Published in HERDSA News 22(1), 11-13 (2000). Reproduced with permission.

Get Disciplined: Geographic Perspectives

Alan Jenkins and Mick Healey

One of the strengths of the various CAUT/CUTSD projects is that many of them were discipline-based, capitalising on academics' commitment to their subject. Here we offer arguments for this discipline approach to educational development and illustrate them with examples of good practice. We are aware that in Australia, with the ending of CUTSD in December 1999, immediate funding for such projects may seem hard to envisage. We hope that this article may help to argue for their importance, and for such projects and funding to be reinstated.

Our views are largely based on British experience and working in geography. We demonstrate the value of this discipline approach (Jenkins, 1996) by considering three types of activity: institutional and national courses on teaching, national curriculum development projects, and international projects and networks.

Courses on Teaching

World-wide, many institutions are developing courses for new and established staff on teaching. In the UK the focus has been on new teaching staff and developing a national accreditation framework, first through the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA) and more recently through the newly established Institute for Learning and Teaching (ILT). These were created largely by educational developers and are mainly concerned with generic aspects of teaching that apply to all disciplines. However, ILT requirements for membership state that members will be expected to have knowledge of "appropriate methods for teaching and learning in the subject area… (and) models of how students learn, both generically and in their subject (emphasis added).

We agree that there is a need for generic courses for (new) academic staff. However, we consider that this generic perspective needs to be complemented by discipline-based perspectives. For all disciplines have particular pedagogic concerns that will not immediately be developed from a generic perspective. For example, geographers generally argue that much learning should be in the field or city, and face the challenge of helping students integrate the very different perspectives of the physical and social sciences and humanities (Healey et al., 2000a).

The generic texts on teaching and course design are generally silent on these and other discipline-based concerns. To recognise this discipline based perspective, at Oxford Brookes the SEDA/ ILT accredited course for new staff (, has added an outcome which requires staff to carry out a small action based research study on the teaching of their discipline and reflect on their experience of teaching that discipline. Tutors face the challenge of working on these projects with staff from many disciplines. This approach is more effective when it is backed by local/department-based expertise and mentoring, and when one can point to national/international curriculum development networks that provide a discipline-based literature and contacts.

National Curriculum Development Projects

In their research and their professional concerns academics are often members of national organisations, such as the Institute of Australian Geographers and the New Zealand Geographical Society. Through these organisations, ideas are developed, challenged and diffused. Too often these discipline networks have only focused on research. Ideas on teaching have rarely strayed outside the department or even the individual academic's classroom.

In British geography, we have been involved for over 25 years in various national organisations and projects to share ideas and improve teaching in the discipline (Healey, 1999; 2000, Jenkins 1997). At first these networks faced the linked problems of lack of credibility in the discipline, initial lack of expertise in carrying out discipline based development, and the lack of effective and secure funding. Lately the UK funding councils, in part shaped by the CAUT experience have recognised the value of this discipline-based approach. They have funded competitive national curriculum projects through the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning (FDTL) (, most of which have been discipline-based. Geography was successful in winning seven of these awards, in one of which - the Geography Discipline Network (GDN) - we are both centrally involved. The GDN project assembled a team of geographers and educational developers from nine old and new universities and colleges to develop a set of guides and linked workshops on teaching, learning and assessment, with full reference to discipline-based concerns and strongly featuring examples from geographers and geography departments. Further examples of good practice, and various geographical education books and papers are available on the GDN web site ( GDN has successfully bid for other development projects (e.g. one on developing 'key' skills in geography courses, and another on providing learning support for disabled students undertaking fieldwork). We also recently obtained funding to run a national workshop for new staff in geography and earth and environmental sciences - the aim of which is to complement the more generic courses in their institutions. This 'experiment' is to be evaluated by the ILT and, if successful, will be repeated in future years and may be used as a model by other disciplines.

Such organisations and projects as GDN and those funded through CUTD, while capitalising on disciplinary allegiances face the evident problems of short term, uncoordinated, and often limited funding. The success of the FDTL projects, such as GDN, and the recognition by the UK Funding Councils of the power of this discipline-based approach to improvement, has now led to the launch this year of some 24 national discipline based Subject Centres with secure funding for 5 years ( The Funding Councils have established these centres to "become the main points of contact within subject communities for information and advice on good practice and innovations in learning, teaching and assessment" (

International Disciplinary Networks

We believe that such national discipline-based educational organisations can play a key role in sharing and developing good practice. However, they need to be complemented by international networks and projects. Academic research networks are international, so in using the power of disciplinary social networks, discipline-based educational development needs also to be international. For as Gibbs (1995) has argued one way to raise the status of teaching, is for teaching improvement practices to mimic the way that research operates, including its international perspective. Moreover, the increased power and effectiveness of information technology makes such international networking both more feasible and effective. Also curriculum materials and projects, while respecting local and national contexts, benefit from the economies of scale, and the academic specialisation and co-operation that can be achieved internationally. Again we will demonstrate such generic arguments through examples from geography.

In 1977 a group of British geographers founded the Journal of Geography in Higher Education. While recognising that immediately, for organisational reasons, it had to be British-based, they determined to develop it as an international journal (Jenkins, 1997). Now it is effectively that, or more realistically, it carries articles from Australasia, the UK, North America, and, to a less extent, 'elsewhere'. This 'international' perspective is now confirmed and shaped by the editorial organisation. Scholars from Australasia and North America now submit their articles to local editors, who also arrange refereeing, decide acceptance or rejection of articles, and shape overall editorial policy (the Commissioning Editor for Australasia is Dr Iain Hay from Flinders University). There are hard commercial reasons for this international perspective in helping sales. For academics it has the evident 'performance indicator' attraction of publishing in an international journal and thus being better received when applying for promotion and funding.

A good example of the benefits of international cooperation comes from the National Centre for Geographic Information and Analysis Core Curriculum project in which 35 GIS educators in the US, Canada and the UK developed a comprehensive set of lecture notes for teaching beginning GIS professionals. An updated web-based version of this course is in preparation, which includes 76 lecture topics and 19 section editors from five different countries (

The principle of international cooperation and sharing good practice to avoid recreating wheels also lies behind the initiative to establish the International Network for Learning and Teaching (INLT) Geography in Higher Education. The idea for this grew out of the personal experience of the benefits the three convenors (from Australia, US and UK) believed they had gained from networking nationally and internationally about learning and teaching issues in geography. The INLT was set up in 1999 with its own listserve, Web pages ( and Newsletter. It is in the process of establishing a database and clearinghouse for educational materials and a number of international projects are planned. Nine papers from the first international symposium are in press (Healey et al., 2000b) and the programme for the second symposium is well advanced.


The intellectual and pedagogic strengths of the disciplines lie in the concentrated and shared focus on a set of problems, and the social networks through which ideas flow. Welcoming and incorporating this approach strengthens educational development.

We recognise that there are limitations to a discipline-based approach to educational development. In improving teaching in our discipline we need to adopt the same values and practices as we do in our research, where we continually search other (cognate) disciplines for findings and approaches (Healey, 1999). This discipline-based perspective to educational development needs to be complemented by the perspectives of cognate disciplines, including the disciplinary and research based expertise of educational developers. We need to develop structures and languages for us to listen to each other. That we attempted in GDN, by drawing into the project the expertise of educational developers. One of the challenges for the new UK subject centres, will be to ensure that they do not become too inward looking, insular to their disciplines and the wider world.

We conclude though with a problem which affects us all internationally. In the UK we appear to have immediately convinced the fund holders of the value of a national discipline-based approach - though the funding at present in no way matches that for discipline-based research. We believe that despite the recent cutting of CUTSD, the funding agencies in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere should be interested and hopefully convinced by this approach. What is harder to see is how such discipline-based projects could be funded internationally. We understand that just before its demise there were discussions on creating links between CUTSD and the FDTL and subject centres in the UK. We need to create effective international discipline-based links with significant funding. Nationally and internationally we need to work together to achieve that goal.

Alan Jenkins long taught geography. He is now Professor in Higher Education at Oxford Brookes. He is in charge of the ILT/ SEDA accredited course for new staff. He was founding editor of the Journal of Geography in Higher Education.

Mick Healey is Professor of Geography at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education. He is Director of the Geography Discipline Network, Geography Advisor to the Geography, Earth and Environmental Science Subject Centre and Co-Chair of the International Network for Learning and Teaching (INLT) Geography in Higher Education.


Gibbs, G. (1995) "How can promoting excellent teachers promote excellent teaching?" Innovations in Education and Training International, 32 (1), 74-82.

Healey, M. (1999) Developing the scholarship of teaching geography in higher education, International Student Learning Symposium on 'Improving Student Learning through the Disciplines, University of York, September. Available at:

Healey, M. (2000) "How to put scholarship into teaching", Times Higher Educational Supplement 4th February. Also available at: (

Healey M., Jenkins A., and Kneale P. (2000a) "Small Worlds on An interconnected Planet: Teaching and learning geography in higher education", in Rust C. (ed.) Improving Student Learning Through the Disciplines. Proceedings of the 1999 7th International Symposium, Oxford, Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (forthcoming).

Healey, M., Foote, K. and Hay, I. (eds) (2000b) International perspectives on learning and teaching geography in higher education: A JGHE Symposium, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 24 (2), forthcoming.

Jenkins, A. (1997) "Twenty -one volumes on: is teaching valued in geography in higher education?" Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 21 (1), 5-14.

Jenkins A. (1996) "Discipline-based Educational Development", International Journal for Academic Development, 1(1), 50-62.


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