Monday, 2 July 2012

Mission:Explore Food - Book Review

Last week I completed a review of Mission:Explore's new book for young geographers on food. You can find my review here and more information about the book here.

As somebody who for a long time dreamed of becoming a high school geography teacher this was a fantastic opportunity for me to re-engage with the pedagogical side of geography and to see how inspiring and exciting it is possible to make the subject for aspiring young geographers. What eventually put me off being a geography teacher was discovering how much more interesting the geography I learnt at university was, compared to what I had been taught at school (this was despite the best efforts of the excellent and inspiring teachers that I had). It would, of course, be impossible to teach university level geography to all school children; but I have become convinced that if there was the will in Whitehall it would be perfectly possible to create a more nuanced and engaging geography curriculum.

In my first week at university we were encouraged to question all the models of development and assumptions about environmental protection that we had been taught at school - and I had had the good fortune to be taught by teachers who were prepared to stretch the curriculum to its limits and to embrace the political nature of the topics they were teaching. But still they were fundamentally constrained by the curriculum they had been given and the exams they had to prepare us for. Animal geographies, new approaches to studying immigration and geopolitics within geography, geographies of street art or performance, or geographies of water security are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of current topics in academic geography which could be made both relevant and interesting for study in schools.

Geography as creating global citizens?
Whilst school geography has certainly come on leaps and bounds since the 1950s and '60s when my parents were at school - as far as I can tell their geography lessons involved learning facts about different countries and memorising the lengths of rivers - the subject still falls short of its potential. We live in an increasingly interconnected world, where our lives are increasingly influenced by and have impacts upon distant places, and when we are confronted ever more frequently with ethical questions about our responsibility to distant others and to 'Nature'. And thus geography seems to me to be the subject with the analytic tools at its disposal to adequately equip our children with the necessary skills to live in and engage with the world - in other words, to become global citizens. From this perspective the school geography curriculum should be encouraging children to ask questions and challenge the accepted order of things, rather than just learning facts. And Mission:Explore have shown that this is possible by creating a practice-based approach to geography, which both harnesses children's natural curiosity and enthusiasm, and also helps them to develop critical thinking skills by coming up with their own questions and engaging with intrinsically geographical issues related to place, space and scale. The approach is empowering rather than patronising, and proves that it is possible to explain contestation or uncertainties to children in accesssible terms. Education itself is a political act (Paulo Friere is a good person to look at if you need a little more convincing), and geographical topics themselves quickly become political - it's no use trying to shut this out of the education system.

Mission:Explore has certainly helped to renew my faith in the potential for exciting and engaging geography aimed at school-aged children. I very much hope that my academic involvement in school and children's geography will not end here. I can't wait to find out what other academics and learned societies like the Royal Geographical Society are engaging with school geography.

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