A Hopeful Geography – the story so far – part 1


Source: Wikimedia: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/1d/Placemark-globe.svg/768px-Placemark-globe.svg.png

Last month, I put a call out to those involved in geographical education, asking for ideas for how we can redress the negativity present in much of the educational discourse about global affairs, and instead rebalance students’ view of the world towards a more fact-based and progressive one.  Thank you to all who have responded – I have used some of your ideas below, and I have also been pondering and conducting some more research into the issue.

I also have not repeated any of the suggestions/provocations from my previous post, which can be found here. But I have split the articles into two parts: this is the first installment, which contains some practical ideas for educators.  Part two will contain some deeper feedback and ideas for next steps.  I will also use these articles to inform my presentation on ‘The New Optimism and Geography’ at the Geographical Association conference in Manchester in April.

Practical ideas for educators

The original – Gapminder

It has been said many times before, but teachers should endeavour to keep their subject knowledge up to date – and one way of doing this is to take the Gapminder Ignorance quiz yourself (before setting it to your students).  Elena Lengthorn (@ELengthorn) does this with her Geography PGCE students.  There is also a growing list of resources (including videos) at www.gapminder.org.

ignorance project logo

Source: Gapminder: http://www.gapminder.org

Secondly, could you consider teaching ‘factfulness’ as a discrete ‘skill’ – via one or two lessons (using Gapminder resources) or as a scheme of work in its own right – for example the one developed this year by Paul Turner (@geography_paul)?  This would help students to realise that they are subject to misperceptions brought about by ‘fast thinking’ and other biases.

Paula Cooper collated a set of resources about teaching a fact-based world view in 2010 on the GA (@The_GA) website – https://www.geography.org.uk/Gapminder-and-Worldmapper – and her GCSE resource book  ‘Uneven development – for richer, for poorer’ was published by The GA in 2010.  Both resources contain useful and inspiring ideas about addressing misconceptions, but such is the dynamic nature of this area of Geography that the data and links featured therein require updating (I will be approaching the GA to see if I can get involved in this!).

In a personal communication, Ola Rosling (@OlaRosling) has revealed that the Gapminder Foundation will be training Gapminder Ambassadors, who will be spreading the Factfulness message in the coming years.  I have registered my interest in this initiative – watch this space!

A hero for our times – Captain Geography!

Alan Parkinson (@geoblogs) shared the resources from his session on ‘Positive Geographies’ at the recent Scottish Association of Geography Teachers conference.  He covered a wide range of ways which could be used to inspire and teach students about ‘solutions’ to some of our most complex problems.  These include adopting a character called ‘Captain Geography – a hero for the Anthropocene’.  A few questions to consider here are: What missions should your students send him/her on, and why?  What should his/her superpowers be?  Who would his/her fellow superheroes be?

Agents for change – ‘A Better World Detectives’

Another ‘takeaway’ idea from Alan, for KS2/3 pupils, is to use the resources from TUI, jointly developed with the Geographical Association, called ‘A Better World Detectives’: https://www.tui.co.uk/better-world-detectives

Impartial facts – Our World in Data

We should also know where to point older students towards in order for them to gain facts about the world which are as impartial and up to date as possible – for example, www.ourworldindata.org which is led by Max Roser (@MaxCRoser).  The natural disasters graph shown later in this post comes from this website.

Optimistic outcomes – The World We Made

The World We Made cover

Could you encourage your students to look at the future via ‘optimistic’ outcomes, so that they might be able to see the fruits of the hard work needed in the years to come?  For example, at the Practical Pedagogies conference this year, Nicholas Garrick (@lightinguplearn) introduced me to Jonathan Porritt’s 2013 book ‘The World We Made’, which is a history of how the world made responsible decisions, told from the perspective of 2050.

Future archaeologies – digging down to the 2010s

Linked to this, and inspired by another session at the Practical Pedagogies conference, by Caron Downes (@caron_downes), I plan to recreate an archaeological ‘dig’.  When teaching resources/sustainability, I will bury items (like plastic bottle caps) from the 2010s in sand and ask students to pretend that they are archaeologists in 2050.  When they dig up each artefact, they can use them to assess how sustainably we lived our lives in the 2010s.

Textbooks – handle with care!

Textbooks should be updated frequently and issued with factual ‘health warnings’.  You could even set ‘fact check challenges’ to see how quickly the data has changed, or could you reward students who find the most significant mistake in a textbook?

Reframing hazards

When Geography teachers consider the way that they frame their approach to hazards, perhaps there should be more focus (excuse the pun) on the immense progress made in terms of managing hazards (especially atmospheric ones) and reducing death tolls?  (See the graph below.)  Is there a need to reframe the study of hazardous events in a more balanced light: it is indeed a step in the right direction to move on from calling them ‘natural disasters’ (Puttick et al, 2018) – but might a further relabelling be beneficial – ‘hazards and resilience’, perhaps?

Global annual death rate from natural disasters [sic], by decade, 1900s-2010s

Source: https://ourworldindata.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Global-annual-death-rate-from-natural-disasters-01.png 

Watch your words!

A Year 9 pupil recently asked me in my lesson, referring to a sketch in a KS3 textbook, “Why is it that India is referred to being ‘halfway down’ the [development] ladder, whereas China is referred to as being ‘halfway up’ it?”.  When we frame geographical questions, should we endeavour to use language which reflects the overall ‘direction’ of the trend?  For instance, rather than asking ‘why do so many people die from disasters?’ we could instead ask ‘why is the number of deaths from natural disasters falling?’.  We could therefore reserve the more ‘worryingly’ framed questions for those trends which are heading in the ‘wrong’ direction, therefore lending them more import.

Next steps

Please keep those ideas coming, and, building on the manifesto put forward by Hans Rosling et al in Factfulness (2018; summarised here), could you also let me know of some further ‘rules of thumb’ which practitioners could follow for managing and overcoming ignorance and misperceptions?

In my next instalment of the ‘Hopeful Geography’ story, I will also be referencing Bobby Duffy’s overview of the psychology of misperceptions ‘The Perils of Perception: why we’re wrong about nearly everything’ (Duffy, 2018) – it’s well worth a read!

Thank you again.



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

Porritt, J (2013) The World We Made (Phaidon)

Puttick, S, Bosher, L and Chmutina, K (2018) ‘Disasters are not natural’ in Teaching Geography 43:3 (Autumn 2018)

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


Sharkness? Combining a silent debate with the Harkness method in Geography

Pre Harkness Silent Debate

The pre-Harkness silent debate

I find it hard to stop interfering with the flow of learning in my classroom.  I know that, in most cases, in the spirit of independent learning, once teachers have set the tone for an activity, they should take a step back, observe, reflect, and let students get on with it!  Once students have got into a task, then teachers should only intervene judiciously if they think that students need a pedagogical pointer or a behavioural nudge.

One particular weakness of mine in this respect is that when it comes to students discussing issues, I tend to interrupt too often.  I am positive, yes, but I also take back the reins too early, and cut short what could be a useful line of argument.

To redress this, I resolved to trial the Harkness method.  This method, which was brought to my attention at an INSET session led by Hermione Baines, Head of History at my school, Bradford Grammar School – is a way of letting students conduct discussions around a large table with the teacher set back from affairs and acting as an observer and occasional facilitator.  More is written in several places online – for example, there is a well-written and succinct article on the theory and practice of Harkness here.  It is a method which is increasingly used outside of History classrooms and the context of higher education.

I have the privilege this year of teaching nine keen Year 12 Geographers, and we were coming to the end of a unit on globalisation, so it seemed like an ideal chance to try it out.

I structured my first foray into Harkness as follows:

1. Flag up the idea – A week before the lesson I said we would be trying a discussion method called Harkness – and some members of the class told me that they had already tried it and were up for the challenge.

2. Set the pre-reading – The students were given an article called ‘Deglobalisation’ (by Simon Oakes) to read, and had completed a homework based on efforts to redress the environmentally deleterious effects of globalisation (such as Transition Towns, Fair Trade, and the circular economy).

3. Categorisation activity – At the start of the lesson, I gave the class a card sort of the impacts of globalisation, which the students were asked to colour code as ‘advantages’ and ‘disadvantages’, and then they were asked to put them in social, economic, environmental, technological and political categories.  This was performed individually, and, as hoped, I had students engaging with the difficulties encountered in any such card sort activity, for example they were asking me “Can some impacts can be good for some and not for others?”, “Where should this go – it fits into more than one category?”, and “I don’t agree with this one – what should I do?”.


The first activity: categorising the impacts of globalisation

4. Silent debate – I then stepped up the group size to three and put in front of the students a ‘silent debate’ statement in the middle of an A3 sheet of paper – there were three different statements per table, i.e. one per student. Each student was then asked to respond to the statement by writing “I agree, because…” or “I disagree, because…” next to the original statement or to another student’s statement.  Then they were asked to pass the sheet around the table clockwise, for the next student to add their comment, and this went on a total of six times – so that by the end, everyone had had two chances to comment on each of the three statements.  An example of the statements was ‘The benefits of globalisation outweigh the costs’.

5. Harkness discussion – The final step-up was to undertake a whole-class discussion – the Harkness method itself.  I set a few ground rules such as ‘only one person should speak at a time’, ‘be respectful’, and ‘listen to the chair’ (I appointed a student as a ‘chair’ after I had modelled what a chair should do).

Harkness discussion Dec18

The Harkness debate

6. Exam-style question – The students will attempt a books-open follow-up past paper question in their next lesson, enabling me to gauge their progress and perhaps how useful the Harkness method has been in opening their minds to the different ways in which they can ‘assess’ an issue.


The card sort may have been useful if it had taken place in a previous lesson, but it took time away from the silent debate and Harkness parts of the lesson, and students fed back at the end that they thought it was the least valuable part of the lesson.

The silent debate aspect certainly added value to the students’ learning – it gave them time to reflect and ‘warmed their brains up’ prior to the Harkness stage.  The students were all positive about this stage too.

The Harkness discussion went well, and I was heartened by the way that the learning was almost tangible, as listeners as well as speakers were digesting the discussion.  I was also gladdened when students mentioned case studies that I hadn’t heard of, and when one of them, unbidden, related Boserup’s population/resource theory to the topic.  However, I did have to step in when:

  • The discussion went off on a tangent for too long (for example, electric cars became the sole topic for almost five minutes!)
  • More than one person was talking at once (I threatened to introduce a hands-up policy if this continued)
  • It seemed like one student became the focus of excessive criticism, and although he is a resilient controversialist who could give as good as he got, I didn’t want this to be the norm for future discussions!

As this class contains several loquacious characters, I may well try to run two Harkness discussions simultaneously next time, to give the quieter members a chance to have their say.

(As an aside, I will endeavour not to take photos next time, as this rather distracted from the flow of the discussion – but in the spirit of resource sharing and to support this article, then I felt that they were a necessary evil.)

I am also planning to bring this method in at the end of sub-units, so that the focus is kept a little tighter: there is so much content at the end of a large topic such as globalisation that the conversation can go anywhere!

Overall, I can heavily recommend this method, especially when it is preceded by a silent debate – why not give it a try?


Caldwell, K (n.d.): What is the Harkness Method? https://www.katherinecadwell.com/harkness-method/

Also see the many videos of excepts of Harkness discussions here: https://www.katherinecadwell.com/video/