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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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