How does geography education contribute to human potential and wellbeing? How do different national curriculums express the purposes and values of geography?

The AAG’s GeoCapabilities project is exploring these questions in partnership with several universities and scientific organizations in different countries1. Through comparative methods, researchers are analyzing the ways geography is considered by nations to be a form of knowledge that enables the development of human capabilities.

Whereas much of the current reforms shaping curricula in schools and universities can be traced to neoliberal economic pressures for producing human capital (skills and competencies), capabilities offer a different (yet complementary) view of the role of education in human life. Rooted in the early writings of economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum, capabilities refer to sets of “functionings” that, once attained, provide people with real opportunities to reach their potential and wellbeing over the lifespan. The GeoCapabilities project is interested in the role of education, and specifically geography education, in affording people with intellectual, moral, and existential capabilities for lifelong learning, economic and social agency in citizenship, and the pursuit of personal wellbeing.

What, then, are the human capabilities that accrue from the knowledge gained from a geographical education? The GeoCapabilities project commenced in 2012 with a preliminary study focusing on the national geography curriculums and standards in the U.S., England and Finland (Solem, Lambert, & Tani, 2013). That work found that, despite the considerable variation in geography content and sequencing across grade levels, all three nations share a view that the role of geography in schools is to prepare students for life in specific ways, as follows.

First, geography promotes individual autonomy and freedom by cultivating the ability to use one’s imagination and to be able to think and reason with geographic information and concepts. A second capability of geography is being able to identify and exercise choices in how to live based on worthwhile distinctions with regard to citizenship and sustainability. A third contribution of geography to American, English, and Finnish education is the way the subject helps people see their potential as a creative and productive citizen in the context of the global economy and culture. Collectively, these are the ways geography education in the U.S., England, and Finland is seen to provide students with opportunities to achieve their life’s potential and wellbeing; without it, they are restricted and deprived in ways that have a real impact on their lives and others.

This initial set of three “geo-capabilities” is now being further elucidated in new studies involving teachers and schools in Turkey, Greece, and Belgium. With new funding from the European Commission’s COMENIUS program2, GeoCapabilities researchers will implement a series of qualitative studies through 2014, including interviews and surveys with teachers and teacher educators and comparative analyses of teacher preparation systems. Findings will inform the creation of an online platform for connecting teachers in different nations for discussions about curriculum making based on the capabilities approach.


Beyond Western Europe, the GeoCapabilities project has begun to initiate work in countries where educational cultures and newly emerging geography curriculums offer richer and more diverse contexts for exploring relationships between geography and human capabilities. In recent months the AAG’s Michael Solem traveled to Romania, Singapore and China to engage aspiring geography teachers in the work of the project. The aim was to interpret with these students their conceptions of human potential and wellbeing to understand better how they define the broader goals of geography in the school curriculum. After reflecting on examples of capabilities, the students were asked to develop and share their ideas for what a geography curriculum might look like if it were based on capabilities principles.

Although many students were able to create examples of classroom materials supporting geo-capabilities, some struggled with the challenge of thinking about capabilities as goals from which emanate specific learning objectives, activities, and teaching and assessment methods. One reason for this was the reliance on more didactic approaches to classroom instruction that students felt was expected of them. Although the national curriculums in China, Singapore, and other nations offer explicit statements on educational values and desired outcomes (e.g., fostering citizenship, personal freedom, care for the environment), many students exhibited a tendency to begin their lesson planning with a particular skill set or knowledge objective in mind, with no consideration of the broader purposes of teaching that content. This issue is common across the nations studied thus far and warrants further attention as the project proceeds in the coming years.

Moving forward the AAG and its partners on GeoCapabilities will continue to pursue new collaborations with geography educators who are interested in engaging questions pertaining to the purposes and values of geography in schools and universities. Please send questions and expressions of interest to the project director, Michael Solem, at msolem [at] aag [dot] org.


Solem, M., Lambert, D., and Tani, S. (2013) GeoCapabilities: Toward an international framework for researching the purposes and values of geography education. Review of International Geographical Education Online, 3(3): 214-229.


  1. The first phase of GeoCapabilities (2012-2014) was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Geography and Spatial Science program (Award BCS-1155255). Dr. Michael Solem (AAG) is the project director. The AAG expresses appreciation to its partner organizations: the Institute of Education in London, the University of Helsinki, the Grosvenor Center for Geographic Education at Texas State University, the European Association of Geographers, and the UK Geographical Association. Dr. Chang Chew Hung (National Institute of Education, Singapore), Dr. Wei Dongying (Beijing Normal University), Dr. Lv Runmei (East China Normal University), and Dr. Oana-Ramona Ilovan (Babes Bolyai University, Cluj Romania) provided helpful guidance and important logistical support for Dr. Solem’s project visits.
  2. The second phase of GeoCapabilities (2014-2016) is being funded by the European Commission’s COMENIUS program (539079-LLP-1-2013-1-UK-COMENIUS-CMP). Dr. David Lambert (Institute of Education, University of London) is the project coordinator. In addition to the phase 1 partners, new organizations include Eskisehir Osmangazi University in Turkey and several school partners in Greece, Finland, and England.