Categories
Optimism and progress Outdoor Learning Teaching and Learning

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),

Categories
Geography Optimism and progress Teaching and Learning Uncategorized

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

Categories
Geography Optimism and progress Teaching and Learning

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

Categories
Geography Optimism and progress Teaching and Learning

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

Categories
Geography Optimism and progress Teaching and Learning

A Hopeful Geography – the story so far – part 1

Placemark-globe.svg

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

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

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

Practical ideas for educators

The original – Gapminder

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

ignorance project logo

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

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

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

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

A hero for our times – Captain Geography!

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

Agents for change – ‘A Better World Detectives’

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

Impartial facts – Our World in Data

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

Optimistic outcomes – The World We Made

The World We Made cover

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

Future archaeologies – digging down to the 2010s

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

Textbooks – handle with care!

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

Reframing hazards

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

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

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

Watch your words!

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

Next steps

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

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

Thank you again.

David

Bibliography:

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

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

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

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

 

Categories
Assemblies Geography Optimism and progress

Optimism assembly

137,000 people escape poverty Breaking News

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

Is the world getting better?

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

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

So, what do you reckon?  Please vote now.

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

Dhaka slum picture Alcock 2001

Photo of slum in Dhaka, 2000 (Author)

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

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

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

Anti WEF Protest Melbourne Alcock 2000

Protests against the WEF in Melbourne, 2000 (Author)

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

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

Poverty % with my travels

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

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

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

Year Group getting better

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

Country getting better

Source: Author’s research; Ipsos-MORI

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

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

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

Think about it.

The answer is C: Almost halved

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

Poverty survey

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

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

Think about it – what would you have voted?

The answer is C: 60%

How did the respondents do?

Low income girls in primary school survey

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

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

Think about it – what would you have voted?

The answer is C: 2 billion

How did my group do?

2 billion children in world survey

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

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

Let’s have one more question.

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

What do you reckon?

The answer is C: 80%

Our survey said…

Elec access survey

Well done Year 12s!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

137,000 people escape poverty Breaking News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adjusting your world view

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

Categories
Geography Optimism and progress

A hopeful Geography?

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

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

MDG : Hans rosling wealth health graph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for your time.

David

Some further reading:

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

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

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

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

 

Categories
Assemblies Optimism and progress

Reasons to be happy – the real state of the world

Assembly – Reasons to be happy – the real state of the world  – Bradford Grammar School, 13 Jan 2017

What a depressing day – It’s Friday 13th, the days are short, the weather is terrible and term has just started again!  In the wider world, Trump is about to take over at the White House and there is great uncertainty over what exactly Brexit means.  There’s a crisis in Syria and Yemen, suicide bombs and terrorist attacks, and climate change looming over us.  Indeed, virtually every headline shouts out ‘crisis’!

But stop! Shouldn’t we look at these developments in context?  What’s the real state of the world?  If you look at the facts about the world socially, economically, and in most respects, environmentally, I want to show you that there are reasons to be satisfied, and – as befits the theme of the week – even happy.  And I need the help of some of you to do so.

So, let’s look at the direction the world is going in terms of just two aspects – health and violence.

Let’s start with the basics – how long are we living for?  Life expectancy is going up and up, as Hans Rosling is keen to point out.

In 1800, the global life expectancy at birth was between 20 and 30. In 1900 this had crept up to 31, by 1950 it was 48, but what is it today?

68 years old.  And this is a global average!  Even for those who survived the dangerous first few years of life, in 1845, a five-year old in the UK could expect to live until they were just 55, but a five-year old today – someone just starting Clock House – can expect to live until they are 82.  Surely this is a reason to be cheerful?

How many babies are living into childhood?

In 1800, 43% of children died before their fifth birthday.

How has this changed over time?  Well, thanks to healthcare, scientific improvements and so on, by 1900 this had fallen to 36%.

By 1950 it was 22%.

But how about 2015?

The answer is 4%

How about access to education?

Back in 1800, only one in eight people around the world could read and write.  This meant that an almighty 88% couldn’t read or write.

By 1900 it had barely decreased – it was still high at 79%

By 1950 it had nudged downwards to 64%

So what was it in 2014?

The answer is 17% – and it’s dropping fast!

But how often do these statistics make the headlines?  Very rarely.  Why not?  Good news does not sell papers, good news does not entice you to click the hyperlink, good news does not make you watch, well, the news.

One reason why we do not hear about how global living conditions are improving in the media is that these are the slow processes that never make the headlines. The media is overly obsessed with reporting single events and with bad news and does not nearly pay enough attention to the slow developments like these that reshape our world.

Max Roser points out that a media that would report global development could have had the headline “The number of children dying globally fell by 455 since yesterday” and they wouldn’t have this headline once, but every single day over these more than 2 decades.

Good news does not sell papers, good news does not entice you to click the hyperlink, good news does not make you watch, well, the news.

How about the way that we die?  Steven Pinker is a Canadian writer who has noticed more slow-burning good news.

How many people will meet their death in a violent manner?  Let’s start with murder.  You’d have thought that this is an ever-present threat.  But we live in an increasingly peaceful world.  Even at its peak, in tribal societies, your chance of being murdered in any one year was only 0.7%.

By 1800 the world average was 0.003%, by 1950 it was 0.001%, and it has fallen slightly since then. All these figures are over-represented by a Lego man.

So there is less murder nowadays – a reason to be cheerful!  Here is a list of other things which are getting rarer and rarer in the world:

Wars? Rarer? Surely some mistake?

Year 7s and 8s – you will all recognize this man from Geography and History – Otzi the Iceman.  How did he die?

Otzi the Iceman – Source: Thilo Parg [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, and 120 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, both from Wikimedia Commons

From an arrow.  DNA analysis found traces of blood from two other people on one of the arrowheads he was carrying, blood from a third on his dagger, and blood from a fourth on his cape.  He belonged to a raiding party that clashed with a neighbouring tribe.  So how many people will meet their death from conflicts and wars nowadays compared to tribal societies?

In tribal societies the rate was, on average, 14%.  NB this includes civilian casualties.

In the early 1600s the rate was about 1%

It did peak again in the first half of the 20th Century – don’t forget, 100 Old Bradfordians died in WW1 – the worst war was WW2 – and the chance of someone dying from this was 1.5%

But how about today? There has been a tenfold increase in war deaths globally since 2005 – but what is the total chance of being killed in a war today – or of being a civilian victim?

It’s actually about 0.003%

The world has always been a violent place.  It is still a violent place – but it is much, much, less violent that it used to be.  The twentieth century was a violent century – more people died in wars in that century than in any previous century.  But most of those deaths occurred in the first half of that century – in one of the two world wars.  Since then, what Pinker refers to the ‘Long Peace’ has spread over the world.

Since 1950 – in the lifetime of everyone here, one number stands out clearly in the history of war: Zero.

How many nuclear weapons have been used in conflict?  Zero.

How many western European countries have fought each other?  Zero.

How many major developed countries have fought each other?  Zero.

How many developed countries have expanded their territories by conquering another country?  Zero.

How many states have disappeared through conquest?  Zero.

You might say – well how about other forms of conflict in recent decades?  There may not have been a world war, but how about civil wars?  Genocides? Terrorism? Surely they are in the news so they must be on the rise!

No.  Deaths from civil wars, genocides and terrorism have all fallen over the past twenty years.  In 1950 the average armed conflict killed 33,000; in 2015 it killed about 4,000.  Terrorist attacks hit a natural barrier beyond which they sow the seeds of self-destruction as potential converts are more exposed to being hurt.

It’s not just violence that is decreasing – tolerance is increasing.  In every issue touched by the human rights revolution of recent decades – interracial marriage, the empowerment of women, the tolerance of homosexuality, the punishment of children, and the treatment of animals – the attitudes of conservatives have followed the trajectory of liberals, with the result that today’s conservatives are more liberal than the liberals of just a few decades ago.

But why are these trends happening?

Why are we getting healthier?

  • Government investment in healthcare, sanitation, clean water, schools and science
  • Trade and aid, both of which spread wealth around
  • Private enterprise pushing the boundaries of medical endeavour
  • Individual actions and breakthroughs – we are indeed standing on the shoulders of giants

Why are we getting less violent?

  • Countries are becoming less warlike.  The move to democracies has helped in this: since 1900, democracies have been less than twice as likely as non-democracies to engage in militarized disputes.
  • Strong governments and law enforcement mean that mankind’s baser instincts are held at bay.
  • Belonging to groups of countries like the United Nations and, yes, the EU, means that we are bound by more ties which we don’t want to destroy by fighting.
  • Being wealthier means that there is more at stake – more to lose – if we were to go to war.  Trading with other countries means that we have more to lose – no two countries with a McDonald’s have ever gone to war with each other.
  • Social norms in developed countries have evolved to incorporate the conviction that was is inherently immoral because of its costs to human well-being and that it can only be justified when it is likely to prevent even greater costs to human well-being.

There is now more empathy for human life than ever before – thanks to reading and writing, we know more about other people.  So thank you, TV, radio, publishing, travel and thank you, the Internet. Education saves lives.  We have enlarged our ‘empathy circle’.  It is so much harder to kill or hurt someone when you know them, or even know about them.

Similarly, being exposed to more ideas saves lives.  Education saves lives.  The more you learn, the fewer mistruths and inaccuracies you will hold about ‘other’ people.  So read, read, read.  And think, think, think.

We believe that the world is going to hell in a handcart because the media tells us that it is.  David Hume says we are laboring under a “false sense of insecurity”.  But keep your wits about you.  Look wider, look further back, read, listen and ponder the facts.  Let’s try to avoid the state of worry and terror that many people live in today.

Caveat

Avoid the complacency trap – ‘now I know that life in most of the world is getting better, I can sit back and let progress happen’.  Well, progress is built on many small acts, and sitting back would be to avoid your responsibility as a member of society.

Be aware – declines in violence are caused by political, economic and ideological conditions that take hold in particular cultures at particular times.  If the conditions change, these trends could reverse.

I hope I haven’t belittled the victims of violence and ill health who can be found across the globe and particularly in developing countries – there is still work to be done!

There are still threats to humanity – especially with regards to the environment – and especially climate change – that we should be turning our attention to.

Conclusion

I could go on about how the world is progressing in other areas like reductions in poverty… but you get the picture.  So what can you take away from today?

Understand what has led to the declines and it will guide you towards what might work in the future.

Be open to facts, not rhetoric.

Read widely and not just fiction – don’t just trust the first thing you find online – be aware of ‘fake news’ – and be willing to pay for good journalism and writing, whether that is via a magazine or newspaper subscription or via licence fees and taxes

Try to see the big picture – try to set the most recent disaster on the news in context.

Finally, I would say not so much ‘don’t worry, be happy’ as ‘worry less, be slightly happier about the state of the world’.

Thank you.

Source for Pinker: Pinker, S (2011): The Better Angels of Our Nature

Source for Max Roser statistic: Max Roser (2016) – ‘Child Mortality’. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/child-mortality/ [Online Resource]

Credit also due to http://www.gapminder.org

Categories
Assemblies Optimism and progress

The crime of waste

Assembly – Waste – delivered to Bradford Grammar School, 8 Oct 2015

Feel free to adapt / edit / try out this assembly at your educational establishment.

[Start with ‘crime scene’ on stage]

What’s the world’s most serious crime?

Drug dealing? Murder? Mass murder? Torture? Terrorism?

In Year 8 Geography we discussed this question as part of our studies into where and why crime takes place.

We decided that to classify as ‘serious’ the crime should cause severe harm, affect many people, and its effects would last for a long time.

I received several answers similar to the ones I just gave until one made me stop in my tracks:

‘Overuse of the world’s resources’

This really got the conversation going!  That’s not a crime!  Who is affected?  You can’t go into prison for that!

But we approached it logically, and tested it out against the criteria mentioned above:

The crime should cause severe harm, affect many people, and its effects would last for a long time.

__________________________

Firstly, the severity of the harm caused.  Well, it’s not as severe as murder or torture, but let’s consider the waste and the by-products of energy generation used to make the things which end up as waste.  Well, these often cause injury, disease, and premature death.  Just think, for instance, of water pollution from factories soil contamination from the degradation of waste in landfill sites

and air pollution, which leads to asthma, breathing difficulties and climate change.

Secondly, the number of people affected by the waste – well these can be measured in the billions – 7.3 billion in fact – as we’re all affected in some way by the problems that I’ve just mentioned.

Thirdly, we can be affected by waste for a very long time indeed.  Not only are many non-biodegradable items taking up valuable land, but we are still dealing now with the problems caused by toxic metals leaching into groundwater.   In addition, the thermal inertia of the oceans means that there is a 25-50 year time lag between increased levels of CO2 and the oceans warming up by a corresponding amount – the oceans will continue to expand for decades to come, resulting in rising sea levels and coastal flooding.

_____________________________________

I could go on.  But if waste is a serious crime, then who are the criminals?  Who are the victims?  And who are the police?

Who are the criminals?  I’m a criminal.  I buy things I don’t need.  I throw things away.  I fly.  I forget to turn things off.  In a way, we are all criminals.  A sobering thought.

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Who are the victims?  Well, I’ve begun to answer that one already.  The ones who suffer the most are the most vulnerable in society.

People who have breathing difficulties suffer from air pollution.

People who drink water from polluted watercourses in the countries where our goods are made.

And people who live on the coast in low-lying countries like Bangladesh, who are suffering from rising sea levels and coastal flooding thanks to climate change.

But we all suffer in a way.  Consider the financial angle.

Do you know what this represents?  (Point to a pile of waste)  A year’s waste per person in this room.  As a school last year we created 780 tonnes of solid waste.  Much of this is institutional waste like building rubble.  But much of it is food. Paper.  Plastic containers.  That’s 650kg per person – that’s two-thirds of a tonne for every pupil, teacher and other staff who work here.  Two-thirds of a tonne – that’s almost the weight of a SMART car!  The government charges £80 a tonne for putting our waste into landfill – so about £55 of each of your fees disappears into the ground!  We use £100,000 per year in electricity.  And over £100,000 in gas.  Much of this is unnecessary – so we’re pretty much throwing away money!  Money which could be used to invest in new facilities, reducing fees, and going towards new bursaries.  What a waste.

_______________________________________

So we are the criminals and the victims of this crime – a strange situation indeed.  But who are the police?  Weirdly, we all are – or at least we all can be.  We can help to prevent the crime which we commit and which we all suffer from.  What do I mean by ‘we’?

In the broadest sense, ‘we’ can mean the government elected by you and your parents.  OK – they have belatedly brought in a plastic bag charge (on Monday this week!) – and initiatives like the landfill tax I just mentioned.  But we can’t leave it to them.

How about the school?  Talking to the bursar and the estates manager, it’s apparent that some pretty big strides have been made in recent years to reduce waste here.  Most of these ways are behind the scenes.

Did you know that through the fitting of LED lights and motion sensors, the school has shaved £40,000 from its electricity bill in the past year?  That’s fifty PCs.  Or 6,000 textbooks.  Or four bursaries.  There are even some new ‘Dali’ lights which adjust to the amount of sunlight coming in through the window.

We recycled over 30 tonnes of waste last year – saving the school £2,400 in landfill taxes – although this is only 4% of our total waste – can you help to improve on this?

And did you know that heating the water in the swimming pool now costs 12% less that it did last year, thanks to a liquid which has been pumped into the water, which rises to the top when ripples have settled, forming an insulating layer just one molecule thick?

And simple measures have been taken by our head chef to reduce waste in the dining hall, by installing recycling bins and reusing leftovers in soups and other meals?

But we shouldn’t stop there.  How about you?  What can you do to prevent the crime of waste?

(Could show https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ptp6JGAF3o0 at this point.)

So, here’s a small checklist of easy things you can do…

  • Turn lights off
  • Turn computers off
  • Recycle your waste paper and plastic containers
  • Refill water bottles rather than buying new ones
  • Only select what you are going to eat at lunch

These may only be small steps, but together we can make a difference – and we can all benefit.  Here and at home.  Now and in the future.

And finally, spread the word.  Waste is costly, waste is harmful – waste is criminal.

Thank you.