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

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)

 

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),

Nine things that climate change and human progress have in common

The bumblebee

Source: Trounce [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Pause for a second and consider these short ‘earth stories’:

  • A Nigerian child is vaccinated against polio
  • The bumblebee’s habitat declines in Europe and North America
  • A sesame farmer in Tanzania buys his first bicycle
  • A British farmer decides to plant some grapevines

These kind of ‘earth stories’ rarely make the headlines.  Yet they are all part of the unfolding history of our planet.  Together with millions of other ‘earth stories’, they give us an insight into how we are interacting with our habitat in two key areas: climate change and human progress.

Understanding climate change and recognising the progress made by humankind are central to the future of our planet and of our species.  But neither gets the attention that they deserve.

But why have they both failed to get traction in the public’s consciousness?  The reasons are manifold:

  • Their manifestations are incremental. The 24-hour news cycle, human discourse, and the fast-moving world of business tend to favour more sudden, attention-grabbing events and narratives rather than drawing our attention to trends which occur over decades (such as climate change) or even centuries (such as human progress).

 

  • Both are complex in terms of their causes and implications. This makes them hard to comprehend, and so it is very tempting for individuals, governments, businesses, educational establishments, and other organisations, to shy away from an in-depth understanding of them.  Complex challenges – also known as ‘wicked problems’ (Rittel and Webber, 1973) – have been recognised as a key focus for modern and post-modern societies – but the hard work in translating this into practical measures has yet to begin in earnest.

 

  • ‘Human progress’ and ‘Climate change’ are both contested terms. I have written elsewhere about the difficulty in pinning down my worldview in relation to progress, but of course even the term ‘progress’ is a difficult one to pin down:  What spheres of ‘progress’ should we be considering?  Whose ‘progress’ should we have in mind?  How can it be measured?  I have referred to the work of Steven Pinker in previous posts and I believe that he does a good job of summarising ‘progress’:

“What is progress?  … Most people agree that life is better than death.  Health is better than sickness.  Sustenance is better than hunger.  Abundance is better than poverty.  Peace is better than war.  Safety is better than danger.  Freedom is better than tyranny.  Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination.  Literacy is better than illiteracy.  Knowledge is better than ignorance.  Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness.  Happiness is better than misery.  Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony.”  (Pinker, 2018: p.51)

However, others will disagree on what exactly constitutes progress, or will want to place different weightings on its constituent measures.

 

  • Obtaining an accurate and unbiased verdict on their current status is difficult. This is the case firstly because both spheres are politically sensitive and therefore most messages come to us via media which are subject to their own biases. Also, even though there exists a wide body of evidence to help us to reach conclusions, this body is so wide, and so dynamic, that it is difficult to synthesise.

 

  • Both have vested interests who find it hard to accept nuances and exceptions to their stated positions on one side or another. This means that there is considerable muddying of the water around the concepts. For the more outspoken and controversial proponents of human progress, such as Matt Ridley, the picture seems exasperatingly clear – the world is getting better – look at the proof!  But inadequate consideration is still given to the environmental (and social) problems caused by some of the progress made by humankind.  For many climate change activists, it is anathema to concede any benefits of climate change, whereas many sceptics, who have only just conceded that anthropogenic climate change is real, struggle to admit that it will harm the world’s poor more than the rich.

 

  • Both seem to escape easy academic categorisation. Which discipline – if any? – should take human progress under its wing?  And what about climate change?  Universities have led the way with interdisciplinary departments and projects relating to climate change, but at secondary education level, it is only recently that disciplines outside of Geography have begun to explore it.  Meanwhile, human progress is such a contested term and covers such a wide range of human experiences that it has an even more diffuse academic grounding – and as it is often stigmatised (with, admittedly, some good reason) as being a hobby horse of the right, then it is in danger of being shunned by the academy in favour of more fashionable and ostensibly more socially acceptable concerns.

 

  • Both seem to have been side-lined by successive governments. In the UK, should the crucial task of tackling climate change be given its own department of government?  Or should it belong to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?  Either would seem to be sensible – but it is in fact the responsibility of The Department of Energy and Climate Change – two areas which have historically been antagonistic in their priorities.  What about human progress?  Should responsibility for this lie solely with the Department for International Development?  If so, who is responsible for tracking human progress in areas that DfID is not active in, and what about human progress in the UK?

 

  • Neither issue – particularly human progress – has gained much political traction. Many voters are much more likely to prioritise issues that are closer to home than to pay attention to global issues, especially if they are either misinformed or uninformed about their key roles in the future of the planet.

 

  • Both terms lead to reactions that are psychologically complex. Just one example is the cognitive dissonance experienced from holding the same two views simultaneously, such as ‘a holiday would do me good’ and ‘flights are one of the most damaging actions that can be taken in terms of carbon emissions’. Sometimes it is easier to avoid thinking about the deeper consequences of one’s actions than to confront them, question them, and act accordingly.  In the context of climate change, George Marshall (2014) has written about the psychological mechanisms that allow us to know something is true but to act as if it is not.

 

Concluding thoughts

How and when will these barriers be overcome?  When the twin UK obsessions of Brexit and Trump pass, as surely they will, who will set the tone for future social and environmental discourse?

When will a tipping point be reached in either sphere?  When will the default position of anyone (or indeed any algorithm) considering any significant action be to consider the impact of that action on climate change?  When will there be widespread acceptance of the generally positive trends seen in terms of human progress?  As ever, your thoughts are welcome.

David

Bibliography

Marshall, G (2014) Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (Bloomsbury)

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

Ridley, M (n.d.) www.rationaloptimist.com

Rittel, H and Webber, M (1973) ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’ in Policy Sciences 4 (1973), pp155-169: https://web.archive.org/web/20070930021510/http://www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf

Educating for Hope – how can educators overcome the Perils of Perception?

the-perils-of-perception

Figure 1: Cover of Perils of Perception

Source: http://launch.theaureview.com/books/book-review-bobby-duffys-the-perils-of-perception-is-a-fascinating-study-into-general-ignorance/

Bobby Duffy, in his 2018 book ‘The Perils of Perception’, put forward a tentative set of proposals for how we could ‘manage our misperceptions’.  These are summarised below, together with thoughts as to how we could apply them to geographical education in the context of aiming to achieve a fact-based, optimistic worldview.  Firstly it is worthwhile quoting from Duffy’s preamble:

“[W]e’re not just wrong about the world because our media or politics are misleading us.  Our ignorance and misperception of facts are long-standing, and they persist in very different conditions over time and across countries” (Duffy, 2018: 231).  Although, tellingly, he goes on to say “While we shouldn’t think there was ever an age of perfectly neutral information, we shouldn’t kid ourselves: we’re travelling towards a world where disinformation has more opportunity to be created and travel faster” (p237).

Duffy’s suggestions

Duffy is keen to stress that “there is no magic formula to deal with our misperception” (p248) but also asserts that there are real and practical things that we can do.  These begin with points related to how we think as individuals, before moving through to society-based actions

1. Things are not as bad as we think – and most things are getting better. This chimes with the whole gist of Factfulness.  In Geography, we could set the ‘Ignorance test’ from Gapminder to our students; or perhaps when setting the context for teaching hazards, we could use graphs which show the deaths from hazards decreasing (we do this at my school).  Paul Turner (@geography_paul) has created a scheme of work based on Factfulness, which has its own ‘rules of thumb’ for those who wish to obtain a fact-based worldview (Rosling et al, 2018).  Infographics such as Figure 2 could be placed on walls of classrooms or handed out to students at the start of a unit on development – and then discussed.  I have also shown all or part of the two hour-long documentaries, as well as some of the thought-provoking YouTube videos and TED talks, which are found on the Gapminder website.

two-centuries-world-as-100-people

Figure 2: The World as 100 People over the last two centuries

Source: https://ourworldindata.org/

2. Accept the emotion but challenge the thought.  As humans we are mentally predisposed to be affected emotionally by certain themes, such as human tragedies, but we should temper our immediate emotional reactions with more deliberative, contemplative thought.  This is more difficult – but as educators we could, for example, set more exercises involving the deeper interrogation of images – such as ‘layers of inference’ activities, which, as Margaret Roberts points out, are common in historical education but which have only recently been adopted by a groundswell of geographers (see Figures 3a and 3b).  For example, students could be given this image…

migrant lorry original

Figure 3a Man and truck in Calais, 2014

Source: Philippe Huguen / Getty, via https://www.newsweek.com/migrant-lorry-drops-more-double-britain-483218

…and then asked to question it using the following template:

layers of inference blank

Figure 3b Layers of inference framework

Source Margaret Roberts / GA via https://slideplayer.com/slide/4055725/

3. Cultivate scepticism, but not cynicism. Most of us will have come across the inveterate cynic in our classroom – and even our staffroom – who claims that “climate change is not real”; “poor countries will stay poor – the people are lazy”.  Cynics tend to be oppositional and have a negative mindset.  Scepticism, on the other hand, is a useful skill to cultivate – we should constantly question the veracity of the information we receive and encourage our students to do so to.  ‘Layers of inference’ photo interpretation activities are one way of achieving this – and why not apply the ‘layers of inference’ grid to other kinds of sources – such as newspaper headlines, cartoons, emails, speeches, etc?

4. Other people are not as like us as we think. This is not to say that we should not empathise with others – rather, this means that we should not assume that ‘all we see is all there is’.  In Geography, we should continue to seek out opportunities to see things from others’ points of view.  Decision-making and Issues-based exercises could assist us in this task, as could using resources such as ‘Dollar Street’ (https://www.gapminder.org/dollar-street/matrix – see Figure 4) and using real diary extracts and video footage from people living in other parts of the world.

dollar street

Figure 4 – Dollar Street

Source: https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/static.dollarstreet.org

5. Our focus on extreme examples leads us astray. There are many examples where we stereotype people, often assuming the worst – the news does not help us in this regard.  As Duffy says, “We’re naturally drawn to extreme examples, which means that true but vanishingly rare events or populations take up more of our mental capacity than they deserve” (p241)  When asked about migration, our students (or indeed, our more populist-inclined politicians) may well think about people on boats in the English Channel without putting these flows (in the realm of a few hundred a year) in the context of economic migration (hundreds of thousands a year).  Judicious use of proportional symbols, graphs and maps could help us to counter this tendency.

6. Unfilter our world. It is well known that online, we are to a large extent a slave of algorithms: we live in a ‘filter bubble’.  We reinforce this by ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ opinions: this results in an ‘echo chamber’ effect.  Governments and corporations have their role to play in dissolving these filters, but so have educators.  Using old favourites like ‘devil’s advocate’ debates could be used more often, and pupils could be given a range of media articles to compare, on issues such as migration and population growth.

7. Critical, statistical and news literacy are going to be difficult to shift, but we can do more.  The task will not be easy: “we won’t be able to teach the human out of our kids, and critical thinking is not a universal guard against misconceptions” (p 244) – but just because a task is difficult does not mean that it should not be attempted: Duffy refers to addressing news literacy as “becoming the social, cultural and political challenge of our time” (ibid).  As educators we need to continue the fight against the trend of transmitting knowledge, and instead increase the proportion of our time dedicated to critical thinking, psychology, and the study of statistics – and these should be delivered by more than one subject.  The breadth of subjects our students follow should also be widened:

  • We should encourage the growth of AQA’s Extended Project Qualification – rather than restricting it to the most able students, this should be offered more widely; 60% of its marks come from the student engaging with the process of its completion, for example by undertaking a critical literature review
  • Schools and colleges should look again at offering Critical Thinking at A Level – and it is a shame that OCR’s Thinking and Reasoning Skills Level 2 Award was withdrawn last year: with media literacy and fact-based education becoming more important, surely the time has come for a respected and well-promoted replacement?
  • The International Baccalaureate is another way of encouraging students to develop their critical, statistical and news literacy, via its Theory of Knowledge and Extended Essay components
  • The IB’s Middle Years Programme may be another way of developing critical and reflective – as well as global-minded – students

8. Facts still count, and fact-checking is important. It may sound trite, but facts should be used carefully to back up arguments.  I say carefully, because, as Duffy points out, the academic literature on the use of facts to correct misperceptions shows very mixed results.  In the classroom, in assemblies like this one and this one, and in presentations, I refer to several ‘killer’ facts and graphs, many of the latter gleaned from Max Roser’s thorough, contemporary, and compelling website ‘Our World in Data’ (see Figure 2).  The optimist in me still likes to think that these facts will do the trick.  But I am also aware that “humans naturally look for confirming information, and discount disconfirming information”.  Nevertheless, I am heartened by the existence of cognitive dissonance: with enough evidence, initially unconvinced people will switch, as the ‘pain’ of persuading themselves to accept their original opinion despite the volume of evidence against it outweighs the ‘pain’ of admitting to themselves that they were wrong.

So how can we adapt this insight into our practice as educators?  We can instill the importance of fact-checking throughout a child’s education, we can pick up on misconceptions, and we can pick up on students who quote inaccurate information.  I remember setting a ‘cover page’ activity to Year 9 students on the topic of Hazards and a handful of them mindlessly typed ‘tsunami’ into a search engine, and the first image was this digitally altered image (Figure 5).  This provided a great opportunity to discuss the reliability of sources.

fake tsunami

Figure 5 Digitally altered photo of a tsunami

Source: I am unable to attribute this to its original creator, but this was found at

http://jimdrake.blogspot.com/2011/01/technology-tsunami-hits-snyder-texas.html

A fun activity to make students sit up and take notice of inaccuracies is to find a mistake in a textbook and offer a reward to the first student who notices it.  This could also be applied to those who notice mistakes in your own worksheets.  Peer marking for factual errors can also help to remove any stigma which you fear you might be getting as a ‘nit-picking pedant’!

Moreover, teachers should aim to ‘get in there first’ – by teaching accurate world views in primary schools and in the early years of secondary education, rather than leaving until later in the system, when many students following certain subjects may not get to be aware of this all-important life skill.

9. We also need to tell the story. The use of narratives and anecdotes to persuade others of a point of view is as old as rhetoric itself.  They have a power over the human mind that pure facts struggle to muster.  When teaching immigration, for example, it is important to focus on real life stories as well as using quantitative data about the scale of net migration or its economic impacts.  Examples abound, and I use a Guardian Weekend magazine article to personalise migration and to show its range; other resources include https://www.ourmigrationstory.org.uk/

10. Better and deeper engagement is possible. This is where we move from taking evolutionary steps to revolutionary changes!  Duffy mentions that more informed deliberation could help to shift misperceptions and reduce ignorance – and one idea from Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin (2005) is to hold national ‘deliberation days’ where citizens would be invited to participate in public community discussions.  People would gather in groups of 500 or so to hear presentations and ask questions of experts or representatives.  Attendance would be incentivised, and the events would take place on national holidays, perhaps prior to an election.  Could schools adapt this idea and have ‘deliberation days’ on set topics, rather than leaving debating and philosophising to a self-selecting crowd of confident students?  This would be a step beyond ‘mock elections’ and it could give ‘pupil councils’ a boost so that they could integrate national and global issues – such as plastic pollution or media bias – into their deliberations.  Senior members of corporations, universities and, yes, schools, have ‘away days’ to deliberate on important issues – so why should we not extend this to pupils?  Duffy has trialled these with government and other groups and has seen people change their ways of thinking.

I am conscious that my recent seven-minute assembly on global progress may have given students – and teachers – a momentary pause to think about their worldview, but I know that a fuller programme of engagement will be needed to reach a ‘tipping point’ in attitudes.

One other insight that Duffy makes is to draw our attention to the work of Michael Shermer, the founder of the Skeptics Society.  A summary of his steps to convincing others of the errors of their beliefs is:

  1. Keep emotions out of the exchange
  2. Discuss, don’t attack (no ad hominem and no ad Hitlerum)
  3. Listen carefully and try to articulate the other position accurately
  4. Show respect
  5. Acknowledge that you understand why someone might hold that opinion
  6. Try to show how changing facts does not necessarily mean changing worldviews

Source: Shermer (2017)

I am immensely grateful to Professor Duffy for giving me a structure on which I can build my deliberations for ‘Educating for Hope’.  I hope to build on these in the future and, as always, I welcome further contributions.

David

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

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

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

Shermer, M. (2017) ‘When Facts Backfire’ https://michaelshermer.com/2017/01/when-facts-backfire-why-worldview-threats-undermine-evidence/ accessed 18 January 2019

Name that worldview

Name that viewpoint! (Read the article to the end to find out the answer)

Source: TomasEE [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D

What keeps you awake at night?  For me, sometimes it’s thinking about the next day’s lessons, sometimes it’s the caffeine from an evening cup of tea, and sometimes it’s the Private Eye crossword.  That’s the way I roll.  On a slightly more profound level, I do wonder how to conceptualise what kind of worldview I stand for and advocate.  At some point, this conceptualisation requires a name.  Here are my options.  What do you think?

A fact-based worldview

I use the term ‘fact-based’ frequently – and who would argue against such a premise?  However, it doesn’t seem energetic or enthusiastic enough for me to use as a rallying call – I can imagine it now:

‘What do we want?’ ‘A fact-based worldview!’

‘When do we want it?’ ‘In a suitable and sensible timeframe!’.

A positive worldview

Calling my worldview ‘positive’ would draw attention to the important task of counteracting the negative bias we receive from most of the news, and indeed from our evolutionary instincts to be wary of threats.  But calling it ‘positive’ unfortunately insinuates that it ignores the negatives – that it only provides part of the story – and I do not wish to be accused of selectivity.

A progressive worldview

Progressive’ is another alternative I have considered – and, to quote a panellist on the 10 October 2018 episode of Radio 4’s ‘Moral Maze’ devoted to deconstructing the concept, “if you have a problem with progress, try regress”!  But the term ‘progressive’ has been adopted by politically motivated groups to stand in opposition to ‘reactionary’ – and whilst I have sympathies with this viewpoint, I want to avoid politically charged vocabulary, for fear that it might alienate some practitioners and students.  This is a shame, as the concept of ‘progress’ (as opposed to ‘progressive’) is a well-known and broadly supported notion.  In this vein, I heavily recommend interested readers to Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (2018).

A hopeful worldview

I settled on ‘hopeful’ a few months ago, as I thought that it conveyed a positive, without being Panglossian, sense of the future.  Also, if Barack Obama’s first election was won on the theme of ‘Hope’, then it shows the power of this word.  I was aware it had a slightly passive ring about it (which I assume is why Obama’s campaign team paired it with the more active ‘Change’), but I still felt that it was the word which best summed up my outlook.

Shepard Fairey’s ‘Hope’ poster for Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential Campaign

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barack_Obama_%22Hope%22_poster

I was excited, then, to find that David Hicks had already written an article on ‘A geography of hope’ in the journal ‘Geography’ in 2014 – and I continued to be engaged when in the second paragraph, Hicks writes that he has “an interest in how teachers and learners can stay optimistic and hopeful in such difficult times” (p.5).  Hicks seems to share my worries that hope can be misconstrued as being passive: “there is a significant difference between ‘hoping that’ something will come about (such as the sun shining tomorrow), and the more radical or active hope that is needed to survive in really difficult circumstances. Such hope is ontological: it is what we draw on when we are faced by the worst that life can offer” (ibid: p.9).

However, although I have uncovered a rich source of relevant literature on the subject, there are subtle differences between my worldview and the one outlined by Hicks.  His conception of hope seems to be founded on an ‘alternative’ future, rather than by looking back and celebrating the progress which has already been made towards this goal.  In a personal communication, Hicks says that whilst he certainly thinks that learners should be encouraged to feel more positive about the state of the local/global community, he “would find it difficult to be positive about… the degree of human damage to the biosphere over the last 50+ years”.  My worldview, whilst being pragmatic enough to recognise environmental challenges, nevertheless celebrates achievements in social, economic and environmental spheres and wishes to publicise them.  Additionally, of course, he got there first!  Whilst inspired by it, I do not want to take any credit for the notion of ‘A geography of hope’.

A possibilist worldview

So, what other terms are available to describe the worldview which I am so passionate about?  In Factfulness (2018), Hans Rosling, the doyen of fact-based worldviews, wrote

“I’m a very serious “possibilist”.  That’s something I made up.  It means something who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview…. It is having a clear and reasonable idea about how things are.  It is having a worldview that is constructive and useful” (p.69).

So, could ‘possibilist’ be the term that I have been searching for?  I am not so sure: it doesn’t quite trip off the tongue, and it doesn’t quite seem to convey the positive direction that most social and economic, and many environmental, global trends seem to be taking: ‘possible’ outcomes are merely ‘options’ rather than ‘positive’ ones.  Or perhaps there is mileage in taking this word on, not only as a homage to the great man, but also because it doesn’t carry as much political or psychological baggage as many of the alternatives.

An optimistic worldview

Which leaves me with my last choice – should I go with my heart and plump for ‘optimistic’?  In this respect I am in the awkward position of disagreeing with Hans Rosling.  Rosling said that people calling him an optimist made him angry: “I am not an optimist.  That makes me sound naïve” (2018: p.69).  However, I am not so sure.  Is it not possible to both to reframe optimism, and to reclaim it from those who associate it with naivety?

A conundrum

I am torn between ‘possibilist’ and ‘optimistic’.  Which way should I turn?  As always, I welcome your thoughts!

Bibliography

Hicks, D. (2014a) ‘A geography of hope’, Geography, 99, 1, pp. 5-12

Pinker, S (2018) Enlightenment Now (Allen Lane)

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

Answer to ‘name that view’ photo: Stegastein viewpoint, Norway