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Monday, August 17, 2015

Geography: The Must-Have in the UK

Image by Department for Communities and Local
Government under CC-BY-ND.
There are many articles touting how many high school leavers in parts of the UK have taken the A-level geography exam. The Guardian editorial is the one I've seen shared the in my circles and I suspect that's because of its terrific title: The Guardian view on geography: it’s the must-have A-level.

Before unpacking the editorial and comparing the situations in the United State and UK, let's back up and look at the events that prompted the slew of articles in the first place.

What's the news?

The actual news, per The Guardian is:
According to the Royal Geographical Society, 13% more took the subject at A-level this year than last, up to 37,100 – the biggest jump of any of the major subjects. 
Here's the post from the RGS, which notes Scotland is not counted in that statistic.

What are A-levels?

A-levels are credentials offered to those completing secondary education in the UK and Crown countries. As I understand it, and it's pretty complicated, to graduate one needs to pass the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), typically taken in year 10 in core subjects (English, math, science). Universities require more than that for admission. The A levels, sort of "part two," are a more rigorous set of exams, typically taken in later years, are more akin to what we in the U.S. think of as Advanced Placement type tests. Students may choose to take the exams in specific subjects, including geography.

Why the big jump in students taking the geography exam?

The Guardian ticks down some possible reasons:
  • Former UK Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove put a focus on individual disciplines over critical thinking and general studies.
  • Geography is a discipline for our time, knitting together so many issues and technologies.
  • Geographers get jobs. Per the latest data from the "Higher Education Careers Services Unit, only 5.8% of geography graduates were still job-hunting six months after they graduated, against an average of 7.3%." (But data from 2014 says the opposite, per The Tab via the Higher Education Statistics Agency.)
In another article, the paper notes educators see changes in education impacting which A-levels are popular.
But teachers have said the changing profile of A-level subjects may also reflect the financial squeeze that sixth-form education is facing, with fewer subjects on offer and choices limited to more mainstream courses.
How are things in the U.S.?

We have some of the same good geography education news in the U.S. that the UK has.

Numbers of students taking Advanced Placement Human Geography are up. There's even an online certificate program for educators who want to teach it. And, there's an Advanced Placement Geographic Information Science and Technology course/test in the works.

More people are seeing that geography is a modern and valuable discipline. While we don't have The Guardian, we do have many publications (The Atlantic and The New York Times to name two) that regularly use and speak to the value of maps and the geographic perspective. And, the big data and visualization worlds are giving geography a bit of a push, too.

I don't have numbers parallel to the UK's about employment among geography majors, but here are some data points: Students Review, Simple Dollar. It seems there are many jobs for geographers, though of course I keep a closer eye on GIS careers.

What can we learn?

We in the U.S. share something else with the UK: we too have shortages of funds for education. The UK reaction, in part, seems to be doubling down on traditional academic subjects, into which category geography falls. We react to it differently. The federal and state governments have focused on what they consider core skills, reading and math, and measurement, typically via testing (Common Core and otherwise).

The "traditional academic subject" perception in the UK is a big deal. It's also considered a facilitating subject and a subject valuable to get to college. Not here. Geography is, at last look, unfunded by the federal government. Efforts from National Geographic, the Association for American Geographers, the state geographic alliances and private companies like Esri lead the charge for geography.

Rebranding geography as an essential academic subject will take time. The AAG effort to pass a geography education funding bill is called TGIF: Teaching Geography is Fundamental. Its outgrowth is a piece of the yet to be passed Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which may be a start in the right direction.