Whatever you are doing this summer, keep faith in the human condition. Take the chance of a slower news cycle to put the prevailing narrative of despair into perspective. Whilst it is crucial to appreciate the mistakes of the past and the challenges ahead, it is important and salutary to contemplate the progress that humanity has made.
When a report emerges of terrible wrongs inflicted on a minority group, leading to hunger, torture or the infringement of other human rights, call it out, oppose it, fight it. But have confidence that the mass of humanity is making steps towards becoming better fed, more peaceful, and more respectful of other people.
When elements of the media foster intolerance, and provide a mouthpiece for writers who thrive on hatred, call it out, oppose it, fight it. But put it in the context of a fitful but deep-seated shift towards liberty and tolerance being made across the world.
When the rights of a minority are being restricted in their schooling, call it out, oppose it, fight it. But realise that humanity is becoming more literate, numerate, skilled and better informed about their rights and responsibilities; we are meeting our potential and we will harness it to achieve even greater progress in the future.
When a despot picks on the oppressed, call it out, oppose it, fight it. But remember the scientists, engineers, medics, educators, researchers, journalists, civil servants, the vast majority of politicians, and billions of unsung people from all walks of life, who strive to make our world a better place.
When a political leader threatens our hard-won gains, call it out, oppose it, fight it. But understand that they are swimming against the tide, they are appealing to a dwindling demographic, and they will be beaten.
When inequality thrives and hardship bites, call it out, oppose it, fight it. But contemplate the gains people in the vast majority of the world continue to make in living standards, health, nutrition, communication, education, leisure, peace, safety, reason and science.
When your eyes are opened to an environmental threat, call it out, oppose it, fight it. But don’t despair, don’t panic, and don’t act rashly. Seek alternatives, seek solutions, and seek solace in the fact that humanity has faced down such challenges before and we will do so again.
Be aware of the internal biases we have that direct us towards a negative, fearful and oppositional worldview, and recognise the external influences which mitigate against a ‘factful’, hopeful, and optimistic one. Then re-calibrate, celebrate, and play your part in humanity’s grand project.
Humanity has never been so healthy, peaceful and prosperous as it is at the moment, and with such a history of progress, why should we predict regress?
Fight the good fight, and have faith this summer.
PS Take a look at the graphs below. And read my earlier blog posts for some balance and context. But hey, everyone deserves the right to be polemic once in a while!
Source: Factfulness, by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling-Rönnlund (2018)
In lieu of my usual list of references, I’d like to express my gratitude at the end of an interesting academic year during which I have been able to explore several avenues of thought on this blog and beyond. Thank you to Gapminder for their inspiration and for supplying a framework for my thoughts, and Max Roser’s Our World in Data for, well, the data (and graphs, and commentary too!). Thanks also to Bobby Duffy for his superb ‘Perils of Perception’, Steven Pinker for the even more highly recommended ‘Enlightenment Now’ and ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’, and Alex Standish for his inspiration and willingness to work with me on this theme in the future. And thanks to many others who have commented on and supported me so far (I won’t name any more at this juncture for fear of offending my omission!). Many references are to be found in my earlier blog posts.
“Only the creation of a world government can prevent the impending self-destruction of mankind”
(Albert Einstein, 1950, as cited in Pinker, 2019, from Mueller, 1989)
One of the criticisms levelled at those who celebrate the progress that society has already achieved is that a positive mindset can lead to complacency. This is indeed something which everyone who is concerned with understanding global affairs should be wary of. Complacency can lead to inaction where action is deemed to be necessary, and it can also mean that those who are more vociferous can be heard more loudly: the dominant narrative can be controlled by powerful interests.
However, I would argue that there is a more pressing case to be made against acting too soon, too urgently, and too rashly.
The dangers of urgency
Urgency can lead to a sense of despair – and this in its own right is concerning from a mental health perspective. But despair is also a concern because it may lead to either a lack of action, or action which tends towards adaptation rather than mitigation (i.e. directing more energy towards solving the effects of a problems rather than its causes). For instance, in the face of rising sea levels due to climate change, it may well be easier for authorities to prioritise the construction of higher sea walls over cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
Acting urgently can also lead to responses to challenges which might be rushed, inappropriate, or uncoordinated. They may even be counter-productive, or cause significant knock-on impacts elsewhere. For example, the rush to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, initially by co-firing biomass with coal in pre-existing power stations, and latterly through the use of biomass boilers, has resulted in deforestation, some from virgin forests, with its concomitant loss of biodiversity. Marco Magrini (2018) has also written about Germany’s rapid post-Fukushima shift from nuclear to coal power, and about China’s environmental challenge of dealing with rusting petrol-driven motorbikes caused by the government’s rushed promotion of electric scooters (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Abandoned motorbikes in Shenzen, China, April 2016
Much like compassion fatigue, ‘urgency fatigue’ can also set in. Politicians, commentators and advocates of special interest groups are all vying for media attention with ever more extreme refrains. For instance, how many institutions have been experiencing ‘an existential crisis’ in recent years? Well, a quick search of the web reveals that almost every organisation is apparently struggling to survive: the NHS, the army, social care services, Britain, the EU, humanity and now the world! Professor Mike Hulme (2019) has recently written eloquently on the reasons why he is resisting the trend towards ‘extinctionism’ in the current discourse about climate change here (thank you to Steve Brace for drawing this to my attention).
The ratcheting up of calls for ‘urgent’ help can also lead to a ‘crying wolf’ scenario: when there is a genuinely existential threat, what fresh rhetoric will be needed to make us take action?
Related to urgency fatigue is another problem – and this too is self-perpetuating: it can feed a news and current affairs culture where whoever shouts the loudest gets the most airtime, commands the most attention, and uses up valuable political capital. This is all achieved at the expense of those issues which may deserve deeper reflection but which lack vociferous advocates. Without a figure such as Greta Thunberg for climate change, Malala Yousafzai for women’s rights, or Nelson Mandela for racial equality, some causes flounder. Is this fair? Where is the antibiotic resistance poster child? Where is the pro-vaccination icon?
Nuanced arguments and detailed contemplation can also be lost in this noisy atmosphere; is there time, for example, for us to understand the position of the Russian and Canadian governments, who can be reluctant to act on climate change, unless we appreciate that they may benefit from the expansion of arable land in their northern regions?
I propose that an atmosphere of urgency can lead to a sense of disbelief when confronted by ‘good news stories’ – a sense which is so profound as to make one doubt the existence, or even the promise, of progress. This is shown in the ‘cycle of urgency’ flow diagram (Figure 2, below):
Figure 2: The cycle of urgency
Doesn’t urgency drive action?
One counter-argument might be that if it wasn’t for high profile, negative, urgent stories, then less human progress would have been made, as key players, citizens and consumers would have been less aware of them.
I appreciate that this line of reasoning does have some validity. Would today’s environmentalists have been quite so numerous or effective in their work if they hadn’t been roused by ‘Save the Whales’ campaigns in their formative years? Would climate change have climbed up the league of pressing matters for the UN to consider without the urgency instilled by Al Gore in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’? (Update to blog post: Hans Rosling reported in ‘Factfulness’ that Gore told him in 2009 ‘We need to create fear!’).
However, does this counter-argument still hold as strongly today? Haven’t the biggest global lessons been learned? Do advancements in communications and education mean that society is capable of avoiding past mistakes without the headline-grabbing negativity and urgency which drove previous reforms?
For example, do we really need an ‘Extinction Rebellion’ campaign to push climate change to the top of the news? Or is action being taken anyway, behind the scenes, to move the world in this direction?
Could it be the case that several ‘big issues’ are gradually being tackled without being driven by a headline-grabbing sense of urgency? What motivates the drivers behind social and economic movements such as Professor Tom Crowther of Crowther Lab, who has produced meaningful and optimistic strategies for combatting climate change. Or Chad Frishmann of Project Drawdown (Figure 3)?
There are significant challenges facing the world, but I would argue that it is necessary to strike a balance between educating and informing people enough to rouse and inspire them without inducing despair or panic. Humanity should not have its achievements undermined by the corrosive effects of urgency. We deserve better than being faced with daily self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling prophecies of doom.
Modern life is increasingly complex, and so are the issues which students are expected to understand and expand upon. Synopticity (the ability to draw threads together from a variety of sources) and flexible thinking are therefore increasingly valued skills both in education and in the wider world.
Our world no longer needs as many people who can remember vast amounts of information as it once did – as Yuval Noah Harari (2018) writes:
“In such a world, the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.”
I would add to Harari’s insight that there is much greater value in those who can see more than one point of view than in those who are blinkered to only see their own. I also believe that our fast- moving society is increasingly in need of people who are willing to change their mind in the face of facts.
Even when boiled down to the irksome necessities of the education system – examinations and other forms of external assessment – there is a need for candidates to be flexible in their thinking. Writing as a Geography teacher and examiner, I know the value that exam boards place on the ability for candidates to ‘hold their ideas lightly’.
Holding ideas lightly
What do I take to be the meaning of this phrase? I can sum it up as being willing to entertain a wide variety of ideas and being able to change one’s mind in the face of evidence.
Here are three illustrations where encouraging students to their ideas lightly has direct relevance to my secondary school Geography practice:
At GCSE, Edexcel Paper 3 is People and Environment Issues – Making Geographical Decisions – and to reach the highest levels in the crux 16-mark question at the end, candidates must consider the strengths and weaknesses of their chosen option and those of two other options they rejected.
Even in the apparently logical realm of multiple-choice questions, which appear at GCSE Geography, candidates need to be able to change their minds from what might at first be the more obvious choice(s).
At A Level Geography, across all examination boards, up to 70% of the marks come from Assessment Objectives 2 and 3, which relate to interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and construction of arguments – see Figure 1:
I am not advocating ‘holding your ideas lightly’ as a justification for sitting on the fence – but rather as a bulwark simultaneously against rash ‘fast thinking’ and also against the stubbornness which holds back broader human progress.
So how could practitioners take on board this philosophy in their teaching?
Think twice, and think carefully
When faced with a multiple-choice question, contrary to much received thinking, candidates should be encouraged to think twice and think carefully, and not necessarily go with their first instinct. The justification for this is can be found in this recent discussion from the FT’s ‘undercover economist’ Tim Harford.
A hands down winner
I have written on how to cope with the ‘forest of hands’ which is sometimes faced when students find a task difficult and they seek immediate help from a teacher. But sometimes the ‘forest of hands’ springs up when a question is set and pupils rush to give their first idea that comes to their head. To avoid this, many schools have adopted a ‘hands-down’ policy, which means that students must contemplate their response, so they have an equal chance of being picked by the teacher. When combined with a chance to share their idea with a partner, and when told to be willing to change their response, a more reasoned discussion usually follows.
Many students that I teach, across the KS3-5 spectrum, are wary or even unwilling to write their ideas down, even in the back of their books, for fear that they might ‘get it wrong’. To overcome this, I often issue separate pieces of scrap paper or sticky notes (for later use in a ‘post it/pile it’ activity on a desk or a stretch of wall). Another way is to use mini-whiteboard sets (complete with a board pen and a wipe), then students will be much more willing to write their ideas down and adjust them – especially if this is done in partnership with another student. This idea is covered in more detail by my colleague Kerry Smith here. Ewan McIntosh has some more great ideas for low-tech ‘ideation’ (idea generation) on his website www.notosh.com .
The outdoors can be a great place to generate ideas, discuss them, and even to jot them down. Firstly, even apparently humdrum environments such as school playgrounds or parks can be inspiring and invigorating. Secondly, it has been shown that some conversations flow more freely between passengers on car journeys thanks to ‘sideways listening’ – where both participants are facing forwards and are therefore less likely to hold back from what they want to say as the complications of eye contact and subliminal physical cues are largely absent – see Laurier et al (2010) and Mc Fadden (2017). This philosophy can be transferred to outdoor learning, where students are paired and asked to complete a short and simple journey whilst discussing ideas with each other. Thirdly, and related to the ‘scrap that!’ principle, why not issue students with chalks and get them to write down ideas, or have first sketches of art projects, on the playground – knowing that the best ideas can be shared and photographed but that the rain will one day come to wash away everyone’s jottings!
There exists a wide range of ‘ideation’ apps and software, some of which allow users to write down ideas and shift them around (Post-It make an app which allows users to move virtual sticky notes around, change their colour, and merge them – thank you to Dominic Tremblay for drawing this to my attention). Other websites allow users to write some words down, and then the programme will combine them with others to create almost endless outcomes. Many of these will be ridiculous, but as Ewan McIntosh Pointed out in a session at Practical Pedagogies (2016), sometimes students will need to go through dozens, or even a hundred or so, iterations of ideas before hitting on the right one for them. This could be in the realm of coming up with a title for an independent investigation, an Extended Project, or a theme for Design and Technology. Ewan’s website No Tosh has a section called ‘The LAB’, which helpfully provides links to help you and your students ‘play around with ideas’. Other idea generation methods can be found here.
Social media literacy
Chat rooms, comment pages, Twitter threads, online forums and so on are often used to share and generate ideas – but students should be urged to use them with care, as often the most outspoken users are those with the most extreme and hard-set ideas. The well-publicised ‘echo chamber’ and ‘filter bubble’ effects should also be discussed with students. One idea that could be tried with older and more internet-savvy students is to engage individual forum users with differing views from them in a moderate discussion. I have tried this myself after reading some comments posted on Twitter following David Attenborough’s ‘Climate Change – the Facts’ documentary – and with the right approach, common ground can be found.
Pupil councils, tutor periods, debating societies and other more innovative forums could be utilised by practitioners to enable students to air, discuss, and test out their opinions. Going the full hog, whole-year or whole-school ‘deliberation days’ could be trialled, much like those promoted by Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin (2005) . (I have written more about this here.)
Light by name, serious by intent
In a fast-moving age where extreme views are easily accessed, media and news literacy are crucial, and where flexible thinking is needed in industry and in society, it would make sense to ‘hold your ideas lightly’ – and to encourage your students to do so too.
Ackerman, B. and Fishkin, J. (2005) Deliberation Day (Yale)
Eric Laurier, Hayden Lorimer, Barry Brown, Owain Jones, Oskar Juhlin, Allyson Noble, Mark Perry, Daniele Pica, Philippe Sormani, Ignaz Strebel, Laurel Swan, Alex S. Taylor, Laura Watts & Alexandra Weilenmann (2008) Driving and ‘Passengering’: Notes on the Ordinary Organization of Car Travel, Mobilities, 3:1, 1-23, DOI: 10.1080/17450100701797273
There I was, thinking I was digging away at a relatively underexplored vein of intellectual enquiry, when I find out that there is an entire sub-discipline of the social sciences which is dedicated to it.
Agnotology is the study of ignorance, and it is at least partly ironic that I was not aware of its existence until recently.
The term was coined by Robert Proctor of Stanford University in 1992. It has been used to analyse why it has taken so long for the scientific consensus to be accepted on issues as broad as smoking, acid rain, ozone depletion and anthropogenic climate change.
Proctor argues that one of the main reasons for the prolongation of doubt about these issues is that vested interest groups try to control and divert discourse about them, for example by:
advocating more research when a sufficient body of evidence has already been amassed to prove something beyond reasonable doubt
insisting on ‘balance’ in a debate where the science has been overwhelmingly settled
working with various commentators and branches of the media to encourage the propagation of views which dissent with the scientific consensus
Two examples can be used to briefly exemplify agnotology in action: science historian Peter Galison of Harvard (quoted in Grigg, 2011) notes that one key approach taken by creationists, in the absence of evidence to support their theory, is to ‘teach the controversy’. In another instance, he quotes a memo from the tobacco company Brown & Williamson that phrases their agnotology strategy even more succinctly: “Doubt is our product.”
(For the avoidance of doubt (ha ha), I was aware of some of these methods, but I was unaware that the sub-discipline had a name.)
Agnotology and environmentalism
Cover of Merchants of Doubt, by Oreskes and Conway (2010)
In ‘The Shock of the Anthropocene’, Bonneuil and Fressoz (2017) summarise their take on agnotology as questioning how the damages of ‘progress’ are made invisible. They adopt the word ‘anxiolytic’ from the medical lexicon to suggest that a variety of forces, many of them endemic to capitalism, serve to reduce anxiety about the natural world, and therefore stymie meaningful steps from being taken to reduce environmental damage. For example, the authors discuss the sowing of doubt about the causes of climate change by the oil lobby and its political mouthpieces – this is also covered by Merchants of Doubt (Oreskes and Conway, 2010).
I appreciate this exploration, and I recommend the book to those readers who are looking for a deeply thought-provoking look at our current human-dominated era (the Anthropocene), its current context, and its precedents.
Agnotology and social progress
However, I would like to direct the armoury of agnotology towards a new front. It remains a fascination of mine that the gains of ‘progress’ are so poorly understood and appreciated by members of the public and even by some politicians, media professionals and academics. If this premise is accepted, then there must exist forces which lead to a state of ignorance about social progress. And if we accept that in environmental affairs, there have been anxiolytic forces, then I contend that in social progress, there are anxiogenic – i.e. anxiety inducing – forces.
But what are these forces, and to what extent are they conscious decisions made by certain interest groups, and to what extent are they unintentional by-products of other factors? How many are timeless and how many are contemporary? To what extent are these forces avoidable?
I am only just beginning to collate a short list of anxiogenic forces – and I am aware that some of these suggestions are contentious, and others draw on the same themes as some of my earlier posts, such as this, but here goes.
Anxiogenic forces in the context of social progress
Heuristics (psychological predispositions) These include
Confirmation bias: We are biased towards information that confirms what we already believe
Negativity bias: We focus on negative information
Our susceptibility to stereotyping
Our inbuilt desire to imitate the majority
These are timeless, and they are difficult – but not impossible – to turn around.
Mass media and the internet Playing on our psychological biases, ‘If it bleeds it leads’ is just as apt online as it was when applied to the print media. Bad news sells. The worldview of the mass media is easier to turnaround than the inbuilt biases of our psyche, but it is still a mammoth task! Although the tabloid press is apparently in terminal decline, ‘clickbait’ articles exploit our weakness for shocking news.
Screenshot from one of the 2014 winners of the ‘Rusty Radiator’ Award for stereotyping poverty in aid adverts
The aid sector The raison d’etre of the aid sector is to help other people, so when there have been successes, and fewer recipients are in such desperate need of aid, and when salaries depend on it, is it any wonder that social progress is not publicised as much as it could be? How many charitable adverts come from places that have seen success stories? The aid sector has shown itself to be malleable – viz the shift away from emerging countries such as India, and the movement to a focus on more environmental issues – but vested interests are taking a while to dissipate. This factor links in with concerns about ‘poverty porn’ and ‘white saviours’ – which are covered in articles such as this one – and the issue of stereotyping in aid adverts is satirised at radiaid.com. I must emphasise that this is not to say that this sector plays a significant role in promoting social progress – far from it! – but some actors in the sector surely play a role in the public’s perception that the whole world is in dire straits. Time will tell if the aid sector can reform itself in this regard.
The education sector I argue elsewhere that much of today’s education, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, contributes towards a negatively skewed view of the world, thanks to a combination of
lack of historical context
a focus on ‘exciting’ but rare events such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and wars (yes, I did say rare!) over humdrum, quotidian, affairs and unpublicised, incremental gains
This is both fertile ground for further research and scope for change here. To this end, I am working on an ‘optimistic education’ manifesto – watch this space!
Social media There will be more reference back to photographs, videos and posts shared on social media from years gone by – which are in the most part selected to show a ‘positive’ angle. This will be accentuated by the fact that as people live longer (which is still the global trend, even if it is stalling in some developed countries), there is more scope for a ‘rose-tinted’ view of the past to spread.
These are just a few anxiogenic forces – and I would welcome your thoughts on others, and to what extent you think they are avoidable.
Learning the lessons of agnotology will take a while. Using these lessons to push for a more realistic opinion of social progress – a more realistic worldview – will be an even harder task. Of this I am no longer ignorant.
Bonneuil, Christophe. and Fressoz, Jean-Baptiste (2017) The Shock of the Anthropocene (Verso)
Springy pavements generating electricity from pedestrians!
Office blocks retrofitted with living roofs and walls!
Hydrogen powered buses!
Free public transport for all!
Monthly cycle to work and litter picking days!
It’s hard not to be buoyed up about the future when you come across ideas like these. And this effect is heightened by the fact that they came from people who will be responsible for shaping what the future of humankind will look like – our young people.
Fizzing with ideas
I recently marked a Year 8 class set of designs for a sustainable city. They researched their ideas independently, drew up plans in pairs, then justified their plans individually in a ‘books-open’ in-class report. I often marvel at students’ ingenuity and depth of research, and I know it might sound corny, but whilst marking this piece of work, I found myself breaking off every now and again to wistfully consider their enthusiasm – and what happens to it in the remainder of their years of secondary education.
Year 8 sustainable city work – showing enthusiasm and promise!
I was reminded of my childhood, when I had fantastical thoughts about designing buildings and cities, which I expressed in cartoons and occasionally in Lego. You might be thinking ‘No wonder he became a Geography teacher!’ – but looking at the imagination and creativity shown by students year after year, I think that this enthusiasm is common among a very large number of younger students, not all of whom will go on to become geographers, architects or planners.
In primary school and in the early years of secondary school, teachers of all subjects find that most students fizz with ideas and positivity. The almost palpable feeling of energy is part of why a career in education appeals to many people. But teachers will recognise a slide in the levels of enthusiasm of their charges as the secondary school years progress.
The Enthusiasm Transition Model (ETM)
This trend can be illustrated by the rigidly scientifically researched ‘Enthusiasm Transition Model’ (ETM). How many teachers (or parents) recognise the stages shown below?:
The Enthusiasm Transition Model (ETM)
The ETM and the secondary school years
Year 7, and, with a following wind, Year 8 too: Most pupils are keen to take part in discussions and many of them even like to perform tasks like handing out books. Many pupils are even sorely disappointed if they are not chosen!
Year 9: A scattering of pupils volunteer their thoughts, but almost no-one is bothered if they are not chosen. The enthusiasts fight to keep their keenness hidden.
Years 10 and 11: A couple of students half-heartedly volunteer, and there is no need to implement a ‘hands down’ policy in most classes because it’s de facto in operation anyway!
Years 12 and 13: Students have actively chosen your subject, so there is a slight resurgence in classroom engagement, if you are lucky. However, it can be hard to keep students’ attention at such a busy time of their lives.
More Year 8 sustainable city work
Letting the champagne go flat
So what explains this gradual decline in most children’s enthusiasm in their time at secondary school?
Some of it may be lost as pupils are exposed to more of the realities of their personal life – the creeping realisation that they will not always be able to get what they want.
Similarly, as they escape from the protective bubble of their carers, children will see at first hand some of the more challenging aspects of the world: the homeless person they see under the arches at the railway station; the incident of road rage on the way to school; conflicts amongst family members which were kept under control in the pupils’ early childhood.
Some enthusiasm may be displaced by the increasing responsibilities of youth and adulthood – when you have momentous decisions to make about future careers, relationships, driving, and so on, there is not enough time to dwell on ideas, let alone ideals.
Some of it is swallowed up internally as young people succumb to peer pressure. The pressure to ‘fit in’ with the norms of their chosen group(s) is often overwhelming. This impetus to impress their friends over their parents and teachers is reinforced by subtle glances and under-the-breath comments in classroom discussions whenever someone forgets where they are for a moment and dares to volunteer.
Still more of it will surely be eroded by exposure to the negative tone, not only of the ‘mainstream media’, but also of many of the ‘clickbait’ stories used by some news websites to hook in readers.
But some of it, I argue, is attributable to various aspects of the educational system. Yes, we have come a long way from the days of ruling by fear, the crushing of individuality and corporal punishment which featured in some pupils’ lives in relatively recent decades (although some draconian approaches have made a comeback – see the debate about ‘flattening the grass’ (Smith, 2019)). Nevertheless, students are still held back, in different degrees in different contexts, whether this be by regimentation, institutionalisation, momentum and paucity of imagination in our education system (I write from a UK context), let alone financial threats to the curricular and extra-curricular existence of ‘creative’ subjects and sports.
Before going any further, I realise that a burst of enthusiasm is not going to be an educational panacea: a certain degree of structure is required to allow our current education system to work. I also realise that some readers will question the need to (re)enthuse our youth – there are benefits for young people and their educators from the former being calmed and directed at times!
Furthermore, as Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, enthusiasm in the absence of facts and carefully considered analysis can be deleterious to the advancement of the populace, particularly in terms of politics and the economy: he believed that educated people are “less liable… to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition”. To put my head above the parapet, I can see some validity in this point of view in the context of the Brexit debate. Finally, as I write elsewhere, and inspired by Hans Rosling et al (2018), a fact-based worldview is essential for us to make the right decisions for the future of humankind and our planet.
But all this notwithstanding, I don’t think that more engagement and ‘buzz’ will lead our students astray – rather, it should re-energise them with education and the wider world.
More Year 8 work: How can you continue to generate this kind of outcome from your students in the secondary school years?
Uncorking students’ enthusiasm!
In my customary search for a solution, I hereby volunteer some thoughts for how educators could try to keep young people keener for longer:
The only time that pupils may go outside in the school day might be during lunch or breaktime. This runs counter to the needs of childhood development. Why not embrace the outdoors? You can read some of my musings on this subject here, but the YHA has launched a powerful video on ‘the adventure effect’ (https://groups.yha.org.uk/adventure-effect) which draws upon research showing that the outdoors is not only beneficial to young peoples’ physical health, but also their mental well-being too
Think how you could give opportunities to young people to express their enthusiasm outside of lessons, perhaps by holding lunchtime clubs, or competitions. To this end you could keep an eye on your subject association, many of which will run several such competitions a year – see, for example, the Geographical Association’s World Wise Quizzes: https://www.geography.org.uk/Get-Involved-1/Student-activities/WorldWise-local-quiz
Reward ‘below the radar’ enthusiasm – such as students writing in extra depth in certain homework tasks – by writing positive comments (and giving commendations/merits) to demonstrate that you recognise and celebrate initiative and keenness
Be a role model in the classroom – show the class that you care about the subject and your enthusiasm might become infectious. Fair enough, this is tough to achieve, and I am acutely aware that my enthusiasm can come across as being too eager to please, but combined with humour and perhaps a touch of self-deprecation, this approach can work
School and year-group assemblies can play an important role in celebrating achievements and inspiring students to follow their dreams and interests
School or personal subscriptions to news outlets dedicated to young people can help to redress the negativity of adult-orientated media. Examples of these outlets include The Day (which my school subscribes to and which every form tutor receives by email every morning) and children’s weekly newspapers such as First News
Finally, in terms of day-to-day and week-to-week pedagogy, consider the tasks that you set pupils – do they allow students a free enough rein to follow their interests within the task? For instance, could you give…
a choice of case studies (offer the choices then see how enthusiastic the students are when they are told it is first come, first served!)?
a choice of websites for research?
a choice of websites, articles, or TED talks for students to consume and feedback on (I tried the TED talk choice for a recent A Level theme of gender equality in education)?
a choice of presentation medium and/or group size? For example, in one task we allowed students to either plan and deliver a form assembly as a group, create a website and social media campaign as a pair, or to write to their MP individually
Students playing their own health and development game
With nine minutes to go until my Year 9 class arrived, I tried to get my Year 13 students to pack up prior to a plenary activity, but they did not want to finish the activity which they had been working on for well over an hour.
What was this activity? A video? A past paper question just prior to a report? No – it was a board game – in fact it was the third one that they had made themselves. They were all genuinely keen to learn! So I let them play the game.
The Last Straw
Sometimes, it’s a struggle to think how I can bring the requirements of specifications to life. In this case, I needed to convey the relationship between development and health in the UK, Brazil, and amongst Aboriginal Australians*. Hmmm. As it happens, a few years ago, I was lucky to have attended a Teachers’ Workshop at Leeds University, led by Myles Gould (@Myles_Gould_UoL), during which he introduced ‘The Last Straw – a board game on the social determinants of health’. This can be purchased here: www.thelaststraw.ca
It’s not the most exciting title, I admit, but I have played it over a dozen times with different groups over the years, and it works – it always generates a discussion on the complexities of public health. The game is set in Canada, and in almost all respects, the scenarios are like those encountered in the UK. It has stood the test of time, and indeed it provides a good basis for discussions about how public health challenges have changed over the past decade (some for the better and some for the worse, but, wearing my ‘optimist’ hat, more for the better, I would argue!).
Playing The Last Straw
The game comes with detailed instructions, but here is an outline: The facilitator splits the students into up to four groups, and each one is issued with a ‘character card’. They roll dice to determine the socio-economic status, gender and ethnic background of their character. Once these have been set, they are issued ‘vitality chips’ to represent their level of health – for example, males get ten chips and females get nine. This provides the first of many opportunities in the game to discuss why there are health inequalities – and indeed, whether some of them have changed since the game was made a decade ago, and how some may differ in different countries. At this point it is best to mention that there will be sensitive scenarios in the game, some of which may apply to players in the room or their close acquaintances, and that mutual respect would be appreciated.
Then the players proceed around the board, encountering individual scenarios (e.g. rolling a dice to decide if they try drugs) or community scenarios (e.g. ‘the government provides funding for pre-school care’). For every scenario, the player risks losing or gaining ‘vitality’ chips. There are also three staging posts – adolescence, adulthood, and old age – when dice are again rolled to determine whether, for example, the educational level of the character changes. Discussions are always encouraged, and sometimes, mini quizzes are set – such as when all present are rewarded with a vitality chip if they can collectively think of some ways to overcome a public health challenge – e.g. ways to stop smoking.
Taking it further
Students designing their own health and development game
This worked well – but I decided to build on the game and ask students to design their own. They did this in small teams – one group made a game for the UK case study, another made one for Brazil, and the last group made one for Aboriginal Australians. I made a smaller playing board but asked the students to retain the mixture of initial life chances, individual scenarios and community scenarios. The students then took it in turn to play these games (I became a participant too, although I also corrected any factual inaccuracies and stimulated further discussion points during the games). These were the games that the group were determined to play up to and beyond the end of the lesson.
Other games I have played in Geography are include:
The game of Indian life – students start off as poor rural citizens and some move to the city, where some thrive, and others don’t (I can’t find this source – please contact me if you created this!)
Justifications for using games in teaching
I recommend the judicious use of games in teaching, and especially recommend the practice of students making their own games, for these reasons (among many others!):
Students engage with the topic in both the playing of, and the creation of, the games
Games encourage students to modify case study content, not just regurgitate it
They allow teachers to develop plenty of ‘primed’ discussions where the seed of a situation is planted**, rather than ‘blank slate’ discussions where students are asked to think on their feet
Games should be used carefully, and here are some factors which should be considered:
The size of the class
The behaviour of the class
Time of day, day of the week, and time within the term: some of the more active ones can work well when children might be less receptive to more settled tasks, but others, such as the Last Straw, require more deliberation and discussion
The time available – for example, the activities covered above took longer than the time I would normally take to cover the bare bones of the content. However, the listening, processing, and deliberative skills developed by playing The Last Straw and the three spin-off games justified the time devoted to them
The time taken by the teacher to prepare for each game (this is a great opportunity for spreading the workload around colleagues!)
Whether or not the players need to take notes, and if so, in which format, and when – during, or after the game? In my experience, such reflections can work as a homework task
Follow-up activities – this could be a written reflection, or it could be a sample examination question – this is what I will be giving my group after playing The Last Straw
Finally, each of these games requires contextualisation and on-the-spot willingness on behalf of the teacher to be flexible. It is also worth mentioning that the seriousness of the subject matter of each game should be considered – they represent real life scenarios. I still wince when I remember playing a board game created by a fellow PGCE Geography student 18 years ago – he called his game ‘Bangladesh bingo’, and the first player who successfully ticked off the impacts of a flooding event, such as ‘a cholera outbreak kills thousands’, had to stand up and celebrate by shouting out ‘floodtastic!’.
Has anyone come across a climate change – or ‘sustainable futures’ board game of the same level of complexity as The Last Straw? I was thinking that one day, I could make a board game!
* For the Edexcel A Level ‘Health, Human Rights and Intervention’ module.
** Such as ‘You lost one vitality chip for contracting an STD, but two for the anxiety resulting from being bullied – is this a fair representation of the relative seriousness of these two events, and indeed what is your opinion of the importance of physical versus mental challenges to health?’
Pause for a second and consider these short ‘earth stories’:
A Nigerian child is vaccinated against polio
The bumblebee’s habitat declines in Europe and North America
A sesame farmer in Tanzania buys his first bicycle
A British farmer decides to plant some grapevines
These kind of ‘earth stories’ rarely make the headlines. Yet they are all part of the unfolding history of our planet. Together with millions of other ‘earth stories’, they give us an insight into how we are interacting with our habitat in two key areas: climate change and human progress.
Understanding climate change and recognising the progress made by humankind are central to the future of our planet and of our species. But neither gets the attention that they deserve.
But why have they both failed to get traction in the public’s consciousness? The reasons are manifold:
Their manifestations are incremental. The 24-hour news cycle, human discourse, and the fast-moving world of business tend to favour more sudden, attention-grabbing events and narratives rather than drawing our attention to trends which occur over decades (such as climate change) or even centuries (such as human progress).
Both are complex in terms of their causes and implications. This makes them hard to comprehend, and so it is very tempting for individuals, governments, businesses, educational establishments, and other organisations, to shy away from an in-depth understanding of them. Complex challenges – also known as ‘wicked problems’ (Rittel and Webber, 1973) – have been recognised as a key focus for modern and post-modern societies – but the hard work in translating this into practical measures has yet to begin in earnest.
‘Human progress’ and ‘Climate change’ are both contested terms. I have written elsewhere about the difficulty in pinning down my worldview in relation to progress, but of course even the term ‘progress’ is a difficult one to pin down: What spheres of ‘progress’ should we be considering? Whose ‘progress’ should we have in mind? How can it be measured? I have referred to the work of Steven Pinker in previous posts and I believe that he does a good job of summarising ‘progress’:
“What is progress? … Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony.” (Pinker, 2018: p.51)
However, others will disagree on what exactly constitutes progress, or will want to place different weightings on its constituent measures.
Obtaining an accurate and unbiased verdict on their current status is difficult. This is the case firstly because both spheres are politically sensitive and therefore most messages come to us via media which are subject to their own biases. Also, even though there exists a wide body of evidence to help us to reach conclusions, this body is so wide, and so dynamic, that it is difficult to synthesise.
Both have vested interests who find it hard to accept nuances and exceptions to their stated positions on one side or another. This means that there is considerable muddying of the water around the concepts. For the more outspoken and controversial proponents of human progress, such as Matt Ridley, the picture seems exasperatingly clear – the world is getting better – look at the proof! But inadequate consideration is still given to the environmental (and social) problems caused by some of the progress made by humankind. For many climate change activists, it is anathema to concede any benefits of climate change, whereas many sceptics, who have only just conceded that anthropogenic climate change is real, struggle to admit that it will harm the world’s poor more than the rich.
Both seem to escape easy academic categorisation. Which discipline – if any? – should take human progress under its wing? And what about climate change? Universities have led the way with interdisciplinary departments and projects relating to climate change, but at secondary education level, it is only recently that disciplines outside of Geography have begun to explore it. Meanwhile, human progress is such a contested term and covers such a wide range of human experiences that it has an even more diffuse academic grounding – and as it is often stigmatised (with, admittedly, some good reason) as being a hobby horse of the right, then it is in danger of being shunned by the academy in favour of more fashionable and ostensibly more socially acceptable concerns.
Both seem to have been side-lined by successive governments. In the UK, should the crucial task of tackling climate change be given its own department of government? Or should it belong to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? Either would seem to be sensible – but it is in fact the responsibility of The Department of Energy and Climate Change – two areas which have historically been antagonistic in their priorities. What about human progress? Should responsibility for this lie solely with the Department for International Development? If so, who is responsible for tracking human progress in areas that DfID is not active in, and what about human progress in the UK?
Neither issue – particularly human progress – has gained much political traction. Many voters are much more likely to prioritise issues that are closer to home than to pay attention to global issues, especially if they are either misinformed or uninformed about their key roles in the future of the planet.
Both terms lead to reactions that are psychologically complex. Just one example is the cognitive dissonance experienced from holding the same two views simultaneously, such as ‘a holiday would do me good’ and ‘flights are one of the most damaging actions that can be taken in terms of carbon emissions’. Sometimes it is easier to avoid thinking about the deeper consequences of one’s actions than to confront them, question them, and act accordingly. In the context of climate change, George Marshall (2014) has written about the psychological mechanisms that allow us to know something is true but to act as if it is not.
How and when will these barriers be overcome? When the twin UK obsessions of Brexit and Trump pass, as surely they will, who will set the tone for future social and environmental discourse?
When will a tipping point be reached in either sphere? When will the default position of anyone (or indeed any algorithm) considering any significant action be to consider the impact of that action on climate change? When will there be widespread acceptance of the generally positive trends seen in terms of human progress? As ever, your thoughts are welcome.
Marshall, G (2014) Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (Bloomsbury)
Pinker, S (2018) Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Humanism and Progress (Allen Lane)