I was educated as a teacher at the College SS Mark & John in the early 1960s and joined the staff of Bedford College of Education in 1969. At that time progressive and radical ideas in education were widely discussed and taught and environmentalism was gaining increasing support. A series of adjectival educations (for example environmental education and development education) was also emerging to challenge the dominance of traditional school subjects.
Studying for a masters degree at London University’s Institute of Education introduced me to the new sociology of education and research on the politics of school knowledge. In an article in Classroom Geographer (1) I suggested that school geography was a vested interest in education, excluding forms of integrated curricula (such as social studies or environmental education) that offer students a more comprehensive and empowering view of the world. My masters’ dissertation focussed on the development of an environmental ethic within geographical education via closer attention to moral and political education. Its arguments were condensed into two articles for the Journal of Geography in Higher Education (2).
The 1970s was a time when Schools Council projects in geography (notably Geography for the Young School Leaver and Geography 16 – 19) were inspiring curriculum development. I contributed somewhat marginally to the attention that both projects gave to values education and focussed on this topic at the Charney Manor Conference in 1980 (3). A critique of the idealism underlying much values education was to follow in 1983 (4).
Developments in academic geography and in related adjectival educations, convinced me that the school subject was failing to draw on these in ways that fostered students’ moral and social development. Geographical Education Reflection and Action (5), the text I edited in the early 1980s, focused on the contributions that behavioural, humanistic, welfare and radical geographies might make to the school subject along with environmental education, development education and urban studies. My own chapters explored the politics of school geography (advocating in passing a socialist school geography) and examined the environmental and educational ideologies and utopias underlying different forms of environmental education.
Around this time I was invited to join the editorial collective of the short lived but influential journal Contemporary Issues in Geography and Education. Discussion with Dawn Gill, David Pepper, Ian Cook and others served to further radicalise me and this is reflected in the issue on the environmental crisis that I edited (6) and the chapter on school geography I wrote for Ron Johnston’s collection The Future of Geography in 1985 (7). This examined the subject’s role in the economic and cultural reproduction of capitalism, examined the restructuring of education under Thatcherism, and again advocated socialist alternatives.
After several years on its education advisory panel I was invited by WWF to develop a module of its Global Environmental Education Programme. The eight units and teachers’ handbook of What We Consume (8) were published between 1988 and 1995 and provide teachers of older pupils with a curriculum rationale and classroom activities for exploring the environment and development issues behind the goods and services they consume. These issues were firmly linked to political economy through the use of key ideas and the curriculum rationale, with its framework of key questions and concepts, was designed to develop political literacy as advocated by the Programme for Political Education. What We Consume represented a considerable investment by WWF in critical teaching and learning, but without adequate dissemination linked to in-service education, it enjoyed very limited uptake and influence. John Morgan writes positively about What We Consume in his 2012 text Teaching Secondary Geography as if the Planet Matters.
In the 1990s the theory of radical education shifted from Marx and political economy to Habermas and critical theory. Habermas’ ideas, together with an envisioned transition from an unsustainable modernity to a sustainable postmodernity, underpin Reaching Out (9), the course of professional development in education for sustainability I developed for WWF, and my contributions to the text Education for Sustainability that I co-edited with Stephen Sterling (10). Reaching Out tutors, including Gillian Symons, Ken Webster and myself, worked with teachers in several local education authorities in the mid 1990s, but this model of professional development ultimately proved too expensive for WWF to sustain. Maybe it was too early on the scene. It may have faired better a decade later, when New Labour had introduced its policy on sustainable schools. Critical theory and pedagogy were also applied to school geography in a chapter published in 1997 (11).
By 1997 Bedford College of Education had long ago merged with Bedford College of Physical Education and recently become part of De Montfort University (it subsequently left De Montfort and is now part of the University of Bedfordshire). For many years I taught geography to students preparing to teach in primary schools and to secondary PE students studying geography as their second subject. I also taught in-service courses for teachers and geography modules of a combined studies degree. I left De Montfort University in 1997 to become a visiting lecturer on London South Bank University’s masters course in education for sustainability and a consultant on education for sustainable development. Soon after leaving I wrote a text on environmental geography with my former colleague Adrian Martin (12).
Consultancies in the 2000s included a paper for the Development Education Association on global perspectives (13); a briefing paper on ESD for the Teacher Training Agency (14); and a report for the Sustainable Development Commission on possible indicators for measuring the impact of education for sustainable development in schools (15). From 1997 to 2008 I made annual visits to China to facilitate workshops for WWF-China’s Environmental Education Initiative (16). This worked with the Ministry of Education, the Peoples’ Education Press, and over twenty normal universities to introduce guidance, teacher education, and interactive classroom activities for ESD.
In the 2000s I continued to write on geographical and environmental education, following pathways first established thirty years ago. I have written on the idealist nature of much that has resulted from the UN Decade of ESD; the risks to eco-schooling posed by corporate sponsorship; the potential of sustainability citizenship to provide education for sustainability with a sharper focus: and the need for powerful geographical knowledge to be underpinned by critical theory. The rise of Corbynism, together with new guidance on education for sustainable development and global citizenship from Unesco, encouraged me to return to the potential of a socialist school geography in 2016. I finished writing Critical School Geography in 2020 (17) and its contents are outlined elsewhere on this site.
Geographical and environmental education have made much progress in the last forty years but many of the debates current in the 1970s continue, for example project work versus formal teaching and the advantages and disadvantages of curriculum integration. The conservative restructuring of education in England, begun in the 1980s, continues its assault on democracy in and through education and my work, like that of many others, has been largely aimed at keeping radical alternatives on the agenda and revising them in the light of new insights from critical theory and the contradictions thrown up by changing times. Education of itself cannot create a more democratic and sustainable society but suitably planned and delivered it can play a key role in the overall struggle for democracy and sustainability..
No biography is complete without acknowledging influences and support. A list can never be complete but those that spring immediately to mind include Robert Clayton, John Lockwood, Frances Slater, Michael Naish, David Pepper, Dawn Gill, Peter Martin, Craig Johnson, Peter Smith, Stephen Sterling, David Hicks, John Fien, Gillian Symons, Ken Webster, Roger Firth, Malcolm Plant, David Lambert, John Morgan, Dimitris Kalaitziidis, Adrian Martin, and Liu Yunhua. Not all would agree with my shifting analysis and prescription, but they have all helped me along the way. To them and numerous others I offer my thanks.
Bedford, November 2020
1 Geography, A Vested Interest in Education, Classroom Geographer, February 1975, 6 – 10.
2 Geography and Values in Higher Education, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 2/1, 1977, pp. 57 – 67 and 2/2, 1978, 13 – 19.
3 Geography and Values Education, In Walford, R (ed.) Signposts for Geography Teaching, Longman, 1981, pp. 147 – 163,
4 Values Education through Geography: a Radical Critique, Journal of Geography, 82, 1983. pp. 59 – 63. Reprinted in Boardman, D. (ed,) New Directions in Geographical Education, Falmer, 1985. pp. 187 – 197,
5 Editor, Geographical Education, Reflection and Action, Oxford University Press, 1983.
6 Ecological Crisis: Some Implications for Geographical Education, Contemporary Issues in Geography and Education, 2/2, 1986. 2 – 13/
7 Geography and Schooling. In Johnston, R. (ed.) The Future of Geography, Methuen, 1985, pp. 291 -306l
8 What We Consume. (A Teachers Handbook and eight curriculum units). WWF & Richmond Publishing, 1988 to 1995.
9 Reaching Out, The Tutors’ File, WWF, 1995
10 Co-editor with Stephen Sterling. Education for Sustainability, Earthscan, 1996.
11 Towards a Critical School Geography. In Tilbury, D. & Williams M. (eds.) Teaching and Learning Geography, Routledge, 1997, pp. 241 – 254.
12 Co-authored with Adrian Martin. Environments in a Changing World, Prentice Hall, 2001
13 Global Citizenship in Initial Teacher Education (a discussion paper written for the Development Education Association), 2001 (see under downloads)
14 Education for Sustainable Development in Initial Teacher Training: a briefing paper for the Teacher Training Resource Bank, TDA (formerly TTA), 2006 (see under downloads)
15 A UK indicator of the impact of formal learning on knowledge and awareness of sustainable development: proposals from the Sustainable Development Commission, Sustainable Development Commission, 2006 (see under downloads)
16 Ten Years of Environmental Education in China: Record of the Environmental Education Initiative 1997 -2008. Lu Yuan (ed.), EPA/WWF/BP, 2009.
17 Critical School Geography, 2020. See related section of this website.