Being a Powerful Geographer

One of the first things I noticed about Powerful Geography was the matching bookmark inside. ‘How strange,’ I thought, wondering what had happened to all the ASBO Teacher bookmarks. There wasn’t a single one in any of the ten complimentary copies I had received from Crown House Publishing.

‘Erm, well… it’s just because, er… ASBO Teacher is obviously so engaging that it’s meant to be read in a single sitting.’

Ah, of course. It all makes perfect sense to me now.

So, Powerful Geography. What’s the book all about? Well, Mark Enser wants to define and re-establish the theoretical underpinnings of geography, in order to create ‘a curriculum with purpose in practice’.

Enser’s arguments surrounding the curriculum proceed from the false premise of those early noughties’ geographers: namely, that ‘anything is geography.’[1] He talks about the consequent expansion of what can only be termed Junk Geography – the geography of crime, of sport, and of fashion. A legacy that is with us today. I have only to open the shared area on my school portal to find an entire unit of work on Jack the Ripper – in geography! Those poor Year 9s. Why bombard parents with so many phonecalls and options evenings when the kids can simply take geography and study anything?

‘I’m not doing science anymore, Mum. Mr Elliott says geography is anything and therefore geography is science. I’m dropping chemistry to focus on coastal landforms in Swanage.’

Enser then distinguishes between Future 1 and Future 2 perspectives. The first holds that knowledge is absolute whereas the latter states that knowledge is created by each individual.[2] Obviously, children will sometimes create their own knowledge. I’d once shown my Year 10s an Amazon Rainforest documentary where Bruce Parry did a load of cocaine and wrestled llamas for forty-five minutes. It was quite the learning walk, let me tell you. Every exam answer on the Living World thereafter began with ‘cocaine’ as the primary cause of deforestation, ‘cocaine’ as the principal economic benefit, and ‘cocaine farming’ as the most sustainable rainforest management strategy.

However, this is not to say that drilling propositional knowledge should ever become an end in itself. Enser is no intellectual sloth, and he doesn’t cling languidly to the Future 1 perspective. He cautions against ‘using retrieval practice to recall facts and figures without ever giving the pupils the opportunity to do something with this information.’[3] And I have to agree. Although there may be ‘a consensus in cognitive psychology that it takes knowledge to gain knowledge,’[4] this does not mean that ‘group work is inherently a low-level activity that gives the illusion of students being busy and learning when they are actually not.’[5] What Sherrington calls Mode-B teaching, which I interpret to mean exploration, problem solving, and complex-task completion, should account for 20% of the teaching sequence.[6] And although Enser’s book is not about pedagogy per se – unlike Making Every Geography Lesson Count – he nevertheless talks about ‘a transformative journey through the subject we love’,[7] noting that geography should imbue pupils with Geocapabilities such as being able to debate, go beyond the limits of personal experience, and discover new ways of thinking.[8] To my mind, this is suggestive of Mode-B teaching, and it is this synthesis of Futures 1 and 2 that constitutes what Enser calls the Future 3 approach to the curriculum.

Now, I didn’t do a geography degree and I will always bear the indelible stamp of my lowly origin. Or as my boss put it when she took over the Humanities, ‘Oh, so you’re a learning geographer!’ I waited for the adrenaline to subside before replying that I was in fact a very learnèd geographer. I taught Sustainability in Freiburg to 11Gg3, for God’s sake – I had no choice. One wrong move and this 20-stone lad who looked like Big Zuu would lift up his shirt and truffle-shuffle me. Nevertheless, if I’d had Enser’s book at that time, I could have taken a different approach with my boss.

‘Excuse me, peasant, I’m actually an incredibly Powerful Geographer. But since you’ve awoken this sleeping giant, I now have no choice but to annihilate you. Tell me, to which intellectual tradition do you feel geography is most indebted – utilitarianism, liberal humanism, or cultural restorationism?’

My boss staggers back, the chamomile tea sloshing tsunami-like out of her cup and spattering across the floor.

‘And tell me – why do people live near volcanoes? Is it a fertile question… or a question of fertility?’

She doubles over as though winded. The lights flicker on and off, circuits sizzling, and little Ashleigh, who only popped by to show her report, darts off like a runner in the trenches.

The AQA textbooks levitate from the desks. ‘I’m creating knowledge in a distinctive way,’ I tell her. ‘Just like Mark Enser in Powerful Geography.’ The office fades away and an ox-bow lake appears in the foreground. From its centre, the snout of a stratovolcano emerges, thrusting skyward and spilling ash and sediment in a searing avalanche.[9] The levitating textbooks continue to flank me, twirling threateningly, and then swoop off on a sortie before banking in the air and returning to their master. And then, darkness. The lights wink on again and the drab office yellows bloom back into stale life. No volcanoes. No depositional landforms. My boss recomposes herself. ‘A curriculum with purpose in practice, that’s what I’m all about. Now… stick the kettle on, lah. Ya boy’s gasping.’

[1] Mark Enser, Powerful Geography, p. 1

[2] Mark Enser, Powerful Geography, p. 25

[3] Mark Enser, Powerful Geography, p. 164

[4] Daisy Christodoulou, Seven Myths About Education, p. 65

[5] Tom Sherrington, The Learning Rainforest, p. 236

[6] Tom Sherrington, The Learning Rainforest, p. 142-143 & evidence for the efficacy of Mode-B comes from the McKinsey Analysis of PISA test scores in science which found the ‘sweet spot’ was where ‘many to all’ lessons were teacher-led while ‘some to many’ were inquiry-based. 20% seems a sensible rule of thumb.

[7] Mark Enser, Powerful Geography, p. 169

[8] Mark Enser, Powerful Geography, p. 66

[9] Though not technically an avalanche, as this geographer can tell you.

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