Paradigm, No. 18 (December, 1995)

Geographical textbooks 1930-1990:
the strange case of the disappearing text

Rex Walford

University of Cambridge,
Department of Education,
17 Trumpington Street,
Cambridge CB2 IQA.


The developing interest and study in school textbooks includes several examples of work done in the sphere of geography. There have always been plenty of textbook reviews in geographical journals, and the proliferation of these in the last thirty years has increased the space given to evaluative comment in print.

The support of the publishers Unwin-Hyman enabled a series of review papers about geography textbooks to be given at the Geographical Association's annual Conference (see Marsden 1988, dealing with the period between 1870-1960, Walford 1989, dealing with the period 1960-1990; Tidswell 1990 concerned with particular issues within both periods). 1 Such reviews provided some information about sales and historical development, but were fundamentally discursive.

Wright (1988) made suggestions about particular kinds of evaluative work which might be carried out on geography textbooks. 2 Lidstone (1977) analysed one particular popular series (the Oxford Geography Project) in this vein, and has later researched and written about the role and use of geography school textbooks. 3

The study of specific aspects of books was highlighted by a controversial article by Hicks (1981) 4which considered a number of popular school-textbooks related to a 'racism' scale. Wright (1983a; 1983b; 1986) also evaluated books in this context. 5

Wright (1985), Connolly (1986; 1993) and Atkinson (1992) have considered geography textbooks in the light of gender issues, analysing the frequency with which girls or women are mentioned in print, shown in pictures, and the way in which they are referred to. 6Wright (1979) has also considered the visual images of Africa shown in textbooks, and written several short, popular articles in similar vein concerning other parts of the world. 7 Lilly (1993) considered word images of the Black African in British geography textbooks of the first half of the century. 8

A chapter by Gould (1985) in The Geographer at Work suggested that word analysis could reveal types of geography in a study of journal article titles; this approach was followed by Acheson (1994) 9 in an analysis of GCSE and A-level textbooks, seeking to classify them into different geographic viewpoints.

However, there appear to have been few if any attempts, so far, to consider geographical textbooks by their 'spatial' characteristics -- that is to say, to compare the amount of space on each page given to different aspects. This short paper seeks to make such a study, by comparing a number of school textbooks in terms of the space given to text, illustrative material and activity material and by then considering what might be the explanations and the implications of these differences in the changing balance of aspects.

In a study, twelve ‘11-16 years’ textbooks were chosen from those available in an historic archive and in a working 'professional placement' library at the University of Cambridge Department of Education. The reason for choice and their common factor was that they were popular, if not 'best-selling' textbooks of their time, and that they were reprinted on several occasions and remained in print for at least ten years. The books were aimed at a range of student abilities in each period and spanned nearly 75 years of school geography, during which time different emphases in the subject have been apparent.

Three books were first published in the 1918-1939 inter-war period when world regional geography held centre-stage in the curriculum of all British secondary schools. Three came from a subsequent twenty-year period when the development of sample-studies and case-studies had developed in order to bring more life and reality to school geographical study. A further three came from the period of the 1970s-1980s when models, concepts and quantitative techniques were at the heart of a 'new geography' which made an impact throughout all educational levels. The final three were chosen from amongst those currently (1995) popular in school classrooms.

In each case, one of the three books chosen was known to be aimed at the lower end of the 11-16 age-range; in practice, until recently, some geography textbooks have been used across a spread of years in the British system (depending on the ability of the pupils), though outwardly targeted at a particular year group. It should be noted that until 1992 there was no statutory or specified central curriculum.

Twenty pages from each book were analysed, with two segments of 10 pages from page 20 to page 29 and (where possible) from page 120 to 129. Where books did not reach 130 pages, a second segment of 10 pages from pages 60 to 69 or earlier was chosen. The choice of pages ensured that neither introductory nor concluding chapters were included in the analysis, since they might have possibly been unrepresentative of the main content of the book.

Each page was considered and space classified under three categories as a percentage: Text (material which was presented for pupils to read as a knowledge base); Illustrations (including photographs, sketches, maps, diagrams); Activities (instructions given to readers as 'work to do').

Table 1 shows the title, publisher, date of first publication, size, and print characteristics of the books surveyed, as well as the results of the analysis. In addition, as a subsidiary study, two primary school books and two sixth-form books from different periods were considered using the same methods of analysis (see Tables 2 and 3).

 Table 1. A 'geographical' analysis of some geographical textbooks for 11-16 year olds.

1st Pub.





1. Text; 2. Activities; 3. Illustrations; % of text

A. ‘The regional geography era’ (1920-1950)





Fairgrieve & Young

Human Geography II (George Phillip)

7.5 x 5.5







The British Isles (J. M. Dent)

7.5 x 5.5






Preece & Wood

Foundations of Geography I (Univ. Tutorial Press)

7.5 x 5.5





B. ‘The sample studies era’ (1945-1975)


Young & Mosby

Our Changing World (Edward Arnold)

9.5 x 7.25






Honeybone & Robertson

Geography for Schools II (Heinemann)

8.0 x 5.25






Graves & White

Geography of the British Isles (Heinemann)

10.0 x 7.5





C. ‘The new geography era’ (1970-1985)


Greasley et al.

Basic Geography 3

11.0 x 8.5

2 Col.





Grenyer et al.

Oxford Geography Project 3 (Oxford University Press)

9.5 x 9.0

2 Col.






A New Geography of Britain

11.0 x 8.5

Occ. Full colour




D. ‘The National Curriculum era’ (1990-?)



Jigsaw Pieces (Cambridge University Press)

11.0 x 8.5

2 Col. & full Col.





Waugh & Bushell

Connections (Stanley Thornes)

11.0 x 8.5

Full Col.





Kemp et al.

Access to Geography 4 ( OUP)

11.0 x 8.5

Full Col.




Table 2. A 'geographical analysis of some geography textbooks for 5-11 year olds.


Archer & Thomas

People of Other Lands (Ginn)

10.0 x 8.0






Cole & Beynon

New ways in Geography 1 (Blackwell)

9.25 x 7.25

4 Col.




Table 3. A 'geographical analysis of some geography textbooks for 16-18 year olds.



Introduction to Economic Geography

8.5 x 5.5






Everson & FitzGerald

Settlement Patterns (Longman)

8.5 x 5.5





 Analysis of the spatial characteristics shows some striking differences between books of different periods. Fairgrieve and Young's book of 1928, aimed at the 11-14 years age-range, has 87% of its space devoted to text, with only occasional sketch or photographic illustrations and only brief questions as activities at the end of chapters. Young and Mosby, designed for the same age audience twenty-five years later, has increased the percentage of illustrative material by 30%. By 1979 it is illustrative material which predominates (47%) in the Greasley et al. lower school text. The proportion of activity material has increased strikingly so that it occupies more than a third of the space available; reading text of the informational kind has been reduced to 18%. In the most recent book chosen (Lambert), the proportion of illustrative material remains at nearly half, but reading text has been increased to 38% of the whole.

The other books from the periods selected exhibit the same broad trends. In the 'regional geography era' informational text predominates, and the space given to suggested work activities or two 'questions' is minimal. Preece and Wood, a very successful text used for GCE examinations, has 40% of its space given to illustrative material -- it was particularly strong in the provision of sketch-maps which presented much geographical information clearly and succinctly, a bonus for students studying for examinations.

In the 'sample study' era, the proportion of informational text declines as space for illustration and activity work increases, with the seminal Honeybone and Coss series Geography for Schools having almost even proportions of each.

As the 'new geography' of models and quantitative techniques makes progress in schools in the early 1970s, the emphasis on informational text declines even further. The influential Oxford Geography Project Book 3 has only 17% text, and Beddis's book has almost two-thirds of its space dedicated to illustration.

In the era of National Curriculum geography, the pendulum has swung back a little, but illustrative material accounts for more than half of the Waugh and Bushell and Kemp books, and activity takes up as much space as informational text.

The table also reveals that books have steadily increased in size over the seventy years in question with all three representatives of the most modern period presented in a large, almost 'A4' size, two -colour and four-colour printing (often on only a proportion of pages), to full colour work throughout.

The subsidiary analysis of primary and sixth-form books confirms the general trend. Archer and Thomas was mainly a reader; Cole and Beynon's mould-breaking series for primary schools has nearly 75% of space given over to illustrations, most linked to accompanying activity; a mere 9% is informational text. At sixth form level there was a marked contrast between Pounds' traditional approach and Everson and FitzGerald's fiercely quantitative pages.

Thus, it seems incontrovertible that informational text has slowly been disappearing from so-called 'textbooks' over the last seventy years in geography. Some books have better cause to be called ‘activity books’ or ‘work-books,’ given the balance of material within them.

One factor to consider is the improvement of technology and quality of publishing within the period. Though none of the books chosen for this study is of the style in which photographs are confined to separate sections printed on better-quality paper, there is no doubt that earlier publications were limited to some extent by the cost and technical limitations of traditional letterpress production. The development of the intermediate technology of the duplicator and photo-copier has also had some impact. In addition, in recent years, a greater number of texts have been integrated with packages which include supplementary materials such as audio-visual aids and teachers' guides. But it is not consequential that all technological developments should encourage or contribute to the loss of textual material, a fact which is apparent in absolute as well as in percentage terms when comparing books in the study.

Nor is it likely that the change in the balance noted has been fundamentally driven from a greater awareness and concern for design quality. Designers may play a greater role in modern book production than in the past but they traditionally work within a given frame provided by the author and commissioning editor. In most cases discussions about the nature of a proposed publication precede whatever bright graphic ideas subsequently evolve.

A greater proportion of the explanation of the change may be provided through academic and pedagogic influences -- through shifting views of the subject itself and through changes in teaching approaches to it.

When Fairgrieve wrote his Human Geography for lower secondary school pupils in 1928, an education in geography (as in many other subjects) was seen to be primarily an accumulation of knowledge. It had certainly progressed beyond the nineteenth century image of a memorisation of 'capes and bays' (Vaughan 1992) 10 owards an understanding of 'causes and effects' but classes were taught formally and expected to be receptive but passive as teachers or textbooks transmitted information. Fairgrieve himself was amongst those who advocated a sprinkling of audio-visual material and occasional forays into the field to leaven the transmission process and to stimulate interest and imagination. But the general accent in education was on the value of a knowledge base.

By the 1950s, the idea of seeking to maintain the motivation of pupils through interesting (often case-study) material had gained widespread acceptance, and geography remained a popular subject because of its introduction of 'the real world' through specific studies. Illustrative material of all kinds was a key factor in helping to bring such studies alive; prevailing theories of pedagogy now inclined to more active approaches, and textbooks reflected these trends.

The 'new geography' of the 1970s (inspired by the Madingley conferences for schoolteachers run by R. J. Chorley and P. Haggett, then young lecturers at the University of Cambridge), brought intellectual excitement to all levels of the subject because of the harnessing of new techniques of analysis to space, many of them quantitative. At the same time, schools were moving in the direction of valuing process more than product in education; transmission of knowledge was seen by some as distinctly unfashionable alongside the arts of teaching the mastery of skills and techniques and ‘enquiry learning.’ Textbooks reflected these emphases.

In the most recent period, the more traditional (and genuinely conservative) educational views of the Government have been transmitted through the establishment of a National Curriculum. Knowledge has been rehabilitated to a certain extent, (though current pupil attitudes in many schools militate against a return to situations of sustained formality or pupil passivity). Some of the present generation of textbooks reflect this change of mood; future ones may shift back further towards the provision of a knowledge base to fit the needs of the National Curriculum Orders and resultant patterns of assessment.

However, the analysis shows that, even aided by a recent reactive swing of the pendulum, informational text occupies less than a third of the space in current lower school textbooks. It may be argued that an increase in graphic skill, imagination and technology means that illustrative material now portrays much of what was formerly presented in words.

Another contributory explanation may be that academically inclined 'grammar school type' textbooks are no longer as dominant as they once were. Books are now consciously designed for a wider spread of audience and ability and therefore make greater use of modern graphic approaches to appeal.

Even so, Lidstone's (1985) research suggested that the readability levels of some geography texts were inappropriate for the students who were using them. Teachers, either through preference or prudence, rarely required their pupils to work at such texts without instructional guidance and help.

Pessimistic commentators suspect that much less is actually known by pupils of the present generation, compared with their forbears. Examinations, by changing questions to favour data-response and comprehension, rather than recall, help to disguise this fact. Employers and parents (and notably lay members of National Curriculum groups) have helped to draw attention to the situation, allied to disquiet caused by unfavourable media surveys.

Some writers see an increasing loss of the knowledge base as a potential deep crisis in society (Bloom 1991, Hirsch 1988). 11 The loss of 'cultural literacy' may also, it is suggested, be accompanied by a loss of 'actual literacy'. Marshall McLuhan, as long ago as the 1960's, was prophetically relating the increasing book illiteracy of school pupils to the impact of telecommunications on their lives, suggesting that the deferred gratification of being able to read was a poor compensation for the immediacy of a TV ‘experience.’

More recently, Laurence Kirshbaum, president of Warner Books was quoted (in an article by Robert McCrum on the future of book publishing in The Guardian) as saying 'This is a generation that has been raised on MTV and a multitude of stimuli. They don't think linearly, they think mosaically . . . . and they are more used to getting their information from talking and listening than from reading books'. 12

Thus a bleak possibility is that the change in textbook-style is induced, to some extent, by the change in the characteristics of the readers. It may be that constant immersion in an electronic audio- and video-dominated culture leaves many 11-16 year old pupils no longer able to cope with large amounts of book-text independently.

More research is needed to test such tentative conclusions and to explore the possible reasons for the changes in the nature of geography textbooks in recent times. Given the tendency for publishing operations to increase in size and decrease in number, it is to be hoped that there continue to be sufficient publishers to provide variety within the market so that alternative styles of book may be evaluated for their efficacy as well as for their ‘spatial’ characteristics.


 1. Marsden ‘Continuity and change in geography textbooks . . . (1998); Tidswell ‘Capes, concepts and conscience’ (1990); Walford ‘On the frontier with the new Model Army’ (1992).

2. Wright ‘Applied textbook research in geography’ (1998).

3. Lidstone ‘Evaluation of the geography curriculum’ (1977); ‘Study of the use of geography textbooks’ (1995); ‘Using textbooks in geography’ (1989); ‘In defence of textbooks’ (1992).

4. Hicks ‘Images of the world’ (1981).

5. Wright (1981) Wright ‘International textbook research’ (1983a); ‘They have no need of transport’ (1983b); Racism in school textbooks’ (1986).

6. Wright ‘Are geography books sexist? (1985); Connolly ‘Anti-sexist resources’ (1986); ‘Gender balanced geography’ (1993); Atkinson ‘How do geography textbooks portray women’ (1992).

7. Wright ‘Visual images in geography textbooks’ (1979).

8. Lilly ‘The Black African in Southern Africa’ (1993).

9. Acheson ‘An analysis . . .’ (1994).

10. Vaughan, J. E., ‘Aspects of teaching geography in England . . . .’ (1972).

11. Bloom ‘Closing of the American mind’ (1991); Hirsch ‘Cultural Literacy’ (1988).

12. 4th March 1995.


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