#gaconf14 Musings: Professor Iain Stewart’s Public Lecture. Why bipolar debates will be the death of quality geography (and teaching and learning in general)

2014-04-14 17.16.13

Each year, the Geographical Association lays on a public lecture that is free for all to attend.  The event sets the stage for the Annual Conference. This year geologist,  Professor Iain Stewart spoke.  His message, whilst entwined with hydraulic fracturing and linked to geography, can be applied across the educations world, especially for those active on twitter.  This is my own take on his talk.

I found his rallying cry to break down the human / physical schizophrenic nature of geography and to just call it geography inspiring.  He suggested that the current distinction keeps the subject firmly in the 20th century and unable to deal with the challenges facing us in the 21st century. It’s an artificial distinction.  Many will disagree with this.  I don’t. I think that it makes a whole heap of sense.  It does need universities to lead the way though and engage with the design the school curriculum and assessment regime.

Iain used the example of fracking to exemplify this call.  I won’t go in to detail on fracking here, but will say that the issue is not a bipolar argument.  It’s not a simple case of presenting basic reasons for and against but a very complicated issue with geopolitical and geospatial elements.  It was good to see some myths debunked.  I wonder how many departments are teaching about this issue? You should be.  I also wonder how many of those lessons are driven by media sources and not informed by scientific evidence?  Iain challenged those present to ensure that we know as much as we can about these complex issues.  There’s a clear implication to provide deep learning experiences (not just in the case of fracking), especially when examining controversial issues and case studies in the geography classroom. 

It’s not just black and white and there are many shades of grey.  This is particularly important when it comes the this issue as shale gas will change the geopolitics of the world.   For example, the US has already become energy independent because of shale gas.  Interestingly, the Middle East does not have much (identified) shale gas reserves and many commentators suggest that this will stop the USA’s meddling in the region as conventional oil supplies run dry.  It’s our job as teachers to take the messages in the media and amplify them, drawing out the geographical / scientific / mathematical… content. Iain pointed out that the media don’t make programmes for the experts, for teachers or for our students.

It reminded me of the futility of engaging in many twitter based education debates and there is a message here to those that expend energy fighting about the skills v knowledge, graded lesson observations v non-graded lesson observation type of debates. 

It also reminded me of the futility of the anti-Microsoft people.  Personally, I’m an evangelist of what works. I don’t care what flavour of it.  Bottom line: does in make teaching and learning better? Does it help teachers teach better lessons? Does it help drive up standards?

I also liked Iain’s messages about geography in the media.  There are links here with Vanessa Lawrence’s lecture the next day: geography is now mainstream.  He mentioned that although there is lots of geography on television, it often is not labelled as such.  This isn’t a problem though as many of those in university geography departments wouldn’t call themselves geographers.  We have to remember that popular programming is aimed at the non-attentive public – the 60% of UK society that doesn’t want to engage with scientific issues (and yes, geography is a science).  How many geographers assume that everyone knows what the GA stands for?  Great to see the organisation at the top of search results though:


This echoes with my own view that teachers (and geographers in particular) shouldn’t get so worked up and remember that many people, our young people included, won’t know it’s geography until we engage them with it.  Just because it’s obviously geography to us, doesn’t mean that the vast majority will know that.  We should stop moaning and start educating.  For example, start each tutor time with the Newsround News, there’s always a 2 minutes summary on the website.  Talk about the links to geography, place, space, location, geospatial data and geopolitics.  Or use the daily Bing image – it is almost always possible to frame geography questions about them.  I often start a lesson with the image and use it to generate discussion. don’t believe me, here are the images for the past four days during the conference:





Finally, in this back-to-front commentary of his talk, Iain ran through the five criteria for making popular science programmes:

  • Entertain. I don’t think that lessons should entertain.  Not all of the time in any case.  My jokes are bad for that reason.  Learning stuff is hard. But, people do learn things when they are engaged.
  • Simplify. This could wrongly be called dumbing down but we were asked what would happen if we went from lesson 3 with 6th Form straight to lesson 4 with Year 7.  Would we call our change in approach dumbing down or consider it making the knowledge, understanding and skills more accessible?  Certainly it is possible to teach Year 7 children complex concepts by taking a slightly different approach that many ‘would leave for GCSE’.  We need to adapt our teaching to ensure that all learners are capable of understanding it.  When it comes to geography, this means dialling up the difficulty.
  • Tell stories. I’m a  great believer in the power of narrative.  This blog, my career is just a story of things that have happened.  Case studies can often fail to tell the story of a place, instead distil and over simplify and over generalise into bipolar debates or into the cause / effects / response silos. It’s time to add some meat on the bones.
  • Make it personal. I’m a great believer in bring the personal into teaching.  I often use my own experiences and those of the children I teach. This isn’t just because I’m vain.  For example, I was an illegal worker in a country once.  Makes young people think differently about labels.
  • Capture the wonder. If we fail to communicate the wonder of our subject (geography or not) we fail in our duty to young people.

Overall, I left inspired by the messages running through the lecture.  We need to break down the artificial division between human and physical geography as there isn’t an area of the world that hasn’t been modified by human action.  Similarly, there are very few human activities that aren’t affected by physical events.  Just think about the weather or bloody big mountains. We are living in the Anthropocene after all:

There are university geography departments who are receiving students unable to access their first year programme, Southampton, where I spend a week with the goldsmith’s Science and Society course, being an example.  One area is the use of data and I again welcome the increased emphasis on this in the new curriculum orders.  Though I do urge universities to get involved in curriculum making to assist this.  Don’t like Maths? Get over it, just look at the data needed in PE these days: (source)

Vo2 Max Lab

I also appreciated the message for teachers to raise their game and own subject knowledge.  Although this fits with current curriculum reform, it’s needed always.  How many teachers that you know consider themselves experts of their subject and that they don’t need to learn anything else?  What are we doing to challenge that?  There is a clear demand here, if teaching, learning and assessment is going to be the best it can, for high quality, subject specific CPD and for schools to give the time for this to happen.

Finally, the message against taking a simple, bipolar approach to complex issues is vital to ensure that we are preparing young people to live, interact with and change the world they are living in.  And that message goes far beyond geography.

Don’t believe me? The audio of the talk will be available on the Geographical Association’s website soon.

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