A Space for Social Justice in Geography Education?

The push for more attention on social justice in geography education has gained a stronger sense of urgency and greater coherence in recent decades. This has occurred in tandem with increasing attention paid by geographers to what this discipline, perceived by some as inherently concerned with injustice and disparity (Smith, 1994; Merrett, 2000), can do to contribute to a more equitable world. This push for what Kirman (2003) termed as “transformative geography” (p. 93) in education calls for teachers to introduce students to the geographical aspects of social justice and focus on how these issues are located at a number of interconnected geographic scales (local, regional, state and international). This will allow students to practice the “discipline of geography for the well-being of people and the environment in order to improve the world” (p. 93).

However this endeavor has been met with ambivalence and hostility in some quarters due to worries about the devaluation and displacement of what is perceived to be core geographical knowledge in favor of other kinds of content more closely linked to active citizenship and social justice outcomes. This worry that Geography will be “emptied of content rooted in the conceptual frameworks of the subject” or “be regarded as a convenient ‘vehicle’ for broader general competences such as ‘thinking skills’” (Huckle, 1983) has fed suspicion of the push for attention on social justice. The purpose of this paper, therefore, is to explore spaces of possibilities in the incoming Geography Ordinary ‘O’ Level Syllabus 2014 for teachers to engage students with social justice, to examine teachers’ perspectives on the viability of this endeavor, and to how a balance may be reached to address this simmering issue. This balance, however, may not be able to replace the need for a fundamental resolution, at least in the Singapore context, on the direction(s) that Geography education needs to take in order to retain its relevance in a changing world (Chang, 2011). 

This paper is divided in four main parts and begins with a brief review and discussion of pertinent literature on the discussion of the utility of geography in furthering the aims of social justice. The next section provides a discussion on the incoming ‘O’ Level Geography syllabus (2014) with regard to spaces (whether consciously created or indirectly opened up) in the document for geography teachers to engage or even promote social justice from syllabus themes and suggested resources. The third component augments the second section and focuses on findings from interviews about teachers’ perspectives on the efficacy of Geography for the social justice agenda and relevant pedagogical approaches. The key findings show that teachers feel a sense of insecurity with regard to the limits of advocacy for social justice. There is also tension between urging for more prominence for social justice and being labelled as moralistic. This paper concludes with a call for a more flexible curriculum supported by the Ministry of Education and for greater teacher agency and autonomy to incorporate social justice in their practice and spark students’ curiosity and engagement with the wider community.

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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