Geography education and human capabilities: powerful knowledge for envisioning sustainable futures

Solem, Michael (2018). 'Geography Education and Human Capabilities: Powerful Knowledge for Envisioning Sustainable Futures' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


This paper explores applications of the capabilities approach to reinvigorate the teaching and learning of geography in schools.

Background: Since 2013, the U.S. National Center for Research in Geography Education has been participating in an international collaborative effort known as "GeoCapabilities" to improve the quality of geography in education. Drawing on principles of human development, the GeoCapabilities project is researching the significance of geographic knowledge for developing the potential of all young people to think in specialized and distinctive ways about environmental and urban sustainability (Lambert & Solem, 2017). The project has been funded by grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation and the EU Comenius Programme. Website:

Problem Statement: One of the major challenges in providing school geography instruction is the pronounced shortage of teachers with geography backgrounds. This situation is especially acute in the United States where most teachers will only take one or two geography courses during their teacher education program. Given this brief and often inadequate preparation, many teachers find it difficult to teach the subject in a manner that is consistent with the expectations of curriculum standards. Consequently, school children continue to fare poorly on national assessments of geography learning, with the lowest rates of proficiency occurring in low-income and urban school districts. In the terms set forth in the present paper, this is "capabilities deprivation" at a mass scale and a serious educational challenge that, if left unaddressed, will continue to diminish the potential of young people and undermine the broader impacts of government investments in the geographical sciences and related efforts to reduce poverty, conserve and protect the environment, and promote sustainability in cities.

Methodology: GeoCapabilities has produced a framework for changing the structure and content of the training and professional development currently available for geography teachers, and to clarify what is expected of them. The framework uses the capabilities approach to orient teachers on the key goals and understandings that constitute school geography at its best - not the miscellaneous, disconnected facts of "trivial" geography, but the powerful knowledge, concepts, and processes that develop the potential of all students to think, reason, predict, and generalize at a high level of proficiency, and thus which should be the focus of the small amount of time that can be dedicated to learning geography in most U.S. schools (Lambert, Solem, & Tani, 2015).

A core idea underpinning the GeoCapabilities framework is the need for teachers (and students) to understand and value geographical knowledge as 'powerful knowledge' (Young, 2008). Powerful knowledge means understanding and interpreting the world using information and concepts derived from academic disciplines. A curriculum based on powerful knowledge encourages productive, rigorous, and critical thought as developed in subject specialist communities such as geography. Because powerful knowledge is often theoretical, abstract, contested, and highly specialized, it is unlikely to be acquired or learned incidentally through everyday life experiences. For this reason, young people are unlikely to encounter powerful knowledge unless it is taught.

Specialist teachers, such as geography teachers, have an important social responsibility in providing students with opportunities to learn how to use geographical knowledge to think, explain, predict, and envision alternative futures (Maude, 2016). The ability to think geographically advances the substantive freedoms of people as autonomous individuals in civil society who can make good judgments about information, arguments, and facts. Powerful knowledge enables people to think beyond their everyday experience and make more informed and principled decisions about important topics and issues, including sustainable development. This includes using disciplinary (geographic) thinking to make sense of the environment and inform our choices of how to live and conduct our lives in accordance with sustainable development principles.

Findings: Following a review of the GeoCapabilities theoretical framework, the paper will provide examples from teacher education programs in different countries of how the capabilities approach is engaging teachers in professional development that begins with a serious consideration of who are the students we teach (contextualizing human development needs in this day and age), followed by reflective thinking about why should we teach them geography (based on an understanding and appreciation of the potential and significance of powerful geographic knowledge). Through this process, teachers are encouraged to use capabilities as a "bridge" linking geography's powerful knowledge with the broader aims and purposes that can be served by the subject. Asking in what way geographic knowledge may be powerful is a good way of 'standing back' from the technical imperative of delivering the content, by focusing the teacher on why he or she is teaching geography in the first place. Having a clear sense of purpose when teaching geography is essential if teachers are to implement powerful knowledge through their pedagogy.

The paper will conclude with examples of curriculum artifacts developed by geography teachers to engage students in debates about environmental and urban issues at all scales, from the local to the global. Curriculum artifacts are educational resources that model powerful knowledge in a way that is understandable and useful to students. The examples will show how "big ideas" in the geography discipline (e.g., place, space, environment, interconnection) enable young people to analyze, explain, and understand spatial distributions and disparities in access to critical resources such as health care, food, shelter, education, water, and other life essentials. Through this review, an ethical argument will be formulated regarding the need to secure the "pedagogical rights" (cf. Bernstein, 2000) of all students to access powerful geographic knowledge in schools.


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