The importance of teaching geography is arguably greater today than it has ever been, yet the subject remains under pressure in schools. Matthew Smith, Editor of Attain, talks to Dr Rita Gardner, Director of the RGS.
I would have been failing in my role as Editor if I had not started my interview with the Royal Geographical Society's Director by first asking her when she last coloured in a map: 'When I was four!' was the instant response.
Geography has long been associated with something of an image problem. I am proud to raise my hand and declare that I read the subject at university and very much enjoyed it. But I must also admit that at the time, when asked what degree you were studying, you did feel tempted to say 'anthropology' or 'geology' as it sounded much more exotic than just plain old geography. You imagined that others would perceive it as a 'soft option'. Geographers invariably filled the ranks of university sports teams, perpetuating the notion that it had to be one of the least time consuming of academic pursuits. With the benefit of hindsight, you realise that what felt like a considerable amount of free time away from the lecture theatre was not meant to be spent in the university union bar but was deliberately designed to give you time to read around - and begin to start thinking about - a vast subject which touches upon virtually every other academic discipline. From geology, meteorology, and biology through to economics, history and sociology, geography is undoubtedly the mother of all disciplines. Yet most people assume that geographers have something to do with maps - or as Swift put it: 'So geographers, in Afric-maps; With savage-pictures fill their gaps; And o'er unhabitable downs; Place elephants for want of towns'.
It was whilst studying in London that I first began to appreciate the importance of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) and its impact on the subject. Housed in a beautiful building on the corner of Exhibition Road, the Society was established in 1830 to 'advance geographical science and support its practitioners'; it is the largest and most active scholarly geographical society in the world.
Dr Rita Gardner, the current Director, has been in post for twelve years, having previously worked as a physical geography academic at King's College London and then Queen Mary College; she was educated at UCL and at Oxford University. She leads an organisation whose history enshrines such famous names as Livingstone, Stanley, Scott, Shackleton, Hunt and Hillary; a 'Boy's Own' bonanza of explorers who shaped our understanding of the world at a time when most maps were coloured pink. Yet today's RGS is most definitely not just a monument to the age of Empire. Each year, 150,000 people come through its doors for events and activities, from public lectures on topical geographical themes through to advice for those about to set off on an expedition. But with 15,000 members in more than 100 countries, it is surprising that the image of geography is often still incorrect. 'I think geography means different things to different people' responds Dr Gardner. 'And it depends partly on how old you are, what experience you had of learning geography at school, whether you read the subject at university, and the extent to which you have kept up to date with geography through your children.'
Rita Gardner is undoubtedly a passionate advocate for the subject. Geography is under pressure in schools and is often highlighted in the media as being in decline. This is not a particularly accurate picture as the drop in numbers is visible due to the huge rise in popularity it saw between 1990 and 1996. The cause is partly as a result of 'option blocks', with pre-GCSE children often having to choose between continuing with geography or dropping another discipline such as history. The quality of teaching, at some schools and in some areas, has also been sub-standard. Yet geography remains the second most popular GCSE subject. 'Where geography is well taught, it's a really, really stimulating subject. Which other subject spans climate change, migration, flooding, hazards - like volcanoes or earthquakes - or risks from advanced glacial-melt and its implications downstream, such as in the Himalayas. Where else do you learn about international development, urban development, or about the issues that are facing us in Europe, in relation to the wider world? Where else do you learn about the links, both locally and globally, that help to explain the nature of the communities in the area in which you live? Give me another subject! It has so much relevance to our lives today. And it is not just about issues. These have to be underpinned by real understanding and knowledge of facts and processes - where a teacher does that, it is just the most stunning subject'.
With such an enormous topic base, one of the problems of teaching geography is that it requires teachers to have a very clear view about the discipline and what it offers. 'My personal view is that for it to be well taught, it needs to go beyond just issues. It needs an understanding of some of the key concepts and processes first', explains Dr Gardner. 'To teach about climate change requires a basic understanding at least of the climate system and how it works. It needs an understanding of how and why humans are changing the balance of gases in the atmosphere - and the fact that there is a background of natural climate change as well - before you start looking at the likely impacts, the uncertainties, the vulnerable countries, and what we can do about it. So teaching which leaps into what we can do about it without understanding the science, and the social science, behind it runs the risk of being trivialised.'
I put it to her that as the subject is so relevant today, it should perhaps be made compulsory through to GCSE: 'I think that every child deserves to have high quality geography teaching from the age of five to the age of fourteen. That is a right that every young child should have, and our country should expect, yet it does not happen. Geography in maintained primary schools is patchy - it is better in the independent sector and that is where a lot of the strength of geography lies. The 14-16 age group is an interesting question. Personally, because it offers so much understanding of our contemporary world, I would like to see it compulsory. I do not think it ever will be simply because the options are just so wide these days, and there is a constant battle for what should and should not be compulsory. But I would say that it is as relevant that young people learn geography at 14-16 as they learn science.'
Any keen advocate of geography always highlights the career options available for students post-graduation. From my year group at university far fewer people actually moved into geographically-related careers than one would expect, although urban development, planning, conservation and environmental management, and development work are all active career paths for geographers. Many more take advantage of the generic skills which geography offers and progress into financial services, marketing, administration and senior management. 'Large numbers of geographers run organisations' adds Dr Gardner, 'because they have the ability to see the bigger picture and to integrate ideas and to think laterally. Often people do not understand just how employable geographers are. Students should study the subject which fascinates them at university and then they will do better. Eighty per cent of jobs that require a degree, do not require a degree in a particular subject; they require people to have a range of skills instead. Geography gives you teamwork, literacy, numeracy, research, data-gathering and analytical skills, as well as a broad background of knowledge about environment and society. Geography also gives students the ability to work with people from other cultures and backgrounds, which in a globalised economy is really important.'
As you walk around the Royal Geographical Society, you cannot fail but to be impressed at the achievements of the great explorers who went out to discover the world and came back to report their findings. One such man was Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer, to whom a monument stands outside the Society. Men like Shackleton led extraordinary expeditions of discovery yet almost one hundred years after his heroic exploits, I put it to Dr Gardner that the age of exploration is perhaps over? 'Exploration is about research - always has been - and our need for knowledge continues. In the nineteenth century it was typically about what is where, and this organisation in particular was very much involved in supporting the colonial endeavour, in terms of observing and mapping the world. These days it is much more about understanding how and why is the world changing? So with much more detailed assessments of aspects of climate change or aspects of biodiversity, the need for knowledge is as great as ever. We gain that knowledge through research, which is just taking different forms today as we are building on what is already known. Exploration for me is a way of doing research. Exploration is often where you carry out fieldwork in remote and challenging places; other research may be from in the lab, behind a desk or in an archive. Regardless of method, the driver is new knowledge. There is also another side to exploration which is about exploring yourself personally through adventure, such as Ran Fiennes [Sir Ranulph Fiennes, explorer and holder of the Society's Founders' Medal] and that will always be there as a part of human endeavour and spirit.'
I suggested however that some people would see the Society as nothing more than a monument to Britain's colonial past: 'Come and see us! Walk in through our wonderful modern glass and steel entrance and pavilion on Exhibition Road. Come and join the other 150,000 people who visit this Society and its buildings every year. Come and engage with our education programme, which 900 schools already do plus we reach out to every school in the country with things like the Action Plan [a two year programme funded by DCSF and led jointly by the RGS and Geographical Association]. Come and be part of the biggest and most active lecture series probably in the world in which 30,000 people a year attend our lectures. We run 150 events and lectures a year across England and Wales. Come and join our 1,000 strong research conference that takes over the building every year. Get on the website! We are one of the leading and most innovative of the learned societies, at the forefront of showing how learned societies can engage with the 21st century.'
Perhaps the perception of geography as a subject will now change, especially in an era of growing environmental and social awareness and concern. Every politician talks of the need to reduce our impact on the environment and for cultural tolerance. Yet without a sound knowledge of geography, it is hard to fully engage with current debates. I suggest to Dr Gardner that politicians today have a lack of geographical literacy: 'I think that often it is all too easy to overlook the geographical and historical dimensions to some of the issues facing us today in the world. It is too much of a generalisation to say that there is a lack of geographical or historical literacy but I think that levels of knowledge and understanding are very variable. Some of our politicians are extremely good in that regard and others less so, partly depending on their background and interests. I believe that society as a whole needs to value understanding of geographical and historical contexts and literacy more than it perhaps does today. You only have to read of surveys in North America which show that a vast proportion of people cannot place locations on a map, to start to question in your mind how such individuals can engage with the wider world in a meaningful sense. Because history and geography are traditional subjects, their modern relevance is sometimes overlooked and it needs to be at the forefront of everybody's mind.'
As I walk back through the Society's main entrance to rejoin the hustle and bustle of Exhibition Road, I asked Dr Gardner what geography means to her: 'Geography has a real unique selling point. It is about places, it is about societies, it is about environments - and the interactions between them. What geography offers is a real understanding of the contemporary world through understanding how and why places and regions are changing and how they are interconnected. And it underpins that with an understanding of the environmental, social and economic processes and how these shape regions. No other subject offers that. And because it is about the real world, it has the potential to inspire people and to instil a sense of value, and awe and wonder about our world and why we need to conserve it.'
DCSF should take note - if ever there was a compelling reason to make a subject compulsory through to GCSE, this has to be it.