Optimism, progress and geography – celebration and calibration

TG article Autumn 2019

In the most recent edition of the Geographical Association’s journal ‘Teaching Geography’ (Autumn 2019) I write about how geography teachers can help our students to become aware not only that the world faces severe challenges, but also that progress has been made, and to learn about past successes so that they can be built upon.

Inspired by ‘Factfulness’ (Hans and Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund, 2018), ‘Enlightenment Now’ (Steven Pinker, 2018) and other sources, I explore common misconceptions about the world held by students (and many teachers too!).  Then, adapting a framework suggested by Bobby Duffy in ‘The Perils of Perception’ (2018), I suggest ways that teachers can recognise and begin to address such misconceptions.

I conclude by asserting that “The raison d’etre of geography is to ‘write about the world’, so for the sake of our students, our discipline and wider society, let’s give it our best, most accurate, shot.”

Copyright restrictions mean that I can’t go into more detail, but I urge Geography teachers to join the GA and subscribe to the journal to keep their subject knowledge and pedagogy up to date: www.geography.org.uk

Necessity is the mother of invention

Cool roofing

Figure 1: Cool roofing in Greece

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/apr/13/cool-roofs-beating-the-midday-sun-with-a-slap-of-white-paint

‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’  This proverb might recall mundane ‘quick fixes’, but it may just lead us out of a global climate catastrophe.

We are already living in a world where, according to September’s United Nations’ ‘United in Science’ report, “Widespread and long-lasting heatwaves, record-breaking fires and other devastating events such as tropical cyclones, floods and drought have had major impacts on socio-economic development and the environment.”  We have just had the warmest five year period on record, sea ice and ice mass continue to shrink, sea levels continue to rise, and sea water is becoming more acidic (IPCC, 2019).

Figure 2: Key findings of the September 2019 United in Science report

Source: https://public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/landmark-united-science-report-informs-climate-action-summit

It is no wonder that young and old alike are despairing about the environment.  At the recent climate strike in Leeds, I saw a sign saying, ‘The End of the World is Nigh’, alongside several other depressing banners.  I share the concerns of the strikers – but not the despair and rage of many of them.  I believe in the ability of humankind to pull us out of this mess.  We have left it late – yes – but I still have faith.  On what grounds, you might ask?

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich wrote in ‘The Population Bomb’ that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over” and that by the 1980s, four billion people would starve to death.  Ehrlich also believed that prices of the world’s resources would keep on rising, as they were finite and subject to ever-increasing demand.  In 1980, the economist Julian Simon challenged Ehrlich to stake $10,000 on his belief that the cost of raw materials would not rise in the long run.  Simon argued that any rises in the price of a resource would be temporary as it would provide incentives for people to look for more of it, to produce and use it more efficiently, and to develop substitutes.

Ehrlich took Simon up on his wager, and ten years later, paid out $576.07 after the prices of all the raw materials that Ehrlich chose (chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten) fell in price (Desrochers, 2015).  In terms of the supply of minerals, then, necessity was the mother of invention.

Now let me take you back to 1965. Ester Boserup was a Danish economist, who suggested that food production can, and will, increase to match the needs of the population.  She worked for the United Nations, and she found that in the developing world, the threat of starvation and the challenge of feeding more mouths usually motivated people to improve their farming methods and invent new technologies in order to produce more food: another case of necessity driving invention.

janfeb2018_o99_populationbomb

Figure 3: Death tolls from famine compared to global population size, 1900-2010

Source: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/book-incited-worldwide-fear-overpopulation-180967499/

The term ‘Boserupian’ is now used to cover a wide range of ‘leaps forward’ which are provoked by concerns about the supply of an in-demand resource coming to a crisis point.  Human ingenuity plays a key role in such ‘leaps forward’ – and one genius was the Nobel Prize winning scientist Norman Borlaug, who, between the 1950s and 70s, spearheaded the ‘Green Revolution’ in Mexico, southern Asia and beyond.  The necessity of feeding the burgeoning numbers of the world’s poor was largely met by the invention of new strains of high-yielding and disease-resistant wheat.

If you broaden the definition of ‘inventions’ to cover innovative political solutions, there are even more reasons to be hopeful.  For instance, following the scientific proof of the contribution of harmful CFC gases to the depletion of the ozone layer, the 1987 Montreal Protocol banning them was signed, showing the rewards of political unity and commonality of purpose.  The hole in the ozone layer – a source of much anxiety a generation ago – is now forecast to close by 2050.

Fast forward to 2019, and to the biggest man-made environmental threat ever to face the world: climate change.  This truly is a ‘wicked problem’ – in that it is a problem that is difficult (or even impossible) to solve due to the existence of “incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems” (Hubbard, n.d.).  The United Nations report is just the most recent of many which show that for humans to survive and thrive, there is a necessity for climate change to be solved.  But what ‘inventions’ exist to tackle it?

Some inventions have already begun to slow the march of climate change.  Renewable energy technology, aided by patchy government assistance, has advanced so much in the UK that in November last year, the capacity of renewable energy (mostly wind) overtook that of fossil fuels (Shresthsa, 2018).  In addition, an increase in the storage capacity and efficiency of batteries means that electric cars are entering the mainstream, and more and more countries are setting deadlines for the phasing out of petrol and diesel cars.

Other inventions are at a more exploratory stage. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has been mooted as one of the possible saviours: this involves collecting carbon dioxide from a source such as a power station, then storing it underground.  A version combining this with biomass burning began at Drax earlier in the year. Bill Gates and other investors are behind an even more adventurous task: that of directly capturing carbon dioxide from the air and then using the gas to make carbon-neutral synthetic fuels (Vidal, 2018).

Direct Air Capture

Figure 4: An artist’s impression of a ‘direct air capture’ project

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/04/carbon-emissions-negative-emissions-technologies-capture-storage-bill-gates

Some people place their faith in more ‘low tech’ solutions.  The most obvious of these is to soak up carbon dioxide via reforestation: this is occurring faster than deforestation in half of the world’s regions.  Another easy to implement method is painting roofs white – this reflects solar radiation back into the atmosphere and reduces interior temperatures, therefore having the additional effect of reducing energy consumption for air conditioning.  These ‘cool roofing’ projects are taking place in cities all around the world, from Ahmedabad to New York (Lewis, 2017).

A range of other solutions exist, and still more will no doubt be developed in the years to come.  However, we should not be complacent: these changes have not come ‘naturally’, or solely as a result of market forces.  Scientists, researchers, campaigners and politicians have all played their part in the inception and propagation of these ideas.  If we succumb to a narrative of despair about climate change, believing it to be overwhelming, then we do ourselves and later generations a disservice.  Let’s congratulate, support, fund and highlight the work of ‘climate change inventors’, because we need them now more than ever.

References:

Desrochers, P (2015) ‘The Simon-Ehrlich wager 25 years on’: https://www.spiked-online.com/2015/09/29/the-simon-ehrlich-wager-25-years-on/

Hubbard, R (n.d.) Wicked Problems: https://www.wickedproblems.com/1_wicked_problems.php

IPCC (2019) United in Science: https://www.ipcc.ch/2019/09/22/united-in-science-report-climate-summit/

Lewis, D (2017) ‘Cool roofs: beating the midday sun with a slap of white paint’ The Guardian, 13 April 2017

Shresthsa, P (2018) ‘UK renewables capacity overtakes fossil fuels for the first time’ in Energy Live News: https://www.energylivenews.com/2018/11/07/uk-renewables-capacity-overtakes-fossil-fuels-for-first-time/

Vidal, J (2018) ‘How Bill Gates aims to clean up the planet’ in The Observer, 4 February 2018: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/04/carbon-emissions-negative-emissions-technologies-capture-storage-bill-gates

 

 

 

Keep faith in the human condition

Crowd

Whatever you are doing this summer, keep faith in the human condition.  Take the chance of a slower news cycle to put the prevailing narrative of despair into perspective.  Whilst it is crucial to appreciate the mistakes of the past and the challenges ahead, it is important and salutary to contemplate the progress that humanity has made.

When a report emerges of terrible wrongs inflicted on a minority group, leading to hunger, torture or the infringement of other human rights, call it out, oppose it, fight it.  But have confidence that the mass of humanity is making steps towards becoming better fed, more peaceful, and more respectful of other people.

When elements of the media foster intolerance, and provide a mouthpiece for writers who thrive on hatred, call it out, oppose it, fight it.  But put it in the context of a fitful but deep-seated shift towards liberty and tolerance being made across the world.

When the rights of a minority are being restricted in their schooling, call it out, oppose it, fight it.  But realise that humanity is becoming more literate, numerate, skilled and better informed about their rights and responsibilities; we are meeting our potential and we will harness it to achieve even greater progress in the future.

When a despot picks on the oppressed, call it out, oppose it, fight it.  But remember the scientists, engineers, medics, educators, researchers, journalists, civil servants, the vast majority of politicians, and billions of unsung people from all walks of life, who strive to make our world a better place.

When a political leader threatens our hard-won gains, call it out, oppose it, fight it.  But understand that they are swimming against the tide, they are appealing to a dwindling demographic, and they will be beaten.

When inequality thrives and hardship bites, call it out, oppose it, fight it.  But contemplate the gains people in the vast majority of the world continue to make in living standards, health, nutrition, communication, education, leisure, peace, safety, reason and science.

When your eyes are opened to an environmental threat, call it out, oppose it, fight it.  But don’t despair, don’t panic, and don’t act rashly.  Seek alternatives, seek solutions, and seek solace in the fact that humanity has faced down such challenges before and we will do so again.

Be aware of the internal biases we have that direct us towards a negative, fearful and oppositional worldview, and recognise the external influences which mitigate against a ‘factful’, hopeful, and optimistic one.  Then re-calibrate, celebrate, and play your part in humanity’s grand project.

Humanity has never been so healthy, peaceful and prosperous as it is at the moment, and with such a history of progress, why should we predict regress?

Fight the good fight, and have faith this summer.

David

PS  Take a look at the graphs below.  And read my earlier blog posts for some balance and context.  But hey, everyone deserves the right to be polemic once in a while!

Two-centuries-World-as-100-people-small

Source: https://ourworldindata.org/a-history-of-global-living-conditions-in-5-charts#

16 good up

16 good up 2

16 bad down

16 bad down 2

Source: Factfulness, by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling-Rönnlund (2018)

In lieu of my usual list of references, I’d like to express my gratitude at the end of an interesting academic year during which I have been able to explore several avenues of thought on this blog and beyond.  Thank you to Gapminder for their inspiration and for supplying a framework for my thoughts, and Max Roser’s Our World in Data for, well, the data (and graphs, and commentary too!).  Thanks also to Bobby Duffy for his superb ‘Perils of Perception’, Steven Pinker for the even more highly recommended ‘Enlightenment Now’ and ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’, and Alex Standish for his inspiration and willingness to work with me on this theme in the future.  And thanks to many others who have commented on and supported me so far (I won’t name any more at this juncture for fear of offending my omission!).  Many references are to be found in my earlier blog posts.

As ever, your comments are welcome!

Source of image at top of post

Read this, act now!

“Only the creation of a world government can prevent the impending self-destruction of mankind”

(Albert Einstein, 1950, as cited in Pinker, 2019, from Mueller, 1989) 

One of the criticisms levelled at those who celebrate the progress that society has already achieved is that a positive mindset can lead to complacency.  This is indeed something which everyone who is concerned with understanding global affairs should be wary of.  Complacency can lead to inaction where action is deemed to be necessary, and it can also mean that those who are more vociferous can be heard more loudly: the dominant narrative can be controlled by powerful interests.

However, I would argue that there is a more pressing case to be made against acting too soon, too urgently, and too rashly.

The dangers of urgency

Urgency can lead to a sense of despair – and this in its own right is concerning from a mental health perspective.  But despair is also a concern because it may lead to either a lack of action, or action which tends towards adaptation rather than mitigation (i.e. directing more energy towards solving the effects of a problems rather than its causes).  For instance, in the face of rising sea levels due to climate change, it may well be easier for authorities to prioritise the construction of higher sea walls over cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Acting urgently can also lead to responses to challenges which might be rushed, inappropriate, or uncoordinated.  They may even be counter-productive, or cause significant knock-on impacts elsewhere.  For example, the rush to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, initially by co-firing biomass with coal in pre-existing power stations, and latterly through the use of biomass boilers, has resulted in deforestation, some from virgin forests, with its concomitant loss of biodiversity.  Marco Magrini (2018) has also written about Germany’s rapid post-Fukushima shift from nuclear to coal power, and about China’s environmental challenge of dealing with rusting petrol-driven motorbikes caused by the government’s rushed promotion of electric scooters (see Figure 1).

Motorbike graveyard China

Figure 1: Abandoned motorbikes in Shenzen, China, April 2016

Source: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/peoplesdaily/article-3524655/Striking-pictures-China-s-enormous-motorbike-graveyard-thousands-vehicles-abandoned-following-strict-ban.html

Much like compassion fatigue, ‘urgency fatigue’ can also set in.  Politicians, commentators and advocates of special interest groups are all vying for media attention with ever more extreme refrains.  For instance, how many institutions have been experiencing ‘an existential crisis’ in recent years?  Well, a quick search of the web reveals that almost every organisation is apparently struggling to survive: the NHS, the army, social care servicesBritain, the EU, humanity and now the world!  Professor Mike Hulme (2019) has recently written eloquently on the reasons why he is resisting the trend towards ‘extinctionism’ in the current discourse about climate change here (thank you to Steve Brace for drawing this to my attention).

The ratcheting up of calls for ‘urgent’ help can also lead to a ‘crying wolf’ scenario: when there is a genuinely existential threat, what fresh rhetoric will be needed to make us take action?

Related to urgency fatigue is another problem – and this too is self-perpetuating: it can feed a news and current affairs culture where whoever shouts the loudest gets the most airtime, commands the most attention, and uses up valuable political capital.  This is all achieved at the expense of those issues which may deserve deeper reflection but which lack vociferous advocates.  Without a figure such as Greta Thunberg for climate change, Malala Yousafzai for women’s rights, or Nelson Mandela for racial equality, some causes flounder.  Is this fair?  Where is the antibiotic resistance poster child?  Where is the pro-vaccination icon?

Nuanced arguments and detailed contemplation can also be lost in this noisy atmosphere; is there time, for example, for us to understand the position of the Russian and Canadian governments, who can be reluctant to act on climate change, unless we appreciate that they may benefit from the expansion of arable land in their northern regions?

I propose that an atmosphere of urgency can lead to a sense of disbelief when confronted by ‘good news stories’ – a sense which is so profound as to make one doubt the existence, or even the promise, of progress.  This is shown in the ‘cycle of urgency’ flow diagram (Figure 2, below):

Cycle of urgency

Figure 2: The cycle of urgency

(Source: author)

Doesn’t urgency drive action?

One counter-argument might be that if it wasn’t for high profile, negative, urgent stories, then less human progress would have been made, as key players, citizens and consumers would have been less aware of them.

I appreciate that this line of reasoning does have some validity.  Would today’s environmentalists have been quite so numerous or effective in their work if they hadn’t been roused by ‘Save the Whales’ campaigns in their formative years?  Would climate change have climbed up the league of pressing matters for the UN to consider without the urgency instilled by Al Gore in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’?  (Update to blog post: Hans Rosling reported in ‘Factfulness’ that Gore told him in 2009 ‘We need to create fear!’).

However, does this counter-argument still hold as strongly today?  Haven’t the biggest global lessons been learned?  Do advancements in communications and education mean that society is capable of avoiding past mistakes without the headline-grabbing negativity and urgency which drove previous reforms?

For example, do we really need an ‘Extinction Rebellion’ campaign to push climate change to the top of the news?  Or is action being taken anyway, behind the scenes, to move the world in this direction?

Could it be the case that several ‘big issues’ are gradually being tackled without being driven by a headline-grabbing sense of urgency?  What motivates the drivers behind social and economic movements such as Professor Tom Crowther of Crowther Lab, who has produced meaningful and optimistic strategies for combatting climate change.  Or Chad Frishmann of Project Drawdown (Figure 3)?

drawdown_book cover

Figure 3: Project Drawdown book cover

Source: https://www.greenbiz.com/article/drawdown-and-global-warmings-hopeful-new-math

Overcoming the urge for urgency

There are significant challenges facing the world, but I would argue that it is necessary to strike a balance between educating and informing people enough to rouse and inspire them without inducing despair or panic.  Humanity should not have its achievements undermined by the corrosive effects of urgency.  We deserve better than being faced with daily self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling prophecies of doom.

References 

Hulme, M (2019) ‘Am I a denier, a human extinction denier?’ 27 May 2019 https://mikehulme.org/am-i-a-denier-a-human-extinction-denier/# (accessed 7 June 2019)

Magrini, R (2018) ‘Green loopholes’ in Geographical, 90:4 (April 2018), page 9 – available online at http://geographical.co.uk/nature/energy/item/2669-green-loopholes (accessed 7 June 2019)

Mueller, J (1989) Retreat from Doomsday: The obsolescence of major war (New York: Basic Books)

Pinker, S (2019) Enlightenment Now (Penguin)

 

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
Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/assessment-objectives-ancient-languages-geography-and-mfl/gcse-as-and-a-level-assessment-objectives#geography-1

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

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

Think twice, and think carefully

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

A hands down winner

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

Scrap that!

NoToshLAB
Figure 2: NoToshLAB Source: https://notosh.com/lab

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

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

The-Post-It-application-student-view-shown-to-the-right

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.

References

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): https://www.wired.co.uk/article/yuval-noah-harari-extract-21-lessons-for-the-21st-century

Harford, T (2019) ‘Our first instinct is far too often wrong’ – Financial Times, 10 May 2019 (accessed 17 May 2019): https://www.ft.com/content/32e4b22e-7197-11e9-bbfb-5c68069fbd15

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): https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jan/14/children-parents-talk-opportunities-sideways-listening-chats

Further reading
Barrett, T (2015) ‘Hold your ideas lightly’ in Tom Barrett’s Blog, 10 February 2015 (accessed 17 May 2019): http://edte.ch/blog/2015/02/10/hold-your-ideas-lightly/

Coutts, N (2016) ‘Hold your ideas lightly’ in The Learner’s Way, 21 February 2016 (accessed 17 May 2019): https://thelearnersway.net/ideas/2016/2/21/hold-your-ideas-lightly

Ignorant about the study of ignorance? Progress, agnotology, and anxiogenesis

“Our students will be more curious – and more intelligently so – if, in addition to facts, they were equipped with theories of ignorance as well as theories of knowledge”

Jamie Holmes (2015)

Doctors smoke Camels

Mid-20th Century Advertisement for Camel cigarettes

Source: New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/07/business/media/07adco.html

There I was, thinking I was digging away at a relatively underexplored vein of intellectual enquiry, when I find out that there is an entire sub-discipline of the social sciences which is dedicated to it.

Agnotology is the study of ignorance, and it is at least partly ironic that I was not aware of its existence until recently.

The term was coined by Robert Proctor of Stanford University in 1992.  It has been used to analyse why it has taken so long for the scientific consensus to be accepted on issues as broad as smoking, acid rain, ozone depletion and anthropogenic climate change.

Proctor argues that one of the main reasons for the prolongation of doubt about these issues is that vested interest groups try to control and divert discourse about them, for example by:

  • advocating more research when a sufficient body of evidence has already been amassed to prove something beyond reasonable doubt
  • insisting on ‘balance’ in a debate where the science has been overwhelmingly settled
  • working with various commentators and branches of the media to encourage the propagation of views which dissent with the scientific consensus

Two examples can be used to briefly exemplify agnotology in action: science historian Peter Galison of Harvard (quoted in Grigg, 2011) notes that one key approach taken by creationists, in the absence of evidence to support their theory, is to ‘teach the controversy’.  In another instance, he quotes a memo from the tobacco company Brown & Williamson that phrases their agnotology strategy even more succinctly: “Doubt is our product.”

(For the avoidance of doubt (ha ha), I was aware of some of these methods, but I was unaware that the sub-discipline had a name.)

Agnotology and environmentalism

Merchants of Doubt cover

Cover of Merchants of Doubt, by Oreskes and Conway (2010)

https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/merchants-of-doubt-9781596916104/

In ‘The Shock of the Anthropocene’, Bonneuil and Fressoz (2017) summarise their take on agnotology as questioning how the damages of ‘progress’ are made invisible.  They adopt the word ‘anxiolytic’ from the medical lexicon to suggest that a variety of forces, many of them endemic to capitalism, serve to reduce anxiety about the natural world, and therefore stymie meaningful steps from being taken to reduce environmental damage.  For example, the authors discuss the sowing of doubt about the causes of climate change by the oil lobby and its political mouthpieces – this is also covered by Merchants of Doubt (Oreskes and Conway, 2010).

I appreciate this exploration, and I recommend the book to those readers who are looking for a deeply thought-provoking look at our current human-dominated era (the Anthropocene), its current context, and its precedents.

Agnotology and social progress

However, I would like to direct the armoury of agnotology towards a new front.  It remains a fascination of mine that the gains of ‘progress’ are so poorly understood and appreciated by members of the public and even by some politicians, media professionals and academics.  If this premise is accepted, then there must exist forces which lead to a state of ignorance about social progress.  And if we accept that in environmental affairs, there have been anxiolytic forces, then I contend that in social progress, there are anxiogenic – i.e. anxiety inducing – forces.

But what are these forces, and to what extent are they conscious decisions made by certain interest groups, and to what extent are they unintentional by-products of other factors?  How many are timeless and how many are contemporary?  To what extent are these forces avoidable?

I am only just beginning to collate a short list of anxiogenic forces – and I am aware that some of these suggestions are contentious, and others draw on the same themes as some of my earlier posts, such as this, but here goes.

Anxiogenic forces in the context of social progress

  • Heuristics (psychological predispositions) These include
    • Confirmation bias: We are biased towards information that confirms what we already believe
    • Negativity bias: We focus on negative information
    • Our susceptibility to stereotyping
    • Our inbuilt desire to imitate the majority

These are timeless, and they are difficult – but not impossible – to turn around.

  • Mass media and the internet Playing on our psychological biases, ‘If it bleeds it leads’ is just as apt online as it was when applied to the print media. Bad news sells.  The worldview of the mass media is easier to turnaround than the inbuilt biases of our psyche, but it is still a mammoth task!  Although the tabloid press is apparently in terminal decline, ‘clickbait’ articles exploit our weakness for shocking news.

Rusty radiator award screenshot

Screenshot from one of the 2014 winners of the ‘Rusty Radiator’ Award for stereotyping poverty in aid adverts

Source: https://www.radiaid.com

  • The aid sector The raison d’etre of the aid sector is to help other people, so when there have been successes, and fewer recipients are in such desperate need of aid, and when salaries depend on it, is it any wonder that social progress is not publicised as much as it could be?  How many charitable adverts come from places that have seen success stories?  The aid sector has shown itself to be malleable – viz the shift away from emerging countries such as India, and the movement to a focus on more environmental issues – but vested interests are taking a while to dissipate.  This factor links in with concerns about ‘poverty porn’ and ‘white saviours’ – which are covered in articles such as this one – and the issue of stereotyping in aid adverts is satirised at radiaid.com.  I must emphasise that this is not to say that this sector plays a significant role in promoting social progress – far from it! – but some actors in the sector surely play a role in the public’s perception that the whole world is in dire straits.  Time will tell if the aid sector can reform itself in this regard.

 

  • The education sector I argue elsewhere that much of today’s education, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, contributes towards a negatively skewed view of the world, thanks to a combination of
    • outdated information
    • lack of historical context
    • a focus on ‘exciting’ but rare events such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and wars (yes, I did say rare!) over humdrum, quotidian, affairs and unpublicised, incremental gains

This is both fertile ground for further research and scope for change here.  To this end, I am working on an ‘optimistic education’ manifesto – watch this space!

  • Social media There will be more reference back to photographs, videos and posts shared on social media from years gone by – which are in the most part selected to show a ‘positive’ angle.  This will be accentuated by the fact that as people live longer (which is still the global trend, even if it is stalling in some developed countries), there is more scope for a ‘rose-tinted’ view of the past to spread.

These are just a few anxiogenic forces – and I would welcome your thoughts on others, and to what extent you think they are avoidable.

Closing thoughts

Learning the lessons of agnotology will take a while.  Using these lessons to push for a more realistic opinion of social progress – a more realistic worldview – will be an even harder task.  Of this I am no longer ignorant.

Bibliography

Bonneuil, Christophe. and Fressoz, Jean-Baptiste (2017) The Shock of the Anthropocene (Verso)

Grigg, Ray (2011): Agnotology – the propagation of doubt – 19 Nov 2011 (accessed 15 Mar 2019): https://tidechange.ca/2011/12/19/agnotology-the-propagation-of-doubt-by-ray-grigg/

Holmes, Jamie (2015) ‘The case for teaching ignorance’ – New York Times, 24 Aug 2015 (accessed 15 Mar 2019): https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/24/opinion/the-case-for-teaching-ignorance.html

Oreskes, Naomi and Conway, Erik (2010) Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury)

Shaking it up – enthusiasm and engagement in secondary schools

Champagne uncorking

Uncork their enthusiasm!

Source: http://www.commons.wikimedia.org

  • Springy pavements generating electricity from pedestrians!
  • Office blocks retrofitted with living roofs and walls!
  • Hydrogen powered buses!
  • Free public transport for all!
  • Monthly cycle to work and litter picking days!

It’s hard not to be buoyed up about the future when you come across ideas like these.  And this effect is heightened by the fact that they came from people who will be responsible for shaping what the future of humankind will look like – our young people.

Fizzing with ideas

I recently marked a Year 8 class set of designs for a sustainable city.  They researched their ideas independently, drew up plans in pairs, then justified their plans individually in a ‘books-open’ in-class report.  I often marvel at students’ ingenuity and depth of research, and I know it might sound corny, but whilst marking this piece of work, I found myself breaking off every now and again to wistfully consider their enthusiasm – and what happens to it in the remainder of their years of secondary education.

City plan 1

Year 8 sustainable city work – showing enthusiasm and promise!

I was reminded of my childhood, when I had fantastical thoughts about designing buildings and cities, which I expressed in cartoons and occasionally in Lego.  You might be thinking ‘No wonder he became a Geography teacher!’ – but looking at the imagination and creativity shown by students year after year, I think that this enthusiasm is common among a very large number of younger students, not all of whom will go on to become geographers, architects or planners.

In primary school and in the early years of secondary school, teachers of all subjects find that most students fizz with ideas and positivity.  The almost palpable feeling of energy is part of why a career in education appeals to many people.  But teachers will recognise a slide in the levels of enthusiasm of their charges as the secondary school years progress.

The Enthusiasm Transition Model (ETM)

This trend can be illustrated by the rigidly scientifically researched ‘Enthusiasm Transition Model’ (ETM).  How many teachers (or parents) recognise the stages shown below?:

ETM

The Enthusiasm Transition Model (ETM)

The ETM and the secondary school years

Year 7, and, with a following wind, Year 8 too: Most pupils are keen to take part in discussions and many of them even like to perform tasks like handing out books.  Many pupils are even sorely disappointed if they are not chosen!

Year 9: A scattering of pupils volunteer their thoughts, but almost no-one is bothered if they are not chosen.  The enthusiasts fight to keep their keenness hidden.

Years 10 and 11: A couple of students half-heartedly volunteer, and there is no need to implement a ‘hands down’ policy in most classes because it’s de facto in operation anyway!

Years 12 and 13: Students have actively chosen your subject, so there is a slight resurgence in classroom engagement, if you are lucky.   However, it can be hard to keep students’ attention at such a busy time of their lives.

City plan 2

More Year 8 sustainable city work

Letting the champagne go flat

So what explains this gradual decline in most children’s enthusiasm in their time at secondary school?

Some of it may be lost as pupils are exposed to more of the realities of their personal life – the creeping realisation that they will not always be able to get what they want.

Similarly, as they escape from the protective bubble of their carers, children will see at first hand some of the more challenging aspects of the world: the homeless person they see under the arches at the railway station; the incident of road rage on the way to school; conflicts amongst family members which were kept under control in the pupils’ early childhood.

Some enthusiasm may be displaced by the increasing responsibilities of youth and adulthood – when you have momentous decisions to make about future careers, relationships, driving, and so on, there is not enough time to dwell on ideas, let alone ideals.

Some of it is swallowed up internally as young people succumb to peer pressure.  The pressure to ‘fit in’ with the norms of their chosen group(s) is often overwhelming.  This impetus to impress their friends over their parents and teachers is reinforced by subtle glances and under-the-breath comments in classroom discussions whenever someone forgets where they are for a moment and dares to volunteer.

Still more of it will surely be eroded by exposure to the negative tone, not only of the ‘mainstream media’, but also of many of the ‘clickbait’ stories used by some news websites to hook in readers.

But some of it, I argue, is attributable to various aspects of the educational system.  Yes, we have come a long way from the days of ruling by fear, the crushing of individuality and corporal punishment which featured in some pupils’ lives in relatively recent decades (although some draconian approaches have made a comeback – see the debate about ‘flattening the grass’ (Smith, 2019)).  Nevertheless, students are still held back, in different degrees in different contexts, whether this be by regimentation, institutionalisation, momentum and paucity of imagination in our education system (I write from a UK context), let alone financial threats to the curricular and extra-curricular existence of ‘creative’ subjects and sports.

Bubbling over

Before going any further, I realise that a burst of enthusiasm is not going to be an educational panacea: a certain degree of structure is required to allow our current education system to work.  I also realise that some readers will question the need to (re)enthuse our youth – there are benefits for young people and their educators from the former being calmed and directed at times!

Furthermore, as Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, enthusiasm in the absence of facts and carefully considered analysis can be deleterious to the advancement of the populace, particularly in terms of politics and the economy: he believed that educated people are “less liable… to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition”.  To put my head above the parapet, I can see some validity in this point of view in the context of the Brexit debate.  Finally, as I write elsewhere, and inspired by Hans Rosling et al (2018), a fact-based worldview is essential for us to make the right decisions for the future of humankind and our planet.

But all this notwithstanding, I don’t think that more engagement and ‘buzz’ will lead our students astray – rather, it should re-energise them with education and the wider world.

City write up 1

More Year 8 work: How can you continue to generate this kind of outcome from your students in the secondary school years?

Uncorking students’ enthusiasm!

In my customary search for a solution, I hereby volunteer some thoughts for how educators could try to keep young people keener for longer:

  • The only time that pupils may go outside in the school day might be during lunch or breaktime. This runs counter to the needs of childhood development.  Why not embrace the outdoors?  You can read some of my musings on this subject here, but the YHA has launched a powerful video on ‘the adventure effect’ (https://groups.yha.org.uk/adventure-effect) which draws upon research showing that the outdoors is not only beneficial to young peoples’ physical health, but also their mental well-being too
  • Think how you could give opportunities to young people to express their enthusiasm outside of lessons, perhaps by holding lunchtime clubs, or competitions. To this end you could keep an eye on your subject association, many of which will run several such competitions a year – see, for example, the Geographical Association’s World Wise Quizzes: https://www.geography.org.uk/Get-Involved-1/Student-activities/WorldWise-local-quiz
  • Reward ‘below the radar’ enthusiasm – such as students writing in extra depth in certain homework tasks – by writing positive comments (and giving commendations/merits) to demonstrate that you recognise and celebrate initiative and keenness
  • Be a role model in the classroom – show the class that you care about the subject and your enthusiasm might become infectious. Fair enough, this is tough to achieve, and I am acutely aware that my enthusiasm can come across as being too eager to please, but combined with humour and perhaps a touch of self-deprecation, this approach can work
  • School and year-group assemblies can play an important role in celebrating achievements and inspiring students to follow their dreams and interests
  • School or personal subscriptions to news outlets dedicated to young people can help to redress the negativity of adult-orientated media. Examples of these outlets include The Day (which my school subscribes to and which every form tutor receives by email every morning) and children’s weekly newspapers such as First News
  • Finally, in terms of day-to-day and week-to-week pedagogy, consider the tasks that you set pupils – do they allow students a free enough rein to follow their interests within the task? For instance, could you give…
    • a choice of case studies (offer the choices then see how enthusiastic the students are when they are told it is first come, first served!)?
    • a choice of websites for research?
    • a choice of websites, articles, or TED talks for students to consume and feedback on (I tried the TED talk choice for a recent A Level theme of gender equality in education)?
    • a choice of presentation medium and/or group size? For example, in one task we allowed students to either plan and deliver a form assembly as a group, create a website and social media campaign as a pair, or to write to their MP individually
    • more time during which pupils could generate ideas (‘ideation’). Ewan McIntosh introduced delegates to methods to facilitate this at the 2016 Practical Pedagogies Conference – these include using randomiser websites such as http://www.randomideagenerator.com/ to mix up unlikely concepts and end users.  I have used these techniques to try to break deadlocks when students struggle to think of ideas for projects such as EPQs.  More ideation techniques are available here: https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/introduction-to-the-essential-ideation-techniques-which-are-the-heart-of-design-thinking

As always, I welcome your feedback.  Don’t be afraid of curbing my enthusiasm!

David

Bibliography

Hazell, W. (2019) Teaching at ’flattening the grass’ school ‘felt like being a prison warden’ – TES, 14 February 2019 (accessed 24 February 2019): https://www.tes.com/news/teaching-flattening-grass-school-felt-being-prison-warden

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

Smith, A. (1789) An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (5th edn: Methuen and Co, Ltd – as reproduced at https://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN.html),