Geography Education’s Potential and the Capability Approach – a review

Richard Bustin has written an excellent book. As well as thoroughly explaining how powerful knowledge and capabilities can be combined, he makes a persuasive case for how this approach could underpin a brighter future for education in the UK.

Powerful knowledge is a concept originated by Professor Michael Young, a physics teacher turned sociologist, who having made something of a volte-face now argues that skilfully selected and re-contextualised disciplinary knowledge should form the basis of the school curriculum. Importantly, this approach does not simply follow Matthew Arnold’s approach of the best that has been thought and said. It takes a more intellectually robust view of knowledge. For knowledge to be powerful, it has been created by disciplinary communities based on accepted social practices which lead to it being classed as ‘knowledge’. This considers knowledge to be dynamic and contestable. Teachers draw from subject disciplines on the basis that teaching powerful knowledge will empower young people by helping them to understand how the world works and how they can change it.

Academics working in geography education, including David Lambert, have developed the concept of powerful knowledge alongside applying the capabilities approach from development studies to education. As Bustin wonderfully explains, the capabilities framework, stemming from the work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, considers what people are able to think and do as a result of an intervention, in this case their education. A capabilities approach shifts the emphasis from the ‘outputs’ of education, such as exam grades, to the ‘outcomes’ of education, in terms of what an education system allows people to do in life. Bustin makes a convincing case that powerful knowledge and the capabilities approach should be interwoven. It is through learning powerful knowledge that people are able to think and do more.

At the moment, these concepts remain largely in the academic realm and are only just starting to permeate into the real world of schools and classrooms. Bustin explores how this has been done, not least through his own practitioner research. The starting point is for subject communities to reflect and agree upon what the powerful knowledge of their subjects is. This is not an atomised list but rather the key reasons or concepts that make the subject powerful. In the case of geography for example, the powerful knowledge is the:

  • Detailed descriptive and explanatory world knowledge, such as place knowledge and the processes of how the world works such as the carbon cycle.
  • Relational thinking, such as the interdependence between various human and physical systems and processes.
  • Futures thinking, whereby learners are encouraged to consider the various alternative future scenarios for how the world will change socially, economically, politically and environmentally.

Having established what makes each subject powerful, those elements of powerful knowledge should form a framework to allow teachers to plan their curriculum to select content which is powerful. Looking at how this has worked for teachers involved in Bustin’s research, I think this could be fertile territory. I am however something of a convert. Ever since coming across the concept of powerful knowledge back in around 2011 as part of my Masters, I have been increasingly convinced that the concept provides a robust intellectual and moral justification for the future of a (powerful) knowledge-rich curriculum at the heart of an education system with human empowerment at its core.

The next steps are critical in terms of how powerful knowledge may shape policy and practice. Bustin provides some helpful thoughts on the structural and cultural changes needed and there is some overlap with my own thoughts on this which I wrote about in a previous post.

Overall this is a wonderful book which gave me a great deal of hope for the future. My interest as both an educator and a politico make me think that powerful knowledge and capabilities provide an independent and robust framework for our education system. It is now a case of making it a reality. Hopefully by reading this book you’ll want to be part of that.

A few key quotes to takeaway…

  • ‘Studying geography is about learning to think like a geographer, understand how geographical knowledge is created, debated and argued over and not simply about learning geographical facts. The same is true for other subjects, learning to think like a mathematician, historian or linguist rather than simply learning a set of facts associated with the subject’ (p58)
  • ’Young (2008) realised that what was needed to reduce inequality was not the complete removal of knowledge of knowledge from all school curricula, but a way for all children to access what had in the past been as the preserve of the elite’ (p61)
  • ‘Capabilities could provide a broader framework that links all these subjects and gives a reason for a subject-based curriculum beyond the simple instrumental notion of exam grades’ (p99)
  • ‘Radical changes are occurring in what democratic societies teach the young, and these changes have not been well thought through. Thirsty for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive.’ (Nussbaum, 2016, p2 on p110)
  • ‘This top down competitive nature of curriculum, a feature of the contemporary education system dominated by league tables, could be seen as a form of capability deprivation as the idea of freedoms and choice as a result of education is removed in the quest for examination grades’ (p114)
  • ‘Powerful subject knowledge can enable choice of careers. It is subject knowledge that enables young people to be able to engage in debate and discussion, to think in new ways, to be able to discern fact from fiction, and these qualities develop capabilities that are of value not only in the adult world but in any workplace’ (p116)
  • ‘What the capability approach enables is a consideration of the choices that are available to pupils as a result of their education. With a capability set, a young person is able to make choices about how to live, and it is these choices that determine their future.’ (p148)
  • ‘The capability approach is empowering for teachers. It is trusting of their professional abilities and their understanding of both their subject and education’ (p152)
  • ‘A capabilities perspective can be used as a means for schools to be explicit about the value of a knowledge-led curriculum. Schools can claim proudly that an aim of education in their school is to introduce young people to the best thoughts and ideas that humanity has ever discovered rather than trying to express it implicitly through examination outputs’ (p166)
  • ‘It is teachers who enable the curriculum in the classroom for the pupils they teach. The aspirations of the capabilities approach give the power and control to teachers and not to examination criteria, or other curricular needs. Teachers must be given freedom to design and implement exciting and engaging lessons. To achieve this, teachers need to be fully trained subject specialists and trusted by leadership teams to enact an enticing curriculum. Yet many teachers do not have the level of confidence in their own abilities, nor the experience, to think creatively about the curriculum’ (p187)
  • ‘A means for teachers to realise the academic potential of their subjects. By focusing on the powerful knowledge of their subjects, young people from all backgrounds can develop capabilities to think about the world and make positive choices about how to live. This has the potential to envisage a world class education’ (p188)

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