In this blogpost, Dr Tracy Edwards from Leeds Beckett University, uses the metaphor of 'topography' for inclusive teaching
This may seem a funny question. You might even be asking yourself what topography is, let along what a topographical teacher is.
Let me explain. The metaphor of ‘topography’ can be used in relation to a deliberate pedagogical approach. In cartography or landscape painting, a ‘topographer’ studies their surroundings carefully and strives to represent reality, including the underlying geological features which influence the landscape. In doing so they create something with orientational and navigational value. As a teacher and researcher my primary concern is in developing inclusive and effective classroom practice. My doctoral research is allowing me to conceptualise ‘topographical teaching’ as one of the ways of doing so.
Just as a topographical landscape artist captures geographical features of a place such as terrain, vegetation, and weather conditions, a ‘topographical teacher’ appreciates the broader realities impacting on a pupils’ learning such as the classroom environment, the social dynamics within a teaching group, the life experiences they have had. A ‘topographical teacher’ will also consider ‘the bigger picture’ beyond the upcoming assessment being worked towards, or the immediate lesson or session that is taking place. They may ask questions around the long-term aspirations of pupils and consider these when planning. Any isolated classroom activity will have coherence with long term goals and aspirations.
To create maps which are informative and give insight into a terrain, it is necessary for any topographical cartographer to have tools and skills for representing and reading information on topographical maps. A topographical cartographer also needs tools and skills for capturing changes to terrain, such as those relating to tectonic activity or coastal erosion.
Similarly, a ‘topographical’ approach to teaching is one in which a teacher invests in ‘looking’ or ‘noticing’ the realities impacting on learning within their classrooms. Rather than pitch their planning to broad labels around diagnoses and perceived levels of ability, the ‘topographical’ teacher seeks to continually learn about their individual pupils, to inform their planning.
‘Topographical teaching’ is not concerned with reaching a single unambiguous, objective reality around the root cause of a learner’s behaviour for example, any misconceptions they hold, or their point in learning. It is instead concerned with reaching interpretations which are valid in relation to the insights that will be reached through observing and listening to pupils and entering into reflective professional dialogues with colleagues. Two different teachers may reach slightly different interpretations, and deliver the curriculum in different ways, yet both adopt approaches that are equally effective. Similarly, two different artists might create two very different topographic representations of the same place, whilst both maintaining their authentic engagement with the features of the landscape that surrounds them. They may choose slightly different shades and tones for example, to represent the physical features of the terrain, according to their individual ways of working and seeing.
Topographical teaching, therefore, is not only about noting the responses of pupils to learning, to inform planning. It is about the teacher also locating themselves within the landscape of their classroom and working with their pupils to construct new realities that reflect an authentic dialogue between everybody in it.
The notion of 'topographical teaching' can be further explored in the Dutch-language chapter 'A Manifesto for Topographical Teaching', which has been jointly authored by Dr Tracy Edwards, Professor Mhairi Beaton, and Professor Rachel Lofthouse: https://gompel-svacina.eu/product/perspectieven-op-inclusief-onderwijs/