Choosing a Subject: Should we be encouraging Geography v History in schools?

Geography is often pitted against History. If you study Geography then you like colouring in but if you do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past then study History. This is not a new situation; I had to choose Geography, History or RE at GCSE, as did many before and after me. Under the EBacc suite of subjects, you now choose Geography or History and the chance to study both is severely limited in most schools. You could have sat round the same table in a Humanities faculty meeting but come options time it seems like the History department becomes the enemy. The old clichés appear again and it is a fight to get the highest numbers. After all, it is a sad fact in schools today that our jobs could depend on getting bums on seats outside the core subjects.

Yet the two subjects have much in common – both being, as Kant argued, basic forms of human knowledge that shape our understanding, one looking at events over time (History) and one looking at events over space (Geography). This is why I have over the years advocated for History and Geography teaching to be linked, particularly at KS3, and I was disappointed to see the idea for a 50-50 Geography-History GCSE abandoned a few years ago. The skills of the subjects complement each other and the context of what we teach is intrinsically interlinked. This does not mean to say we should ditch the two disciplines and teach a combined course but we should be working more closely to enable students to see the links and build in the depth of their understanding about the world from both perspectives. To develop a geographical understanding of what is happening in the world today you cannot separate it from what has happened in the past. I remember a History colleague a few years ago commenting on why I was photocopying resources about the Cold War when I was a Geography teacher – how else could I explain the rise, fall and rise of Russia as superpower or why Russia supports Crimean secession from the Ukraine without mentioning the Cold War?

But it does not take much for the subjects to start to support each other. Both use photographs (a 5Ws and 1H photo analysis framework works in both subjects). Both analyse written information (differing perspectives and viewpoints are analysed in both). Both look at data over time (and History could do more of this!). Both look at places in the UK and around the world. For example, a little change to the order of teaching in KS3 so they learn about the Geography of India at the same time as they learn about the History of the British Empire and British Imperialism in India means you can start to help the students to make links. And with limited teaching time for both subjects at KS3, this means they can (hopefully!) gain a deeper understanding in both subjects through making these links. A key concept in Geography is interconnectedness so why are we limiting ourselves to only connecting within Geography? Getting the students to see the links starts to move us away from the us and them situation and supports the argument that Geography is an important part of everyone’s education – it even links with its arch enemy (History) so it must be important!

With the increased level of depth of knowledge required in the new courses and the variety of skills to be tested in the new examinations, perhaps its time to look to our colleagues in History to see how we can support each other to develop students’ skills and contextual understanding throughout KS3. Then, whichever subject they decide on at GCSE, they will be successful in it. And hopefully, if they do choose History, will still have the developed the skills and knowledge to independently think geographically as they continue to explore the world around them.

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