A Plexus Curriculum in School Geography—A Holistic Approach to School Geography for an Endangered Planet

  • Phil WoodEmail author
  • Steven Puttick
Part of the Climate Change Management book series (CCM)


Since 2010 English education has seen a large and rapid shift in emphasis from a skills-based curriculum to one based on the idea of ‘core knowledge’, aligned with and given traction by the concepts of ‘cultural literacy’ (Hirsch) and ‘powerful knowledge’ (Young), and reliant on a belief that only ‘academically sanctioned’ knowledge is fit to offer students. This shift has led to a far-reaching reappraisal of the curriculum, prioritising traditional views of knowledge and content which in school geography have re-established a content heavy, traditional offer. This offer may lay some foundations for further study, but fails to engage students in crucial, more complex issues facing the planet, and facing them as citizens in the present and in the future. In this paper we outline what we see as being deficient in the current ‘core knowledge’ agenda, and offer instead an approach we refer to as a plexus curriculum. This is based on a more holistic approach to the subject which seeks to consider how various features of the geography curriculum can be interconnected for greater effect. This includes the intertwining of academic knowledge with the everyday, and the intertwining of different elements of the subject into more holistic and interdependent lenses. By using climate change, the Anthropocene and earth systems as a core conceptual framework around which the subject knowledge base is structured and interconnected, we argue that a plexus curriculum can develop a more critical and holistic understanding of geography, as well as playing a central role in developing geographical imaginations.


Plexus curriculum Climate change Anthropocene Cultural literacy Powerful knowledge 


  1. Agnew J (1987) Place and politics. Allen & Unwin, Boston, MAGoogle Scholar
  2. Angus I (2016) Facing the Anthropocene: fossil capitalism and the crisis of the earth system. Monthly Review Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  3. Catling S, Martin F (2011) Contesting powerful knowledge: the primary geography curriculum as an articulation between academic and children’s (ethno-) geographies. Curriculum J 22(3):317–335. Scholar
  4. Christenbury L (1989) Cultural literacy: a terrible idea whose time has come. Engl J 78:14–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cloke P, Crang P, Goodwin M (2005) Introducing Human Geographies 2nd edn. Routledge, AbingdonGoogle Scholar
  6. Cloke P, Crang P, Goodwin M (2014) Introducing human geographies, 3rd edn. Routledge, AbingdonGoogle Scholar
  7. Cook PG (2009) The rhetoricity of cultural literacy. Pedagogy 9(3):487–500CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Daniels S (2011) Geographical imagination. Trans Inst Br Geogr 36(2):182–187CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Daniels P, Bradshaw M, Shaw D, Sidaway J (eds) (2008) An introduction to Human geography: issues for the 21st century, 3rd edn. Pearson, LondonGoogle Scholar
  10. DfE (2010) The importance of teaching. The Schools White Paper 2010. DfE, LondonGoogle Scholar
  11. Dixon SJ, Viles HJ, Garrett BL (2018) Ozymandias in the Anthropocene: the city as an emerging landform. Area 50(1):117–125CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dowgill P, Lambert D (1992) Cultural literacy and school geography. Geography 77(2):143–151Google Scholar
  13. Field JP, Breshears DD, Law DJ (2015) Critical zone services: expanding context, constraints, and currency beyond ecosystem services. Vadose Zone J 14(1) Accessed at:
  14. Firth R (2011) Making geography visible as an object of study in the secondary school curriculum. Curriculum J 22(3):289–316CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Giddens A (1998) The third way: the renewal of social democracy. Polity Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  16. Gieseking JJ (2017) Geographical imagination. In: International encyclopedia of geography: people, the earth, environment, and technology. Pre-print version accessed at:
  17. Goudie AS (1986) The integration of human and physical geography. Trans Inst Br Geogr 11(4):454–458CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gove M (2011) The secretary of state’s speech to Cambridge University on a liberal education. Accessed at:
  19. Hirsch ED (1987) Cultural literacy: what every American needs to know. Houghton Miffin CompanyGoogle Scholar
  20. Lave R, Wilson MW, Barron ES (2014) Intervention: critical physical geography. Can Geogr 58(1):1–10CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. McCormack D (2012) Geography and abstraction: towards an affirmative critique. Prog Hum Geogr 36(6):715–734CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. McGill BJ, Dornelas M, Gotelli NJ, Magurran AE (2015) Fifteen forms of biodiversity trend in the Anthropocene. Trends Ecol Evol 30(2):104–113CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Morgan J (2011) Knowledge and the school geography curriculum: a rough guide for teachers. Teach Geogr 36(3):90–92Google Scholar
  24. Morgan J, Lambert D (2011) Editors' introduction. Curriculum J 22(3):279–287Google Scholar
  25. Prince H C (1962) The Geographical Imagination. Landscape 11:22–25Google Scholar
  26. Raworth K (2017) Doughnut economics: seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist. Chelsea Green PublishingGoogle Scholar
  27. Roberts M (2014) Powerful knowledge and geographical education. Curriculum J 1–23. Scholar
  28. Saavedra AR, Opfer VD (2012) Learning 21st-century skills requires 21st-century teaching. Phi Delta Kappan 94(2):8–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Sahlberg P (2012) Finnish lessons: what can the world learn from educational change in Finland?. Teachers’ College Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  30. Schwagerl C (2014) The Anthropocene: the human era and how it shapes our planet. Synergetic Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  31. Scott P (1988) Review: a few more words about E. D. Hirsch and cultural literacy. Coll Engl 50:333–338CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Sullivan P, Wymore A, McDowell W et al (2017) New opportunities for critical zone science. Arlington Meeting for CZ Science White Booklet. Accessed at:
  33. Walford R (2001) Geography in British schools 1850–2000. Woburn Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  34. Whelan R (ed) (2007) The corruption of the curriculum. Civitas, LondonGoogle Scholar
  35. Wood P (2009) Locating place in school geography—experiences from the pilot GCSE. Int Res Geogr Environ Educ 18(1):5–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. World Bank (2010) The education system in Malawi World Bank working paper no. 182. The World Bank, Washington. Last Accessed 21st Apr 2019:
  37. Young M (2008) Bringing knowledge back in: from social constructivism to social realism in the sociology of education. Routledge, AbingdonCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Young M, Muller J (2013) On the powers of powerful knowledge. Rev Educ 1(3):229–250. Scholar
  39. Young M, Lambert D, Roberts C, Roberts M (2014) Knowledge and the future school: curriculum and social justice. Bloomsbury, LondonGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Research and Knowledge ExchangeBishop Grosseteste UniversityLincolnUK
  2. 2.School of Teacher DevelopmentBishop Grosseteste UniversityLincolnUK

Personalised recommendations