Critical Geographies Of Education Essay

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Critical geography, a distinct yet varied subfield of geography, seeks to understand how the social construction of space and place interacts with and reinforces structures of power and personal and group identity. A critical geography of education tries to understand how the lived experiences of schools (i.e., students, teachers, and the larger community) are defined, constrained, and liberated by spatial relationships. To understand how critical geography engages such a complex set of issues, one must begin with definitions.

Terms And Concepts

In traditional conceptions, the terms space and place are used interchangeably, with little to no distinction. To geographers, however, the difference between the terms is the basis of their entire field of study. Geographers begin to think of space as the physical attributes of the world around us or, more theoretically, the spatial forces at work on people. While this is what most of us think of as geography—things like mountains, rivers, borders, and capitals—spatial forces also include less tangible forces such economics, politics, and culture. Geographers point out that something like a national border certainly represents the spatial but is human made, can change all the time, may have varying levels of importance, and ultimately may mean different things. Space, therefore, can be both natural and human made, with key characteristics within which humans interact with both constraints and possibilities.

Place, on the other hand, is a particular form of space—one in which people have imposed meaning onto particular locations or spatial characteristics. All people have places that hold special meaning to them for any variety of reasons, good or bad. Recent theoretical geographers, informed by parallel developments in Marxist, feminist, and post structural social theory, have become interested in the processes involved in space becoming a place and what that might mean for the people involved. As these processes undoubtedly involve issues of power and identity and operate in simultaneous and complex ways, to take up this field of study requires some distinction; that distinction is known as critical geography.

Power, for critical geographers, is always a key component in spatial relations. For example, school spaces for young people are defined by restrictions and privileges. At certain times of the day students can be only in certain parts of the school property; simply being in a particular area can mean big trouble for adults. This shows how those that have power—in this case, teachers and administrators—can define the limits of where youth can and cannot go. This happens all the time in social relations.

Furthermore, young people themselves engage in similar practices. A common example could be how seating patterns in a school cafeteria are divided up. Although there are usually no official rules as to who sits where, students typically think of certain areas as their own or, sometimes dangerously, clearly belonging to another group. Critical geographers would think about all the factors that come into play in the process of making those spatial divisions for students and then think about what those separations might mean in the development of their identities.

Identity—commonly expressed in the question “Who am I?”—involves how people come to see themselves as individuals and as members of larger society. Critical geographers suggest that this process of identity formation always happens in spaces that both construct and limit possibilities and the places that have already been invested with meaning. A critical geography of education insists on including all the varying forces that act on young people, educators, and community members as they come to know themselves and their place in the world.

Although most education scholars would suggest that the process of identity formation takes place in dramatic ways during the period of adolescence, most contemporary thinkers describe the process of identity as one that is continual and ever-changing. This is to say that for critical geographers, place and space play a role in setting the limits for a person’s process of identity and simultaneously reflect and come to have meaning in the interaction with the identities of those young people. Some might suggest that the question “Who am I?” needs to begin with the spatial twist of “Where am I?”

Looking At Schools

The geographies of schools serve as a point to begin looking at youth and educators and their intersections with power and identity within a spatial frame. Beginning at the smallest scale, some scholars study the physical geography of classrooms themselves and map out how the teachers interact with students, how the students interact—or don’t interact—with each other, and how bodies themselves are arranged and arrange themselves.

Expanding the scale, other researchers study school buildings and architectural layouts to see if the experiences of students are in some way controlled by the physical nature of a school campus. Many of these thinkers, for example, suggest that racial segregation continues to happen in desegregated schools through the tracking of students through certain classes and therefore through certain parts of the building.

Other researchers offer an analysis of schools that begins with the unequal system of school funding based on property value and the taxes the states collect. How neighborhoods themselves are segregated and how resources are spread out across school systems might be the basis of their study. Critical geography, interested in coming to understand human interaction in all its complexity, would insist on an analysis that includes all these scales at once.

While schools might be a place to start such study, they should not be the markers of where to stop. Many studies of youth and education tend to stop at the doorway of the school, failing to recognize how young people bring the worlds of their homes and neighborhoods into the school everyday and also how events in the school day are carried outside the four walls of school buildings. Very often, youth culture is simply divided into studies of school experiences and studies of rebellion—or what some call “deviance.” Critical geographers think that division is too simple an explanation or even description of the lives of young people. Critical geography also insists that trying to understand students’ experiences in schools must include some understanding of the spaces and places that the students bring with them—in other words, educators must know where kids are coming from.

Finally, it has been suggested by some critical geographers that if an individual or group enjoys some degree of power, then they must be able to have some control of space. If this is true, then some study of the spaces that are controlled by youth should become a part of our study of human geography. How students divide up the spaces of schools and neighborhoods shows how structures of power are at work within those groups and speak to how the culture of those young people works. Assumptions about youth and what was once termed deviance no longer sufficiently explain the behaviors, cultures, or geographies of young people. Thus critical geography offers another insight into the particular ways in which identity is formed as a process, how structures of power operate on young people, and how youth culture responds to the places in which it resides.


  1. Aitken, S. (2001). Geographies of young people: The morally contested spaces of identity. New York: Routledge.
  2. Harvey, D. (1996). Justice, nature, and the geography of difference. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
  3. Hubbard, P., Kitchin, R., & Valentine, G. (Eds.). (2004). Key thinkers on space and place. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  4. Massey, D. (1994). Space, place, and gender. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  5. Soja, E. (1989). Postmodern geographies: The reassertion of space in critical social theory. New York: Verso.

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