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Book review: Spatial theories of education

As a transfer to the field of education from my disciplinary home of human geography, I have been searching for theoretical bridges that could help me coalesce my academic interests. Although I’m still searching–and learning that academics are always searching, or wandering–this edited volume has been a great help. It’s approaching ten years old, but continues to offer fresh insights. Looking forward to incorporating some of these ideas in my dissertation research.

Spatial theories of education: Policy and geography matters.

Cover of Spatial Theories of Education
Cover of Spatial Theories of Education

By Kalvero N. Gulson and Colin Symes (Eds.)
New York, NY: Routledge, 2007, 287 pp.

In an intriguing entry to the educational policy literature, Gulson & Symes bring a critical and spatial perspective to policy scholarship. Grounding the edited volume in the “spatial turn” that occurred in social sciences some 20 years ago, the contributors work from the idea that spatial theories need not be restricted to their traditional home in the discipline of geography. The editors argue, and the contributors support, that “space” is rich with concepts and perspectives, that when deployed, could result in the field of education taking a similar turn. Each of the contributors works from the notion that spatial theory can be used to “unsettle, to destabilize, to shift assumptions in educational policy studies” (p. 1). Collectively the authors argue that a concerted effort to expose the spatial underpinnings of education’s context, policies, and practice is long overdue.

The text’s 13 chapters can be understood in three themes. The first five chapters provide strong theoretical frameworks for understanding the spatial dimensions of educational policy. As geographers do, the authors of these chapters support their theoretical premises with illustrative empirical examples. They focus on a diverse array of contexts including homeschooling in the United States as resistance to the state, educational policy change in inner city Sydney, and issues of school choice in the United Kingdom. The second theme encapsulating the next four chapters centers on examinations of the mutual constitution of space and inequality with a more local focus. A particularly fascinating case study in this section examines how private interests shaped Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 policy that intersects with gentrification in the city. The third theme capturing the final four chapters involves spatial conceptualizations of scale, mobility, and identity in Western higher education. These chapters cover the international “trade” of higher education students—specifically between China and Australia, how the new multinational state of the European Union is advancing economic interests through educational policy, and how international students experience globalization within higher education unevenly. Thus, the book covers an impressively diverse set of educational policies and their manifestations, from local to global, public to private, urban to rural, and children to adults.

The collection makes a profound contribution to educational policy research by bringing fresh orientations to the considerations of implementation, governmental structures, and the incessant and growing influence of private interests. While these examples are exciting in their demonstration of the fruitful intersection of human geography and educational policy research, the deeply theoretical and admittedly one-sided political orientation of the book will turn some scholars away. Critical theory, to be sure, consistently and constructively helps scholars to reveal inequities, injustices, and the unevenness of educational provision. Yet, this text inconspicuously insinuates that spatial theorizing is inherently critical and does not even acknowledge other perspectives. Thus, the text is by no means a comprehensive overview of educational policy and the mobilization of space as an analytic. Instead, the ideas brought forth here open up new approaches to critical educational research, demonstrating the potential directions that a spatial perspective can take educational scholars.

In contrast to educational policy texts that focus on the mechanics and practices of policy (e.g. Fowler, 2013; ), Gulson & Symes’ collection takes a decidedly theoretical approach. Specifically, each of the authors relies upon critical theoretical frameworks. While critical perspectives in education are well established (e.g. Rhoades & Torres, 2006; Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004), the perspectives have not been explicitly intertwined with spatial theory. Those familiar with critical perspectives in comparative education research (Varvus & Bartlett, 2009) will find echoes of those approaches here. And although geographers are increasingly taking an interest in education (Holloway & Jons, 2012; Rutten, Boekema, & Kuijpers, 2003), the nascent literature will benefit immensely from the theoretical rigor of Gulson & Symes collection as well as its centering of policy.

Scholars of educational policy are the best audience for this text; this work is squarely oriented in the theoretical and will be of little straightaway use to practitioners. However, educational scholars whose work concerns the sociology of education, comparative education, and globalization of education will find a cornucopia of insightful and exciting insights. The work here addresses K-12 as well as higher education contexts, and is not limited to institutional settings. Thus, scholars with almost any research interest will find examples that demonstrate the potential of spatial perspectives in their work.
Overall, Gullson and Symes have collected an intriguing and revelatory introduction to the possibilities of space and place in education. Spatial Theories of Education presents an influx of spatial theory and perspectives to educational policy research, providing a “sensitizing lens” (Weick, 1976, p. 2) that can draw out new perspectives. We can hope that inspires more educational scholars to embrace a “spatial turn”.

Fowler, F. C. (2013). Policy studies for educational leaders: An introduction (4th Ed.). Boston: Prentice Hall.
Holloway, S. L., & Jons, H. (2012). Geographies of education and learning. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 37, 482–488.
Rhoades, R. A. & Torres, C. A. (2006). The university, the state, and market: The political economy of globalization in the Americas. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Rutten, R., Boekema, F., & Kuijpers, E. (2003). Economic geography of higher education. New York, NY: Routledge.
Slaughter, S. & Rhoades, G. (2004). Academic capitalism and the new economy. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Vavrus, F. & Bartlett, L. (2009). Critical approaches to comparative education: Vertical case studies from Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Weick, K. E. (1976). Educational organizations as loosely coupled systems. Administrative Science Quarterly, 21(1), 1-19.

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