Optimism assembly

137,000 people escape poverty Breaking News

This assembly was delivered to BGS, 23 November 2018.  Contact me for the full slideshow.

Is the world getting better?

Thinking generally about the world, all things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse, or neither getting better nor worse?  You choose:

A: Getting better
B: Neither getting better nor getting worse
C: Getting worse

So, what do you reckon?  Please vote now.

This is surely one of the most important questions that humanity can ask of itself.

Dhaka slum picture Alcock 2001

Photo of slum in Dhaka, 2000 (Author)

My faith in human progress was shaken when, almost twenty years ago, I went on a round the world trip which ended up lasting 17 months.

I had learned about development in school and how some people said that rich countries made poor countries poor.  This trip was part of what led me into teaching – I felt like I needed to show people what the world was really like.

What I saw – for example, street dwellers in Kolkata and slum dwellers in Dhaka – seemed to back up my preconceptions.

Anti WEF Protest Melbourne Alcock 2000

Protests against the WEF in Melbourne, 2000 (Author)

It also led me to take part in protests against what I felt was an unjust situation – of forces, perhaps capitalism, perhaps globalisation – which were dragging the world down – this one happened whilst I was in Melbourne.

But what I didn’t fully realise was that, yes, extreme poverty was real, and yes, humans do have a capacity to harm each other, but what I was seeing was only what was happening at one point in time, and that over time, progress is being made – people are escaping poverty, they are living longer, more and more people are getting an education, there are growing numbers of democracies, there are fewer wars…  In fact, in virtually every social and economic aspect, and in many environmental aspects too, progress is being made.

Poverty % with my travels

Graph source: Max Roser et al (2018): http://www.ourworldindata.org

The theme of this week is optimism, and I would like you to question both your attitude towards the future and why you hold your opinions.

So, back to the question I kicked off with.  I have been doing a little bit of research about your opinions.  Thank you to my Year 8, 11 and 12 Geography sets, and ten members of staff I collared at random.  So what did these groups believe about the future of the planet?

Year Group getting better

It appears that the staff are more optimistic than the pupils, but that the majority view is that the world is going to carry on as it is, or get worse.

Country getting better

Source: Author’s research; Ipsos-MORI

In fact, the BGS average is higher than the results for the UK and similar countries – but it’s still not a resounding victory for optimism.  Let’s see what beliefs about the world might lie behind the lack of optimism.

In the last 20 years the proportion of people living in extreme poverty, worldwide, has…?

A. Almost doubled
B. Remained more or less the same
C. Almost halved

Think about it.

The answer is C: Almost halved

I asked the groups for their verdict.  Here it is:

Poverty survey

You will notice that I have put a column for a chimp on the right hand side, to represent the 33% chance of the answer being chosen at random (inspired by Hans Rosling, author of Factfulness – show book).  So every group here underestimated the true degree of economic progress in the world – their results are worse than random!  But why? We’ll come to that later.  Next question please.

Slide: In all low income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?
A. 20%
B. 40%
C. 60%

Think about it – what would you have voted?

The answer is C: 60%

How did the respondents do?

Low income girls in primary school survey

Oh dear – we have underestimated progress yet again.  Next question.

Slide: There are two billion children in the world today, aged 0 to 15 years old. How many children will there be in the year 2100 according to the United Nations?
A. 4 billion
B. 3 billion
C. 2 billion

Think about it – what would you have voted?

The answer is C: 2 billion

How did my group do?

2 billion children in world survey

Well done to the two Year 11s who got this correct.  To everyone else in my survey – never mind, better luck next time.  I will pause to explain this one, because your results were so far out.

The world’s population is now almost 8 billion and it will probably top out at 10-11 billion.  Most of this growth is due to today’s children having children, and to people living longer.  But it’s not due to more births: women around the world have fewer babies than ever before – the global average is only just over two.  In 1960 it was 5.  Family planning and good healthcare mean that the so-called ‘population bomb’ has fizzled out.

Let’s have one more question.

Slide: How many people in the world have some access to electricity?
A. 20%
B. 50%
C. 80%

What do you reckon?

The answer is C: 80%

Our survey said…

Elec access survey

Well done Year 12s!

Here is a summary of just some of the positive trends in the world over the last few decades – it has become more peaceful, more democratic, healthier, better nourished, better educated, more connected, gender equal, and more tolerant.

For example, current UN trends show that the “ending of extreme poverty for all people everywhere” is due to occur by 2026.  The end of extreme poverty for all people everywhere – in only eight years – before some of you even turn twenty – is this a dream?

So at least one part of John Lennon’s lyrics – for ‘Imagine’ in 1980 – “Imagine there’s no need for greed or hunger” – is due to be met within perhaps all of our lifetimes – wow.

Lennon also sang “Imagine all the people living life in peace” – might this happen, barring relatively minor skirmishes, by the middle of the century?  With wealth comes property and with property comes a degree of calm…  Something to ponder.

There are significant challenges facing the world – many of them environmental.  Here are some of these challenges: climate change, extremism, cybercrime, pollution, inequality and recessions.  I am not saying that you should sit back and do nothing.  I am saying that we should carry on striving – and that we should not give up hope.

In summary, many of us underestimate the amount of progress that has been made in the world.  This is explored in great depth in books like ‘Factfulness’ by Hans Rosling et al (in the school library).

But don’t blame yourself for getting things wrong!  Blame these instead: the media, outdated information, mistrust of good news, and human psychology.

Let’s start with the media: be aware that bad news sells, and most bad news comes suddenlyGood news tends to come slowly.

If news outlets truly reported the changing state of the world, they could have run the headline ‘NUMBER OF PEOPLE IN EXTREME POVERTY FELL BY 137,000 SINCE YESTERDAY’ every day for the last twenty-five years.

137,000 people escape poverty Breaking News

I acknowledge http://www.breakyourownnews.com for the template (Photo: Author)

Outdated information – this one is quite simple – keep up to date!  Watch documentaries, and follow trusted news outlets.

Mistrust of good news: Steven Pinker says “Those who spread fear about a dreadful prophesy may be seen as serious and responsible, while those who are measured are seen as complacent and naïve”.  Try to prove him wrong!

Your mind warps your perceptions too.  Psychologists talk about anchoring – where we tend stick to the first opinion that we form about a subject, and defend it, often against the weight of evidence.

They also talk about the negativity instinct – negative stories have the edge over positive ones, because of the risks we faced in humanity’s formative years, such as bear attacks.

There is availability bias – a misjudgement where we believe that reality is all we can easily call to mind.

And finally, confirmation bias – where we seek validation rather than challenges to our views.

Adjusting your world view

Here are some rules of thumb so you don’t get caught out again!  Look for more on the Geography corridor.  Why is this important?  Negativity allows seeds of discontent and despair to take root.  Many people today have difficulty imagining, valuing, or even believing in the promise of incremental change, which leads to a greater appetite for revolutionary change.

Is it time to reconsider your answer to the question we started off with?

Slide: Is the world getting better?
Thinking generally about the world, all things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse, or neither getting better nor worse?  You choose:

A: Getting better
B: Neither getting better nor getting worse
C: Getting worse

Thank you.

A hopeful Geography?

The argument is familiar to geographers, but it is not familiar to most members of the general public and it bears retelling:

In almost all social and economic aspects, and in many environmental ones too, the world is getting better.  From Julian Simon in the 1980s, to Bjorn Lomborg in the 1990s, and Hans Rosling, Max Roser, and Steven Pinker in the 2000s, there has been a reaction against the largely negative tone of the media, and a desire for a more fact-based, level-headed and optimistic – or at least, in the words of Rosling (2018), a ‘possibilistic’ – view of the world.

MDG : Hans rosling wealth health graph

Hans Rosling with his moving bubble chart: there is a development continuum of countries, and there is a clear path towards a healthier and wealthier future for humankind

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/quiz/2013/nov/07/development-data-population-quiz-hans-rosling

Geography is not immune to criticism in this regard.  Although the discipline often prides itself on its balanced, empirical, and critical approach to the most important issues in the world, the tone of some of its output fails to reflect the global progress that has been made in areas as varied as life expectancy, peace, tolerance, sanitation and quality of life: the full list would justify a blog post in its own right, but see Pinker (2018), Rosling (2018), and Roser.  It might even be said that the themes that we study – disasters, overpopulation, climate change, conflict, pollution and deindustrialisation, to name but a few – give us a handicap to begin with: could Geography be in danger of taking the mantle of ‘the dismal science’ from Economics?

The discipline has a role to play in redressing the negativity present in much of the media and politics, and its practitioners should also be aware of the psychological quirks which tend to predispose humans to look at many phenomena in a negative way (Duffy, 2018).

Negativity can be dangerous – it could make students overly fearful and more willing to think that things are out of their control, and therefore less likely to take action on some of the most important issues in society.  It is also deleterious to the discipline: it may put students off taking the subject, and it can be dull to teach.

It need not be like this.  I would like Geographers, whether in any branch of education, or those who consider themselves to be Geographers in other spheres, to consider the role that the discipline can play in this task.  (Many readers will no doubt disagree with my premise, in which case I also welcome your input and evidence!)  I will draw your comments together and in the first instance I will blog about them; later I will use them to help me prepare my session for the 2019 Geographical Association Conference; and I then plan to plunge my energies into a more formal research project.

The main themes I would like you to consider are the themes we study, the way that we approach the themes that we study, and the learning activities that we undertake.

A few of my first – perhaps provocative – thoughts are below:

  • Do we sometimes fail to communicate the dynamic nature of some of our subjects? Should we reframe enquiry questions to reflect the ‘direction of travel’ of the world – for example, should we ask ‘Why are some countries rich?’, rather than ‘Why are some countries poor?’
  • Do we focus on the ‘worst case’ studies and places, and when those areas improve, do we drop them for the next ‘worst case’, rather than looking at how most places quietly and gradually improve over time?
  • Is enough attention paid to historical successes?  Within Health Geography, for instance, why is the rapid drop in mortality and morbidity due to the collapse of polio and smallpox often absent?
  • In terms of some of the ‘tricky’ themes such as climate change and globalisation, do we accurately convey the relative scale of positives compared to negatives?
  • Is enough attention paid within Geography to the power of the media and politics, and on how psychology affects our perceptions of reality?
  • Is there a need for a radical programme of teacher re-training to enable practitioners to get an accurate world-view?
  • Are we too scared as a discipline to contemplate the promulgation of a more ‘hopeful Geography’, for fear of being labelled reactionary, or even mouthpieces of the alt-right?

Finally, if you have any examples of activities or resources you have come across that either foster an unjustifiably negative world view, or, in contrast, those which gear students up to take a more fact-based view of the world, then please also let me know (one such example of the latter is Paul Turner’s six-lesson scheme of work on ‘Factfulness’).

You will appreciate that these are just some short and basic thoughts on the matter, and they lack polish.

Thank you for your time.

David

Some further reading:

Duffy, B. (2018) The Perils of Perception (Atlantic)

Pinker, S (2018) Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Humanism and Progress (Allen Lane)

Roser, Max (n.d.): Our World in Data: www.ourworldindata.org

Rosling, H, Rosling, O and Rosling-Ronnlund, A (2018) Factfulness (Sceptre)

 

Let’s take this outside – ideas for outdoor learning in the humanities and beyond

Lets take this outside

Below are some of the ways that you could take learning outdoors in the humanities and beyond.  They are based on personal experience and come from a session I presented at the Practical Pedagogies conference in Cologne (http://practicalpedagogies.net/) on 1st November 2018.  Many thanks to the people and organisations who were the original source of many of these ideas – I have included weblinks and credits where I could.  Please feel free to spread the word and to contact me for any more information/clarification.

Mental maps

As with any activity, it’s good to start with what students already know, so why not give them a blank piece of paper, and ask them to draw a ‘mental map’ of the place they are about to visit – or give them a map with outlines (for street maps of anywhere in the world: www.oomap.co.uk) and they write down what they feel about each place?  This could be good for a discrete place like the school grounds or a local park.  They could then ask members of the public, or members of a focus group, to do this too.  Try to give it a theme, e.g. ‘where do you feel safe’? ‘Where do you feel positive/negative?’

MindMapSF

Mental map of San Francisco, drawn by a resident of a northern suburb

Source: http://groups.ischool.berkeley.edu/mentalmaps/

Circle formation

This is often the best way to communicate in the outdoors, due to wind/traffic noise/blocked views.

Use of props

Chalk can be used to draw pie charts, bar charts, or to demonstrate tallies based on compass wedges.

Toilet rolls (or ropes) could be used as contour lines, or timelines, or to help with a ‘journey to the centre of the earth’: https://www.earthlearningidea.com/PDF/196_Journey_centre_E.pdf.

Rubber ducks could encourage students to take photos of as many places as possible – challenge students to ‘see how many places you can put the duck’!

Use the environment to help you

Use the natural and built environment to help you.

E.g. use slopes as amphitheatres; trees as rain cover; environment and passers-by as story prompts (what is that person doing?)

Find elements of built environment to use too – e.g. steps could be used for ‘steps to empathy’ – see South Sudan activity from Oxfam UK: https://www.oxfam.org.uk/education/resources/south-sudan , slopes for contours (NB look for a viewpoint), and so on.

A hook

Important to find a hook for an outdoor learning experience – e.g. news story, Sixth Former having difficulty parking, etc

e.g. Geography of Crime – Where on the school campus do students feel secure?  Where do they leave their belongings?

e.g. Urban Task Force – e.g. Lister Park – this could be done as a School Task Force – pupils could draw on safer cycling/walking/parking layouts in chalk?  Design a place for children/humans rather than cars – link to Jan Gehl’s ‘The Human Scale’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ri4CeM0xUr0 and http://gehlarchitects.com – class members picture themselves as urban researchers and developers along Gehl’s lines.  Then share with SLT/estates team/councillor/local paper/Neighbourhood Watch group/Facebook group/etc

 Using the circle for sampling

One way is to use the circle idea from before, and ask students to look at a point in the distance and walk towards it, gathering data as they approach it.

Using your senses

Soundscape Wheel

Soundscape Wheel – source: www.goodcitylife.org 

Hearing: Turn around, and close your eyes for 30secs, focus on what you can hear, then note it.

Smellscape Wheel

Smellscape Wheel – source: www.researchswinger.org

Smell: Ditto for smell.

Sight: it’s very easy to get distracted, so consider using cards, adapted from the Field Studies Council – www.field-studies-council.org – to get your students to stick to what they see – e.g. follow a bird, follow a line, sit on a bench and see what happens, look at your feet.

Emotional mapping – see extract from Teaching Geography (Autumn 2018) – www.geography.org.uk

 Other ways of sampling

  • Systematic: photo every 2mins/1 lamppost
  • Line transect: buy day rider and get off at every bus/train/tram/underground stop
  • Random:
  • Dice
  • Online random number generator: turn your study area into a 10×10 grid (or use random numbers to allocate squares then do 10×10 within this)
  • Follow a contour as close as possible / visit all spot heights
  • Inspired by Mission:Explore:
  • Dérive: pick a person and follow them
  • Toss coin several times before leaving, to help you plan your ‘random’ route: heads=turn right, tails=turn left
  • Let your dog take you for a walk

 Data collection methods

Beyond the questionnaire (credit is again due to Mission:Explore – www.missionexplore.net – for some of these ideas)

 Cappuccino index – in order to assess the affluence of different customers, students (post-16) plot the cost of a medium cappuccino at all the cafes they pass en route.  Then, back in the classroom, they plot these figures as proportional symbols and/or isolines. [Source: Simon Hinchliffe]

Word clouding – students ask passers-by to come up with five words to describe the area – or they might present the passers-by with a table of 20-30 terms which they would use.  Back in the classroom, the students input the data into www.wordle.net to produce a ‘word cloud’

 Set up a stall to collect positive messages about area

Set up a legal graffiti wall, photograph it every hour/day

 ‘Plug in and turn off’ – i.e. pretend to listen to music but actually listen to conversations and note down recurring themes

 Empathy – students wear a blindfold or vision impaired glasses to start to empathise with the point of view of someone with a disability.  Or they could get on their knees to get a child’s-level view, and take photos from both perspectives.

Spend a day as a refugee – limited budget for lunch/ hand out guide in another language to empathise with a refugee

Historical maps to work out what has changed and why: https://digimapforschools.edina.ac.uk/

Poetry – read out poetry that is set in your place of study

Video viewpoints – go to the place a video was taken from and show historic footage filmed from that viewpoint (e.g. first film – Leeds Bridge – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJLr0cTzRYk )

Blue plaque quest – note name, sex, age, years – and reason for fame

 Statue study – Investigate the statues in a place. How are men and women differently represented? Share a photo of the most typical statue you can find.

Rename and rebrand 1 – name the section of the walk that you have just undertaken – what would sum up its essential nature?  What might attract different groups of people to undertake the walk?  How might you publicise it?  (e.g. Dijon and Leeds have Owl Trails – http://www.leedsowltrail.com/ – and the Chevin Geology Trail – http://chevinforest.co.uk/uploads/Geology/chevin_trail_2.pdf )

Rename and rebrand 2 – Ask your students to keep their eyes open during one particular neighbourhood.  Don’t tell the students what the name of the neighbourhood/redevelopment district is that they have just explored.  Instead, ask them to name it.  Give them examples of (re)branding that have helped parts of cities get a new image – e.g. a run-down part of Salford became Media City; the part of Leicester that has the new Curve Theatre in it is called the Cultural Quarter.

The other side of the tracks? – Walk a route and, on a small map of the area, draw the boundary between rich/poor, old/young, safe/unsafe, etc.  Or with red pen, draw boundaries that pedestrians might be wary of crossing.  Or with a highlighter, highlight the most cycle-friendly/pedestrian-friendly roads in an area, and/or the most dangerous.  For more ideas, see http://groups.ischool.berkeley.edu/mentalmaps/index.html

Urban Repair Squad – Where would you paint a new pedestrian crossing?  Or bike path?  Mark it on your map and/or use chalk to mark it on the ground.  Some groups take matters into their own hands – Google ‘guerrilla gardening’ and http://grist.org/urbanism/2011-06-23-five-provocative-ways-to-think-about-cities-and-neighborhoods/

Graffiti spotting – jot down where graffiti is found and what it says.  Consider why it is located there.

Care for the locality – How long do people wait before picking up litter on a path/bench/pick up an exercise book/a toy duck?!  Repeat the experiment in different areas of the school/park.

Things to map

  • CCTV cameras
  • Gardens – look, area, biodiversity, smell, number of cars…
    Dereliction/ to let/ for sale/ abandoned areas
  • Human communication (painted rocks, graffiti, council signs); colour code into do/don’t/neutral

Signs

What signs/words would you remove to make the area more pleasant?

What signs would you add?

Back to the classroom

So you have come up with a question, gathered data, presented it, analysed it, concluded and evaluated it (not time to go through the whole sequence of enquiry but Geographers are used to it)… but what next?

Many students engage better if they are given a choice of how to present their project.  We are moving towards this at BGS, with aim of at least one ‘multi-outcome’ task per year group. Sometimes this could be a simple choice between a talk, a poster, or a presentation.  Or, as in our Year 9 South Sudan project, it could be, for example, to teach a lesson to a class, create a social media campaign complete with a website, or write a letter to your MP.  This allows for individual and group work.

 Taking it further – cross-curricular outdoor learning

In June 2018, all 120 Year 9 pupils at Bradford Grammar School www.bradfordgrammar.com enjoyed a day of outdoor learning.  The purpose was to demonstrate to pupils (and staff) how learning can take place outside the classroom, and to increase resilience to its challenges (e.g. to prepare them for navigational demands of DofE).  Please contact me if you would like to run such a day at your school.