant disparities in the socio-economic status of students within the national education system. According to OECD, ‘successful education systems are able to guarantee that all students succeed at high levels’ (2013, p.1), the ultimate goal to offer equal educational opportunities for all.

Finland has such an equitable education system in which performance differences amongst students and schools are small. Between school differences account for as little as eight per cent of the variation in student performance. Class sizes in Finland, as in the UK, are fairly small with a student to teacher ratio of 14 and 18 consecutively (OECD, 2012), whereas in Turkey class sizes are much larger with an average of 28 students (OECD, 2012). It is unlikely that class sizes will decrease unless public expenditure increases. Equality in Finland is intrinsic to the whole notion of state schooling; this situation is quite different in both the UK and Turkey. In the UK, differences in the expected performance of students are related to the diverse range of schools students can attend and the socio-economic class of the students in an area. Research shows that the number of pupils from comprehensive schools getting into Oxbridge is falling, whereas the proportion from independent schools is increasing (Leonard, 2013). Such inequalities are likely to increase as educational reforms continue to diversify rather than unify the education system. The Every Child Can campaign was initiated to shine a light on the inequality in education and to inspire those from low-income communities to stay in education, it fails however, to address the root-cause of the inequalities.

In 2004, Turkey fulfilled the Copenhagen criteria to join the European Union. Over the last decade, as Turkey tries to align itself to the European Union it has seen rapid social, political and economic change (Sammons, 2006). According to the Ministry of National Education (MONE, 2001), there are approximately 13 million students of school age and half a million teachers. Education in Turkey is predominantly under state responsibility and reforms have been significant. Compulsory education was increased from five to eight years in 1997 for all primary students aged 6 to 14, with schooling taking place in one institution. Secondary school education, known as ‘lycee’, is still not compulsory (MONE, 2006) but was extended from three to four years in 2005 in both general high schools and vocational/technical high schools. This legislation saw secondary school enrolment levels increase to 79 per cent by 2010 (UNDP, 2004), but the growth in higher education places has failed to keep up with supply. In 2005, some 1.8 million students sat a national examination to compete for 400,000 places in 53 state universities and 19 private universities (UNDP, 2004). It seems that investment and expansion is required in upper secondary and higher education settings if Turkey is to maximize its potential.

As well as extending the length of basic education to eight years the Turkish curriculum has moved from a subject-centered to a learner-centered focus and pedagogy has moved from behaviorism to constructivism (Bulut, 2004), revising textbooks and expanding the use of technology, as has happened in the Finnish and UK education systems. This kind of shift in the style and content of teaching and learning seems not to have effectively filtered into schools. Aksit described educational reform efforts as ‘somewhat piecemeal – not generally touched core educational practices’ (2007, p.129). The author shares this view; after visiting three schools in Demirci, Turkey, she concluded that teaching methods still seemed archaic after observing didactic teacher-led classes, bored students and lessons that methodically traced textbooks from one page to the next. This style of teaching still assuming that ‘knowledge is “stuff” that could be stored in minds, books and databases’ (Lambert and Morgan, 2010, p.26). This idea is strongly contested. The view of knowledge and learning in the knowledge-age (ibid.) has moved on.

The teaching of geography

In Turkey the principles and objectives of geography education were identified in the first Geography Congress, held in 1941, following which geography became a main course in secondary education. The modern geography curriculum of 1983 remained in effect until 1992, the scope of topics narrowing and content simplified in 1987 (MONE, 2006). Geography lessons were compulsory for Year 9 students and optional for Years 10 and 11 students, all years with a focus on citizenship and the European Union. The history of the geography curriculum is much longer in Turkey than elsewhere. In the UK, the compulsory teaching of geography for children between the age of 5 and 14 was implemented after the Education Act of 1988 (Roberts, 1991). Calls to make the subject compulsory for 15-16 year old students was planned but never executed (Rawling, 2001). In both countries, geography is taught for a couple of hours a week for 11-14 year olds, the hours increasing in upper secondary, although not all students opt for the subject (MONE, 2006). Geography covers a wide range of topics in the UK, initially in the first National Curriculum, this was a list of 10 themes, slimmed down in recent years to reduce a cumbersome curriculum to something more manageable (Rawling, 2001) and also to allow time for collaborative, technology, thinking and other skills to be explored in the classroom.

The significantly revised Turkish curriculum of 2005 also brought sweeping changes to the geography curriculum, changes on this scale not seen since 1941. Geography teaching changed in terms of its purpose, scope, teaching methods, range and techniques, teaching materials and assessment methods (Aksit, 2007). Such a positive move has not been seen in the recent curriculum reforms in the UK. Instead, Michael Gove, has narrowed perspectives on teaching to a prescribed knowledge outcomes and products curriculum (Sahlberg, 2007), following the contested ideology of ED Hirsch, an American educationalist, who believed core knowledge must be taught in order to create ‘educated citizens’ (Hirsch, 1983). Some say the draft National Curriculum is devoid of contentious issues, for example there is no mention of climate change, even when the problems faced by humanity ‘might be the most important issues humans might need to address in the 21st century’ (Rockström, 2009).

Since the Finnish reforms of 2005, geography is taught as part of Environmental Science for those aged 7 -11 years old and as a separate subject for the next five years of basic education. In upper secondary school there are two compulsory geography courses and two specialist courses in the subject (FNBE, 2012). Themes of study focus on the place of Finland within Europe. Without national standardised testing, teachers and schools have greater autonomy to design and teach their own range of geography themes. Geography is a popular optional subject, the third popular of the general studies subjects after Psychology and History (FNBE, 2012). The key elements of geography learning as set out in Finland combine five elements of geography learning, these are skillfully woven through the curriculum and embedded in teaching.

Screen Shot 2013-12-29 at 18.40.45

Figure 1 Five elements of geography learning (Cantell, 2007)

Great schools need great teachers

Worldwide, the number of secondary school pupils grew from 196 million to 531 million between 1970 and 2009. The number of secondary teachers increased by 50 per cent, from 20.3 million to 30.4 million, between 1990 and 2009 (UNESCO, 2011, p. 56). With an expanding number of children to teach it is important that we have a high quality of educators, especially when it is recognized that ‘teachers are the key to improving the performance of learners’ (EC, 2012, p. 15). The quality of teachers does vary between countries. Teachers in Finland are educated at least to M-level, whereas, only three out of four initial teacher trainees in the UK have a postgraduate qualification (DfE, 2010, p.2). This is above the degree-level entry standard expected in Turkey, although recent educational reforms are improving this. Finnish teachers are taken from the top ten per cent of graduates each year (Sahlberg, 2011), whereas entry requirements for Initial Teacher Training (ITT) in the UK and Turkey ask for lesser qualifications. In the UK, most offers are in the range of 260-360 Universities & Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) points, equivalent to AAA-BCC grades, at A level (UCAS, 2013).

In Finland, teaching is a prestigious career and those who go into the profession often stay for life, in Britain the average teaching career length is declining. Five years after completing ITT and securing their first job, on average, 62 of 100 trainees will still be in the teaching profession (DfE, 2011), the average length of service for English teachers only 13.5 years (Knight, 2008). Statistics from OECD (education at a glance 2010) tell us that it is not the pay levels, which affects teacher retention. The salary range for secondary teachers in the UK ($30,204 – $44,145) are comparable to those in Finland ($32,276 – $45,377). Whereas in Turkey the low pay range ($23,780 – $27,237) seems not to affect retention, for many go into teaching as a ‘fallback career’ as their grades were not high enough for other degree courses (Akar, 2012, p.80). These statistics show that teaching can be a prestigious and long career especially when standards for teachers are raised and teachers are well rewarded for their skills.

Collaborative professional learning

Since the economic crisis of 2008, school budgets in all schools in all countries are under ever more pressure. The five days of in-service training (INSET) provided in the UK are more than the two days provided in Turkey. In Finland there is a maximum of four hours teaching per day (Sahlberg, 2011) and this has provided a strong focus on in-service learning provision and career-long collaborative educational research for use in the classroom. Of the three countries, the UK is the only one with compulsory professional development for teachers as part of their school development plans (EC, 2012) According to the European Union ‘Passive off-site learning should be replaced by collaborative professional development activities which focus on improving pupil learning’ (EC, 2012, p.62). As part of the European Union’s €1.2 billion Lifelong Learning Programme; Comenius projects aim to develop knowledge, understanding and skills among young people and teachers of the diversity of European cultures (British Council, 2010). Technology can also help to develop collaborative professional learning. Professional Learning Networks (PLNs), built using blogs and social media, as well as face-to-face events such as Teach Meets organized online, may well promote and sustain professional learning for those who have taken the initiative.

Conclusions

It is important to note that both standardised tests and international comparisons are an important global benchmarking instruments, which should be used to support not destroy the process of learning. Sahlberg makes the case that ‘policy makers and the media need to make better use of the rich data’ (2011b, p.119), perhaps to ‘sow seeds of possibility’ (Robinson, 2013) rather than to narrow pedagogies and the curriculum. In a contentious move, OECD has created a PISA-Based Test for Schools, allowing institutions, by the end of 2013, the ability to assess and compare their own performance against the national average. Such a move would allow ‘peer-to-peer learning opportunities for local educators as well as the opportunities to share good practice’ (OECD, 2013), but they could also be used as evidence of teacher effectiveness and for performance-related pay, a less-desirable outcome as it is less-likely to boost teacher morale.

Successful education systems must be equitable, with access for all and flexible to keep up with the changes happening in the global knowledge economy. They should be personalised, broad and diverse, help young people to discover their talents and build their lives based on them (Robinson, 2013). Education systems need to be equitable ensuring that all students perform well, providing the necessary educational support. They should be flexible, providing ‘adequate individual personalization in school and freedom for schools to craft their curricula based on their capacities and local needs’ (Rubin, 2011). The Finnish education system, currently at the top of international comparison tables, cannot be transferred anywhere else in the world. Many of the successful aspects of their education system are deeply rooted in the culture and values of the people. The Turkish education system is improving and given time will no doubt improve to European Union levels, as for the UK, only time will tell. The grand aim of educators and politicians is to continue to improve teaching and learning, in all schools, for all students; the difficult now is how to get there.

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Why curriculum change is necessary

Abstract

This extended post explores the notion that contemporary school education does not currently have the innovation required to fully prepare students for either the world of work or continued education at university. There is a mounting body of literature, which provides evidence of both an expanding knowledge gap and skills mismatch between school leavers and prospective employees and again a lack of knowledge and skills required to access higher education. With the publication of the Schools White Paper: The Importance of Teaching (DfE, 2010) and the government’s National Curriculum review (DfE, 2011), the debate centred around subject knowledge is the first focus of this research. There has been an increase in literature which questions whether, with successive revisions of the National Curriculum, knowledge transmission has been reduced and devalued (Hirsch, 2007; Gilbert, 2005) this is contested by other educators who believe that child-centred learning are the only methods by which socially constructed knowledge can be transferred, a process which takes time (Lambert, 2011; Roberts, 2009). With greater media exposure, political reforms and expansion of for-profit educational businesses, there are more stakeholders with a significant interest in curriculum content and educational developments than ever there has been in the past. The second focus of this study is on transferable skills and whether such skills can be taught to students making the transition from studying geography at A-level to studying geography in higher education. This transition has been described by academic commentators as ‘a gap’, ‘a chasm’ and a ‘gulf’ (Marriott, 2007; Gouldie, 1993; Bonnett, 2003 and Jeffrey, 2003) and as such has become a widespread concern (Clifford, 2002). This assignment concludes that following the government review of the school curriculum, in preparation for a revised school curricular for first teaching in 2015 (DfE, 2011), new statutory guidelines for knowledge and skills must not only be flexible enough for teachers to fully prepare students for university level geography, but also provide students with geo-capability in preparation for life after school.

 An essay written as part of an MA in Education with Liverpool Hope University @2013

Introduction

In the UK, there is a long-standing debate as to the difference in geography, as taught in schools and universities. This divide does not exist in some countries and in Britain it was never as pronounced as it is today (Castree et al., 2001) Over the last thirty years, academics writing about pedagogy has been concerned about various aspects of the transition from school to university geography education and the transition to the world of work. Academic commentators have followed closely the changes that have taken place in the school curriculum and are keen to question whether the cumbersome National Curriculum can ever keep up with the innovative knowledge economy of the UK. Published research has examined not only the differences in subject knowledge, skills and approaches to learning (Maguire et al., 2001) and observed the perceptions of these differences for both students (Tate and Sword, 2012; Castree et al., 2011) and educators (Jeffrey, 2003), but also posed more fundamental questions about the definition and purpose of a contemporary geographical education (Bonnett, 2008). The current debate with regard to the different theoretical perspectives from which the curriculum in schools is to develop (Lambert, 2011) is both alive and strongly contested and has been ever since the politicisation and introduction of the first National Curriculum in 1991. With the publication of the Schools White Paper: The Importance of Teaching (DfE, 2010) and the consequent National Curriculum Review (DfE, 2011), the debate centred around curriculum change and the transition to higher education has now moved out of the hands of academics and into the mainstream education arena. Every twist and turn appearing as headline news in an era where schools compete for both pupils and funding (Bartlett and Le Grand, 1993). This study seeks to understand why a knowledge and skills gap between school geography, university geography and the world of work has emerged and how such a gap can be reduced with the publication of the fifth revision of the National Curriculum.

Geography – the subject in context

To set the scene for this study it is worth contextualising the place and role of geography. From the emergence of geography as an academic discipline in the context of its role as ‘the science of imperialism’ (Mackinder, 1911) geography is now more recognised as a socially constructed subject, influenced by the geographical imaginations of geographers, framed by the socio-economic and political landscape of the time (Roberts, 2009). Since the 1970s, Britain as an advanced economy has seen rapid deindustrialisation and a transition in economy from Fordism to post-Fordism, where transnational companies, driven in part by rapid technological developments, shift production abroad to reduce the cost of manufacturing and maximize profits. Shurmer-Smith notes that at this transition ‘virtually everyone, everywhere became increasingly conscious of the problem of creating meaning in situations in which so many parameters of economic, political and social life had shifted’ (2002, p.1).

These changes saw the traditional geography remit of ‘economy-population-settlement’ (Lambert and Morgan, 2010, p.19) that had dominated the subject for so long being quickly superseded by new cultural geographies. Since the 1980s degrees in contemporary geography, consumerism, globalisation, sustainability and cultural geography were found alongside degrees with a greater emphasis on technical skills, incorporating geographical information systems, computer programming and other geospatial data analysis. Such a diversity of degree content on offer, not only reflecting the new ‘knowledge economy’ (coined by Peter Drucker in 1969) which was emerging in the post-Fordist society, but also the reality that the role of university education was to prepare the next generation of workers for this global knowledge-based economy, in which the production and trade of knowledge is used to secure economic prosperity (Lambert and Morgan, 2010). This economic process was felt across the length and breadth of Britain, occurring at such a rapid speed, that it became hugely influential in debates about educational policy in the UK. The global shift requiring a parallel change in the nature of the school curriculum and pedagogy (teaching and learning) if schools were not to be out of kilter with the world children were growing up in. Leadbetter (2008) points out:

In a world in which everything seems to be 24/7 on demand, schools operate with a rigid years, grades, terms and timetable. That might have made sense when most people worked at the same time, many of them in the same place, on the same task, their lives organised by the factory siren. But people increasingly work at different times and in different places. Schools are factories for learning in in an economy in which innovation will be critical (p. 147)

Academics were perceived to be more able to follow the changes happening in society than their school-teacher counterparts, due in part to larger, better resourced departments with access to research budgets and staff with more non-contact time (Birnie, 1999). This allowed for a continually evolving and diversifying curriculum preparing undergraduates for the world of work and enough time for university geographers to play a central role in writing the content and assessment for the O level and A Level syllabi (Castree et al., 2007). The changes seen in degree level geography were not, however, filtering into school geography, therefore the knowledge and skills divide between the two was rapidly expanding and many would argue is still is today (Marriott, 2007).

The new ‘digital economy’ (a term coined by Malecki and Moriset, 2006) requires students to not only have digital literacy, but also the skills to ‘solve the problems that we do not even know exist that will require technologies that have not yet been invented’ (Lambert and Morgan, 2010, p.21). Bednarz (2001) contests this ‘workplace justification’ for competitive knowledge workers (capable of using ‘decision support systems’ to handle and analyse huge datasets), arguing that such a prediction of the future jobs market is problematic. She also urges caution, noting that the workplace rationale neglects the purpose of education:

While providing students with key technological skills is a worthwhile and legitimate concern of education, geography educators should be cautious about serving a merely essentialist role providing trained knowledge workers for the Information Economy as opposed to preparing educated spatially skilled individuals.                                         (Bednarz, 2001, p.3)

According to both Leadbetter (2008) and Bednard (2001) schools tend to work with an out-dated view of knowledge and often ‘train’ rather than educate students in the use of skills.

The three key aspects of education

It would be wise at this point to question what the role of the school curriculum should be. The school curriculum should not only be the means for students to learn, but it should also provide students with what is needed for life after school. What is well cited in the literature is the characteristics employers want from their workforce in a globalised world. If we are to produce workers who are fully able to integrate into the world of work we first need to define the key aspects of education. Nygaard et al. (2008, p. 35-37) uses clearly defined typology to describe knowledge, skills and competence, the three key aspects of education. In this assignment the meaning of the terms as proposed by Nygaard et al. will be adhered to:

(i)             The term knowledge refers to the basic theories, concepts, models and facts that constitute an academic discipline’s core content.

(ii)           The term skills refers to the ability to master the methods that a certain discipline makes use of.

(iii)          Competence is defined as the ability.

Knowledge

Starting with the concept of knowledge, it can be seen that traditional teaching assumed that ‘knowledge is “stuff” that could be stored in minds, books and databases. It is seen as being true and correct, which leads to demands to teach accepted facts and wisdom’ (Lambert and Morgan, 2010, p.26). This idea is strongly contested. The view of knowledge and learning in the ‘knowledge age’ (ibid.) has moved on. Knowledge is now perceived to be a process rather than a product, it is collectively created, it is dynamic and changing and it resists being codified as it crosses the divides between traditional school subjects (Gilbert, 2005). When considering meaning of knowledge in the case of school geography, Lambert and Morgan (2009) show how the subject has been not only distorted ‘under pressure from good causes such as global citizenship and sustainable development’ (p. 147), but also ‘corrupted’ from its true moral purpose. Making a further case for geography, the Geographical Association (GA) have set out what they see as the three forms of geographical knowledge, all of which ‘intersect and are mutually dependent: they cannot be taught in isolation of each other, but all should be taught’ (GA, 2011). The first is ‘core knowledge’ meaning how the subject resides in the popular imagination, the second is ‘content knowledge’, sometimes referred to as concepts or generalisations and the key to developing understanding and the third is ‘procedural knowledge’ meaning thinking geographically. Geographical knowledge is important to allow us not only to describe and make sense of the world we live in, but also to make decisions looking through a geographical lens at the world. With the rapid development of processing power of modern technology, there is now more than ever, a much greater wealth of geospatially located data available for geographers to make sense of today. Knowledge and the understanding of knowledge is therefore fundamental to a geographical education and yet it has been seriously undermined by recent trends in educational theory and curriculum policy-making (Hirsch, 2007).

Following the 1988 Education Reform Act, the government introduced in 1991 the first National Curriculum in order to unify the curriculum of all state schools in the UK, ensuring parity and thus raising standards in education (DES, 1991). The style of this first Geography Order was ‘aimless’ (White, 2006) with 183 content-based statements of attainment was content-heavy (Roberts, 1991) and according to Rawling (2001, p.21) it seemed to ignore features such as ‘key ideas, geographical enquiry, and issue-based investigations in Geography, characteristic of the previous twenty years of curriculum development’ in favour of extensive knowledge. Such a dominance of knowledge and an absence of geographical skills in this first Geography Order shocked educational commentators, who felt that students would miss out on the key aspects of education (Roberts 1991 and Rawling 1992).

Lankshear et al. (1997) reminds us that there was nothing ‘natural’ about what goes on in school geography, what counts as geography reflecting the interests of powerful social groups. At the time of the first National Curriculum it was the New Right Ideology, which dominated and influenced Educational Policy. The content of this newly codified National Curriculum was presented in a phenomenally successful textbook series (Key Geography) in a ‘winner takes all market’, where a single author’s interpretation ‘set the tone’ for school geography for at least a decade (Castree et al., 2007, p.130). At first glance, in particular for non-specialist teachers of Geography, such a resource would have been championed, however, the dominance of one perspective in the classroom worried many (Roberts, 2009; Castree et al., 2007). Subsequent reforms of the National Curriculum had the intention to ‘simplify and reduce the burdens of a cumbersome curriculum on teachers and students’ (Lambert and Morgan, 2009 p.148) but geography remained tarred as a utilitarian and informational subject, unable to evolve. Later reviews of the National Curriculum finally saw the ‘re-emergence of progressive educational features such as geographical enquiry, values and a global dimension’ (Rawling, 2001, p.22), as well as aims, but the subject-based information-driven curriculum as was first introduced in 1991, has by momentum, continued to dominate school geography through to today.

The curriculum changes occurring in school geography was also taking place in post-16 geography. Since the introduction of Curriculum 2000, British schools have had a choice of specifications written by the five competing exam boards, the English exam specifications being written by Pearson Qualification Services (formerly Edexcel); AQA and Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations (OCR). The writing of GCE specifications; all different in terms of knowledge, skills and assessment, were previously overseen by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). That is, until the creation of Ofqual in April 2008, who, unlike their predecessors, were accountable only to Parliament rather than to government ministers. With a life-cycle of around six years, specifications becoming out-dated in our rapidly changing world, stifling emerging concepts, knowledge and innovation (Leadbeater, 2008). The most recent specification update for geography occurred in 2008 and this working version will probably run to 2015, when as a consequence of Ofqual’s A-level Reform Consultation (2012) there will be significant changes to the A-level structure, higher education endorsements and specification content as set out by Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Education.

Whose curriculum?

Since the publication of the Schools White Paper: The Importance of Teaching (DfE, 2010) policy related to school curriculum, assessment and accountability are all under review. As was the case in past curriculum reviews the opinions of stakeholders have been sort. With greater media exposure, political reforms and expansion of for-profit educational businesses, there are more stakeholders with a significant interest in developing the new school curriculum than ever there has been in the past, especially if the government follow through their desire to have only one exam board and specification per subject and a curriculum which is not centrally constructed, since the demise of the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency as of 31 March 2012 (Mansell, 2012).

Stating the case for geography is the Geographical Association (the subject association established in 1893 focused on school geography) and the Royal Geographical Society (whose 16,500 members are mostly academics or professional geographers). In addition, the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences (GEES) have set-up a special interest group with a focus on curriculum change. Currently, the Pearson UK Advisory Panel (for-profit educational publishers) is asking for responses on reforming qualifications, to better understand the needs for educational resources from schools and teachers (Mansell, 2012) and the exam board OCR are conducting their own research with both school and academic geographers to see whether there can be greater involvement by academics in the A-level curriculum-making process (Tate et al., 2012). Such involvement by academics is looking less likely at a time when universities are seeing their research funding falling and an increase in teaching burden (Jeffrey, 2003).

Finally, there is a greater engagement of individuals in curriculum development via social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. Heads’ Roundtable is such a ‘non-party political group that wants to influence national education policy’ (ibid.), created ‘out of frustration regarding current government educational policy and the Opposition’s response to it’ (Heads’ Roundtable blog site, 2012) and using social media to share their ideas and respond formally to government consultations.

Like Nick Gibbs before him, Michael Gove, the current Secretary of State for Education, has been influenced by the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch and his content-rich ‘concept of cultural literacy’ (2007) when planning educational reforms. What Hirsch provides with his theory is the necessary knowledge and facts required for children to take a full part in society, set out by the age at which it should be learnt (ibid.). The UK-based think tank Civitas (2012) has ominously created and published a British version of this cultural literacy and Alex Standish an advocate of this approach has created a ‘knowledge-focused’ alternative geography curriculum (2011). Such a tick list of knowledge, may prove ideal for comparative purposes in league tables, it is a poor substitute for education. The first concern with such a ‘knowledge-focused’ curricular is that it appears to be unbalanced and based on the out-dated idea that knowledge is ‘built up by people, and people can possess it, but it exists objectively, independently of people’ (Lambert and Morgan, 2009, p.26). The second concern is that the essence of the school curricular should not be written by centralised bureaucrats, but rather by academics with the best interests of children and their education in mind (Pointon, 2008).

Knowledge is only one of the three key aspects of education that have changed rapidly over the last two decades. It is now worth considering the issue of skills.

Skills

In 1984, Kolb published his book titled ‘Experiential Learning’, which describes the sort of learning whereby students could acquire and apply knowledge and skills by experiencing and reflecting upon a learning encounter. At the same time that Kolb was developing his ideas about experiential learning, Gardner (1983) presented the idea that there are several ways to be intelligent, including the idea of emotional intelligence. Goleman (1996) developed this theory of ‘Emotional Intelligence’ in his book of the same name and made the case that social and emotional abilities are more influential than conventional intelligence for personal development, school and career success. In recent years the explosion of thinking and research stemming from the theoretical foundations of Kolb and Gardner and focused on the social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL) have helped to structure both the functional skills and personal, social and health education aspects of the National Curriculum (QCA, 2008), their importance growing as the knowledge economy develops. The current revision of the secondary curriculum contains two skills frameworks, those of ‘functional skills’ and ‘personal, learning and thinking skills’ which cover team working, independent enquiry, self-management, reflective learning, effective participation and creative thinking skills’ (QCA, 2008). Strangely, the competency or ‘ability’ (Nygaard et al. 2008) of students to apply these learning skills is still not assessed or more worryingly not seen as a priority, by assessment-driven teaching in the era of school league tables. The reader of such statutory orders cannot help but feel that knowledge, which is assessed, is of more value than the skills, which are not.

The skills requirements in 16-19 geography are a set of six broad cross-curricular key skills which include the application of number, communication, information and communication technology, improving own learning and performance, problem solving and working with others as set out by The National Curriculum Council (NCC, 1990). In the Edexcel A-level geography specification again it is noted that ‘Achievement of key skills is not a requirement of this qualification, but it is encouraged’ and suggestions for skills opportunities are provided, using content knowledge (Edexcel, 2010, p.119).

The transition students make from school to academic geography is no doubt the largest step in their education (Tate and Sword, 2012). It seems that the current education system is not fully preparing our young people for this big step forwards. Some academic commentators have even described this particular transition as ‘a gap’, ‘a chasm’ and even a ‘gulf’ (Marriott, 2007; Gouldie, 1993; Bonnett, 2003 and Jeffrey, 2003). The government has developed a set of criteria, which describes the skills graduates are expected to have or develop; many are similar to those previously mentioned in the school curriculum. These were first outlined in the Roberts’ Report and the Research Councils’ Joint Skills Statement and now revised as the Vitae Researcher Development Framework (2010) shown in Figure 1. The four key domains (A-D) of research including knowledge and intellectual abilities (A); personal effectiveness (B); research governance and organisation (C) and engagement (D) and together they provide a useful framework for skills mastery in Higher Education.

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Figure 1. Vitae Researcher Development Framework (2010)

The dichotomy of rapidly evolving skills theories and statutory skills requirements is clearly set against the falling number of skills-based opportunities within the school curriculum, it is the later which will now be the focus of our attention. The critical skills (Vitae Cognitive Abilities A2, 2010) required at degree level (Bryson, 1997) are somewhat difficult to teach in school geography, simply because time is needed for the mastery of such a student-centred deeper approach to learning (Dyas and Bradley, 1999). At present school teachers are unlikely to facilitate such activities when the rote learning of case studies and core knowledge, tightly matched to specifications, produces consistently good results, especially if the traditional route to such skills, through coursework has been stripped from exam requirements (Pointon, 2008).

A further development of the last decade, which would hinder a skills-rich education, was the publication of mark schemes, examiners reports and results by the examination boards. This paved the way towards teaching to the examination, a practice encouraged by both politicians and senior managers in schools, due again to the perceived importance placed on league tables and the Ofsted assessment of schools. It was the Education Act of 1988, which not only gave parents a choice as to which school their children attended, but also the means to make an informed choice through these publications (Nygaard et al., 2008).

The final and most damaging death knell for encouraging a skills agenda in schools was the move towards shorter examinations (which had previously been up to three hours in duration), with more structured and shorter questions and a move away from essay style questions. The lack of opportunities for developing literacy skills, particularly essay writing at A level in England, was noted by Maguire (2008) as a worrisome thing. Jeffrey (2003) remarks, when discussing the lack of essay-writing and analytical skills in the Scottish Higher and Advanced Highers, that ‘it is now unusual for candidates to write that two or three hundred words for any answer’ (p.209). Pointon saw the writing on the wall, back in 2008 as specifications were being updated, when she said:

The most significant assessment issue is the loss of coursework. Timed examinations are the only form of assessment allowed and, though there are fewer examinations, they are generally longer. Within them, essays are required, but the time allowed to write them varies from 30 to 90 minutes, depending on specification. The loss of coursework will hinder the development of many students’ independent learning skills; this will impact on research, analysis, and reporting. Many students will need to be taught how to research, write up, and reference their work as they commence HE.’                                                                      (Pointon, 2008, p.10)

Thus key skills seemed to have been side-lined or eroded through time as didactic teaching of subject-content as seen in the National Curriculum, course textbooks and through examination specifications have been given priority.

The consequence of such ‘skills erosion’ (Frean et al., 2007) as opined in teaching journals including Teaching Geography, Studies in Higher Education and Journal of Geography in Higher Education and in the press is that many universities find themselves having to offer classes in research skills and essay writing because students are unable to research and write critically, an essential skill required at degree level study (ibid.). These study skills courses are incorporated into degree programs, ‘often in recognition that today’s students have to learn effectively with less recourse to support from teaching staff’ (Haigh and Kilmartin, 1999, p.195) and yet it is widely noted that teaching skills out of context is difficult (Bridges, 1993). Indeed many would argue that skills must be taught ‘in context’ for they are meaningless and cannot be transferred (Wolf, 1991).

These valuable study skills are referred to as core skills by Wolf (1991) who repeats the idea that these skills are not transferable, they are by definition ‘inseparable from the context in which they are developed and displayed, only making sense [or, rather, the same sense] to those who have the same recognition and understanding of those contexts’ (p. 194). It should also be noted that at degree level, just like at A level, students ‘are required to practise more skills than they receive credit for through assessment’ (Haigh and Kilmartin, 1999, p.205), again making knowledge a priority over skills in education. What can be concluded here is that some generalisable skills such as touch-typing, referencing and presentations can be transferable, but it is important to note that many subject-specific skills are not transferable. The mastery of skills may take time to perfect and some skills may never be used again. However the process of mastery allows the student to become adaptable which is important in a fast changing economy (Leadbetter, 2008).

Perception of the skills gap

At this point it is worth viewing the skills gap from the other side, from the eyes of both students and employers. A study by Smith (2004) noted that the majority of first year undergraduates surveyed felt that A levels had not prepared them fully for university and yet the expectation by employers is well described by Sir Digby Jones, Director-General, Confederation of British Industry, Foreword to Prospects Directory 2004/5 when he said the following:

“A degree alone is not enough. Employers are looking for more than just technical skills and knowledge of a degree discipline. They particularly value skills such as communication, teamworking and problem solving. Job applicants who can demonstrate that they have developed these skills will have a real advantage.”         (Jones, 2004)

In the 2004 Enterprise survey, of 20,000 employers in the UK, employers were most worried about lack of skills such as customer handling, problem solving and team working. In fact research has shown that non-cognitive skills had more correlation with success in the labour market than cognitive skills, IQ and formal qualifications (Cunha et al., 2005). Possessing a wide range of these skills may show to a potential employer that a candidate has practised, mastered and shows aptitude, even if most of the skills gained often do not transfer into a new context. However, a person who is able to use both knowledge and skills in changing environments and for various tasks is regarded as a professional. This ‘capacity to adapt will increase with lifelong learning.’ (Henneman and Liefner, 2010, p.217). Other academics have noted that ‘students have expressed a range of emotions from disappointment through to anger and fear at how inadequately prepared for university they considered themselves to be (Tate et al., 2012, p.8).

In order for skills to be taught in school, teachers need to be trained. This process takes time, not only to comprehend what needs to be taught, but also to train the trainers, buy the necessary equipment and then to assess the teachers to check satisfactory understanding. Much of the equipment required for measuring changes in physical geography are out of the reach of most schools (Birnie, 1999). For example technical skills, like the ability to use geographical information systems (GIS) ‘have become a route into the employment market’ (Zhou et al., 1999). Teachers have access to a wide-range of Geographical Information Systems, but in a recent Pearson Education Panel survey (Pearson, 2012) only a few teachers surveyed said that they did use the complex systems such as ArcGIS online, the reasoning being the time required to become technically competent, create resources and book computer facilities, in order to carry out the lesson. ‘It was only in the late 1990s that ICT capabilities of trainee teachers were formally assessed as part of their PGCE training’ (Tate et al., 2012, 4). Thus, if it takes a couple of decades to get assessment of the computer literacy skills of our trainee teachers, it is bound to take longer to get ICT developments fully integrated into classroom practise and whether teachers are ‘able to keep up-to-date with current developments in an ever evolving discipline’ (Prykett and Smith, 2009, p.35) is a whole other issue.

The third aspect of education according to (Nygaard et al. 2008) is that of competence or ability, this is the least familiar aspect of education, possibly because less research has been focused on it, in comparison to the wealth of knowledge and skills research (Lambert and Morgan, 2010).

Competences

Competence is closely allied with skills. Lambert and Morgan (2010) point out that the emphasis of education should be less concerned with ‘what’ is taught and more concerned with ‘how’ it is taught. They argue that learning should involve:

The development of ‘higher order’ cognitive skills such as problem-solving and thinking skills, and with ideas of meta-cognition or ‘learning how to learn’. In addition, the collaborative nature of knowledge construction requires that students acquire a series of ‘soft skills such as teamwork, empathy and cooperation. (p.26)

These ideas of metacognition or competence are increasingly being heard from a range of educators. Within the field of geography one of the first examples was seen in the book Thinking Through Geography by David Leat (2001) in which teaching and learning is based around the process of learning, the ‘how’ being far more important than ‘what’ was being taught. This idea was formalised in geography by the development and establishment of the innovative Pilot GCSE qualification in 2003. The Pilot course was designed with a less broad subject content and with a greater emphasis on concepts and skills development, leading to a wider range of learning approaches and a better understanding within the context of the traditional subject (Lambert and Morgan, 2009). A competence approach to education cannot however be content-heavy, as time is required to reach a deeper understanding of the material being investigated (Roberts, 2009).

A school project that organises teaching and learning around a series of ‘competences’, rather than by traditional learning subjects, is the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts’ (RSA) Opening Minds Project. Introduced in 2006, Opening Minds is being used in over 200 schools in the UK and it provides students, through a range of experiences, with a set of competences (self management, team working, problem solving, communication, business awareness, customer care, application of numeracy and ICT) that are valued by prospective employers. What is extremely valuable about this project compared to traditional subject-based curricular is the importance placed upon skills and their central positioning in the framework of teaching and learning. It is important to note that the number of participants in such projects remains low.

Prior to the abolition of the Pilot GCSE Geography in 2008 only 80 schools were involved. This seems at odds from the wealth of innovations widely used in modern schools such as ‘Learning to Learn’, ‘Personal Learning and Thinking Skills’ and others. Ecclestone and Hayes (2009) note that this ‘curriculum shift towards “learning”, rather than the acquisition of what is now routinely dismissed as “soon to be outdated knowledge” are the commonest expression of the attack on knowledge’. According to Lambert (2011, p.128), these skills-based innovations seem to adopt a ‘deficit view of the learner’, but are more significantly, an attack on young people as ‘knowers’.

School geography seems to have reached a crossroads. Even with a plethora of progressive educational innovations available, take up of skills-based innovations in traditional subject areas is low. Even fewer schools, as organisation must be at this level, choose to move from a traditional subject framework to a learning framework with a focus on competences. As a matter of urgency, the school curricular must evolve with the times to supply workers capable of flourishing in the knowledge economy, especially when the UK government is looking towards the production and trade of knowledge to secure economic prosperity.

The future of education

There are currently 4.6 million students in further education and a further 2.3 million students in higher education in the UK today (HEFCE, 2012). Nearly 1 million of the 2.5 million unemployed in the UK are young people between the age of 18 and 25 (ibid.). Although the situation is complex, the figures highlight that school leavers are not always in possession of the required knowledge or skills needed for the world of work. Now more than ever, educators need to consider radically shifting the school curriculum to better meet the needs of potential employers and increase the employability of school leavers (Nygaard et al., 2008). As discovered in this study, skills that are developed by experiential learning such as problem solving and independent learning are essential if we are to prepare students for a wide range of career-related situations. As John White (2006, p.6), a philosopher of education has observed the government ‘may be cautiously reluctant about radical change’ of the National Curriculum, but with the greater freedom provided by Academy school status, many professionals at grass-roots level are taking curriculum development into their own hands and creating a progressive innovative curriculum.

In an Oxford Brookes study of geography students, it was concluded that ‘skills constitute some of the most valuable learning outcomes’ (Haigh and Kilmartin, 1999, 205) and yet in the same study it is noted that ‘we do not own the techniques of assessment that can adequately address the skills curriculum that we try to teach’ (ibid.), it is this issue with assessment which could prove difficult for the government to overcome. What we must ensure is that ‘graduates should leave higher education better in many ways than when they entered it, and this improvement should be attributable to the undergraduate curriculum, rather than to the fact they are simply three or four years older.’ (Washer, 2007, p. 60). The educational publishers Pearson, enlightened through their UK Advisory Panel customer feedback are ‘considering developing study skills resources that support students through their GCE course and prepare them for higher Education’ (Pearson pers comms, 2012). Such an investment would only occur if such resources were seen to be important, but also profitable.

There has been a conscious effort by a range of agencies to sustain dialogue between students, academics and geography teachers to reduce the gap between school and academic geography, however the gap appears to still be widening (Marriott, 2007). Since 2006, The Royal Geographical Society (RGS) has spearheaded the Geography Ambassadors project. The scheme recruits, trains and supports over 1000 graduates to act as ambassadors for geography in schools and it provides an opportunity for school children to see how a geographical education can be used in the world of work. The RGS also provides professional accreditation in the form of Chartered Geographer status, with this recognition comes access to a professional network where teachers and academics can interact. Both the RGS and the Geographical Association, the subject association for geography based in England, organise annual conferences and specialist committees that facilitates links between students, school teachers and academic geographers. The biggest obstacle to greater dialogue between geography teachers, academics and professional geographers is scarce time and energy (Jeffrey, 2003).

To conclude, the key to a successful geography education is the development of geographical understanding within a conceptual framework that links ideas, data and information together.  Such a geography education ‘that is ambitious, sophisticated and multidimensional, and which has its roots in the notion of human potential – to become self-fulfilled and competent individuals, informed and aware citizens and critical and creative knowledge workers’ (Lambert and Morgan, 2010, p. 63) can therefore contribute to not only developing the capability of individual young people, but also to build the social capital much needed in the knowledge economy to secure economic prosperity. Teachers play a significant role in helping to construct such ‘meaning’ and supporting understanding in the learning process. They too must be able to develop their own geographical knowledge, skills and competence through a range of channels including dialogue with other geographers, involvement in workshops where skills are learnt and in schools where best practice can be shared.

As the Geographical Association says in its manifesto entitled, ‘A different view’ (2009) school geography should aim to encourage and underpin ‘a lifelong conversation about Earth as the home of humankind’. It also asserts that school geography needs to be a ‘living geography’ providing a lasting and worthwhile significance for pupils embarking on adult life. This study finds that such an ideal has not been achievable under the current National Curriculum. Perhaps the biggest challenge for geography education and the government is to create a new National Curriculum which is fit for purpose allowing young people to better understand the complex world in which they live and provide them with the knowledge, skills and competence needed for life in the 21st Century.

References

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School effectiveness and improvement

The demand for improvements in both teaching and learning and a more equal and efficient school system is universal. As a classroom teacher I am less concerned that the driving force for change seems to politically motivated, as I know any moves to improve teaching and learning will benefit the students in my classroom. Finland is one of the 34 OECD countries that has successfully raised standards and improved educational performance; as measured by international comparisons over the last couple of decades, while others nations such as the UK have struggled and seen their ranking fall. This divergence in results for the two nations is of great interest to global educators. Finland, you may argue, has made the right educational choices, whereas Britain has not.

With the government’s National Curriculum review (DfE, 2011), the international placing of the British Education system is a hot topic for debate. The School’s White Paper gets straight to the point by saying ‘What really matters is how we’re doing with our international competitors. That is what will define our economic growth and our country’s future’ (DfE, 2010, p.3). Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Education, has used England’s apparent plunge down the PISA league tables as the central ‘justification for his sweeping school reforms’ (Stewart, 2012), even when the data from 2000 and 2003 has proven to be statistically unreliable. Pasi Sahlberg does a good job of outlining the problems with the British education system when he says:

‘Force, pressure, shame, top-down interventions, markets, competition, standardization, testing and easier and quicker passages into teaching, closure of failing schools, the firing of ineffective teachers and principles, and fresh start with young teachers and newly established schools – the very reform strategies that have failed dismally over two decades in many Anglo-Saxon nations are being reinvented and re-imposed and with even greater force and determination’ (2011, p. xv).

The Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg repeats this sentiment when he points out that ‘Michael Gove’s department needs to be very careful in its use of official statistics… Running down our teachers and schools is not the best way to raise standards’ (Stewart, 2012) and yet this is what Michael Gove is continuing to do on an almost daily basis. The most recent target being Russell Tarr and his Active History website.
Alongside the backdrop of international comparisons, educators and politicians are now questioning ‘how’ they can quickly raise standards in education. For the last 30 years, the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) has focused on the concepts of making schools more effective and improving the process of teaching and learning. In the European Union (EC, 2000), member countries have agreed on 16 quality indicators to facilitate the analysis of school effectiveness at national level. Indicators include attainment in mathematics, reading, science, information and communication technology; successful completion of upper secondary education; monitoring of school education; resources; training for teachers and infrastructure.

Some European countries have successfully embedded policies to measure effectiveness and improvement. Exam results are used to rank schools in league tables and value-added assessment modeling (VAM) is available to calculate a measure of school effectiveness based on a comparison of student IQ and external examination results. School effectiveness is therefore concerned with the outcomes of schooling, whereas school improvement considers the various contextual factors such as day-to-day academic decisions or curriculum implementation, which influence schooling (Harris and Bennett, 2005). Valuable research on school improvement has focused on a range of issues including, increasing student motivation, high achievement for all pupils, seeking positive parental involvement, school decision-making, providing focused and sustained professional development and personalising educational experiences.

It is clear that there has been a great deal of movement in the right direction, now educational reforms must work to improve schools for all. Over the next year I will blog more about how I can make a difference to those I teach, when the contemporary educational landscape seems to be undergoing such a rapid change.

References:
Harris, A., Bennett, N. (2005) School Effectiveness and School Improvement: Alternative Perspectives. Continuum, London.
Sahlberg, P. (2011b) ‘PISA in Finland: An Education Miracle or an Obstacle to Change?’ Centre for Education Policy Journal, 1(3), 119-140.
Stewart, W. (2012) ‘Gove accused of building on shaky PISA foundations’ Times Educational Supplement Magazine 2 November 2012. Available online at http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6298801 [last accessed 20 April 2013].

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I think I am obsessed with the weather

I moved from the temperate climatic zone to a city nigh on located on the Tropic of Cancer. Although I appreciated that our new weather would be hot, I did not realise that we would still feel the seasons and see changes in the pattern of winds, intensity of sunshine and levels of moisture throughout the year.

I was camping out in the desert of Ajman at the weekend and something special happened. January 27th felt to me to be the day when the temperature instead of falling began to increase. Much discussion followed about this event. This week, students have been discussing times when they have been uncomfortable in the heat and I have been thinking about my wardrobe. Cotton is a far preferable material to wear against the skin in the heat, polyester is not.

Leisure pursuits will also change in the coming month, our family has been avoiding the beach as temperatures have stayed in the low twenties, today it reached 28 degrees and so a trip to the pool is back on the cards for tomorrow. The brand new Yas Water Park may have opened last month but it is only now that we will make plans to visit. There are now so many opportunities for us to enjoy this desert country and yet the temperature is going to race up as we head towards summer.

If you want to read more about Geography at 24 degrees, I have written an article about Abu Dhabi in the Spring 2013 issue of the Geographical Association’s Teaching Geography Journal.

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