One of the first steps of curriculum design in geography is considering the relationship between thematic and regional geography. This is discussed in Alex Standish’s chapter in Debates in Geography Education (2nd Edition) edited by Mark Jones and David Lambeth. It has influenced by thinking when planning our curriculum at KS3 and beyond.
What is regional geography?
When geographers talk about regions we mean “an area of the earth’s surface displaying a degree of homogeneity” (Standish 2018), we are making a judgement that this piece of the map has something in common. Regions can be thematic (such as climatic regions or regions sharing a common religion), functional (defined by its functional relationship and interconnected nature) or formal (defined by its contiguous nature such as the North East of England). Unlike place they are a bounded area but we should also think about the transition area between regions – transitions are almost always granular rather than stark, such as the transition between rainforest to savanna and then savanna to desert.
Regional geography was a key feature of the “classical period” of geography from 1750 – 1850 (As discussed by Hartshorne 1939) with detailed work from the likes of Humboldt (Central America) and Ritter (Central Asia). This work fell out of favour by the second half of the 20th century as it was seen as too Eurocentric and unscientific. Regional geography gave way to a more thematic approach to the subject and gave rise to the sub-disciplines we are familiar with today such as hydrology, urban planning and development studies. I would suggest that the abandoning of regional studies led to some of the confusion we see today about what geography is – where it begins and where it ends. Regional geography had a resurgence from the 1990s onwards, with an increased understanding of an importance of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of place. Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography (2016) could be seen in this tradition.
Why does it matter?
This re-embrace of a regional approach to geography has been critical at returning the subject to its roots and the answering of true geographical questions such as:
Slater (1982) “What are the inter-relationships among phenomena that produce this particular set of features?”
Cresswell (2013) “What is the connection between the human and the physical worlds?” & “How can we account for this spatial difference?”
Regional geography builds on those many sub-disciplines in Geography and “brings them home” i.e. Marine science, historical geography, urban planning, geology. Each of these subdisciplines form a “theme” in thematic geography. School geography is often taught through themes with topics on “Weather and Climate” or “Urbanisation”. It encourages pupils to look at theoretical models (Burgess model, Bradshaw, Rostow) and to understand the principles that underpin looking at the world as a geographer and “thinking geographically”. This propositional knowledge is vital for a geographical understanding of the world.
However, without the contextual knowledge of the study of regional geography this propositional knowledge can remain fragmented and not seen as part of the greater schema or body of knowledge. Without locating it in place we are not really “doing geography”. Procedural knowledge (subject specific skills), which tests the models in different context, ties the two together.
How can we design this in?
This then leads us on to curriculum design and getting the balance right between the two approaches. Thematic geography is needed before it can be applied to regional geography but regional geography can be built in earlier to a program of study through the use of case studies to exemplify the theme studied. This approach needs careful planning – it has been criticized by Freeman and Morgan (2017) for leading to a one dimensional view of a place (Haiti becomes synonymous with earthquakes or Boscastle with floods). Brooks and Morgan (2006) have also complained that more detailed country studies can still be “touristic, superficial and stereotypical”. I’d suggest that two things are needed to tackle this problem; an excellent knowledge of the place being studied and the time to study it in detail. Too many case studies are tacked on to the end of units and this leads to a superficial understanding of the place.
The 2014 Geography national curriculum insists on the teaching of regional geography – although gives little guidance as to how this should be approached, and the GCSE and A Level specifications insist on more detailed case studies than previous versions. I think this is to be welcomed but I am not sure how much time and thought some departments have put into implementing these quite significant changes. I know when we first reworked our KS3 scheme of work in light of the new curriculum we didn’t do it justice. With the planning for the new GCSE and A level courses coming to an end we are now turning our attention back to the KS3 curriculum and thinking about how we can tie together thematic geography in Year 7, supported by examples and case studies, with more detailed regional studies in Year 8. This shows what we have so far.
The interplay of regional and thematic is at the heart of our discipline and we need to give it careful consideration when planning our curriculum. Get it wrong and we run the risk of pupils being left with silos of information about unconnected topics and rootless without the context of place.