Leaving school is simultaneously an exciting and worrying time for students. I was asked to deliver an assembly to our Year 13s on their last day in school to try to foster a sense of hope and positivity in them, and I decided to do this by:
Showing them how far the world had come in terms of access to education and some other metrics of ‘social progress’ in the past 200 years
Asking them to consider how far the world has yet to go on this journey
Encouraging them to play their part in a co-operative and socially beneficial future for the world
This was no small task in 20 minutes, but it was worth a shot. In an added twist, I took the assembly outside, using a megaphone, student volunteers, hazard tape, clothes pegs, and a fence!
The following is as near as possible to the script I delivered!
Good morning everyone! It’s time for a quiz. You are in a privileged position. You are about to leave school with good qualifications, and you are about to enter the next stage of your life, whether that be higher education, apprenticeships, or jobs. This morning, I’d like us to go global…
How many people in the world have attained a basic, primary, education?
My three volunteers are holding signs: 17%, 49% and 86%. Stand next to the volunteer who is showing the answer you think is correct.
[About half of those present chose 49%, and most of the rest chose 17%.]
Next, how many adults in the world do you think are able to read, to about the standard which would enable them to take a full role in society? Move places now if you wish to change.
[Most students stayed in the same place.]
Finally, the average 30-year-old man on this planet has spent ten years in education. How long has an average 30-year-old woman spent? Five, seven, or nine years?
[Over half of the students chose seven, with only a few choosing nine.]
Thank you volunteers and thanks to the rest of you for moving around.
It’s time for the answers.
Those who said 17% of people in the world had attained a basic, primary, education – well, you would have been right – if it was 1820. Those who said 49% – you would have been right, if it was 1950. The actual answer was 86%, and this also applies to the literacy question too.
And you can probably guess from those two questions that 30-year-old women have spent nine years in school, as opposed to ten for men.
Which direction is the world heading in?
These answers are not perfect – in an ideal world, we’d hope that all children would be educated to at least a primary level, and that all adults would be able to read. We’d also hope that there would be gender parity in terms of educational access. But the world has been moving in the right direction in terms of education. Not quickly – in fact, you might say, not quickly enough – but we do appear to be getting there.
Let’s at two more changes that have happened that may give you more faith in humanity as you go into the wider world.
Could I have three more volunteers?
[Three volunteers come up and stand in front of a tall fence, which has been turned into a large line graph; 0%, 50% and 100% labels have been affixed on the y-axis up to 2m height, and 1820, 1920 and 2020 labels have been affixed up to 4m across the x-axis.]
Let’s turn to poverty. Extreme poverty, in fact. Living on less than $1.90 a day, adjusted to allow for inflation. That’s less than is necessary to enable us to do much more than just survival. Could my three volunteers decide what they think this level was in 1820? [Volunteers discuss, then attach a long strip of red and white barrier tape on the fence with a peg at the % they think it was in 1820.]
It was 84%. So you’ll need to move it to 84%. Now how about 1920? [Let them decide, attaching the tape with pegs.] It had only dropped to 70%. [Move the tape if necessary.] 1950? [Ditto.] It had only fallen to 65%. And finally, 2018? [Ditto; my volunteers chose about 20%]. It had fallen to just 9%.
The UN has set a goal to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030. The pandemic and entrenched inequalities mean that this date is now unlikely to be met, but it should be doable in the following decade. I’ll say it again – it’s not good enough – but again, looking how far we have come can give us scope for hope.
Please give a round of applause for our volunteers.
Finally, can I have three more volunteers. We’ll now look at child mortality – the number of children dying before their fifth birthday. An immensely sad statistic. [Repeat the exercise: the figures are 1820: 43%, 1920: 30%, 1950: 20% and 2019: 4%; my volunteers were closer this time.] Again, this isn’t where we could be by a long way, but looking at what we have achieved can give us hope.
Thank you again to our volunteers.
Faith in humanity
I hope you found that interesting. Here’s one more thing I’d like you to think about and respond to.
How many of you sometimes despair of humanity? Hands up… [I put mine up too.]
And how many of you take time out to celebrate humanity? Hands up… [fewer hands will probably go up!]
Why do we tend to celebrate humanity less often than we despair of it?
You may well have thought of this – and my geographers have certainly been involved in these discussions. It’s a mixture of the media – mainstream and social, your psychological biases, and perhaps even your education.
So could – and should – you start to celebrate what humanity has achieved?
Well, you may want to think about how you can measure its achievements. What should be our metrics? Should we measure achievements in terms of more people becoming healthy, wealthy and wise? In terms of liberte, fraternite and egalite? Or life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? This is worth thinking about.
Let’s not kid ourselves – there are huge challenges facing the world, from climate change, inequality, and various forms of discrimination.
But this is where you come in.
Standing on the shoulders of giants
As you step out into the wider world, could – and should – you think about what role you can play in helping humanity to flourish, without sacrificing the planet we live on?
Firstly, it is worth recognising, as Isaac Newton did in a 1675 letter to Robert Hooke, that “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Think of the giants – your predecessors – who have helped to achieve the huge leaps forward shown by today’s figures and graphs. Could you help humanity see further?
Then, consider what Walt Whitman wrote in ‘O Me! O Life!’: bear in mind…
“That you are here – that life exists, and identity. / That the powerful play goes on, and you many contribute a verse”.
So, the world is big, the future is daunting, and you will want to carve out your own path, to do what’s right for you and your loved ones. But you also have a role to play in a wider world, where you can help to continue these trends, and to carve out a more hopeful path for the world: to manage climate change, reduce racial discrimination, and to narrow the obscene inequality gap.
Can you do it? Are these just empty words?
No. they are not just empty words.
If I had stood here 400 years ago, and I asked my students to play their role in ending slavery, there would have been incredulity.
If I had stood here 130 years ago, asking you to play your role in gaining women’s right to vote, own property and vote, there would have been disbelief that these things could happen.
If I had stood here 40 years ago, saying that the Berlin Wall would fall, and that apartheid would collapse in South Africa – and these things seemed unlikely when I was still at school – would you have believed me?
How about 30 years ago, and I described the Internet?
Or five years ago, if I had said that polio – a disease which killed or injured millions of people a year – would now only be found in one country, what would have been your response?
These changes didn’t come about automatically. Through a complex mixture of processes, people made them. People like you.
Shaping a hopeful future
I’ll be issuing you with future timeline cards later, as a reminder that the future has not yet been made, and that you can shape a more hopeful, rather than a more fearful, future. You may want to keep it, to remind you of this.
So, your path may be varied or linear, it may be in business or healthcare, in development, politics or volunteering. You may well take your place in a civil society by voting, reading, and making informed decisions. But you can stand on the shoulders of giants, and you can contribute a verse.
Thank you, and Hoc Age! Just do it!
Feedback during the assembly and afterwards was positive; I hope you will be inspired to try this out, or at least to critique it!
Best wishes for summer to anyone who got this far in the post! David
What themes might reinvigorate the global dimension of geographical education?
How should geographical education engage with visions of the future?
These are the two concerns of this post, and they are intertwined.
The post mainly concerns geographical education, but the discipline is necessarily implicated. It is meant as a discussion generator rather than as an academic article, so please excuse any clangers and unattributed notions!
The Geography of It All
The immediate trigger for this post is ‘The Geography of It All’, a recent article by David Lambert (2021), which poses the central question of “[W]hat does geographical study bring to the table, especially in our deliberations with young people about contemporary predicaments and existential challenges[?]”.
It is an accessible and thought-provoking piece which is open about geography’s predicament, warts and all. So, for example, Lambert flags up geography’s physical-human divide, its involvement in ‘competing’ with history for students, and its complexity, which threatens to overwhelm the integrity of the discipline. But he is insistent in promoting the value of geography – not just for students, but for the future of planet earth. His concluding paragraph is worth quoting in full:
“An appropriate educational response to the human epoch needs to value geographical thinking: thinking that does not put human beings above (or even separate from) nature; that puts locales and nations into their global context; and which always seeks to understand interconnections. I believe reformed school geography, which seeks to enhance children and young people’s capabilities with regard to thinking about society and nature relationships and environmental futures, represents a profound educational response to the challenges of the human epoch.”
Lambert therefore sees global futures as integral to the future of geography. I concur, and I offer some considerations that might inform the global dimension of ‘a reformed school geography’.
The symbiosis of History and Geography
Lambert notes how philosophers of history are increasingly recognising the role of earth systems in the story of humankind. If the role of the ‘non-human’ is indeed becoming more salient in the discipline of history, then this raises the prospect that we might see this feed more explicitly into the school history curriculum in the years to come. We must hope that this will see an appreciation of the importance of human/non-human interactions and planetary limits rather than a re-emergence of environmental determinism.
Just as history is coming to terms with the environment, I argue that geography should be more comfortable with temporality. In a presentation to the recent GA Geography Teacher Educators Conference, I showed images of four two-page spreads from a current A Level textbook on the theme of human development. There were a handful of maps, a smattering of tables and photographs, but no graphs showing change over time – and little recognition of trends in the text either. This may be an extreme example, but could it be symptomatic of an underplaying of trends in some parts of the geography curriculum, particularly in global development? Might this go some way to explaining why many students are so surprised when they are confronted with evidence for long-term improvements in a wide range of indicators of social flourishing, as presented by resources from the Gapminder Institute, Our World in Data, and so on?
Lifting our eyes up
Alongside a consideration of how much attention geographers could spend on long-term trends, it is timely to consider to who we claim to be speaking on behalf of. Indeed, although Lambert’s article chimes with my thoughts on the subject’s global dimension, his comment that “we are browbeaten about the end of progress (when we can no longer assume our children will have ‘better’ lives than their parents)” deserves closer attention. His use of ‘we’ and ‘our children’ appears to be made from the view of someone in the global north – and yes, from that standpoint, there has arguably been a narrowing of horizons, a questioning of progress, and a growing sense of unease, driven by inequality and widespread economic stagnation.
However, taking into account a broad sweep of socio-economic measures from a range of well-respected IGOs, and notwithstanding stubborn levels of inequality within countries, living conditions for most people in the global south have seen continual improvements over at least the past seventy years (Roser, 2018; Rosling et al, 2018), meaning that, in most respects, many global citizens are living ‘better lives’ than their parents, and many will expect their offspring to live ‘better lives’ in their turn.
Drawing students’ attention to these achievements (see, for example, Alcock, 2019a, 2019b; Standish, 2020), should not be seen as being dismissive of remaining problems, or as being ignorant of the huge challenges of the Anthropocene. As Max Roser – the founder of Our World in Data – has written, “The world is much better. The world is awful. The world can be much better. All three statements are true” (Roser, 2018; see Figure 1). There is indeed a great opportunity for a rich and far-reaching debate to be had, not only amongst geography educators, but also between students, on the theme of ‘progress’. This would draw on commentators who have responded critically to proponents of an ‘optimistic’ or, as Rosling would have it, a ‘possibilistic’ worldview (see, for example, Hickel, 2017; Paulsen, 2019a, 2019b; Aguilera, 2020).
A reformed school geography, I argue, should enable students to develop a more accurate and balanced evaluation of humanity’s achievements and failures over a prolonged period, and at a global scale. Such a worldview would not be uncritical of economic and social failings or of environmental crises. Instead, it would contextualise them. It would not underplay young people’s anxieties about the future. But it would embolden them to develop a sense of hope, as they would be able to draw confidence from previous successes – such as victories in human rights, reductions in child mortality, and increases in renewable energy supplies – with which to face the future. This balanced evaluation would also assist them – and us, as teachers – to pursue our shared geographical journey to explore the challenges of the Anthropocene.
My other reflections on Lambert’s post come under three broad themes.
Three global themes
With the above comments in mind, and in response to Lambert’s provocation, what might the global element of a ‘reformed school geography’ look like? I offer three very broad approaches. These are rough and ready, incomplete, overlapping, and they piggyback on the ideas of many others. Indeed, many elements are already taking place in classrooms – and remote learning environments – across the country! My main aim is to stimulate a reaction, to help geography stay relevant, engaging and attractive, but moreover, so that it is able to be more responsive to the challenges facing the human and non-human world.
Big Picture Geographies
Big Picture Geography would entail an increased awareness of significant historical trends in ‘human’ geography (using data visualisations such as those on Our World in Data), accompanied by a focus on graphicacy skills.
It would also harness the power of ‘big picture’ narratives. In a comment below Lambert’s piece, the historian Andreas Koerber identifies a new wave of large-scale popular historiography which he calls ‘Big History’ but whose contents are often deeply geographical (for example, Frankopan, 2015 and Diamond, 2011). This appetite for popular narratives which explore long-term changes over space exposes a vein of curiosity which geographers should leap at the opportunity to tap into. Geography teachers and students should take care not to be ‘prisoners of geography’ and look outside of our traditional literary domains.
Big Picture Geography should be informed by a decolonised approach to the subject: it should involve a wider range of perspectives, it should heed more voices, and it should acknowledge and problematise the long history of shifting power relationships.
For too long, Garrett Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ (1968) has been the go-to resource use theory for many geography teachers, myself included. However, although it assumes innocent actors combining to cause large-scale problems, in its application, it heightens misanthropic prejudices and a pessimistic view of human co-operation. It is time for a tilt towards co-operative geographies. These would give due recognition to evidence showing the fundamental decency and collective mindedness of most humans. Giving more saliency to Elinor Ostrom’s theories of small-scale co-operative management of common resources would not only be closer to what happens ‘on the ground’ in many cases, but it would restore some much-needed belief in humanity. Rutger Bregman’s Humankind (2020) is another weapon in the geographer’s armoury against cynicism: he draws on a wide range of historical evidence to argue that believing in human kindness and altruism can change how we think and act.
An examination of different scales of co-operation would be a great geographical project, and a way to build a conceptual bridge from the local to the global. It could draw parallels between small-scale community initiatives such as Friends groups and Green Flag projects, regional and national instances of altruistically pulling together (as shown by the high levels of adherence to social distancing rules in the Covid-19 pandemic), and international and global examples of co-operation, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
As Elise Boulding pointed out in 1988, IGOs and NGOs may be interpreted as aspects of a co-operative global civic culture which fosters ideals of global interdependence, sustainable development and peace – but how often do we refer to them as such? And how have geography teachers framed largely successful co-operative endeavours such as the European Union? Generations of students grew up thinking of the EU as creators of milk lakes and butter mountains and pesky imposers of fishing quotas, rather than as engines for peace and creators of social democratic norms. (Did Boris Johnson bribe David Waugh?)
A more realistic, historical, and evidence-based awareness of how humans pull together, adapt, and respond to resource challenges would also enrich secondary school geography. A move away from the discredited theories of Thomas Malthus to a more nuanced examination of the ideas of a range of thinkers, including
Ester Boserup, Kate Raworth and Ruth DeFries (see, for example, DeFries, 2014) would reveal different takes on the contentious issue of population/resource management. This might then soothe pupils’ fears of a ‘population explosion’ (which, according to one KS3 Geography video on the otherwise commendable Oak Academy, is still happening!) and instead open up a new sense of optimism for engaging with the future.
Reinvigorating the ‘futures dimension’ is vital in reformed secondary school geography. The groundwork for this has been laid down by David Hicks and others since the 1990s. The theme of the 2007 GA Conference was Future Geographies, and there is a significant bank of resources and skilled practitioners that could be drawn upon from the past thirty years or so. Francis Hutchinson (1996) is also a source of inspiration for geographers who are keen to get a handle on how to teach a futures-orientated curriculum. An intriguing and agenda-setting article by Hoffman et al (2021), based on action research, found that “a futuring approach to education… contributes to an enhanced sense of agency among students in dealing with wicked problems”.
Sitting squarely alongside futures education, but also drawing from the ideas of ‘Big Picture’ and ‘Co-operative’ geographies, a reinvigorated and evidentially grounded ‘geography of hope’ should surely play a role in the education of future geographers: this would help students to evaluate progress, believe in humanity, and then, using these insights, help them to create a better world.
Climate change deserves a special place in the curriculum. As the ultimate global ‘wicked problem’ – and one which is not going away any time soon, it deserves a permanent, significant, and guaranteed place at the table, and it should be repeatedly visited in the classroom. The wording in the National Curriculum is not emphatic enough. Climate change is a touchstone environmental issue and one which the public view as being inherently geographical. It also allows for the development a panoply of hard and soft skills, as well as providing an opportunity to feed into ‘Big Picture’ and ‘Co-operative’ geographies. Two of the most pressing needs are firstly for students to be able to have the skills to navigate the debate about ‘who is to blame’ for climate change, and secondly to appreciate the relative impact that different strategies might have on overcoming this challenge (see, for example, Project Drawdown): what use is recycling and turning lights off, if steel and concrete production continue unhindered, and animal products remain a mainstay of so many diets?
Planetary futures would also provide a suitable home for Late-covid and Post-covid geographies. The resource bank developed by Alan Parkinson (2020) is a treasure trove for educators which could be used to help conceive of a post-covid world. Applying some of the insights to other infectious diseases would help to bring up discussions in health geography which until now may, for many of our students, have been muted owing largely to the fact that diseases have mostly occurred ‘in other places’.
Bringing young people in
Lambert is passionate about developing children and young people’s capabilities; I agree, and they deserve a central and active role in the future of school geography, both as agents in the reformulation of the curriculum, and as citizens of the world it – and they – will help to shape. If we are bold enough to reform the way we approach the global dimension of school geography, then we should involve young people in our journey. Exactly how this could be done is beyond the scope of this piece!
As the world moves on, so must geography. If we accept that the Anthropocene is indeed a ‘game-changer’ (as Lambert refers to it on a comment in the thread below his article), we need to continue with the pivot to the global and take the futures dimension seriously too.
I welcome feedback on these ideas.
Aguilera, R. (2020) The Glass Half-Empty – Debunking the Myth of Progress in the Twenty-First Century. London: Repeater
Script of an assembly delivered by Hermione Baines and David Alcock via voiceover Powerpoint to Bradford Grammar School pupils on Friday 15 January 2021. The slide set and notes are available upon request from @DavidAlcock1
Deep down, what is human nature? What are we really like underneath? Novelist William Golding explored this idea in his 1951 novel ‘The Lord of the Flies’. It tells the story of a group of well-brought up English schoolboys, shipwrecked on a deserted island. To start with, the boys organise themselves and try to have fun and wait for rescue. However, as the days go by, their rules break down. As fear takes over, they descend into appalling savagery and violence. We won’t spoil the ending for those of you have not yet read it, but lets just say it doesn’t end well – as this still from a film of the book suggests.
William Golding did not have a positive view of human nature – he said, ‘Even if we start with a clean slate, our nature compels us to make a muck of it’ and ‘Man produces evil as a bee produces honey’.
Golding’s view of human nature is widely held. The 17th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes considered what humans were like before we created ‘society’ – he argued that in a ‘state of nature’ human beings are driven by fear – fear of the other – our lives would be a state of permanent war and conflict – deep down, this is what we are.
As a historian, it’s easy to find examples of humans being driven by fear, greed, and hatred to do terrible things to each other; it sometimes doesn’t seem to take much to turn apparently civilised human beings into aggressive, cruel creatures. Is this what humans, deep down, are like?
This is the uninhabited island of ‘Ata. It is 100 nautical miles from the main island of Tonga, which is itself 2000 nautical miles east of the Australian mainland. What does it have to do with Golding – or indeed Hobbes?
Well, in 1966, Peter Warner, an Australian man in his 20s, sailed his boat to the island, which had been deserted for over a hundred years. But he saw fire – a sign of life – and when he drew closer he found six boys. These six boys told him that they had ‘borrowed’ a boat from the main island of Tonga, they’d got caught in a storm, and eventually landed on Ata, fifteen months previously. The boys were taken back to the mainland, where their families had given them up for dead.
Six boys, on an island – a recipe for disaster, right? Rivalries, fighting, bullying? No. Quite the opposite.
The boys – seen here in a reunion photo with Captain Warner a few years after the incident – had actually set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.
While the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.
The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer.
Captain Warner wrote in his memoir: “Life has taught me a great deal, including the lesson that you should always look for what is good and positive in people.”
One example doesn’t prove much. But it got Dutch author Rutger Bregman thinking: was Golding’s book symptomatic of a negative view of human nature which doesn’t really reflect how most humans actually behave?
The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that in a state of nature, we are naturally cooperative beings: our essence is to work together. But Bregman argues that Rousseau’s message has been overwhelmed by a more cynical image of humanity, which has been proclaimed in films and novels, history books and scientific research – and perhaps even in education?
Bregman argues that this distrust has been driven by individualism, an increasingly overdramatic media, and politicians keen to get the support of voters who are scared of ‘other people’ (does this remind you of a certain US president?).
Bregman has a hopeful message – he thinks we think ourselves worse than we really are, and this is what causes the problems because we assume that people are bad, when the vast majority of people are in essence good at heart – he asks us to take a positive view of the world.
We have been thinking that recent events – particularly the way people have coped with the pandemic – support this hopeful view of humankind. Despite some people behaving selfishly with no regard for the welfare of their fellow human beings, behavioural scientists suggest that the vast majority of people have been cooperating for the greater good, wanting to help each other and sticking to the rules, even when they could get away with breaking them.
As Bregman says, We live on a planet where people are deeply inclined to be good to one another. Do good in broad daylight, and don’t be ashamed of your generosity. Its time for a positive view of humankind’.
[Inspired? Read about Hopeful Education – whose mission is to encourage young people to ‘evaluate progress, believe in humanity, and create a better world’ – in this post, and follow @HopefulEd on Twitter.]
Humankind by Rutger Bregman (2020) is published by Bloomsbury.
Welcome back, and we trust you have refuelled and are ready for another journey through the geographies of the air! Part one of this two-part series, where we explored air’s importance in creating a sense of place, air as a medium, and some cultural geographies of air, can be found here.
In the post below, we explore the militarisation of airspace and aerial intensification, we discuss how much attention air might deserve in the future, and we take a brief look at whether there is room in the school curriculum for a deeper consideration of the geographies of air.
Militarised air power, much like air pollution, often disrespects borders. The shooting down of commercial airliners is one obvious example. PS752 and IR655 in Iran, MH17 in Ukraine, KAL007 in Russia. This list is not exhaustive. It is important to remember that it is not only rebel groups or insurgent governments who shoot down airliners – IR655 was downed by the US Navy.
Battles in the air are rarely fought over territory. They are strategic endeavours or shows of power and involve a significant amount of what could be construed as ‘willy waving’. Long-range missions by Russian aircraft venture close to the airspace boundaries of the USA or its NATO allies, and elicit a response from fast jets like those in the RAF’s QRA squadron. American ‘spy planes’ regularly undertake 30+ hour sorties from US the East Coast to the Baltic and back again, supported by aerial refuelling tankers, essentially just to show they can. Airspace in the Alaskan region has seen a lot of this type of military activity recently, with clear geopolitical links to both nations’ ambitions in the Arctic.
Concerns have been raised for decades about militarised urbanism (see, for example, Mike Davis’s City of Quartz), but these have risen in more popular consciousness recently with the targeted use of military resources in urban environments becoming more commonplace. Low-flying helicopters, operated in a manner incompatible with accepted safe procedures, were used this year to disperse BLM protesters in New York City and Washington DC, as shown in this video: https://www.nbcnews.com/video/watch-helicopters-hover-low-over-protesters-in-washington-84223557542.
Equally though, drone technology has contributed to beneficial and humanitarian developments. The inclusion of UAV’s in medical supply chains can be life changing in rural areas. Drones can revolutionise the delivery of blood, medicines and vaccines to remote health facilities where land-based transport is hard to come by (see Fig.1 and https://www.doveair.org). For some countries, especially where roads are scarce and of poor quality, UAV’s may be the only way to deliver a refrigerated COVID-19 vaccine to rural and isolated areas before it thaws.
UAV’s can also be used for GIS or mapping, assisting in the creation of high-quality maps and 3D models which can be used to assist with humanitarian disaster response or climate science, amongst other things (http://www.sensefly.com/industries/case-studies).
The increasing usage of drones for deliveries may herald a new ‘aerial intensification’, bringing into play considerations of aerial congestion, noise pollution, collisions, and risks to other animate and inanimate objects. These issues will be even more important to contemplate when humans are brought into the mix: ‘urban air mobility’ (UAM) and the concept of the ‘flying car’ have prompted social concerns relating to airspace. With UAM, this includes the ability to use aerial transport to opt-out of shared public space – see, for example: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/reports/2020/05/28/481148/flying-cars-will-undermine-democracy-environment/
The development of UAM will move urban airspace into the regulatory lens of urban planning. Decisions around land use will incorporate airspace as an important aspect of the city and its transport network rather than simply as empty space.
Aside from pollution and climate change, understanding the ways that humans interact with the air may in the near future be a declining concern, as environmental regulations, moral concerns (such as voluntary scaling back and ‘flight shaming’), and the growth of high speed rail lines, especially in emerging economies, may stymie the growth of flights.
Some commentators suggest that hyperloops (see Fig. 2) (or perhaps maglevs and vactrains, for those of us who approve of the technology but not of Musk’s assessment that “Individualised mass transit is the future”) may reduce intra- and even inter-continental travel by air. The massive drop in air traffic thanks to covid-19 related restrictions and fears may accelerate this decline. This downturn may be a temporary one, but will we see a shift away from more ‘superfluous’ flights such as for meetings and job interviews? Conference calling capabilities have improved and have become commonplace. Also, an increase in virtual reality technology could mean that such remote meetings might begin to feel more visceral.
On the other hand, airspace may retain its importance, as a greater focus on airspace management (including next-generation air traffic control and restricting contrails) is one of the best tools to reduce aviation emissions in the medium-term. Along with drones and urban air mobility, this will require us to start changing how we use airspace. In these respects, airspace is not a declining concern.
Moreover, continuing economic development in emerging and developing countries will almost certainly lead to an increase in flights; see, for example, the growth of the China-Africa airlink, which will override the ‘first world’ trends of flying less. And although it could be a long time away, the widespread adoption of more environmentally friendly forms of aviation may also lead to a busier aerospace.
Air and outer space
Although ‘air’ is not synonymous with ‘outer space’, there is a continuum between the two, and geographers should note that control of outer space has risen up the geopolitical and business agenda – here, one thinks of Space X, the renaissance of missions to Mars, the United States Space Force and an emboldened China, whose most recent mission, Chang’e 5, has reinvigorated debate about lunar missions. There is an overlap here with next-generation airspace management, as satellite-based aircraft tracking has enabled this.
Air in the curriculum
The Key Stage 3 national curriculum programme of study for geography explicitly focuses on “the location of globally significant places – both terrestrial and marine” (Department for Education, 2013: 1) but there is no mention of the air. And whilst contested maritime boundaries feature in all A Level specifications, only limited attention is given to geographies of the air that are not specifically physical. One exception is Edexcel’s mention of air power in its Superpower unit, and even then, it is only made explicit in the context of the costs of maintaining such power:
“7.9 Existing superpowers face ongoing economic restructuring, which challenges their power … b. The economic costs of maintaining global military power (naval, nuclear, air power, intelligence services) and space exploration are questioned in some existing superpowers.” (Edexcel, 2016: 53)
Stretching the definition of air (a mixture of gases that surround a planet) to include the gaps between planets and the definition of geography (study of the earth) to embrace considerations of interactions between humans and outer space has led to an increased range of areas for geographical study, for example the governance of space as a contested ‘commons’ does feature in some resources aimed at A Level students.
Of course, the geography curriculum, especially at secondary school level, is already crowded… so can it afford to take it on?
We feel that geographers should spend some time contemplating how the issues that we discuss above are interdependent and how we might conceive of a more robust and wide-ranging geography of the air that takes it beyond its home in physical geography and meteorology.
In an age of a globally prevalent virus which cannot be seen by the naked eye, it is time for an increased awareness that the invisible is crucial in geography. The air is a neglected aspect of our discipline which is ‘hiding in plain sight’.
“Strategy and international politics are influenced strongly by geography”
This is the tantalising and prescient first sentence of Stefan Possony and Leslie Rosenzweig’s article ‘The Geography of the Air’ (1955: 1). However, within a few lines, it becomes clear that the promise of an examination of the complex relationships between power and aerial geographies is snuffed out, and the remainder of the piece concerns itself with a narrow conception of the geography of air:
“The geography of the air… is the study of the physical differences of the air in various locations and altitudes” (p.1)
This definition, whilst concerning itself with a worthy and longstanding field of study within physical and environmental geography, is, ironically, claustrophobic and airless in its failure to conceive of a wider geography of air.
Below, we sketch out some of the contours of the existing geographies of air and ponder the extent to which human geography has neglected the potentialities of exploring this theme. We do not pretend to have carried out an exhaustive study of pre-existing materials or to have employed academic rigour; we merely offer this up as a ‘think piece’, and we welcome feedback!
The human scale – air, odours, and place
“There’s something surreal about plunging into the bowels of the earth to catch a train. It’s a little world of its own down there, with its own strange winds and weather systems, its own eerie noises and oily smells” (Bryson, 1995)
In this vivid description of the London Underground, Bill Bryson takes the reader’s mind’s eye (or is it their mind’s nose?) to an anonymous platform, where they can easily imagine themselves contemplating the history and complexity of the capital’s underbelly.
This snippet also illustrates how a place can be represented multi-dimensionally. We understand why vision might be the sense that geographers first rely on when trying to understand a place, but sound and smell, let alone the physical sensation of moving air on the skin, deserve more of a look-in, if you excuse the pun. Mustiness and mildew can indicate that a place is uncared-for, abandoned, and past its prime. The stench of human and animal excreta can build on this impression. Smells and noises can be interesting, evocative, and even exciting too.
Indeed, there has been a growing trend to document and explore sensory landscapes in the early years of the 21st Century: psychogeography has experienced somewhat of a renaissance, for example through the writings of Will Self, Iain Sinclair, and Robert MacFarlane. Reflecting on the positionality of these and other writers, there have also been interesting and crucial discussions about dominant ‘gazes’ in an era in which Geography is finally beginning to open itself up to an authorship more representative of humanity.
Nevertheless, researchers, urbanists, artists and writers have woken up and smelt the coffee: lived realities are not just about dry statistics and about what is seen, but they are also about the fuller sensory experience of a place, including odours and sounds. A lovely discussion of ‘The sensory landscape of the city’ took place on Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed in January 2018 and is available here.
It should also be remembered that visual and aural impressions of a place are also transmitted through the medium of air. Accusations that this is stretching the importance of the air too far are easily countered by pointing out that these impressions are affected by atmospheric conditions – for example, if an observer waits for the cloud to clear before taking a photograph of a Lakeland mountain, then they will be misrepresenting the reality of the place when it was shrouded in fog. How often do geographers wait until rain, fog, or wind has passed before recording what a place ‘looks’ like?
The role of air as a medium has of course been crucial in the covid-19 pandemic, and beyond the devastating medical and economic impacts of the virus and attempts to combat it, it also opens several research avenues for geographers, from the impact of ‘social distancing’ on hospitality venues and desire lines in parks to the way it has focused attentions on conceptions of ‘fresh air’.
The economic and cultural, and environmental value of air
Geographers are aware of the importance of views and sight lines in both urban and rural areas. Aesthetics and place attachment are both tied up in these considerations. Recent consideration of ecosystem services has heightened the importance of views, especially as monetary value is placed upon what can be seen from workplaces, homes, sites of leisure and consumption, and in the journeys in between such places. A pleasant view, for example, of greenery, can boost property values. A consideration of the geographies of air must also pay attention to air pollution; such pollution, even more so than water pollution, does not respect borders.
Cultural Geographies of flight
The ability to see the earth from the air was undoubtedly a feat which re-oriented understandings of world Geography. With the modern ease of accessibility to satellite imagery, the ‘view from above’ is something to which people have become all too accustomed. In the not too distant past, this new perspective on the planet revolutionised how people understood the world and their place in it.
The lyrical writings of Frenchman Antoine de Saint Exupéry, a pilot for Aéropostale in the early 1900’s, tend towards awe when describing the experience of flight and the viewpoint it afforded on landscapes passing below. They offer valuable insights into how flying changed our conception of the world:
“Even if a road does venture across a desert, it twists and turns to enjoy the oases […] Flight has brought us knowledge of the straight line.” (Saint Exupéry, 1939, p.33).
The enduring influence of Saint Exupéry’s work highlights how the air has taken on a role as the location in which cultural works are situated.
Alongside wonderment though, geographers ought to consider the extent to which aviation in this period contributed to enshrining colonial ideologies and mindsets. Flying was an activity reserved for colonial elites and being up in the air was assumed as a position of superiority; their subjects (both the human and natural) could be surveilled below. Airline advertisements of the time, like the following (Figure 2), reflected this.
Figure 2: 1919 advertisement for Latécoère (the predecessor to Aéropostale) – regarded as the world’s first airline route map. Moroccans are pictured almost worshiping the arrival of an aircraft resplendent in French insignia
In Part 2, we will mull over aerial militarisation and intensification. We will also consider what is taught, and what might be taught, about the geographies of air, before asking you to contemplate the ‘place’ of geographies of the air in geographical imaginations and curricula.
David Alcock and Harvey Logan
Bryson, B (1995) Notes from a Small Island (HarperCollins)
Ovenden, M and Roberts, M (2019). Airline Maps: A Century of Art and Design. (Penguin)
Possony, S T and Rosenzweig, L (1955) The Geography of the Air in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 299, pp1-11
Saint Exupéry, A (1939; Translated 1991). Wind, Sand and Stars. (Penguin)
“Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up” – David Orr
How should we respond when young people express their worries about the future of the world to us? There is, of course, a need to listen, empathise, and support. But what if the education system can do more than that? What if we can instill hope – active hope – so that our young people can be more confident about the future?
Hopeful Education aims to do just that, by encouraging young people to understand progress, believe in humanity, and help to create a better world. Let’s look at Hopeful Education’s take on these strands.
Progress is a complex notion, but in terms of Hopeful Education, it will be understood as collective social improvement in spheres such as health, education, cooperation, democracy, and prosperity. Global improvements in all these areas have been recorded in the modern era, with a marked acceleration since 1950, but they are under-appreciated. Highlighting such improvements often leads to disbelief, warnings of complacency, accusations of naivety, and even accusations of conspiracy with ‘the establishment’. Some commentators believe that publicising and celebrating progress strengthens the status quo, therefore stifling future progress. These concerns should be recognised and interrogated, but they should not stifle the public’s understanding of progress. Hopeful Education encourages learners to engage with and interrogate the notion of progress, understand the gains that have already been made and why they have been made, and use this understanding to inform debates about future progress.
Belief in humanity has been under increasing threat in recent decades. Humans are social animals, who have thrived largely because they have learned to co-operate, trust, communicate and co-exist with each other. These qualities are still evident in abundance, but they are under-appreciated and are being eroded by polarising and divisive political and media discourse, both deliberate and subconscious. Blaming others, accentuating differences rather than similarities, and an over-representation of the negative side of human nature in media output (including social media) has led to a growing mistrust in human nature. Hopeful Education seeks to reaffirm the potential of human nature to work collectively for the common good, whether that be in the classroom, inter-generationally, locally, nationally, or in the context of global governance and co-operation.
Striving for a better world can, at first glance, be accepted as a given for pretty much everyone in any society, although debate remains as to what constitutes ‘better’, and whether the scope should be restricted to humanity or expanded to cover the whole biosphere. But – especially for children – admitting that one should strive for a better world can come across as self-evident or cliched at best, and crass or indicative of weakness at worst. Striving for a better world is also under threat from both a resurgent nationalism and populism, and from a political focus on the economy over the environment or social wellbeing. It also has a reputation, fostered by some social commentators and politicians, for being vague, hair-shirted, and anti-progress. Hopeful Education champions and facilitates futures thinking and education for sustainable development, taking these crucibles beyond their current homes in citizenship and geography into the broader educational sphere.
Hopeful Education seeks to understand the reasons for nihilism, mistrust, and complacency, but as an avowedly positive movement it seeks to weaken their influence.
A syncretic approach
The three strands of Hopeful Education are not new, but their combination into a coherent educational movement is novel and potentially powerful. Hopeful Education has been informed by a variety of influences, both from within and beyond the world of education. This syncretic approach has its strengths, as it brings together, and builds upon, ideas which may have never been combined in this way before. However, as Hopeful Education develops, inconsistencies, contradictions and gaps will emerge, and it will prompt a myriad of philosophical questions. These should be viewed as strengths, a source of vibrancy, and a basis for deliberation, rather than as weaknesses.
A new type of hope
Names are powerful, and the choice of the name Hopeful Education was a long journey. The author used alternative titles such Optimistic Education in some of his writings in 2018-2020, reflecting his personal worldview. But this was felt to be too prescriptive, and its apparent complacency put it in danger of overshadowing the significant problems and threats faced by humanity and the planet. Other names were also considered – see this blog post for more on this. The author is fully aware of the body of educational literature based around the ‘pedagogy of hope’, inspired by Paolo Freire’s 1992 book of that title (republished in 2004), and including more recent additions such as ‘Educating for Hope’ by David Hicks (2014). Hopeful Education shares some of the philosophy of the pedagogy of hope, for instance the belief that inequality and injustice should be challenged, that educating for hope should be interdisciplinary, and that it is a collective pursuit. However, it differs in that many writers on the pedagogy of hope seem to overlook or dismiss the gains made by humankind in recent decades. There is also sometimes, ironically, a sceptical view of human nature, and the language used in some of the output could be accused of fostering anxiety. As the Hopeful Education movement develops, the author looks forward to engaging with adherents of a pedagogy of hope, and he trusts that his use of the root word ‘hope’ will be taken as a homage rather as a co-option or dilution of a ‘pedagogy of hope’.
Hope, progress and optimism
Hopeful Education chimes with the claims of the one of the key proponents of the pedagogy of hope – David Orr – who wrote that “Realistic hope… requires us to check our optimism at the door and enter the future without illusions” (Orr, 2009: 185). Elsewhere, Orr has opined that “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up” (Orr, 2008) – which sits comfortably with Hopeful Education – but in the very next sentence he goes on to show why at least his conception of a pedagogy of hope diverges from that of Hopeful Education: “I don’t know any reason to be optimistic now, or to predict great success for the human species” (ibid). Whilst Hopeful Education recognises environmental and social challenges, Orr’s bleak statement is in opposition to the first strand of Hopeful Education: it encourages learners to engage with and interrogate the notion of progress, understand the gains that have already been made and why they have been made, and use this understanding to inform debates about future progress.
Vision 2050: the fruits of Hopeful Education
What would the world look like in 2050 if its citizens had undertaken a Hopeful Education?
People would be able to make more reasoned judgements and action, leading to more effective individual, corporate, and government decision-making
People would be less fearful and stressful, resulting in a better place in which to live and to foster future generations, measured by wellbeing and health metrics
People would be more emboldened to take action to resolve the remaining challenges, secure in knowledge that other challenges have been overcome: “When we have a fact-based worldview, we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems – and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better” (Rosling et al, 2018, Factfulness)
People would have more chance to examine, and act on, local issues, as they will have contextualised global trends
In the spirit of openness, it is worth considering some of the challenges which a realisation of this vision might bring: one is that such a world might be more complacent (leading to a reduction in efforts towards realising a better world), and another is that it might become more parochial. Also, one of the assumptions behind this vision is that the world will have experienced a continuation of the current trends in terms of human development – which is possible, but not certain, to occur.
The project begins
Achieving such a worldview will take a monumental, long-term, and multi-pronged approach. Education will play a crucial role. It has the power to instil hope comprehensively, and at a time of life when opinions and critical thinking are being formed. It will not be able to succeed alone: some ideas for how a hopeful worldview might be possible outside of the world of formal education will be given due consideration, and it will be important to bear these in mind when cohesive strategies are being developed. But Hopeful Education is where this project begins.
In my next post I will offer some ideas as to how Hopeful Education could be enacted. In the meantime, please do contact me in the comments below or via @DavidAlcock1 on Twitter. Thank you.
We are living in a covid-19 twilight zone. The certainty and clarity of the ‘stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’ message already seems to belong to a different era. Instead, we are now encouraged to ‘stay alert’ whilst we return to something approaching normality, where we can enjoy a trip to the pub or the shops, or to plan a holiday. As we move incrementally back to our old ways, we should take stock of what has happened and what is happening.
The virus itself has of course led to human suffering, and the government’s responses to it have caused inconvenience at best and misery at worst. The economy has taken the biggest hit since the bursting of the South Sea Bubble in 1720, education has been disrupted, social lives have been shattered, and sports have been hit for six.
The psychological impacts are only just being assessed: who knows what the long-term effects will be, not only of bereavement, but of joblessness, money, and housing worries? On a personal note, as well as having vulnerable older relatives and a nephew who is being shielded, the education and socialisation of my children as well as those whom I teach has been disrupted.
But as restrictions loosen, many of us are already beginning to miss some aspects of life under lockdown. I wrote in April that many neighbourhoods have bonded more than ever before, as people have ventured out for walks and bike rides or have stayed out for a chat after the weekly clap for carers. Local environments are quieter and cleaner, and roads are safer.
As someone who lives just three miles away from Leeds-Bradford Airport, we had become used to the background aircraft noise, but once it disappeared, the atmosphere now seems more peaceful. As a result, birdsong in recent months has been especially vibrant. To complement this – although it’s nothing like the dramatic differences seen in cities in the emerging world, such as Delhi and Shanghai – the skies are clearer and have fewer contrails.
Plenty has been written about the stresses and strains of spending more time under the same roof with one’s family or housemates – and I am under no illusion that such pressures can, and have, led to an increase in domestic abuse. But many households will have enjoyed pastimes together, bonded over more mealtimes, and even had the luxury of talking to each other more often.
Granted, we have been unable, until recently, to visit our relatives outside of Yorkshire, from our new nephew in Stafford, our new niece in Manchester, or my wife’s 90-year-old grandma in Norfolk. But many familial bonds have arguably – and perhaps ironically – been strengthened by this enforced distancing, with phone calls occurring more frequently and the advent of video chats bringing many of us closer together.
Parks – like Wharfe Meadows in Otley – have become havens in these uncertain times
Opportunities to exercise for all but the most vulnerable groups have arisen, and we are lucky that our local authorities have largely avoided closures of parks and other green spaces. Although I will look forward to enjoying more distant national parks and other outdoor spaces when restrictions ease, I have explored many local forests, parks, and moorland areas both with my family and as a cyclist. Local roads have also been quiet enough to take young children on, or alongside.
These are the things that I will miss when they disappear. But will they disappear? The good news is that they might not: the post-covid future has not happened yet. We can all play a part in shaping it. Our individual choices in how to live, how to travel, what to do and how to interact with others will all add up.
I suffer from FOMO – fear of missing out. This has led me to cram my diary with a ballooning list of engagements. This continued after the arrival of children: I felt that I had to take them to different places and to sign them up to various activities, so that they wouldn’t ‘miss out’. I agreed to virtually anything that came up, squeezing out valuable family ‘down time’ and the chance to engage with my locality.
One of my post-covid resolutions is to maintain this degree of connection with my local area, and to disabuse myself of the notion that the grass is always greener on the other side. As well as having personal benefits, this resolution fits in with a broader vision of the development of a more cohesive, active, and greener – some might say sustainable – community.
It’s just a small commitment, but as we emerge blinking into the challenging late-covid world, perhaps we could all take the opportunity to choose one thing – and persevere with it. If we do, our communities could become stronger, our lives more fulfilled, and the future just that little bit brighter.
Every journey starts with one small step. Occasionally you need a nudge to take that step. An old housemate of mine gave me that nudge over a decade ago.
I had been driving to my previous teaching job, six miles from my old house, as a matter of habit: every weekday I would jump in the car, drive off and arrive at school. Then I would drive back. And then I would often go to the gym, or for a run, or a swim, sometime in the evening. Sure, I had a bike, but I barely used it.
My housemate used to cycle to his work place and suggested that I try it too. And one sunny summer’s day I did. But what a kerfuffle – I had to take a suit and my shirt to school the previous day, then go in, shower, get changed, then start my working day. Then there’s the hassle at the end of the school day too. Was it really all worth it?
But the weird thing is that, in my case at least (I live just over five miles from my place of work), once I put a few simple things in place, cycling to work actually saved me time. Why is that?
Thanks to good old traffic congestion, I take the same time to cycle in as it takes other teachers in my area to drive in (not that I am trying to be smug about it – more of that later…)
I keep suits, shoes, towels and so on at work, and replace them on rotation or when I occasionally get the train in
I shower at school – but I would have showered at home anyway – so that’s time neutral!
I no longer have to have a separate training session when I get home – the commute (and extended versions if necessary) is the baseline of my exercise regime
Apart from time saving, the benefits are manifold:
fresh air (half of my route is off the main road)
resilience (getting through the odd cold or rainy journey builds up your defences for some of life’s minor inconveniences)
a feeling of belonging (swapping pleasantries with other cyclists and the same friendly old fellow on his canalside constitutional)
money-saving (we are now a one-car household, saving money on buying, servicing, taxing, and fuelling a second vehicle – and no more gym fees – and many employers offer the Cycle to Work scheme so you can buy a bike from your pre-tax income, and stagger the payments throughout the year)
doing your little bit to reduce carbon dioxide emissions
giving you an extra leisure activity to do in your own time
the ability to eat more food and ‘earning’ the odd beer or two
Yes, I might sound smug, but smugness is an occupational hazard of a cycle commuter! (Give me a virtual slap in the face if you wish.)
Let’s go back to that small step – the first day I biked to my old school. Things soon got into a routine. I went from biking once a week, to twice, then three times. I cycle every day.
Barriers and how to overcome them
There will be barriers to overcome. These can include living far away from your place of work, dropping off children on the way to and from school/nursery (there are ways to do this!), lacking a bike, worries about safety, concerns about your fitness levels, anxieties about frosty or wet journeys… and more. Why not chat to people who already bike in about these barriers and how they can be broken down?
Also, advice can be found on the British Cycling website, and in terms of safety, none of us are immune to the dangers of cycling, but they can be overstated, and awareness of risk probabilities will help you to put them in perspective.
Moreover, I believe that the risks are outweighed by the mental and physical health benefits of cycling. Some unions will support you in the case of accidents which might take place on your commute – and you could seek extra cover from British Cycling or other providers.
My journey started with a small step. What will nudge you to take yours? Could it be the lighter traffic we are seeing in these times of remote working? Could it be worries about public transport? The need to save money and get fit? If you are able to, why not do a Tebbit and get on your bike? (If you live far away, trains have space for bikes and you could bike the first or last part of your journey.)
Read on for some hints and tips if your interest has been piqued…
Try a weekend recce of your journey – you could even make it into an expedition with your family or friends
Ask someone who already cycle-commutes for suggestions as to the best way to come (the safest and most enjoyable route may not be the shortest or the one that your smart phone suggests)
Canals are much safer from the point of view of accidents, but can be quiet places, so consider cycling with a friend for safety
Make use of cycle lanes (especially traffic-free ones)
“Would you like to live in a cleaner, safer, healthier, friendlier, more beautiful, more democratic, sustainable world in which you know your neighbours and it is safe for your children to play in the street?”
That is the question which geographer John Adams posed in 2001. It would be difficult to find anyone who would answer in the negative. But the situation is complicated by its flipside:
“Would you like a car, unlimited air miles and a capacity to travel anywhere you would like to?”
Until very recently, it would have been extremely tempting to answer in the affirmative. More capacity to travel would mean that we could enjoy more holidays and see more of our family and friends in far-flung places, wouldn’t it? More exposure to different people and cultures from around the world would also have cultural benefits: travel broadens the mind. Foreign exchanges, spells of working abroad, and other travels have certainly widened my horizons, and future generations would surely benefit from similarly mind-opening journeys. Most economists would add that with our ‘tourist pounds’, we are able to spread the benefits of economic growth all over the world.
A mind-opening journey to Montserrat – Source: Author
But Adams pointed out that if we live in a world in which everyone’s wish for more travel is granted, then life will become more challenging for everyone, and especially so for the poor and disenfranchised. His especial beef was with the increasing propensity for people to travel further, faster, more frequently, and more excessively than ever before – a trend he called ‘hypermobility’.
The impacts of hypermobility
One of Adams’s concerns was the environmental cost of excessive travel. I share those concerns, and I cycle to work and limit my flying to once every couple of years, as my contribution to allaying them. But as an optimist, I look forward to an era with unlimited ‘green’ energy, therefore in a generation or so, his concerns about pollution should, I hope, become baseless.
However, regardless of the environmental costs of travel, Adams argued convincingly that a world in which more people can travel where they want and when they want, would be “dangerous, ugly, bleak, crime-ridden, alienated, anonymous, undemocratic [and] socially polarized”.
His overriding worry was that vast numbers of people moving around in sealed-off bubbles to ever more distant places threatens social cohesion. Physically removing people from each other makes us feel less community-minded and therefore less likely to act in ways which contribute towards the common good.
Was Adams whistling in the wind? Twenty years after his call to curtail ‘hypermobility’, outside of a handful of cities in affluent countries, there have been few signs of a significant shift in ‘car culture’ anywhere in the world… until recent weeks.
Window of opportunity
Perhaps a new window of opportunity has been opened which may allow us to reverse the trend of hypermobility. People across the world have begun to get used to different ways of life in recent weeks, including working from home and limiting the journeys we make to undertake exercise.
There are more people than usual exercising in neighbourhood streets and open spaces. This seems paradoxical – in a lockdown, surely the opposite would be true? But without gyms to visit and with trips to beauty spots discouraged, many people are exploring the areas near to their homes. Might we have had a taste of a more sustainable future?
Yes, our encounters with each other have been awkward – a kind of coronavirus sidestep takes place to keep two metres of distance between us. However, the exchange of smiles, nods and friendly words has been heartening after hours cooped up indoors. And then there’s the joy of seeing friends and neighbours out on their perambulation, as well as the intangible benefit of connecting with one’s local ‘turf’.
I see vast potential in continuing with some of these ways of life after the lockdown is loosened. I am not alone – the AA President, Edmund King, says that the coronavirus crisis will change the way that we live, work and travel, and that some of the money earmarked for road infrastructure could instead be channelled into enhancing broadband provision to help home working.
And planners from Jan Gehl to Jeff Speck have lauded the concept of the ‘walkable city’. Their research shows that small exchanges with others – whether they are strangers or friends, colleagues or shop-workers – give life a much-needed lift and an indefinable buzz to our everyday life.
Cutting back on our excessive use of transport would sacrifice some of the benefits of frequent travel, but is this not worthwhile in order, as Adams put it, to “protect and enhance what we value in nature and our relations with friends and neighbours”? Community cohesion would improve, our streets would be safer, and our planet would thank us. It wouldn’t be easy, as it would come up against great opposition. However:
“To question the benefits of hypermobility is not to deny freedom and choice. It is to ask people what it is that they really, really want, and to confront them with the fact that their choices have consequences beyond the primary objects of their desires. Collective self-discipline is the wise exercise of freedom and choice.” (Adams, 2001: 10)
Twenty years after the idea was first floated, it’s finally time to become less hyper about mobility.
There has been a boom in advice for parents and guardians over the last few days about what they can do with their children for the upcoming weeks – and probably months – off school. In my position as a geography teacher, outdoor educator, orienteering coach, and father of two young children, I have some experience at knowing what might work well, and in what context. Please find below some thoughts and suggestions on how to combine educating and entertaining your children in and around the home in these challenging times.
Work within the structure that your children’s school has put in placefor remote working. One of the reasons why most school days are divided into different lessons of between 35 and 60 minutes in duration, is because learning, and especially learning in childhood, is more effective in short bursts and when it is ‘interleaved‘, i.e. with learners encountering different subjects and topics throughout the school day, week and term. But be aware that in a school-based day, children ‘depressurise’ between lessons by chatting to their friends whilst they physically move around the school site; you could replicate this by allowing them 5 minutes to contact their friends and/or to move around (see below for some really short ideas).
Children thrive onvariety, and this might mean doing several activities in one day – perhaps interspersed by periods of playing educational and not-so-educational computer games and watching CBeebies/CBBC/YouTube (delete as appropriate!).
Be flexible: be willing to go off on a tangent if your child takes you on one!
Keep it simple. Younger children in particular can let their imagination run wild with things as simple as chalk, clean paintbrushes and den-building materials – see below for some easy ideas.
Don’t splash the cash. You don’t need to spend lots of money: use your school or public library if it is still open, visit charity shops, and where possible, share toys, books and other materials with other families, taking care to disinfect them if necessary.
Use technology judiciously. Although your children may not like to admit it, they will probably be overdosing on it. This is not only because most schools will be expecting your child to use technology to receive, undertake and submit work, but also because in place of face-to-face socialising in school, your children will probably want to use social media even more frequently than usual.
Make the most ofmealtimes together, and build preparation into your time together (see below). My children are on the fussier end of the spectrum, so eating together can be a frustrating experience, but at least we have time to talk about things and you might even wheedle out some of their worries (coronavirus included).
Now we have covered some of the basics, what about some practical ideas?
Some people will be able to leave the house, as long as they maintain social distancing protocols – the main one of which is to stay about 2m from other people. And, most of the time in spring and summer, the increasingly clement weather and lighter days should facilitate this. The summer term is when many schools run outdoor learning activities and field trips, and the current shutdown means that children are in danger of missing out on these valuable opportunities. It is important to keep the outdoor flame burning – in all its inquisitive, active, resilience-building, messy, muddy, invigorating glory. (Inspired by Nicholas Tampio, I reflect on why face-to-face learning works here.)
Some of the simplest ideas for the youngest children in your household involve art – for example, paintbrushes dipped in water provide a surprisingly entertaining distraction, and investing in jumbo chalks gives children free rein over your patio and walls:
For older children, why not inspire them into producing outdoor artworks in the style of Andy Goldsworthy? The Art department at Bradford Grammar School develop this idea in the annual Year 9 Outdoor Learning Day:
Easy activities, like gardening, can be tailored into learning opportunities. These activities include the building of a ‘bug hotel’, and planting bulbs (it’s not too late for some varieties) and vegetables. The RSPB – which nowadays has a remit which has spread towards the conservation of all wildlife – has many great ideas on their website. If this inspires you, then it is good to know that anyone can join the RSPB at a subscription rate of your own choice, after which you will receive a folder of activities to do in any season, plus one of two age-appropriate quarterly children’s magazines containing other activities.
The time is also ripe for children in Key Stages 1-3 in particular to undertake many of the zany activities developed by the Mission:Explore collective. Some of their books and ideas are available to download for free on websites such as this one or this one, or to buy on Amazon. Their Facebook page and Twitter account contain archives of many of their activities. One example is below:
The Scout Association are, of course, experts at outdoor learning, and this page contains hundreds of outdoor ideas, sortable by time, cost and group size:
Going out for a walk in the local park or woods may be enough to stimulate your children – and those of any age will need little prompting to make dens or dam brooks. It has been proven that spending time in green spaces – and especially forests – is great for mental health. One way of embracing this opportunity is to undertake walking meditation – or what some Buddhists call ‘forest bathing’. Bradford Grammar students have tried this in the last two outdoor learning days:
To introduce more intellectual challenge into such trips, why not find and print an orienteering map of these areas, and use it to plan your way around routes of increasing complexity. There are hundreds of so-called ‘permanent orienteering courses’, with posts to visit – some of which have QR codes to scan to prove you have been to each location – and to add to the challenge, why not run them? See the British Orienteering website for more information.
There are more outdoor learning ideas in the Outdoor Classroom Day website – and in some of my earlier blog posts, such as this one. Finally, the ‘hive mind’ of the Bradford Grammar School staff helped in the collection of outdoor learning activities covered here.
Much of the day will, either by choice or necessity, be spent indoors.
Simple pleasures such as reading, practising a musical instrument, or jigsaws, will undoubtedly see a rise in popularity in the coming weeks. The art of letter-writing, perhaps to an elderly relative, or to friends, may well make a comeback too.
There should be more time for meal planning and preparation in the coming weeks too. Making a pizza dough, then leaving it to rise, then knocking it back, adding toppings, then putting it in the oven, then waiting again for it to cook, is an easy way to engage children in the structure (and fun) of cooking, as well as teaching them patience! Older children could also benefit from some home economics practice as part of their move towards independence.
What could pupils do to fill the gaps between lessons, aside from engaging in social media? Rationing mobile phone usage may well be the best policy, as evidence shows that even having a phone in one’s field of vision can reduce productivity. So what about those low-tech activities? Picking up a new physical skill in small doses may be worthwhile – I remember learning to juggle in the five-minute gaps between revision for my GCSEs back in the ’90s! Engaging in an intense intellectual activity such as a crossword could also be an outlet for older students: more able ones could even learn the art of the cryptic crossword.
As well as their outdoor provision, The Scouts have produced a section on their website called ‘The Great Indoors’, containing over a hundred ideas. See below:
For those looking to model real-world phenomena and processes, I recommend a web search for ‘kitchen geography’. Have a look at this video, for instance, which recreates glacial erosion in your own home!
There will be other people with more experience than me in the arena of arts, crafts and music-making, so I will leave my suggestions here for now.
Good luck, and I hope to be able to put more out there in the coming weeks. As ever, I welcome your thoughts.