Aims Theory

The capabilities approach focusses on students achieving their full potential and well-being.

Teachers therefore need to reflect on the subject’s aims, values and purposes. What do young people need to know and be able to do, so that they function effectively in society as autonomous individuals?

A capabilities approach to education considers how the individual can lead a life that she or he has reason to value. For geography teachers the question is as follows:

How does geographical knowledge contribute to human capabilities?

Powerful Disciplinary Knowledge (PDK)

We theorise the relationship between geographical knowledge and human capabilities, using Michael Young’s concept of “powerful knowledge”. Powerful knowledge is specialised knowledge that is usually derived from academic disciplines (Young 2015).

It is often abstract, theoretical or conceptual in a way that enables people to think beyond their everyday experience. Biological knowledge, for instance, is powerful because it enables people to think about microcellular processes. Knowledge of musical harmonics is powerful because it enables a composer to write chord progressions aimed at eliciting a particular emotional response in the listener.

Young argues that the sacred purpose of schooling is to provide young people (all young people) with access to PDK. It needs to be taught, not only because it is often abstract but because it is systematic (i.e., it is unlikely to be learned by chance from the internet, or informally through everyday family or social interactions).

Without powerful disciplinary knowledge, children are less able to think in distinctive and disciplined ways (this is a form of capabilities deprivation).


As one illustration of such deprivation, read this brief commentary on the character Jeanne from Sebastian Faulks’ 2012 novel A Possible Life:

images download here: Jeanne

Geography as Powerful Disciplinary Knowledge


What makes geographical knowledge a form of PDK?

PDK in geography is what enables geographical thinking.

Geographical thinking is the combination of three elements as shown in the slides below (from Lambert 2016, 404-5; adapted and developed from Lambert, Solem, & Tani, 2015).


Thinking geographically is not easily derived from everyday experience. This is why schools need specialist teachers who are prepared to enact a curriculum of engagement with geographical knowledge. This is a ‘Future 3′ curriculum.

The next section of this module (Into Practice) offers a practical exercise to help you think deeply about the nature of geography and what makes it ‘powerful disciplinary knowledge’ (PDK).