Geo-capabilities: Teachers as curriculum leaders

The Geocaps team at a project meeting in Helsinki, May 2015

The GeoCapabilities 2 project emphasises the value and role of geography as a school subject in cultivating the development of human capabilities.

A capabilities approach to education considers how the individual in his or her context can lead a life that she or he has reason to value. GeoCapabilities argues that acquiring ‘powerful’ geographical knowledge through a geography education is of fundamental value to developing 'capability'. This requires thinking about what should be taught. GeoCapabilities asks teachers to consider the role of geography and their teaching in helping young people reach their full human potential.

This EU-funded project, in which the GA is a leading partner, offers geography teachers a framework for thinking about the curriculum and its value in expanding young people's capabilities to think beyond themselves and their everyday experiences, thereby enabling them to flourish in and contribute to a highly interdependent and complex world.

Geography does not tell us how to live, but developing geographical thinking and our innate geographical imaginations does provide the intellectual means for visioning ourselves, others and alternate futures on planet Earth. Consequently, 'powerful disciplinary knowledge' helps individuals make sense of the world and enables their capability to participate freely in informed debate and decisions.

In the context of contemporary change in schools and the intense (and beguiling) pressure to give students 'twenty first century skills' and help them 'learn how to learn', GeoCapabilities is concerned with the idea that young people are exposed to geographical knowledge and ideas that originate in the specialist subject discipline.

GeoCapabilities uses five underpinning key ideas: (i) the capabilities approach, (ii) ‘powerful’ disciplinary knowledge (iii) powerful pedagogies, (iv) curriculum making, and (v) curriculum leadership.

The project is international - embracing diversity in culture and language which has helped understanding of how the value of geography can be expressed and emphasised, whatever any differences in the overall aims and format of the curriculum.

The role of teachers

Teachers are central in the GeoCapabilities approach, as they can exercise some influence and choice over what is taught and how it is taught. Teachers need to go beyond delivery of a curriculum of prescribed ‘given knowledge’, or of a curriculum that over-emphasises ‘learning to learn’ and which blurs subject distinctions, to create a ‘curriculum of engagement’ - what the project advocates as a ‘Future 3 Curriculum’.

Teachers need to think how specialist knowledge can be reconceptualised in the form of geography as a school subject. This requires teachers to re-engage with 'curriculum making' as a way of grasping the significance of specialist teachers.

GeoCapabilities argues that geography teachers can provide access to specialist ‘world knowledge’ and ways of thinking geographically that enable young people to think the ‘yet-to-be-thought’. Or, in the words of the GA’s 2009 Manifesto, to travel with ‘a different view’. Through taking professional responsibility for interpreting the curriculum, all teachers are curriculum leaders.

GeoCapabilities offers geography teachers a framework for developing their professional responsibility as subject teachers and curriculum leaders. It provides a means of thinking about what they teach that is enabling and adaptable for creating a curriculum of engagement. As such, GeoCapabilities is not a series of lessons or activities but it is an attempt to grapple with the limits of school curricula based on competence and transferable skills and re-establish the value of geography as a subject in contributing to human capability.

Professional development

To help geography teachers adopt the GeoCapabilities approach, and develop the curriculum making and leadership skills to make it happen, four online professional development modules are currently being constructed. It is envisaged that these will be tackled in the context of staff development work within school geography departments, in geography teacher consortia, in sessions led by initial teacher educators or through other trainer-led collaborative teacher education programmes.

The modules aim for teachers to:

  1. develop understanding of (geo)capabilities and its potential to enable a different view of the world, through reflection on their own teaching schemes of work and by discussing examples of the geographical power of powerful disciplinary knowledge (presented as geographical story map 'vignettes')
  2. grasp the significance of curriculum-making and professional judgment as a deliberate act of sequencing and interpreting what pupils will do with the materials and experiences we provide
  3. evaluate video case-studies of teachers discussing and critically reviewing their attempts at curriculum making and what this means for a 'Future 3' curriculum
  4. develop curriculum leadership using 'lesson study' and 'practical theorising' frameworks to encourage a confident and collaborative understanding of how a GeoCapabilities approach might be used to convey and express the value of geography and thinking geographically in the curriculum and teaching.

The first modules are expected be available for trial in early 2016.

More about GeoCapabilities and the project

  1. View these two-minute video clips by Duncan Hawley and Alan Parkinson explaining the idea of 'Geo-capabilities' and the project.
  2. Visit the Geocapabilities website.

    The Homepage has an introductory video and activity, and other pages on the website have a number of articles about the project and its underpinning ideas.

    You will be able to access the GeoCapabilities online Professional Development modules via the Teacher Education page on the website when they become available in early 2016.

  3. Read about how a capabilities approach can support teachers in their thinking about why and how to develop students’ sense of the global in a Teaching Geography article by David Lambert – see Teaching Geography 2014 Autumn Issue, Vol.39, No. 3. Pp 106-107.
  4. Leaflet - Feel free to download, print and distribute.

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