Coronavirus to a geographer: an example of how subject disciplines give us powerful knowledge and why that matters

Why having some expertise isn’t a bad thing and what on earth does ‘thinking like a geographer’ mean?

While enjoying my daily exercise, despite the rain, I was again using the time to indulge my newfound taste for podcasts. Listening to The Intelligence (26th March edition, by The Economist) there was a piece about how the coronavirus pandemic may affect Africa. As I have often thought over my years of reading The Economist on and off, it might as well be called ‘The Geographer’, such is the level of geographical content present in so many of the issues it covers. I was also struck by what a clear example of powerful knowledge this was. My ability to understand the issues being discussed so deeply was absolutely because of the knowledge I had, in particular my knowledge as a geographer. Of course, people with deep knowledge in other disciplines would have their own take and while a geographer might have a head start on this article about the pandemic in Africa, I’ve no doubt that other disciplines would offer an advantage on articles about other topics. I was so struck by the example though, that I wanted to unpack it.

I have found myself commenting to classes a number of times over the past few months about how many geographical news stories I hear when listening to the radio on my journey to work. I try to make the links between the news stories and the geographical ideas they’ve been learning about. Amidst the blank faces and expressions of ‘what is he on about’, there is the occasional nod of appreciation, or rather there is a neutral expression which I interpret to be a kid who would be nodding but has a thought for their reputation amongst their peers.

‘When are we ever going to need to know about squatter settlements?’

Teachers of all subjects have at some point or other encountered this query: ‘when are we ever going to need to know about [INSERT TOPIC HERE]?’ Occasionally it’s about one of your favourite topics as a teacher, which makes it all the more tragic when you desperately try to share that spark of enthusiasm that you have. Creating a need to know and instilling a joy of learning are really important and the ability to do these are hallmarks of great teachers. As a novice, I was very frustrated when I felt that I’d fallen short, not least because of the importance of these for the process of geographical enquiry which was so central to my teacher training and my pedagogic understanding.

With time, experience and reading though, I realised that those questions should be treated, by and large, with a pinch of salt. For sure we should point out a topic’s relevance, it’s contemporary links, it’s importance, any potential career pathways related to the learning and such like. We should also recognise that we are the experts in the room, both as teachers and as subject specialists. Just, as David Didau points out, the interests and whims of an 11, 14 or 16 year old should not be considered as binding for the path of their life and career, because they don’t yet know just what is available to them (which makes me think of Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns), we also shouldn’t worry too much if they don’t see the point, there and then, of understanding the characteristics and complexities of squatter settlements.

When I was at school, geography was unsurprisingly a passion of mine, but only really from Year 9 (third year in old money). Only then, my interest was largely driven by having a teacher I liked and by being one of those academic types (read ‘geek’) who pretty much enjoyed any subjects as long as there wasn’t a practical element which required physical co-ordination or exertion. Over those years I remember learning about Kenya, rivers, coasts, economic change, tectonics, etc. By the time I got to A-Level and committed to studying Geography at university, the benefit of maturity and a bit more awareness of how the world worked meant that I increasingly saw the links between what I was studying and how I might end up using it (not that this is the sole reason why you should learn something).

In a way which is entirely understandable and predictable in hindsight, that awareness and appreciation grew. As you know more, you see the connections. As you are exposed to more of life, you see more opportunities to apply your learning. During two years working for BP, the generalist platform that a balanced Geography degree gave me meant I could have a (in my opinion at least) reasonably intelligible discussion with geologists about seismic surveys and commercial analysts about the contractual niceties of hydrocarbon production sharing agreements. Some of this was undoubtedly what is referred to as the ’soft skills’ which learning a subject gives you. It is all borne out of learning and knowledge; borne out of my ability to think and act like a geographer.

Rolling forward to my teacher training at Manchester Metropolitan University and my PGCE tutor tried to get us all excited about the Geographical Association’s manifesto A Different View. I can’t speak for my colleagues but I actually did (see previous comment on being a geek). One strand of the manifesto was ’thinking like a geographer’, which was the concept that studying geography permitted people to think about the world in a unique geographical way. Geographers and in particular geography educators may have sought to explicitly identify this and give it a title, but this is essentially true of all academic disciplines – it is disciplinary thought. Historians, economists, anthropologists, chemists, ecologists, etc will all see the world and approach issues from a particular perspective. Nobody, of course, is limited to a single disciplinary perspective, but we all will naturally draw on our knowledge, our expertise, when approaching a problem.

’Thinking like a geographer’ is not a PR catchphrase – it describes using expertise in a way which adds value by offering a perspective grounded in knowledge and practice which has been developed over time by a community of experts. In some cases, you might be applying this perspective when approaching a problem with a view to influence decisions or even taking decisions. Sometimes though, you are simply able to understand the world around you to a higher degree and in doing so are able to be an active and informed citizen.

Which brings me back to listening to that podcast and all the other things I’ve heard, watched and read over the past few weeks and months as the coronavirus pandemic has spread around the world. What follows is a vignette to exemplify how thinking like a geographer is helping me to make sense of the pandemic.

In a nutshell the segment of the podcast was about how the coronavirus would affect Africa. I won’t seek to summarise it, but rather look at some of the ideas raised and unpack them as a series of bullet points. Each bullet point addresses a key idea or concept which is studied in geography and in most cases on the school curriculum in some guise:

  • Development: the major concern for Africa is driven by it’s comparatively low-level of development. My students should be able to tell you that a majority of Africa’s 53 countries are low income countries (LICs). As a result the ability of Africa to cope – at all scales from the continental to the national to the individual – is going to make it challenging.
  • Climatic: there is some cause of optimism though, in that the spread of coronavirus so far appears to be faster in temperate climates like Europe’s, rather than the hotter climates found in Africa. This must be tempered with the lack of data on this new disease though (hence the term ’novel coronavirus’ being used – a piece of vocab I will make sure my kids understand!)
  • Demographic: another, probably more significant cause for hope is Africa’s demographics. We know from the UK’s categorisation of vulnerable people that older age groups are at higher risk from coronavirus. Less than 10% of Africa’s population is over 65. Maybe the younger population will help African countries avoid the death tolls we’ve seen elsewhere.
  • Health: while the African continent has a younger population though, many African countries, such as South Africa, also have a higher proportion of their populations who have suppressed immune systems due to HIV and tuberculosis.
  • Health systems: it also comes as no surprise that Africa’s lower levels of wealth and development mean that most countries’ health systems will not cope with the pandemic if it affects similar numbers to what we’ve seen in the northern hemisphere. The podcast gave some shocking statistics. The journalist estimated that there was roughly one ventilator per million people and that many American and European hospitals would have greater intensive care capacities than entire African countries.
  • Previous diseases: there was however mention that African governments and health systems have more recent experience of significant disease outbreaks (such as the 2014/15 Ebola epidemics in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone) than most of the nations which have been hit by Covid-19. Whether this will help or not remains to be seen.
  • Government: again it comes as no surprise to say that most African governments do not have the resources or infrastructure to respond in a similar way to what we’ve seen elsewhere, especially in terms of the financial responses seen in Europe. Such as welfare states exist, we’ve seen enough of the issues which more developed countries’ governments have had in ramping up their welfare systems to realise that in Africa the creation or expansion of a social safety net will be challenging. Many governments already have issues with debt and affordable borrowing. There are also questions around effectiveness, practicality and trust. Reaching all communities, especially in rural areas, and being trusted are going to be challenges for African governments. In some countries, spurious advice from religious and tribal authorities may add to these challenges facing government.
  • Rurality and remoteness: while the remoteness of rural populations may make government communication and response difficult, it will also help slow the spread of the disease. It is interesting that in India, there has been much criticism of the botched lockdown where one of the key issues was the number of people trying to head back out of urban areas to their rural places of origin, potentially taking the virus with them. In China, the lockdown on movement between regions has been seen as one of their key achievements in restricting the disease. It will be important for African governments to try and get this right, not least because rural areas will be even less able to cope with the disease if, or more likely when, it arrives.
  • Urbanisation: Africa is the least urbanised continent (only 40% of Africa’s population lived in urban areas in 2015), which must be seen as an advantage, but it is urbanising rapidly, so urban areas are often even more densely populated than we’d see in more developed countries. This population density is one of the main worries around coronavirus. As we’ve also seen in India, there is a conundrum around how socially distancing can be enforced when people live in such large numbers in such close proximity. (There are significant differences in urbanisation rates between African countries and some, especially though not exclusively in North Africa, have higher urban populations – Libya for example has an 88% urban population).
  • Squatter settlements: aha, that is why we’re learning about squatter settlements. Destination for many rural-urban migrants, these poorly built, densely populated areas with poor sanitation and a lack of clean water are incredibly risky places to live should coronavirus reach them.
  • Informal economy: common to less developed countries everywhere and closely linked to those squatter – or informal – settlements, the vast majority, around 85%, of Africans work in the informal economy. This means no regular salaries. Connected with the lack of formal address which life in a squatter settlement entails, many Africans also have no access to bank accounts and this is one of the reasons for many Africans to have a lack of savings which might help during a lockdown.
  • Aid and international help: countries which depend on international aid, especially for their health systems, will find that this won’t go far enough to help them deal with coronavirus. Unlike in previous health crises, such as the ebola outbreak, it is also going to be more challenging for African countries to get international help with so many of their usual donor countries dealing with their own health crises. Other countries however shouldn’t see their own crisis as a justification not to help. Just as the coronavirus has spread internationally, there is a real concern that as the virus continues to spread and spend time in different populations, it will not only survive but could well mutate. So it is shortsighted for those countries ‘further along the curve’ of the pandemic to ignore Africa and developing countries elsewhere. It could well be that we get over the first phase of the pandemic only for the coronavirus to return, this time from a developing country which has struggled to cope with and contain the virus. As well as this pragmatic, realpolitik approach, it is also worth discussing the moral aspect of helping countries in need.
  • Globalisation: the increasing interconnectedness of the world, not just economically, should definitely be considered in understanding the coronavirus pandemic. The movement of people around the world has absolutely caused the global spread of the virus. The patterns of movement, with greater volumes of people moving between richer parts of the world no doubt helps to explain why Europe and North America were amongst the first places outside China to be hit by the virus. The lower flows of people between the ‘global north’ and the ‘global south’ also helps to explain why African countries are further behind on the curve of cases and deaths. Other interesting angles are the global shutdown on flights and the implications of this. Mass air travel is of course seen as one of the key reasons for the acceleration of globalisation in the late 20th century. The environmental advantages of people not travelling have also been noted. It is also interesting how technology, one of the key drivers of globalisation, is helping to keep people connected when we can’t travel. For many years, the virtual option for meetings has still failed to trump the so-called agglomeration advantages which see businesses and people flocking to big cities. Whether the proven-by-crisis ability of large numbers of people to work and for businesses to function with the help of technology might change locational decisions and travel volumes in  future will be something to watch.
  • Diversity and avoidance of the ’single story’: throughout these notes I have been very conscious of repeatedly referring to Africa and Africans. While much of what I have said will apply to most African countries, there are of course many differences in wealth, society and culture. The Economist’s podcast highlights examples from different countries which demonstrate this. One of those ‘common misconceptions’ which must drive all geography teachers to distraction is the reference to Africa as a country, failing to appreciate either the terminology or the diversity. Liz Taylor, I think, has done some wonderful writing on diversity and how we must balance the need for accessibility and comprehension with a recognition of diversity and the complexity which comes with that. It is important to avoid the ’single story’ which masks too much of the reality – I think this applies to learning and communication about any topic, anywhere and is equally true of media coverage of events here in the UK.

These are all thoughts which occurred to me when listening to the podcast or reflecting upon it later. While some of it is recounting the content of the episode, much of it is the expansion, explanation and application made possible by the geographical knowledge which I have learned over the years. Someone without that knowledge simply would not have understood that podcast. Take, as an extreme example, somebody who, let alone think Africa is a country, might not know where it is. Often taken for granted, especially by subject specialists, but just knowing where somewhere is located is empowering. Is it closer or further away? That might tell us how likely people are to travel to and from there to the UK, possibly carrying the disease. Where is it compared to the Equator? That will give us some idea of temperatures, which as I said is one of the causes for optimism. These are just a couple of examples of how a lack of knowledge, or to put it another way – perhaps not having been given access to knowledge – leads to a lack of understanding. On the other hand, with knowledge and understanding comes the confidence to have an informed opinion and possibly to do something about it.

So when we talk about teaching knowledge, we are doing far more than rote learning of facts or ’teaching to the test’, we are inducting people into disciplinary thinking. Giving them a powerful set of concepts and ideas to understand the world. They might not appreciate it at the time, they probably won’t – they haven’t encountered enough of the world yet to see the applications. It isn’t done with a career in mind or because of a particular contemporary relevance, it’s far deeper than that. There’s also lots of research and writing about the importance of learners identifying as geographers, historians or whatever discipline they’re learning. Becoming an expert, or at least developing expertise, rightly comes with a social badge of honour (despite what Michael Gove or Donald Trump might say). It gives us confidence and quite rightly, because we have the knowledge to understand the world and make informed and responsible decisions and maybe positive contributions to society. By understanding the world, we have the power to change it, hopefully for the better.

Knowledge = power = (positive) change. That is why we should teach a curriculum rich in powerful knowledge.

4 thoughts on “Coronavirus to a geographer: an example of how subject disciplines give us powerful knowledge and why that matters

  1. Excellent piece and very thought provoking. I’d also add regional conflict and refugees as another strand to this that could significantly impact many African nation’s ability to deal this crisis.


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