03/07/2020
How can we decolonise geography?
"... we need to start somewhere and our classrooms are just that."

Before I begin...

I want to start this blog saying that I know I don’t have all the answers. I also don’t want people to interpret this blog to be a knee-jerk reaction to recent events such as the BLM protests. When I was asked to talk recently at the East London Teach Meet I had some initial ideas about presenting some strategies we use at KS3 to encourage better student reflection. I changed my mind for two reasons. Firstly, because I think this is vitally important and these conversations need to be opened and ongoing. Secondly, because I have been motivated and inspired by a network of geographers who are determined to make long term changes to geography to ensure our discipline is inclusive, representative and decolonised. I was thrilled this week when geographers of the Twittersphere voted to hear about decolonising geography for the first GeogChat Live, as it suggests people are open to these discussions. Whilst some would argue decolonising geography is too political, and that campaigns and protests should not dictate our curriculum, I rebut this - the whole curriculum is political. What is chosen to be taught and not taught is political. And quite simply, trying to create plural and anti-racist education for all should not be considered 'too political'. I’m hoping that by sharing some ideas about the start of our journey it will help others to approach these issues. My own school experience was in a very mono-ethnic area. From this, and returning to my hometown often, I know that some people can be unintentionally ignorant about systemic racism, but whether this ignorance is unintentional or not, it is a problem.

If I’m completely honest, I’ve been a little disappointed with some of the things I’ve seen on Twitter in the last couple of weeks – people defending their silence because they ‘don’t know enough’ to comment. This diverts the conversation away from the systemic issues. There is a difference between seeking how you can better understand, and justifying why you don’t understand – the latter makes you complicit. Other people have got defensive; there is also a difference between being ‘not-racist’ and being anti-racist. As a white teacher born in the SW of England I know I hold privilege. That does not mean that I have not faced hardship, but it means that this has not been because of the colour of my skin. If you aren’t on board so far, it’s probably best you close this tab.

There is work to be done in schools.

We are only at an early stage of our journey, and this started over the last couple of years, in part because we recognised the trend that our A Level cohorts were not representative of our school’s demographic. I am lucky to work with some fantastic colleagues that have already done lots of work, in particular our amazing History HOD, who has inspired me to think more critically about our curriculum and the representation of POC in our subjects. But we know there is still much to do. This won’t be solved overnight, but the recent ‘awakening’ of the world (and I hate this phrase, because it shouldn’t take a black man to be killed in the hands of the police, and for this to be videoed, for the world to wake up) has opened up a space, and we need to maintain this momentum.

Why does decolonising geography matter?

The Geographical Association held their annual conference for the first time virtually in April. Steve Brace from the RGS presented on ’30 reasons why geography really matters’, and asked teachers on Twitter why they thought so.

For #gaeconf20 next week i'll be sharing 30 reasons why #geography really matters (one might involve corduroy ...)

So what reasons do #geographyteachers give re the importance of our subject?

Share you own & I feature some of my faves in my session pic.twitter.com/kBrbsYP0hP

— Steve Brace (@SteveBraceGeog) April 10, 2020

Recurring themes of the responses were that geography helped students to understand the complexities of global issues and the place where they live. I’d argue that this logic is fundamentally flawed if students are not given accurate knowledge about the world. The absence of colonial history in the geography classroom means that students are not able to contextualise places accurately, and their understanding of the world – from development to migration, to identity and urban issues, the list could go on – are products of a western perspective.

The Royal Geographical Recently released a statement on the Black Lives Matters protests which you can read here.

This is important for two reasons:

  1. The RGS acknowledge that there is a problem in the discipline without defensiveness. They are also clear that although they have made progress in their approach to critically engage with the history of the society, they still need to do more to embed equality, diversity and inclusion at the heart of what they do. I think the same can be done by individuals. If the professional organisations that represent geography are not shying away from this, and neither should we.
  2. Work started on this before BLM protests and the recent focus, in some cases this has been happening for years. Momentum now needs to be maintained.

Has geography got a diversity problem?

A recent Guardian headline stated ‘BAME students make up one-fifth of new Oxford undergraduates’, sounds positive right? So it was a little disappointing to read further and find out that between 2017 and 2019 there were no black students studying geography. None.

Source

By definition geography as a subject is deep rooted in colonialism and empire that so much of the ‘knowledge’ we teach comes from white voices and this is, presently, hard to avoid. There is an opportunity for a Future 3 approach to curriculum thinking (Young et al, 2014). Future 3 is interested in the shifting ideas and arguments that have created powerful disciplinary knowledge. Although something that is important to highlight here is that Young still defines ‘powerful knowledge’ in Future 3 to be knowledge defined by the subject community. Young argues that powerful knowledge has been developed ‘by clearly distinguishable groups, usually occupations, with a clearly defined focus or field of enquiry’ (p. 75). Given that there is a distinct lack of representation of people of colour in the discipline, this raises question about the construction of the knowledge that we consider to be ‘powerful’. Is ‘powerful knowledge’ in geography actually reproducing and perpetuating the diversity problem?

Danny Dorling caused geography teachers across the country to squirm last year. Some outraged that he would suggest the subject was ‘soft’, others because of the realisation that perhaps Dorling was right, and if you look at the data it’s hard to deny. Dorling described geography as the “core subject of imperial domination”. Let’s unpack this: when European countries sought to expand their empires, they relied on geographic knowledge for everything from cartography to the planning of human settlements (Painter and Jeffery, 2015). However the field of geography also relied on imperialism to develop the subject, and the knowledge that formed the initial subject of geography was a product of European imperialism. Information on the lands and seas of earth, the flora and fauna of landscapes and the people were collected alongside the pursuit of empires, and so many geographers at the time were in favour of this (Painter and Jeffery, 2015).

In his article, Professor Dorling argues that more needs to be done to recognise the subject's origins and the time in which it was established. He argues that:

"if we geographers can better deal with that legacy, and with our past properly, we could be so much better, so much kinder in the future… Geography could become the discipline of the future, the subject that studies the impending world in an involved and helpful way – not a distant, arrogant or all-knowing way."

So let’s take a leaf out of the RGS’ books and do the same – deal with the legacy and decolonise our subject, and move forward to make geography the discipline of the future.

In her masters research, Garcia (2018) argues that geography’s relative lack of universal appeal is linked to changes within the subject:

"... in particular, a drift away from objective, epistemological foundations and towards political and social causes and approaches to knowledge which tend to reflect the concerns and perspectives of the individuals working in geography departments. The tricky question posed by an issues-led curriculum is: who gets to decide which issues are studied, and why? If it takes a Western perspective on issues like global warming, resource use, fair trade, population growth, production and consumption, what does this say to students from diverse backgrounds who may not share the same views?"

I completely agree that an issues-led curriculum poses issues, particularly the fact that the issues and solution we study often do not reflect views of students from diverse backgrounds, and perhaps an issues based curriculum simply replaces one set of western values with another (Standish, 2008). In addition, the reason that uptake of geography from students of colour is a result of geography losing its rigour and not seen to be an academic subject. With this in mind, a shift away from issues based geography and towards objective, epistemological foundations could perhaps be a way to solve this. However I would argue that we must also acknowledge the issue that objective, epistemological knowledge in geography has not been constructed by a diverse range of voices. Thus, the construction of knowledge is not neutral, but is in fact a political phenomenon. This brings us to an essential question: How do we get representative groups to have input in the geography curriculum given they are under-represented? – how do we make space for this? For me, an important start would be to increase representation in our classrooms.

I recently listened to Fatima Pirbhai-Illich and Fran Martin talk about how decolonising needs to go beyond our curriculum. We must address our curriculum as part of decolonising geography, yes, but we also must consider ourselves, our attitudes, school systems and policies, and society in our approach to decolonising both the discipline and wider education. A key thing I took away from Fran and Fatima is changing the language we use. We need to move away from using language like inclusion and inclusive – this suggests there are groups to be excluded. They argue the same about diversity - when we use the term diversity it is often in reference to non-white people – so this suggests that people are diverse from white, centering white as dominant. Fran and Fatima suggested using ‘difference’, but to do this requires a reorientation of what we understand difference to mean. Difference should be positive, it should be celebrated. This requires lots of work. We also need to consider the concept of space, place and boundaries in our classroom, as currently classroom spaces, places and boundaries are arguably dominated by colonial ways of knowing and being (Pirbhai-Illich and Martin, 2019).

Representation in geography

Going back to the point I made earlier; so much of the ‘knowledge’ we teach comes from white voices and this is, presently, hard to avoid because there is a lack of diversity in the subject. So we need to improve representation in the classroom and think about how we ensure students are able to identify with ‘geographers’.

Some important questions to consider here are:

If you look through textbooks and geography material for schools, people of colour are often represented in less developed regions as ‘poor’, ‘deprived’ and ‘underdeveloped’. On the other hand, ‘geographers’ are represented as white, whether that be in fieldwork photos, or this alarming page I recently found in a KS3 textbook. Apparently ‘a geographers view’ on the future of the planet:

In the material given to students, there are often distinctions of North-South, West and the Rest, wealthy – poor. This binary logic creates both a distance between ‘them’ and ‘us’ and reinforces ‘Othering’ (Said, 1979).

We must do more to ensure students feel included in geography and empowered by the subject. A starting point would be could be to, if you must use such resources, to critique material such as what you can see above with the students in the lesson. I did this with my Year 8 class, and then set them a homework task to research more diverse ‘geographers’ involved in climate science and activism, and the outcome was wonderful.

You could also make sure you’re displaying more than just Theresa May, Prince William and Michael Palin in your classroom as ‘geographers’, with Michael Jordan as a token because he studied geography at university, but has little to do with the subject now. I shared these back in April on Twitter:

I also added a couple extra thanks to this list shared by The University of British Columbia. These are real geographers, not rich, old, powerful men who have a view on a geographical issue. I hope you’d already know this, but obviously it’s not enough to pin these to your classroom walls and say you’ve done your bit. Read their research and engage with the literature. This is just one very small step in improving representation in a much, much bigger picture.

You can find the document for inspirational geographers linked to this tweet:

I shared this list of inspirational geographers back in April (pinned tweet). I've added a few more thanks to this fantastic list https://t.co/ZLqin4n0iG Let's ensure POC are represented in our subject + classrooms. #diversityingeography #geographyteacher https://t.co/eh1VcsiViq pic.twitter.com/OQ1qB92ylD

— Rach Rob 🌍 (@geoteachrach) June 11, 2020

Evaluating your curriculum

This article has done an excellent job, and much better than I could, of summarising the ways in which we can evaluate our curriculum. Some key questions it suggests you ask yourself are:

  1. What principles, norms, values and worldviews inform your selection of knowledge for your curriculum? (think about absences as well as presences, centres as well as margins)
  2. Do you articulate your own social and intellectual position, from which you speak when lecturing?
  3. For whom do you design your curriculum? Who is your ideal, imagined student and what assumptions do you make about their backgrounds, culture, languages and schooling?
  4. Does your curriculum reflect its location in Africa and the global South? To what extent does it draw on subjugated histories, voices, cultures and languages?
  5. How does your teaching recognise and affirm the agency of black and first-generation students? How does your teaching legitimate and respect their experiences and cultures?
  6. Can you speak indigenous or regional languages and relate to the cultures and lived experiences of all students? Do you draw on these valuable resources in your teaching?
  7. How does your curriculum level the playing fields by requiring traditional/ white students to acquire the intellectual and cultural resources to function effectively in a plural society?
  8. How do you build a learning community in your classroom where students learn actively from each other and draw on their own knowledge sources?
  9. How do your assumptions about curriculum knowledge play out in the criteria that you use to assess students? What can you do to make your assessment practices more fair and valid for all students, without inducing high levels of anxiety? What assessment methods could show what all students are capable of, drawing on their strengths and promoting their agency and creativity?
  10. How far do your teaching and assessment methods allow students to feel included without assuming assimilation?

I’ll leave you to read the article if you want to know more:

Embedding in what you already do

This should not be tokenistic attempts as a result of knee-jerk reactions. This means it should not be a single schemes of work or one-off lessons. To really have an impact this needs to be an integrated approach and become embedded in what you do every day.

Some examples of how we have done this include:

When we teach about the Haiti earthquake, we consider the human factors that made the earthquake worse. Pretty standard, “Haiti’s poor so it made the earthquake worse!” – yes, but we also unpick the reason WHY Haiti has such high rates of poverty. We link it back to their colonial past, the only successful slave revolt, and the resultant trade embargo that was set against them. We also consider how western intervention was ineffective, and we even begin to investigate the awful scandal of sexual exploitation during the recovery efforts to critique the influence of western aid organisations. This article that Zoe Barrett (@zoeebar1) shared with me is an excellent read for anyone who wants to better contextualise their Haiti cause study.

The danger of a single story. If you don’t show this video to your students already, please do. It’s brilliant, and helps students to deconstruct some misconceptions they may hold.

Dollar street is also a fantastic tool to break down sweeping generalisations that students may assume.

Contextualising case studies

As geographers, we love a case study! When you are introducing students to a case study, ensure that you are covering the historical context with your students. You may find the following matrix useful in doing so (credit to Chantal Mayo (@CMOGeography) for this – thank you!)

In a sequence of lessons about different levels of development in Africa, we encourage students to reflect on their development unit and make links between the factors causing uneven development. Each country fact-file details their colonial history:

Identity and migration

I don’t know a geography department that does not cover migration in their KS3 curriculum. However, I also do not know many departments that teach about Windrush migration, and even less who go into detail about the concept of citizenship. There are lots of misconceptions about the fact that when people arrived during this time period, they were British citizens, so it’s important that when we talk about Britain’s empire we talking about it BEING an empire, not Britain HAVING an empire. I have mentioned KS3 curriculum here, as some students will drop geography and so it must be covered before this, and I do appreciate that in both KS4 and KS5 this is covered, for some departments, in greater depth.

The following text was written by David Rees from Ashton Park School, and suggests some powerful ways to approach migration and citizenship from a postcolonial perspective:

A similar approach could be taken to the classic movements taught (Turks to Germany, Mexicans to the USA and Chinese rural to urban migration) but these may be better set as meanwhile, elsewhere homework. It is crucial to note the type of migrants that moved from the Caribbean (educated, middle class were a high %) as this serves to highlight that migration is not just what poorer people and refugees do. I would also use Stuart Hall’s work (Race as a floating signifier). Hall is of dual heritage (Black and Indian in the Jamaican context) was shocked upon arrival to find that his social standing dropped dramatically (this is an under taught aspect of migration).

The Windrush Scandal provides an opportunity to debate the nature of citizenship and its political nature. When was citizenship withdrawn? How can a citizen of the Empire and living in the UK when their birthplace was decolonised lose their citizenship? The failure of government to transfer the safeguards to commonwealth citizens from the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act to the 2014 legislation is something that has to be mentioned. It shows the precarious and politicised nature of citizenship. Crucial at this point is a recognition that the Windrush generation, their families and allies have actively resisted this injustice. A key point of postcolonialism is not to erase the agency of people in actively resisting their oppression but to show the ways in which they act. To do otherwise is purely to present people as passive victims again.

More alternative perspectives

Development features on all GCSE exam board specifications. It underpins much of what we teach. But when you teach development, do you ever tell the students that this is a western perspective of development? Do you ever consider the use of statistical indicators being reductive, and often not the best measure of development?

This article argues that the millennium development goals were an indirect way of making developing countries depend on the West. Much of the development industry - be it aid, tied-aid, Fairtrade – are all arguably examples neo-colonialism. Students should be given the tools to critically analyse this, and by introducing them to alternative development perspectives is one way of doing so.

Neo-colonialsm can also be linked to TNCs, globalisation and trade, illustrated well with the maps in this Tweet:

Old and new colonialism.
On left - colonial control 1914. On right - mining companies listed on London Stock Exchange currently working in Africa; they control over $1 trillion of resources. Taken from my report with @waronwant). https://t.co/QvWnpu9WBF pic.twitter.com/Qk4raCDvrf

— Mark Curtis (@markcurtis30) December 13, 2017

To decolonise we must recognise that although countries may have gained independence, neo-liberal attitudes towards development reinforce capitalism and cultural suppression of former colonies. Models of development and economic growth, such as MDGs and the World Trade Organisation, ensure that countries remain dependent on former colonial rulers for economic and political direction. ‘The west’ continues to exploit former colonies, although not through direct military control as was the case in the colonial era, but through indirect control of economic and political practices such as TNCs and unfair trading laws. ttps://www.iep.utm.edu/neocolon/

Maps

I’m sure you’ve probably seen this before and know that the world map is not a true projection of land mass. But have you ever considered the colonial links to this? The true size of Africa in the usual map students are exposed to (Mercator) shrinks the continent of Africa, thus shrinking the perceived power or strength of the region.

Some argue that this is not the case since the Mercator map was produced for navigation purposes, but if we are not using the map for this purpose anymore, then why do we continue to use it? I’ll leave you to watch this clip from West Wing to make up your own mind:

A final thing on maps. Usually the maps used in a geography classroom are Eurocentric. Try to use alternative maps, which can also improve locational knowledge. The one below usually blows students’ mind – but it shouldn’t!

Collaborative approach

This is not about geography learning from history. It’s about sharing knowledge and working out how to make a cohesive curriculum across the school. A cohesive curriculum is what lots of schools strive for, and this offers a good opportunity to establish these collaborative connections. I’ve always hated the geography VS history argument anyway. In fact, the very best geographers tend to study history too, and I always feel sad I didn’t. I’m lucky to work with an absolutely amazing colleague who has already built a framework for critical teaching. This collaboration should not just with history departments, but also PBE/RE, English, arts, science. It is essential that school communities work together for this to be integrated and cohesive. Some crucial questions to consider here is: How can you build on existing knowledge from other subjects? How can you ensure that students feel included in every subject at school?

An obvious link to be made between history and geography is the slave trade, with colonisation and uneven development. However there are many more to explore, such as urban landscapes, identity and migration. In one example in her book Hayden (1995) describes how Chinese migrants built much of the US railroad system in the 19th century, yet they are frequently absent from the labour narratives of this period, which celebrates political and economic success framed around American whiteness. Hayden’s work tries to find the traces of their presence in place to tell a more accurate and inclusive history through geography, space, and built form.

On the note of collaboration, if you have not checked out One Bristol Curriculum, then you should. They are doing some awesome things. Their main idea is that schools are taking this on, rather than individual teachers. The collaborative work is shared and people work together to make change and look for opportunities through the obstacles. Find more about the initiative in the video below:

Continuing our own learning journey

Like myself, much of this you probably haven’t learnt in school. If there is going to be real change, in both our subject and wider school, it requires some work. I have spoken to many teachers and some recurring issues are that people do not feel confident to discuss or raise these issues. I understand that, it’s taken a lot of reading and reflection to get to the point where I can write this blog post – and I am still deliberating posting it whilst I’m writing this. But as educators I think it’s our responsibility to model that learning doesn’t stop when you leave the classroom. Decolonising geography is not just about the curriculum – it’s also about teachers acknowledging and learning, so that when we teach our students systemic racism and colonial attitudes are not perpetuated.

Miss Roche Geog has shared a great resource on Twitter for anyone who wants to broaden their understanding:

60 Resources for people who would like to further their knowledge on #BAME and #BLM & ensure they are reading beyond what is on the news. I hope you will find it useful and encourage you to be an ally during this time! https://t.co/rQoZ6AEhjW pic.twitter.com/boSLvqrbi2

— Miss_Roche_Geog (@OrlaithSiobhan) June 10, 2020

A big part of this is empowering ourselves with the knowledge so we do feel confident in discussing these issues, and that is not going to be fixed with some one-off lessons you magpie from someone else. It’s also not going to happen overnight.

My final note on this is that I have been alarmed with the amount of people who suggest that these issues are ‘too emotional’ to raise in the classroom. Some put this down to the behaviour issues that could arise, others that they felt that they did not know enough. We are doing the students a disservice if we choose to avoid these conversations simply because we think they would be too difficult. Regarding behaviour, I have found that these conversations have been some of the most engaging conversations I have had. In terms of knowing enough, see above. Whilst I appreciate as teachers we are very time-short, in my opinion this should be a priority.

Join the conversation

There are many campaigns and groups being shared around at the moment, but I would like to point you towards two student led sister campaigns, working to decolonise the curriculum.

Reroot.ED

Reroot.Ed is an educational campaign run by young people. Their goal is to make the UK’s history curriculums anti-racist, critical and inclusive.

Hyped for another conversation with @GeographyAps today thinking about how resources can be made to embed context of colonialism into case studies, (instead of being framed as add-ons) and using national histories to critique citizenship & how it’s created... an inspiring group!

— Reroot.ED (@Reroot_ED) June 18, 2020

Fill in the blanks

Fill in the blanks is a campaign led by students from former British colonies seeking to mandate the teaching of colonial history.

It would be amazing if this was real! We’re a group of black & brown teens from formerly colonised countries who wish Britain’s full history was taught to everyone! @EducationGovuk @NickGibbUK will you make this happen to create a more united Britain? https://t.co/4wqc3kHNf4 pic.twitter.com/qEret1EfKo

— FILL IN THE BLANKS (@fillinthblanks) January 9, 2020

There is also a network of geography educators, at all levels, with the principal aim to decolonise geography. The main goals of the group are decolonising geography and creating spaces and opportunities for marginalised voices within geography, from early years to university. It is a group aimed at decolonisation. That requires us to look at the structures of power and privilege within our areas of study and places of work and actively dismantle the barriers to a decolonised geography. Get in touch if you want to be involved.

This is for ALL classrooms and ALL students

The final point I’d like to make is that this is for ALL classrooms. Whether you have BAME students (or it would be better to say students from the global majority) this is important. We must break down stereotypes that lead to prejudices and resultant discrimination. It is all of our students, no matter what their ethnicity, that need to learn from in a decolonised and anti-racist school setting. We MUST do better to achieve a plural and truly integrated society.

This is by no means it… this is a start of a very long journey

I’ll finish this blogpost as I started it. I know I don’t have all the answers. But I hope this has been a useful insight into why we need to decolonise, but also some ideas on how.

I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my fantastic ex-students, who is due to study geography at university next year and involved in the Reroot.Ed campaign:

"I honestly think this work will take 10 years, and it’s going to have to go through so many iterations to be some thing that works across the country, but we need to start somewhere and our classrooms are just that." - Akhera Williams

There is a lot to unpack here, and I encourage you to read more and learn, reflect and digest and hopefully we’ll get to a point where, in Danny Dorling’s words:

"Geography could become the discipline of the future, the subject that studies the impending world in an involved and helpful way – not a distant, arrogant or all-knowing way"

I’d love to hear your feedback on this, or thoughts, and unpack some of this with you further.

Rach

😊

References

Garcia, H. (2018) Does Geography have an image problem? Exploring the perceptions and attitudes of minority ethnic groups towards geography education. Dissertation submitted for MA Geography Education, UCL Institute of Education.

Hayden, D. (1995) The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Painter, Joe, and Jeffrey, Alex. Political Geography (2nd Edition) (2015) London, GBR: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2009. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 28 January 2015. p175-176

Pirbhai-Illich, F. & Martin, F. (2019). "A relational approach to decolonizing education: working with the concepts of invitation and hospitality". (available here)

Pirbhai-Illich, F. & Martin, F. (2019). "A relational approach to decolonizing education: working with the concepts of space, place and boundaries". (available here)

Said , E. W. (1979). Orientalism . New York , NY : Vintage Books

Standish, A. (2008). Approaches to teaching global issues. Global Perspectives in the Geography Curriculum, p128-142

Young M, Lambert D, Roberts C, et al. (2014) Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice. London: Bloomsbury.