Geography Teaching and Learning

Holding ideas lightly

Chalk drawing
Lightly drawn ideas (Source: Author)

Modern life is increasingly complex, and so are the issues which students are expected to understand and expand upon.  Synopticity (the ability to draw threads together from a variety of sources) and flexible thinking are therefore increasingly valued skills both in education and in the wider world.

Our world no longer needs as many people who can remember vast amounts of information as it once did – as Yuval Noah Harari (2018) writes:

“In such a world, the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.”

I would add to Harari’s insight that there is much greater value in those who can see more than one point of view than in those who are blinkered to only see their own.  I also believe that our fast- moving society is increasingly in need of people who are willing to change their mind in the face of facts.

Even when boiled down to the irksome necessities of the education system – examinations and other forms of external assessment – there is a need for candidates to be flexible in their thinking.  Writing as a Geography teacher and examiner, I know the value that exam boards place on the ability for candidates to ‘hold their ideas lightly’.

Holding ideas lightly

What do I take to be the meaning of this phrase?  I can sum it up as being willing to entertain a wide variety of ideas and being able to change one’s mind in the face of evidence.

Here are three illustrations where encouraging students to their ideas lightly has direct relevance to my secondary school Geography practice:

  • At GCSE, Edexcel Paper 3 is People and Environment Issues – Making Geographical Decisions – and to reach the highest levels in the crux 16-mark question at the end, candidates must consider the strengths and weaknesses of their chosen option and those of two other options they rejected.
  • Even in the apparently logical realm of multiple-choice questions, which appear at GCSE Geography, candidates need to be able to change their minds from what might at first be the more obvious choice(s).
  • At A Level Geography, across all examination boards, up to 70% of the marks come from Assessment Objectives 2 and 3, which relate to interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and construction of arguments – see Figure 1:

A Level Geog Assessment Objectives

Figure 1: AS and A Level Geography Assessment Objectives

I am not advocating ‘holding your ideas lightly’ as a justification for sitting on the fence – but rather as a bulwark simultaneously against rash ‘fast thinking’ and also against the stubbornness which holds back broader human progress.

So how could practitioners take on board this philosophy in their teaching?

Think twice, and think carefully

When faced with a multiple-choice question, contrary to much received thinking, candidates should be encouraged to think twice and think carefully, and not necessarily go with their first instinct.  The justification for this is can be found in this recent discussion from the FT’s ‘undercover economist’ Tim Harford.

A hands down winner

I have written on how to cope with the ‘forest of hands’ which is sometimes faced when students find a task difficult and they seek immediate help from a teacher.   But sometimes the ‘forest of hands’ springs up when a question is set and pupils rush to give their first idea that comes to their head.  To avoid this, many schools have adopted a ‘hands-down’ policy, which means that students must contemplate their response, so they have an equal chance of being picked by the teacher.  When combined with a chance to share their idea with a partner, and when told to be willing to change their response, a more reasoned discussion usually follows.

Scrap that!

Figure 2: NoToshLAB Source:

Many students that I teach, across the KS3-5 spectrum, are wary or even unwilling to write their ideas down, even in the back of their books, for fear that they might ‘get it wrong’.  To overcome this, I often issue separate pieces of scrap paper or sticky notes (for later use in a ‘post it/pile it’ activity on a desk or a stretch of wall).  Another way is to use mini-whiteboard sets (complete with a board pen and a wipe), then students will be much more willing to write their ideas down and adjust them – especially if this is done in partnership with another student.  This idea is covered in more detail by my colleague Kerry Smith here. Ewan McIntosh has some more great ideas for low-tech ‘ideation’ (idea generation) on his website .

Changing places

The outdoors can be a great place to generate ideas, discuss them, and even to jot them down.  Firstly, even apparently humdrum environments such as school playgrounds or parks can be inspiring and invigorating.  Secondly, it has been shown that some conversations flow more freely between passengers on car journeys thanks to ‘sideways listening’ – where both participants are facing forwards and are therefore less likely to hold back from what they want to say as the complications of eye contact and subliminal physical cues are largely absent – see Laurier et al (2010) and Mc Fadden (2017).  This philosophy can be transferred to outdoor learning, where students are paired and asked to complete a short and simple journey whilst discussing ideas with each other.  Thirdly, and related to the ‘scrap that!’ principle, why not issue students with chalks and get them to write down ideas, or have first sketches of art projects, on the playground – knowing that the best ideas can be shared and photographed but that the rain will one day come to wash away everyone’s jottings!

Computer aids


Figure 3: The Post-It Note app

There exists a wide range of ‘ideation’ apps and software, some of which allow users to write down ideas and shift them around (Post-It make an app which allows users to move virtual sticky notes around, change their colour, and merge them – thank you to Dominic Tremblay for drawing this to my attention).  Other websites allow users to write some words down, and then the programme will combine them with others to create almost endless outcomes.  Many of these will be ridiculous, but as Ewan McIntosh Pointed out in a session at Practical Pedagogies (2016), sometimes students will need to go through dozens, or even a hundred or so, iterations of ideas before hitting on the right one for them.  This could be in the realm of coming up with a title for an independent investigation, an Extended Project, or a theme for Design and Technology.  Ewan’s website No Tosh has a section called ‘The LAB’, which helpfully provides links to help you and your students ‘play around with ideas’.  Other idea generation methods can be found here.

Social media literacy

Chat rooms, comment pages, Twitter threads, online forums and so on are often used to share and generate ideas – but students should be urged to use them with care, as often the most outspoken users are those with the most extreme and hard-set ideas.  The well-publicised ‘echo chamber’ and ‘filter bubble’ effects should also be discussed with students.  One idea that could be tried with older and more internet-savvy students is to engage individual forum users with differing views from them in a moderate discussion.  I have tried this myself after reading some comments posted on Twitter following David Attenborough’s ‘Climate Change – the Facts’ documentary – and with the right approach, common ground can be found.

Discussion forums

Pupil councils, tutor periods, debating societies and other more innovative forums could be utilised by practitioners to enable students to air, discuss, and test out their opinions.  Going the full hog, whole-year or whole-school ‘deliberation days’ could be trialled, much like those promoted by Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin (2005) . (I have written more about this here.)

Light by name, serious by intent

In a fast-moving age where extreme views are easily accessed, media and news literacy are crucial, and where flexible thinking is needed in industry and in society, it would make sense to ‘hold your ideas lightly’ – and to encourage your students to do so too.


Ackerman, B. and Fishkin, J. (2005) Deliberation Day (Yale)

Harari, YN (2018) ‘Yuval Noah Harari on what the year 2050 has in store for humankind’ – Wired, 12 August 2018 (accessed 17 May 2019):

Harford, T (2019) ‘Our first instinct is far too often wrong’ – Financial Times, 10 May 2019 (accessed 17 May 2019):

Eric Laurier, Hayden Lorimer, Barry Brown, Owain Jones, Oskar Juhlin, Allyson Noble, Mark Perry, Daniele Pica, Philippe Sormani, Ignaz Strebel, Laurel Swan, Alex S. Taylor, Laura Watts & Alexandra Weilenmann (2008) Driving and ‘Passengering’: Notes on the Ordinary Organization of Car Travel, Mobilities, 3:1, 1-23, DOI: 10.1080/17450100701797273

McFadden, J (2017) ‘The power of talking sideways to children’ – The Guardian, 14 January 2017 (accessed 17 May 2019):

Further reading
Barrett, T (2015) ‘Hold your ideas lightly’ in Tom Barrett’s Blog, 10 February 2015 (accessed 17 May 2019):

Coutts, N (2016) ‘Hold your ideas lightly’ in The Learner’s Way, 21 February 2016 (accessed 17 May 2019):

By alcockblog

Optimist, Geography teacher, teaching and learning champion, interested in progress, social and environmental sustainability and outdoor learning. Father, orienteer, fell runner. @DavidAlcock1

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