Changing Perspectives in Geography

Forget your preconceptions of GEOGRAPHY; I’d be so bold as to suggest that there is no subject that is more important to study in the World today…

We live in a world changing beyond previous recognition, at a rate which is almost incomprehensible to those witnessing it first-hand. On a rainy Friday evening, as I kick off my shoes and switch on the Six O’Clock news, a plethora of stories – all of which directly affect our lives – are described articulately and emotively. The growing Spanish constitutional crisis, the potential impact of Brexit, the impacts of cultural hybridisation, migration rates, President Trump’s latest Twitter outburst and accusations of North Korea’s involvement in the notorious hacking of NHS computer systems. The descriptive nature of the reporting means that the critical analytical component explaining why these situations have come into fruition was missing. How are viewers meant to understand the processes affecting their very lives when their complex nature is not explored in the news? And how are students to develop an understanding of their contemporary situation when there is no direct opportunity to do so explicitly in the traditional school curriculum?

As a Head of Geography my favourite question for parents, students, colleagues and governors is “what does Geography mean to you?” I ask them to think back to their school days and identify their most pertinent memories of a subject viewed as a marginal part of the traditional school curriculum. The answers are nearly always uniform; “Capital Cities! Flags! Drumlins! Ox-Bow Lakes! Elbow Patches! Colouring in! …… Boring!” It is apparent that arguably, more than any other subject, Geography has been type-cast. A subject of physical processes which we struggle to see in action, of endless facts and figures which needed to be remembered and taught by a perceived breed of teacher which reflected the subject content. Being a “Geographer” came with excessive perceptive baggage and became a term associated with negative connotations, used as a quick verbal rebuke of those engaging in the academia of our physical planet.

Once described as “a Cinderella subject” by the Guardian newspaper, Geography has evolved over the last 20 years from a “Princess” subject waiting for a chance to prove its value, into a fully realised academic powerhouse. Its newly found niche position in the modern school curriculum has made it a cutting-edge, boundary-pushing subject which has become fundamental for shaping students  to ensure they are ready for the world they will face after education.

Geography explains the past, illuminates the present and prepares us for the future. What could be more important than that?


Palin, the former president of the Royal Geographical Society, identified a fundamental change in the focus of the subject towards understanding, analytically and critically, the challenges of the future, which has led to a revolution in Geographical academia at all levels, from primary schools through to post-graduate university study. Importantly, Palin also identified that in order to identify and address the challenges of the future, an appreciation of the past and an understanding of contemporary human, physical and environmental processes is vital. This ‘joined-up thinking,’ – understanding processes of the past, the conditions of the present and the potential challenges of the future – prepares students so they can understand and critically analyse the stories and identify the potential outcomes, when they turn on the Six O’Clock News.

It is the fulfilment of this vital niche which makes Geography a critical element of any modern school curriculum. Geography’s traditional subject content is now taught in a range of other subjects, but despite this, the value of the subject has improved over the last ten years.. The key to understanding the present and understanding the challenges of the future is in being able to refer to a broad spectrum of knowledge. Geography students draw from an understanding of different subjects and apply it academically to ultimately make sense of the world they live in. Geography is aligned with  both the sciences and humanities, as well as traditional and “modern” topics, ranging from Politics, Economics and History, to Media Studies, Art and Music as well as Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Geography promotes the assimilation of knowledge and applies it in the context of modern global geographical processes, enabling students to make sense of their world. This unique quality, plugging a vital niche in modern school curriculums and providing students with the skills and knowledge they need to enter an environment and society changing quicker than ever before, makes Geography a truly invaluable asset to any student’s academic portfolio.

The changing position and importance of the subject in the school curriculum is reflected in the content taught across all ages. At primary level changes in the National Curriculum are designed to develop geographies of the imagination, as well as localised geographical knowledge and basic skills of investigation. Students arrive at secondary school with a better understanding of their world and the factors which effect their highly localised geographical awareness. At secondary level, recent changes at A-level and IB have demanded change in provision; focusing on the future has brought to prominence the study of superpowers and development, as students focus on future patterns of global power and poverty, as well as the sovereign rights of states and the human rights of those who live under various different political structures. Increased media awareness and the exacerbated impacts of capitalism driven globalisation are investigated as a major driver of changing economic and socio-cultural changes. Increased migration, cultural exchange and the growing power of Trans-National companies are all factors which are pertinent in explaining the major global geo-political and socio-economics changes we are experiencing today, and all will shape future characteristics of societies and environments in the future.

Importantly, Geography has not forgotten its physical roots. Whilst there is certainly a significant move towards a Human, geo-political focus in the curriculum, the physical processes which influence our planet continue to play a vital role. All Human activity takes place in the context of our physical environment; it is the provider of the resources which fuel our economy and the development of nations (which in itself provides huge future challenges in the form of climatic change and environmental degradation) and the services which keep our planet functioning efficiently, thanks to the complex processes taking places in our biosphere. Understanding the relationships between human activity and the physical environment has never been more important, with exponential population growth putting more strain than ever on out already beleaguered planet. To understand the challenges of tomorrow, we must understand the physical processes which are both driving, and being driven by human activity today. Geography is the only place on the   modern school curriculum that offers an arena for such application.

The ingenuity with which we continue to reshape the surface of our planet is very striking. It’s also sobering. It reminds me of just how easy it is for us to lose our connections with the natural world, yet it is on this connection that the future of humanity and the natural world depends. Surely, our responsibility is to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on earth.


Modern Geography acts as the academic “bridge” between the human and physical. For budding scientists it’s a chance to identify the impact of scientific processes on societies. For those who specialise in the humanities it provides an opportunity to develop and appreciation of the often scientific processes which are behind the changes we see on our planet. As such, the subject is regarded in high esteem in Higher Education, proving to universities and employers alike that not only do students understand scientific processes and the impact they have on people, but also that they have an understanding of the impact these processes have on the World today and on the World of the future. From medicine to law, teaching to architecture, these skills are both respected and demanded, providing Geography students with a significant advantage over others. Studying Geography today truly futureproofs a student, both academically and for future employment, with the demands for an understanding of the ever changing world around you more pertinent than ever in the work place.

I believe that the principle aim of a teacher is to develop a student’s understanding of the world around them, and to get them questioning, enquiring, and critically assessing the processes they see in front of their eyes. The next time you turn on the Six O’Clock News, watch it with your son or daughter. Ask them questions about what they see. Ask them to predict, theorise, reason and importantly question how what they see will impact their lives. Geography is all around them and impacts students’ lives directly. The quicker we can get our sons and daughters to appreciate this, the better their understanding of their world will be.

The Geography (r)evolution is in full swing. Surely it’s time to drop the elbow patches and shelve the colouring-in jokes – Geography has come of age and represents the future of school provision.

Mr T Campbell, Head of Geography

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