Holding ideas lightly

Chalk drawing
Lightly drawn ideas (Source: Author)

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

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

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

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

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

Holding ideas lightly

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

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

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

A Level Geog Assessment Objectives

Figure 1: AS and A Level Geography Assessment Objectives
Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/assessment-objectives-ancient-languages-geography-and-mfl/gcse-as-and-a-level-assessment-objectives#geography-1

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

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

Think twice, and think carefully

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

A hands down winner

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

Scrap that!

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

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

Changing places

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

Computer aids

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

Figure 3: The Post-It Note app

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

Social media literacy

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

Discussion forums

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

Light by name, serious by intent

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

References

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

Harari, YN (2018) ‘Yuval Noah Harari on what the year 2050 has in store for humankind’ – Wired, 12 August 2018 (accessed 17 May 2019): https://www.wired.co.uk/article/yuval-noah-harari-extract-21-lessons-for-the-21st-century

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

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

McFadden, J (2017) ‘The power of talking sideways to children’ – The Guardian, 14 January 2017 (accessed 17 May 2019): https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jan/14/children-parents-talk-opportunities-sideways-listening-chats

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

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

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),

The Last Straw or the Last Resort? Using Games in Geographical Education

playinglaststraw

Students playing their own health and development game

Source: Author

With nine minutes to go until my Year 9 class arrived, I tried to get my Year 13 students to pack up prior to a plenary activity, but they did not want to finish the activity which they had been working on for well over an hour.

What was this activity?  A video?  A past paper question just prior to a report?  No – it was a board game – in fact it was the third one that they had made themselves.  They were all genuinely keen to learn!  So I let them play the game.

The Last Straw

Sometimes, it’s a struggle to think how I can bring the requirements of specifications to life.  In this case, I needed to convey the relationship between development and health in the UK, Brazil, and amongst Aboriginal Australians*.  Hmmm.  As it happens, a few years ago, I was lucky to have attended a Teachers’ Workshop at Leeds University, led by Myles Gould (@Myles_Gould_UoL), during which he introduced ‘The Last Straw – a board game on the social determinants of health’.  This can be purchased here: www.thelaststraw.ca

tls-board

The Last Straw board game

Source: http://www.thelaststraw.ca 

It’s not the most exciting title, I admit, but I have played it over a dozen times with different groups over the years, and it works – it always generates a discussion on the complexities of public health.  The game is set in Canada, and in almost all respects, the scenarios are like those encountered in the UK.  It has stood the test of time, and indeed it provides a good basis for discussions about how public health challenges have changed over the past decade (some for the better and some for the worse, but, wearing my ‘optimist’ hat, more for the better, I would argue!).

Playing The Last Straw

The game comes with detailed instructions, but here is an outline: The facilitator splits the students into up to four groups, and each one is issued with a ‘character card’.  They roll dice to determine the socio-economic status, gender and ethnic background of their character.  Once these have been set, they are issued ‘vitality chips’ to represent their level of health – for example, males get ten chips and females get nine.  This provides the first of many opportunities in the game to discuss why there are health inequalities – and indeed, whether some of them have changed since the game was made a decade ago, and how some may differ in different countries.  At this point it is best to mention that there will be sensitive scenarios in the game, some of which may apply to players in the room or their close acquaintances, and that mutual respect would be appreciated.

Then the players proceed around the board, encountering individual scenarios (e.g. rolling a dice to decide if they try drugs) or community scenarios (e.g. ‘the government provides funding for pre-school care’).  For every scenario, the player risks losing or gaining ‘vitality’ chips.  There are also three staging posts – adolescence, adulthood, and old age – when dice are again rolled to determine whether, for example, the educational level of the character changes.  Discussions are always encouraged, and sometimes, mini quizzes are set – such as when all present are rewarded with a vitality chip if they can collectively think of some ways to overcome a public health challenge – e.g. ways to stop smoking.

Taking it further

makinglaststraw

Students designing their own health and development game

Source: Author

This worked well – but I decided to build on the game and ask students to design their own.  They did this in small teams – one group made a game for the UK case study, another made one for Brazil, and the last group made one for Aboriginal Australians.  I made a smaller playing board but asked the students to retain the mixture of initial life chances, individual scenarios and community scenarios.  The students then took it in turn to play these games (I became a participant too, although I also corrected any factual inaccuracies and stimulated further discussion points during the games).  These were the games that the group were determined to play up to and beyond the end of the lesson.

Other games

Other games I have played in Geography are include:

Justifications for using games in teaching

I recommend the judicious use of games in teaching, and especially recommend the practice of students making their own games, for these reasons (among many others!):

  • Students engage with the topic in both the playing of, and the creation of, the games
  • Games encourage students to modify case study content, not just regurgitate it
  • They allow teachers to develop plenty of ‘primed’ discussions where the seed of a situation is planted**, rather than ‘blank slate’ discussions where students are asked to think on their feet

Take care!

Games should be used carefully, and here are some factors which should be considered:

  • The size of the class
  • The behaviour of the class
  • Time of day, day of the week, and time within the term: some of the more active ones can work well when children might be less receptive to more settled tasks, but others, such as the Last Straw, require more deliberation and discussion
  • The time available – for example, the activities covered above took longer than the time I would normally take to cover the bare bones of the content.  However, the listening, processing, and deliberative skills developed by playing The Last Straw and the three spin-off games justified the time devoted to them
  • The time taken by the teacher to prepare for each game (this is a great opportunity for spreading the workload around colleagues!)
  • Whether or not the players need to take notes, and if so, in which format, and when – during, or after the game?  In my experience, such reflections can work as a homework task
  • Follow-up activities – this could be a written reflection, or it could be a sample examination question – this is what I will be giving my group after playing The Last Straw

Finally, each of these games requires contextualisation and on-the-spot willingness on behalf of the teacher to be flexible.  It is also worth mentioning that the seriousness of the subject matter of each game should be considered – they represent real life scenarios.  I still wince when I remember playing a board game created by a fellow PGCE Geography student 18 years ago – he called his game ‘Bangladesh bingo’, and the first player who successfully ticked off the impacts of a flooding event, such as ‘a cholera outbreak kills thousands’, had to stand up and celebrate by shouting out ‘floodtastic!’.

Final thoughts…

Has anyone come across a climate change – or ‘sustainable futures’ board game of the same level of complexity as The Last Straw?  I was thinking that one day, I could make a board game!

David

* For the Edexcel A Level ‘Health, Human Rights and Intervention’ module.

** Such as ‘You lost one vitality chip for contracting an STD, but two for the anxiety resulting from being bullied – is this a fair representation of the relative seriousness of these two events, and indeed what is your opinion of the importance of physical versus mental challenges to health?’

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

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)