Navigating space & curriculum maps

by Paul Maharg on 05/07/2006

I used to think that the concept of space was only problematic in virtual communities, but actually it’s pretty tough when we reach for it to think about education in bricks & mortar. The idea of the curriculum map mentioned in the last post, for instance. It’s quite an inspiring idea at first, if only because, like maps themselves, they are such a godsend to anyone lost. Unpick the ideas around the concept: unknown terrain, landscapes made available to us, overviews of terrain, plotting of routes from one place to an objective; rational forward planning; measurement; scaling activity to suit distance and difficulty, and much more.

OK, let’s push the metaphor a little more in one direction. Is this the only way to understand distance, direction, terrain? How did pre-Ordnance Survey people get around otherwise? Guides were one answer — as late as the 1680s, Pepys records hiring a guide to take him from London to Oxford. And the guides — how did they navigate? Memory, familiarity with routes. But there were more sophisticated ways. Bruce Chatwin talks of aboriginal epic poems based on landscape, song-lines, which served as oral routemaps, enabling people to navigate desert without getting lost, and which were time-linked to walking pace through the landscape. He tells the story of a bushman, picked up in a jeep for part of the journey, and trying to recite the song as fast as the speed of the vehicle – way faster than the walking pace it was meant to be recited at – and the man’s terror at losing his place in the poem. This is an immensely powerful map, highly detailed, hugely practical, but elegant and mnemonic.

Of course, part of the problem may be with the fundamental way in which we apply space to ideas. More of this anon, especially re Gaston Bachelard. But the curriculum map in its fundamental metaphor assumes that there is, out there, a terrain that can be described, charted. Is it always — no, is it ever the case that this is so? Surely the whole basis of education is negotiation of knowledge? Curriculum maps are constructed by staff and chart staff and student activity; but this is only done from one point of view. Perhaps we need a curriculum map of student activity. Of course, it could be argued that if education is negotiation, surely the basis of a curriculum map (to ensure that there is an objective reality for all staff to work upon, who would otherwise all have individual, individuated maps) means that we need to get a uniform, correct map of student experience. But perhaps this is as unrealistic as mapping staff experience. The experiences are too individual, too local, for both staff and students.

And that’s another aspect of curriculum maps that worries me. I get out an atlas to see where a friend lives. He lives in Geneva. Oh, so that’s where he lives, I say, looking at a map of Switzerland. But I want a much more detailed map. In fact, I really want to zoom in to look at the region, the area, the neighbourhood, where he lives, the building he works in, and so forth — yes, Google Earth; but I want to touch down in the street, like an avatar in Second Life, walk up to his door, at which point I’ve entered a new domain of maps — like Borges’ map that’s contiguous with reality. How detailed can maps be? Are they always going to be inarticulate about human experience itself, presenting only the results of human labour, or natural & artificial features? Whereas education is always and everywhere about the experience. In that sense, we maybe want less of the curriculum map, and more of the aboriginal poem.

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