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Re-invigorating school geography through collaborative curriculum making and young people’s lived geographies

Dr Roger Firth and Mary Biddulph

University of Nottingham, UK

Contact: ;

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Institute of Education, University of London, 5-8 September 2007


This article reports on the progress of the Young People’s Geographies project at the end of its first year. It is a two year curriculum making research project involving collaboration between teachers, school students, professional geographers and geography teacher educators. The aim of the project is to develop conversations between the participants about how the lived geographies of young people can be used to inform a dynamic process of curriculum making in secondary schools. Recognising that the centralised and prescriptive nature of the school curriculum has caused problems for school geography the project seeks to utilise young people’s geographies to make the curriculum more relevant to students and to give them ownership and agency of geography curricula. The project is situated within discourses concerned with the need for localised curriculum making, student voice and young people as a marginalised and subordinate group within (adult) society and its schools. The project has prompted and supported a range of curricula responses in the participating schools and a number of issues require clarification and reflection as the project moves forward.


Young people (children and youths1) participate in their own ‘lived geographies’: on a day to day basis they interact simultaneously with other people and are part of different social groups. They interact with others at both a local level (friends, family, school/college) and at a global level (often via the internet). They navigate very complex networks of participation from informal social groups (friends, school groups, shared social activities) to more organised social activities (such as leisure activities, sport and music) and formalised group activities especially in school. Their access to spaces and places are enabled and/or hindered by a range of factors and influences such as parents, financial considerations, age group, gender, ethnicity, feelings of safety, identification with different groups, personal interest etc. Both the transgressive and regulated aspects of youth can be traced in space (Skelton and Valentine, 1998). Young people’s lives are lived geographically, as are all our lives. Youth and its geographies, whether the public or the mundane aspects of their lives, is an opportunity to bring young people into the academic discipline, whereas previously they had been absent. Similarly, such geographies can be readily used as part of young people’s geographical learning and as a way of making the school curriculum more relevant to them.

Professional geographers are now giving increasing attention to young people as social agents in their own right, with their own lives, needs and desires (Corsaro, 1997) and in relation to the way age intersects with other important identities such as gender, disability and ethnicity2. As Hopkins (2007: 165) observes a growing body of literature has been developing (see, for example, Skelton and Valentine, 1998; Matthews and Limb, 1999; Holloway and Valentine, 2000; Aitken, 2001) about the diverse socio-spatial contexts and issues of young people’s lives. By the late 1990s youth geographies had established itself as an important subfield of the geography discipline (Skelton and Valentine, 1998), and by 2003 Matthews (2003) declared that children’s geographies had ‘come of age’ (p. 3). There has, however, been a tendency to focus upon children and young people in isolation from their families (Punch, 2007) and to underplay the role of ‘structures’ which constrain and facilitates young people’s experiences. Indeed, Freeman (1983) reminds us that ‘childhood’ is a social construct and there are a legacy of different ideologies of childhood that regard children and youths not as part of society and culture but as a precursor to it. Such a view ‘others’ those viewed as ‘dependent’, including young people.

Neoliberal economic and social changes are radically transforming young people’s experiences of youth and early adulthood in many parts of the world. Young people face a greater range of uncertainties than perhaps in any previous era. Geographies of youth offer valuable insights into the unique experiences of young people and the spaces they carve out for themselves, the ways in which discourses and spaces impact on their lives and identities, while at the same time recognising the role which young people play in all our geographies (Valentine et al., 1999). The challenge for school geography is to devise a curriculum that connects with all of this, that takes account of young peoples lived geographies and adds meaning to them and to geography through their experiences.

With the development of geographies of youth has come a growing awareness that young people form a marginalised and subordinate group within wider society and have little, if any, input in public policy debates which directly impact on their lives. As Mathews and Limb (1999) state:

A culture of non-participation by young people is endemic within the United Kingdom. For the most part, young people are provided with few opportunities to engage in discussions about their economic, social and environmental futures and seldom given chances to express their preferences outside of adult-dominated institutions. It would seem that participation is still conceived to be an adult activity (p. 135)

Recent years, however, have witnessed a growing commitment to including young people’s voice in research, evaluation and consultation and the review of Halsey et al ( 2006) suggests that ‘there is a growing culture of participation, with insights and ideas from the younger generation recognised as valuable in potentially shaping services and policies which affect their lives and others in the community’ (p. 5). Rudduck and Flutter (2000) highlight the political impetus behind listening to young people’s voices in education, emphasising that it has been within ‘the school improvement movement… that the issue of pupil participation and voice is being most obviously addressed’ (p. 81). They emphasise the tensions in serving ‘the narrow ends of a grades-obsessed society rather than empowering them by offering them greater agency in their schools’ (ibid. p. 82). A ‘context of performativity and a narrowly conceived, incessant accountability’, as Fielding (2004) argues, restricts the space for developing reciprocal student-teacher relationships and limits the transformative potential of student participation and voice. Thus, while there is now government endorsement of the significance of student voice and a widening agenda, there is a real danger that it is tokenistic and somewhat out of line with the more radical agenda requiring a qualitative transformation of schooling and education through student democratic participation (Fielding, 2001, 2004).

Recent research has confirmed that students are interested in changing structures that cast them in a marginal role and limit their agency (Fielding and Bragg, 2003; Flutter and Rudduck, 2004; Rudduck and Flutter, 2003; Manefield et al, 2007), though Rudduck and Flutter (2000) state that ‘in our experience pupils do not have much to say about the curriculum’ (p. 76). Thomson and Gower (2006) make us aware that students (and teachers) lives and selves are deeply embedded in discourses and practices which are simultaneously transformative and oppressive. They question the notion of ‘authentic student voice’ and emphasise that ‘a more robust idea of a democratic community is required’ (p. 854).

This paper considers school students involvement in curriculum making. It reports on an ongoing research project, the Young People’s Geographies (YPG) project, which engages with recent developments in disciplinary knowledge as a means of making young people’s lived geographies central to teacher’s thinking about the geography curriculum, of enabling young people to think geographically, and as a way of enabling students to talk about the curriculum - and extend the extent to which young people themselves can be involved in the process of curriculum construction. Stenhouse (1967) and others were writing about opportunities for student consultation on aspects of curriculum work several decades ago. As an alternative to imposed change from the centre or through the authority of the teacher the project aims to explore the opportunities and the need for change with students themselves. It is uncommon for students to be part of the curriculum making process or of the geography curriculum.

Funded by the Action Plan for Geography 3 (DfES and led by the Geographical Association and the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers) and the Academy for Sustainable Communities, this two year project (September 2006 – August 2008) involves teachers and students working together alongside academic geographers and teacher educators to create change in the geography curriculum using the notion of the lived geographies of the young people as the focus for change. In this way, a more relevant and owned experience in school geography should be created for young people, where relevance is a student rather than a teacher view of what is meaningful for young people.

The idea that curriculum change is a purposeful activity involving teachers, students and others working alongside each other is an interesting starting point given that a key feature of curriculum change over the last two decades has been increased central control of the school curriculum in the way that it is defined monitored and evaluated, but where from September 2008 there will be changes throughout the secondary school geography curriculum as a result of a major government curriculum review (QCA, 2005, 2007). The new curriculum 11-19 offers greater flexibility and less prescription and provides opportunities for schools to ‘personalise’ the curriculum.

The idea that school subjects may not be meeting the needs of young people is not new. The last significant era of curriculum development in geography in the 1980’s was prompted by just such a concern. Initiatives borne out of the Schools Council projects such as the Geography for the Young School Leaver (GYSL) were driven by a recognition that school geography needed to take better account of the needs of young people. These projects were an attempt to recognise social and cultural change and develop educational experiences appropriate to the (perceived) needs of young people. They drew selectively from the academic geography of the time and combined this content with the educational approaches of progressivism to create ‘new movements’ in school geography, but where there was no attempt to involve students in discussion about why changes were being made.

The Young People’s Geographies Project

The project team perceived the project as having an open-ended approach so that teachers and students together in their schools could explore a range of possibilities in constructing a curriculum. The specific aims of the project are to:

Like many ideas, this project emanated from an unexpected source – the chance overhearing of a session discussion at the Association of American Geographers Conference in Chicago, March 2006. The conversation, between professional geographers from the USA and UK considered the ethics, potential and benefits of researching young peoples ‘lived geographies’ as a branch of geography research. As the conversations unfolded, we ‘chance’ listeners found ourselves considering the potential of this relatively new field of geography for the school geography curriculum: if young people’s ‘lived experiences’ were worth researching at university level, then could this geography have something to offer school geography?

Teacher recruitment was though invitation and existing professional relationships within initial teacher education. The seven schools involved are from different towns and cities (Nottingham, Kings Lynn, Reading, Bedford and London), socio-economic background of catchment and history of links with the Geographical Association. It was important to involve teachers who would be prepared to take risks in a new venture that may be challenged by the more traditional aspects of the school and be open-minded to the ideas and possibilities of the YPG project. There are inevitably elements of professional risk involved when a teacher attempts to make changes within the existing school structure. Sachs (2003) illustrate the barriers to change and the risk faced by the innovative teacher who challenges the education status quo with fresh approaches, opening themselves up to potential criticism should they fail to deliver (traditionally measured) results.

The selection of students within participating schools was the responsibility of the participating teachers, with students from years 9 to 12 being selected.. In some schools all students from one class were involved in the project, in others students were selected from within a class or from several classes. Whatever the involvement only 4 students from each school attended the project days in Leicester From the outset a key concern has been to ensure that students are an integral and embedded part of the project.

The academic geographers were chosen for their research interests and expertise in young people’s geographies. They are essential to the project in terms of intellectual support for the other participant groups. The project team wanted to re-connect the geography discipline and school geography through the facilitation of genuine conversations between the project participants about young people’s geographies and its potential to change the school curriculum.

Year 1

The first year has been organised around 4 project days (November, January, March and July) where the four participating groups came together. The days involve the participants working together on structured activities to create a context for perspective and ideas sharing, which would underpin subsequent work in schools. The project days created a ‘collective space’ of engagement and gave structure and momentum to the project. Between each of the 4 days teachers and students have worked together in developing particular curricula with support from teacher educators.

The 4 project days each had a specific purpose:



Day 1 November 2006
Young People’s Geographies

All key groups other than students present and evaluator

  • to explore what can be meant by YPG’s
  • researching YPGs: how and why
  • How might this relate to the school geography curriculum

Students were not present on this day as the aim was to introduce and engage teachers with the subject discipline framework of the project: with YPG’s

Day 2 January 2007
Connecting conversations and getting students involved

All groups present and evaluator

  • field work activity in the local area (Leicester city centre) focusing on students emotional response to a new place – mapping emotional geographies
  • Students share their thoughts with other groups
  • Groups discuss YPG
  • Groups discuss how to take ideas back into school

First meeting with students present

Day 3 March 2007
Curriculum stories

All groups present and evaluator

  • The project so far
  • Sharing school curriculum stories – what schools have done so far
  • Focus on a specific school and specific project
  • Curriculum connections: connecting YPG to school geography. The concepts from the new QCA Key Stage 3 geography PoS provided a framework for discussion
  • Groups discuss how to take ideas back into school

Day 4 July 2007
Evaluation day

All groups present, evaluator, Chief Executive Geographical Association and member of EMT of some schools

  • Setting up displays to showcase work done in each school and to share outcomes
  • Schools overview presentations by students
  • Creating maps of experience and vox-pop
  • Reflections from academic geographers
  • Review by Geographical Association Chief Executive

Policy context

Since the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) ensured the rights of children to actively participate in all matters concerning them, there has been increased international attention to using pupil perspectives to develop educational processes. The UK response to the UN mandate has been relatively slow and the current policy position in England in relation to children and young people’s participation is constructed around the notion of voice. The statutory guidance (DfES, 2004) requires that schools, governing bodies and local education authorities open up opportunities for children and young people to become more active participants in their education and give ‘children and young people a say in decisions that affect them’ (p. i).

The growing interest in pupil participation and perspectives in the UK includes literature on student voice itself and student voice in educational research with four identifiable approaches: students engaged in school self-evaluation; consulting students on various aspects of their experience of schooling; students as researchers and students as active citizens in school governance (Thomson and Gunter, 2006). Despite the common ground and the rights of the child framework, as Noyes (2005) points out, there are differences that relate to the theoretical and political sensibilities that underpin these approaches. Some are more overtly committed to radical, emancipatory educational projects that offer students greater agency and power-sharing in their schools and the potential to shape more democratic schooling. At the policy level, however, student voice is a means to achieve school improvement: it ‘will impact positively on standards, behaviour and inclusion (DfES, 2004: i). The policy emphasis is on performativity and the institutional rather than the participatory power of the school (Noyes, 2005: 534).

More recently, the push to ‘personalise’ the curriculum has been connected to the government’s agenda with regard to student voice. Schools in England are now being required to design a flexible curriculum for the 21st century that is tailored ‘to meet the needs of individual learners’ (QCA, 2006: 6). The personalisation of education can mean many things and raises profound questions about the purposes of and possibilities for education. However, there is a marked tendency to see these initiatives as a means of achieving school improvement and higher standards of attainment, rather than as a matter of the UN convention, citizenship and rights. Both interest the young people’s geographies project, tokenism doesn’t. Linking young peoples lived geographies with their actions in their everyday lies and wider society, and in terms of the formal curriculum does.

This then is the broad policy context for the YPG project and within which its participants are situated. We initiated the project with guarded support for student participation and voice and acknowledging the problematic of much student voice work (Fielding, 2004). While we recognised the necessity, value and importance of seeking student views on issues regarding the school geography curriculum the fundamental aim was to involve students as co-constructors of the curriculum. As project team members4 we all share the pragmatic view that if students are not allowed to change what they do, then we will never transform the curriculum and learning.

The curriculum context

The project can be seen to be in part a response to a number of contemporary issues that face the discipline in school. The 1990s challenged the morale of geography teachers in England and Wales as the introduction of a highly prescriptive national curriculum ‘seemed to negate teacher involvement and to refocus curriculum control at the national level (Rawling, 2003: 17). The geography curriculum emphasised discrete and traditional forms of subject content that saw geography as a utilitarian and informational subject that teachers had to ‘deliver’ to young people regardless of their backgrounds, perspectives or experiences (Rawling, 2001: 22).

Government rhetoric, particularly since 1997, as the national curriculum was slimmed down (QCA Review 1998-9) has emphasised the role of teachers in interpreting centrally prescribed curriculum guidelines, but many geography teachers have found it difficult to respond after little involvement with the curriculum and the lack of professional development opportunities. Teachers, as a result of performance management, are often so concerned with meeting targets and delivering centrally prescribed curricula that they are distracted from really making the time for young people’s concerns, interests and lived geographies. This restricted view of professionalism still existed in the early 2000s despite further slimming down of the geography curriculum. Teachers ‘still read it as a prescriptive set of content to be delivered, as if conditioned by the last ten years experience (Rawling, 2003: 19). .

In recent years the school geography curriculum of England and Wales has been criticised for failing to motivate and engage young people. Inspection (OfSTED, 2005) and monitoring reports (QCA, 2005) have shown that the quality of school geography education is polarised between the unsatisfactory/poor and the excellent/very good. While recent developments at national level are helping to change the culture and conditions for school geography (such as the secretary of state’s Geography focus Group, the Action Plan for Geography, the continuing success of the GCSE pilot course) and there is now some ‘outstandingly rich geography learning taking place through highly creative teaching approaches’ (Mitchell, 2006) ‘it will take time for this to be translated more widely into appropriate changes to the curriculum, classroom practice and professional development’ (QCA, 2005: 5). Meanwhile the state of geography 11-14 continues to cause concern and the marked downward trend in GCSE and A-level entrants that began in the mid-1990s continues (OfSTED, 2005).

The reasons for this downturn are complex, but there is ‘sufficient evidence of the negative effect of tired and dated content in existing specifications’ (QCA, 2005: 6). Competition from new subjects and geography’s unfashionable public image are other contributory factors. Overall, then ‘geography is at a crucial point in its development’ (ibid. p. 7). The geography curriculum requires significant curriculum innovation. How teachers can be supported in their efforts to change and develop the curriculum in school is fundamental to successful innovation and the professional development of geography teachers.

The instigation of the project has coincided with the most significant review of the secondary curriculum of recent times (QCA, 2005, 2007). Whether this, in itself, will be a significant opportunity for teachers to collaborate with students and revitalise the geography curriculum remains to be seen. The proposed changes and development of curriculum structures at the national level are crucial to invigorating teaching and learning in geography. As a result of the proposed changes, in particular, to the 11-14 curriculum, teachers now do have a more central role in its development, if they choose to take it up. It will require teachers to take on the role of the ‘active professional’ (Sachs, 2003) determined to create a new geography curriculum rather than ‘tinker’ with the existing key stage 3 curriculum. This will mean additional work and responsibility in the short term and being prepared to take risks with no guarantee of immediate success. In this context, the Young People’s Geographies project is an attempt to initiate and support the ‘active professional’. It provides a collaborative approach to curriculum development, that can create the time and space that teachers need, builds innovation around a specific issue faced by the teacher in their school in conversation with their students, and can sustain teacher professional development beyond the one-off inset event. It is a useful model for the geography and the wider education community in developing a ‘local’ or school-based transformative approach (Fielding, 2004) to curriculum innovation, the reciprocal responsibilities of teacher and student and democratic schooling.

The Young People’s Geographies Project so far

Six main sources of data are used to evaluate project developments so far:

  1. Project day 4. The day saw the four groups of collaborators come together to share the curriculum work that each school had carried out during the first year of the project. Each school used an ‘exhibition stall’ to showcase the curriculum work undertaken and the students gave a presentation. Time was given to visit the exhibitions and discuss the curriculum work undertaken with teachers and students. The events and conversations of the day were recorded using a digital camera and technician.
  2. A ‘map of experience’ for each school. During project day 4 students were invited to create a cartographical representation of their experiences of being involved in the project and to identify what they had learnt. The maps of experience were appropriate within the context of the discipline and were an opportunity for the students to work collaboratively within their school groups in accord with the YPG project approach and to build on earlier work during project day 2 when students completed an emotional mapping activity.
  3. Vox-pop videos. Vox pop5 is a tool used in many forms of media to provide in-front of camera snapshots of public opinion. Random subjects are asked to give their views on a particular topic and their responses are presented to the viewer/reader as a reflection of popular opinion. During project day 4 a digital camera was setup in a separate room and left running to create a type of ‘big brother diary room’. The purpose of the ‘diary room’ was to give the students the opportunity to express themselves more candidly by being at a distance from the more formal proceedings of the day and the gaze of adults and other students. Student use of the ‘diary room’ was voluntary and once in front of the camera they were invited to respond to three questions written on a prompt card:
  • Why did you become involved?
  • What have been the highs and lows of the project?
  • What have you learnt about geography?
  • 4. Our documented reflections of the way in which individual schools were developing their curriculum project during project days 2 and 3.

    5. Conversations with teachers and students during the four project days.

    6. The evaluation report for year 1 of the project (Hopwood, 2007).

    The focus here is on the use of young people’s geographies in curriculum making and students’ involvement in the curriculum making process in the school context. In relation to the aims of the project, therefore, we ask the following questions:

    1. How have geography teachers used the lived geographies of young people to inform the process of curriculum construction in school geography?
    2. How and to what extent have conversations between students and teachers informed a dynamic process of curriculum making in schools?
    3. What other issues have emerged which require further consideration and can inform future developments in the project?

    How have geography teachers used the lived geographies of young people to inform the process of curriculum construction in school geography?

    The project days and structured activities were an important part of the curriculum making process in that they created a ‘collective space’ for engagement. As one teacher observed, the project days are ‘about opening our eyes and seeing the geography potential rather than the geography curriculum’ (Hopwood, 2007: 4). Teachers were generally positive in their outlook and tended to comment that the project was enabling them to ‘participate in subject-based conversations’ (Teacher comment, project day 4). This is an uncommon feature of in-service professional development for geography teachers. Teachers felt that the project had helped them to begin to consider the notion of ‘young people’s geographies’ and the ways in which this might be used to develop a curriculum around their students experiences, ‘looking at what these young people’s experiences of what geography is, not geography the subject, but geography to think’ (ibid.).

    The links between young people’s lived geographies and curriculum construction varied form school to school. Overall, the tendency was for schools to build on students’ understanding of places: their routine engagement with local places, their role in them, and how their experiences relate to geography (of places). Teachers tended to understand these developments as being about the relevance of existing curriculum content, student motivation and ‘helping students engage with places in a more geographical way’ (Teacher comment, project day 3) and not with grappling with the socio-spatial nature of young people’s lived geographies. In three schools which worked together, students used hi-tech mobile phones to take photographs to represent places that were important and meaningful to them. One school built a curriculum unit on global warming based on themes that merged from conversations between students and teachers during the project days. While this does not lack value, ‘teachers tended to focus on bringing students to geography, rather than geography to students’ (ibid. p. 8). This work appears to emphasise the importance of making the existing geography curriculum more relevant (from the teacher’s perspective) rather than actually using the lived geographies of students as a way of developing the curriculum and giving students greater ownership of that curriculum. Activities in year 2 of the project will require increased or revised efforts from the project team to help teachers share and understand the actual significance of young people’s live geographies to curriculum making. The evidence suggests that teachers have only just beginning to develop a conceptual framework for ‘young people’s geographies’ and its role in curriculum making. ‘Future activities on the project will benefit form increase or revise efforts to help teachers understand and share the conceptual starting points of the project leaders’ (ibid. p. 8).

    The data from students confirm these preliminary findings. The maps of experience varied in detailed and some articulated the experiences and learning of the students better than others. All of the schools drew on physical geographical features to give a structure to the map and as a way of representing their ideas. Commonly, students used features such as islands, seas and mountains to represent boundaries, limitations, connections and possibilities. Human geographical features were also used, though less commonly and with less variation; the two main features being bridges and outlines of places. Using these features as well as annotation the students gave strong emphasis to places, both the familiar (home/school locations) and the unfamiliar (places such as Leicester, the venue for the project days) and areas they had studied through the project (Ghana and Darfour). The maps were also used to emphasise knowledge (what students’ know and don’ know about these places) and students ‘emotional experiences. Another common feature of all the maps was the notion of the future, in terms of either future learning and understanding within the project or the different global futures of the places represented (in relation to geography they had been studying).

    One of the maps gives a very strong sense of the school based work that the students were doing and how they were trying to think about and represent their local/home place. Another map articulates the tension between their daily lived experiences within their ‘local place’, namely their knowledge of ‘their place’ and the comfort and well being that brings; but at the same time, their complete lack of knowledge of some areas within their ‘local place’, which’ they do not use’ or are deemed to be ‘out of bounds’, either by ‘themselves’ or as a result of ‘others’ (student map annotations). The map highlights the significance of self and other imposed boundaries of place, but also how through the project students have focused on places – their understanding and their lack of understanding of their ‘local place’.

    One of the maps created by an all boy’s school had a strong focus on geographical content in that it identified areas of study which are common in school geography (e.g. natural hazards, Antarctica, climate change). Alongside these common areas of study there was similarly a strong sense of the pupils’ local place but this time how it connects with particular unknown places they had studied (in this case, Darfour). Here, the students seemed to be highlighting the significance of geographical learning and knowledge, using terms such as ‘unknown knowledge’, ‘unknown Lambeth’, ‘land of the unknown’, ‘sea of knowledge’ to emphasise how the knowledge that they have learnt through geography shapes their understanding of particular places, both local and distant, and ‘what we do and don’t do’, which seemed to be a reference to both themselves and society These students had elected to conduct a substantial enquiry into the war in Darfour. Their ideas emerged out of previous work they had done on cultural differences in the local area (Lambeth), and which had been linked to some consideration of the blood diamond industry. They wrote on the map ‘much is known but little is being done’ - about the war. This seems to be a further reference to the importance of knowledge and how it influences our understanding of places and events. The map also expressions some powerful emotions through the annotations: ‘unbearable’ and ‘no love’. The students seem to implicate themselves in the events of Darfour, or at least the society they live within, writing ‘caused by us’ (all student map annotation)

    Overall, the main themes identified in the maps and vox-pop videos include the significance of places, the role of people in places, learning to see places in a different way, the way in which geography is part of their everyday lives: ‘I have learnt that quite a lot of things that weren’t geography are’. Feelings were also strongly emphasised, not just in terms of their involvement in the project, but also in relation to how they feel in different places – and the significance of this for their geographical learning and changing conceptions of what geography is.

    How and to what extent have conversations between students and teachers informed a dynamic process of curriculum making in schools?

    The project has created a supportive context in which meaningful conversations between students and teachers at project days and within their own schools were used to develop mutual understandings and inform curriculum making. The project has also supported inter- as well as intra-school conversations between students and teachers. A number of different approaches have been adopted (Hopwood, 2007: 1). In one school students were responsible for planning lessons and teaching other (younger) students on a topic they felt was related to young people’s geographies. While this involved dramatic shifts in ownership and pedagogic processes, direct involvement in the project was limited to a small number of students. The approach of another school, where all students in one class were involved in the project (though only 4 attended the project days) was more directly integrating. Three schools which decided to work together kept the project activity separate from the formal school curriculum, using the experience of the project from year one to inform the development of a new scheme of work which will be piloted in year two of the project. It was seen by teachers and students as ‘something extra’ which took time out of other aspects of school and working lives, rather than working with young people’s geographies as a routine part of geography (ibid. p. 7). All the schools built on a common notion of relevance to their students but adopted more divergent approaches in the sense of student ownership of the curriculum and links to the formal curriculum. Questions about sustainability of such approaches and the authenticity of student involvement are important questions for year 2 of the project.

    The project has also given the students a sense of being involved, having a contribution to make and greater equality within conversations between themselves and adult others. This seems to have been an important motivational factor. Many of the students also made reference to an increase in their self confidence and we can perhaps assume that participation had contributed to this. In this way the maps and vox-pop videos give an insight of students’ lived experiences through the project.

    The vox-pop video responses revealed that students believed that they could and were making a contribution to curriculum change, making statements such as ‘get to change geography’, ‘change geography for others and ourselves’, ‘get to use these ideas in lessons’, have an impact on school geography’. Students from one school emphasised that they had created a ‘my space’ specifically about the project. Some of the maps also reinforce this notion of ‘curriculum involvement’, as some make direct reference to ‘bringing better geography to the class’, ‘going to teach young people geography’.

    Students struggled significantly, however, whether using the maps of experience and the vox-pop videos, to effectively articulate their actual or potential role in curriculum making. As Rudduck and Flutter (2000) remind us, we should recognise:

    that there are difficulties in directly eliciting pupils’ views of some aspects of schooling; for instance their views of ‘the curriculum. Pupils are often ready to comment directly on bits and pieces of the curriculum… but they have no basis for comparing the present with any earlier version of ‘the curriculum’ nor, usually, any systematic sense of curriculum possibilities. (p. 75)

    In this sense, we need to do more within the project to help students develop a language for talking about the curriculum and to contribute to discussions with teachers and others. It is here, that young people’s lived geographies themselves have the potential to be a powerful scaffold.

    What other issues have emerged which require further consideration and can inform future developments in the project?

    The open-ended nature of the project has presented both opportunities and challenges to teachers and students. The schools, teachers and students we are working with vary greatly and this flexible approach respects this difference and avoids the potential stifling of creativity that may accompany a more tightly framed approach. Our aim was to explore possibilities and enable each school to develop its own sense of direction and ‘model’ of curriculum making. Initially, however, it did create uncertainty and hesitancy and throughout year one there have been times when teachers and students alike were unsure if they were ‘doing the right sort of thing’. A key challenge for us as project leaders has been, and will continue to be, how to enable flexibility whilst at the same time being able to secure some valid and significant curriculum remaking within the remit of the project aims. The realities of school life, including teacher workload pressures and teacher and student concern about assessment/examination performance are inevitable constraints on the way in which schools have engaged with the project.

    The project has created collective spaces which has enabled the various participants to have meaningful conversations which have helped to develop mutual understandings and inform curriculum making. The resulting curricula and pedagogic responses have oriented teachers towards different approaches that have built on a common notion of relevance to young people’s lives and interests, but were more limited, if divergent, in terms of student ownership and links to the formal curriculum. The significance of the notion of young people’s lived geographies has been recognised by teachers, and they have begun to consider teaching about, from and through students’ perspectives rather than the requirements of the formal curriculum. However, there is far greater scope for development here, particularly in the ways that young peoples’ lived geographies extend beyond a simple focus on place. Here, the project team need to be much clearer about how the professional geographers feed into, support and are active in the curriculum making process. Their own research and theorisation of young people’s geographies has, as yet, been very under utilised in the curriculum making process. The students have also been able to use geography as a tool to think about and describe different features of places, while for others it seemed to help them see and use geography as a way of thinking about themselves in relation to places.

    We now need to decide whether to continue in this flexible way or adopt a more framed and directed approach. A more structured framing might help to push schools towards addressing both relevance and ownership issues. It might prompt teachers into more ‘breaking out’ or risk-taking. When things are left open, teachers might opt to play it safe, especially given rhe reality of curriculum and school pressures.


    It has proved quite difficult in the development of the project to draw clear distinctions/boundaries between the three aims of the project. There is an inevitable complexity and messiness to the ambitious nature of the project and our interactions with the specific contexts of schools, teachers, students and professional geographers. There is a need to continually clarify the aims and negotiate the processes and activities within the project.

    Because the students’ lives and selves are deeply embedded in discourses which position them as ‘school students’, variously successful learners’, individualised ‘consuming young people’ and ‘future citizens’ their involvement and responses to curriculum making cannot simply be taken as an expression of commitment. Similarly, teachers are positioned as professionals who are ‘enablers’ of students learning, ‘accountable’ for that learning and ‘responsible’ for the curriculum. How easy is it for teachers to start to ‘let go’ – that is reconceptualise such professional responsibility? The ambiguous micro-politics of difference and role expectation raises questions about the potential of student ‘voice’ and ‘collaboration’ to change existing curricula and pedagogies. A number of questions seem important in our work at this midpoint: To what extent has the project produced a shift in teachers and students thinking about the curriculum? How authentic is the involvement of teachers and students in curriculum making? How sustainable are these experiences and processes? Can they become long-term features of dynamic curricula in schools?

    Certainly a more robust and nuanced idea of collaboration and agency is required to be put into practice in year 2 of the project. Equally important will be a greater sharing of the significance of young people’s lived geographies that will help busy teachers develop a more profound understanding of the purposes of the project and see a shift of emphasis away from the concern with the more accessible issue of relevance to young people’s lives and interests, towards student ownership and connections to the formal curriculum. We hope that the young people’s geographies project can be shared beyond the geography community in the way that it connects with other educational agendas, particularly, the role of teachers and students in curriculum making, student voice and participation and the significance of subjects and disciplined thinking.


    1. Both youth and childhood have had and continue to have different meanings depending on young people’s social, cultural and political circumstances (Wyn and White, 1997: 10). As Sibley (1995) writes ‘The limits of the category ‘child’ vary between cultures and have changed considerably through history within Western, capitalist societies’ (p. 34).
    2. While geography has been slow to recognise young people and to include their experiences within its social, cultural and disciplinary imagination, other subjects have faired much better at doing this, in particular cultural studies.
    3. The Action Plan for Geography is a two year government funded programme that began in 2006, which aims to inspire and support teachers in the development of geography as a curriculum subject. A second phase of the APG will commence in 2008.
    4. There are 2 other project team members: Di Swift from the Geographical Association and David Balderstone, Institute of Education, University of London.
    5. The term "vox pop" comes from the Latin phrase vox populi, meaning ‘voice of the people’.


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    This document was added to the Education-Line database on 31 October 2007