The Ignorance Trilogy

I had never intended to write a trilogy of posts, however things fell into place and while there was a unifying thread it made sense to separate ideas into separate posts rather than produce one of my typically sprawling articles. In many ways, this trilogy draws together much of the reading, thinking and writing that I have done, particularly over the past six months, so I thought it might be helpful to set these latest posts into the context of that previous writing.

Like all good trilogies – Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Godfather, Cornetto – there is a theme running through this latest trilogy. Taking Beveridge’s classification of ‘ignorance’ as one of the great social ills, I believe that tackling ignorance should be the main aim of schooling.

In On ignorance, I discuss why ignorance is perhaps the greatest of Beveridge’s ‘five giants’. A problem in its own right, it also contributes the other ills (want, squalor, idleness and disease) and leads to inequality passing from one generation to the next. Tackling ignorance does not mean politicising the curriculum or schools though. Following the liberal-humanist tradition, it is about providing knowledge which gives students choices in life which ignorance would deny them.

The second part, On cultural capital, examines what exactly we mean my cultural capital, sets out why I think it is so important and discusses some of the reasons why we shouldn’t shy away from teaching cultural capital over fears around diversity and representation.

In the final post, On learning (or getting the horse to drink), I offer a cautionary note on how we cannot forget about how learning happens as schools shift their focus to curriculum for the first time in a generation. Instead, by ensuring that teaching and learning reflects what we know about how learning happens, we must ensure that students engage with the knowledge we are offering them in order to actually tackle ignorance.

In a postscript to that third and final post, I offer a couple of more personal reflections about why it is important for teachers to remind themselves of what it is like to be a novice and also my perspective on lacking cultural capital.

The context of the trilogy (or shameless plugs for my previous posts)

This trilogy needs to be seen in the context of my views on curriculum and knowledge. I believe that we do need to teach knowledge in schools – lots of knowledge. It is important though to think about how we consider knowledge. Knowledge is more than just a list of inert facts. Rather, knowledge should be seen as enabling and powerful. Indeed, I subscribe to Professor Michael Young’s concept of ‘powerful knowledge’. I give a brief overview of what powerful knowledge is, together with a discussion of what it might actually look like in practice, in this blog from the beginning of the year. For more on powerful knowledge and what it looks in geography, read Richard Bustin’s book which I review here. To read a practical example of what is meant by powerful knowledge, I wrote a piece about how I understand Coronavirus as a geographer. For an example of how powerful knowledge is put into practice in curriculum planning, read about how I designed a new scheme of work on the geographies of fashion.

I have done a lot of work in my own school to make our curriculum ‘knowledge-rich’ and have found this work has reinvigorated me as a professional. I am however aware that in asking teachers to engage in a qualitatively different way to curriculum, we are asking teachers do so something which many of them have not had to do in a decade. This blog discusses whether teachers want to engage with curriculum in this way. I have also written a note on how we mustn’t confuse curriculum tools, such as knowledge organisers, with curriculum thinking.

On learning (or getting the horse to drink)

In this third and final series of posts looking at how tackling ignorance should be a principal aim of schooling, I reflect on the actual process of learning.

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

This proverb has been a perennial plague for teachers and schools. Exacerbated by an accountability system which fails to take into account any of the cognitive or social psychology about how learning happens, teachers have searched for years to find ways to force that pony to drink the well dry.

Over the past year or so, curriculum has become the new vogue. Intent, implementation, impact. The curriculum is the progression model. Powerful knowledge. Cultural capital. I have no problem with this refocusing. For too long, schools have not paid enough attention to curriculum. So much so that an entire generation of teachers hasn’t had to engage with curriculum and is now suddenly expected to do so. In shifting the focus from the horse to the water though, I would raise a warning that we can’t forget about the horse completely.

The main reason why I am so passionate about curriculum, and the unifying thread to this series of posts, is about tackling ignorance and inequality. By providing wider access to knowledge, including cultural capital, we are levelling the playing field. So we rewrite our curriculum, and we map out all of the experiences which will expose students to cultural capital.

The water in the oasis now looks lovely. It looks cleaner and more plentiful than it’s been in years. Let alone taking a drink, this middle-class, white, degree-educated educationalist would happily dive right in. Paddling around I look around and realise that everybody else in the oasis looks just like me. We engage in similar conversations. We have broadly similar views. I look beyond the oasis and there’s a bunch of people stood around (next to the recalcitrant, now-thirsty horses). Why aren’t they coming in?

This is the challenge: how do we make sure that students, especially those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, see school and knowledge as something for them? It is their attitudes, both individual and collective (be they family, community, etc), which we need to address. The education system seemed content for some time to produce a vastly unequal range of outcomes; it almost seemed to be hardwired, a deliberate design. Indeed the tripartite system of grammars, secondary moderns and technical schools was almost that explicit. Disadvantage was born of disadvantage. In some cases, educational failure was almost a badge of honour. More commonly, parents who didn’t do well at school struggled or simply didn’t see the point in trying to help their children do better than they did.

For all the hoo-ha which the British right have raised about educational disadvantage being made worse by the school closures of the Covid-19 lockdown, their narrative seemed to ignore that a) these inequalities have long existed and are just being exacerbated and b) teachers have been trying to do everything they can to address them, often in spite of the system, for a lot longer that their opinion pieces have been raising the issue.

Part of what we can do, and what many schools are doing, is to plan a knowledge-rich curriculum. We will teach knowledge because knowledge matters. Previous strategies of teaching ’21st century skills’ and suggesting that Google had rendered the teaching of knowledge obsolete have thankfully been consigned to the long grass (in the large part anyway).

We can also teach in a way which reflects how the brain actually works. We can have high expectations of everyone, but by careful planning based on gradualism and motivating students by allowing them to experience success, we can avoid them giving up on knowledge because it seems too hard. We can harness homework, revision and lesson time in a way to build strong memories with the help of methods such as knowledge organisers and retrieval practice.

And we can practice tough love. We can establish strict routines in the classroom and across school. It should be clear that students come to school to learn and there will be zero tolerance for behaviours which go against that. We can make it clear that homework is critical and sanction those who don’t do it. When standards aren’t met, we need to engage with parents and families. There cannot be an opt out from engaging with your child’s school in a meaningful way.

There was a notion, that our children’s generation would grow up to have more opportunities and a better life than our generation, or at least an equal chance. This was so widely held, and for so long a reality, that it almost formed part of our social contract. A perfect storm of events, some unplanned (e.g. Covid-19) and others very much deliberate (e.g. Brexit) have rocked that notion almost to the point that I can’t imagine many people believing it anymore. This is a tragedy for our national narrative. It must be corrected. By tackling ignorance and tackling inequality, schools can play a part in making that notion a reality again. We must give children a sense of optimism for their future. Hope matters.

Postscript (the bit you don’t really have to read unless you really want to, though I think it is just as good)

When I set out to write, I wasn’t initially intending to write three posts. We’d had some INSET on cultural capital, which started those thoughts rolling. It then occurred to me that ignorance was at the heart of the problem. Tackling ignorance therefore became the best way to frame the solution: that is what schools must aim to do.

Amidst my thoughts though, two points kept recurring to me, though neither of them fitted neatly into any of the posts themselves. They’re both personal points and as I refer to in both this post and the previous one, I am conscious that ‘positionality’ matters. I know that I am writing as a white, middle-class, degree-educated teacher and this massively affects my world view. In acknowledging this though, those two points are relevant:

  1. A significant barrier to getting students to effectively learn is when we, as teachers, forget what it is like to be a novice. A chapter in Paul Kirschner and Carl Hendrick’s glorious book, How Learning Happens, highlights the differences between how a novice and an expert approach learning. It is important that we remember what it is like to be a novice. As I have documented in other posts, I have spent some of my lockdown time dividend learning how to cook properly. I have also started refreshing my German (studied up to GCSE) using the app DuoLingo. I’ve even got back out on my bike (after over half a year) and the golf course (after over six years). When reading How Learning Happens, I have repeatedly recognised myself and those learning experiences. Then in planning, I have drawn on these recent experiences of being a novice to help get into the minds of students and think about how to sequence knowledge, gradually and to address the likely challenges and common misconceptions. While it would be difficult to mandate, I think every teacher should make sure they remind themselves of what it is to be a novice.
  2. When engaging with the idea of cultural capital, I often think that despite my own educational history, I have still often felt isolated by not knowing things that other people seem to have had access to. Of course, I don’t mean things that people have actively sought to learn or specialise in. I’m not talking about quantum mechanics! But when people mention musicians, or artists, or historical figures and the reference triggers blank in my memory, I think ‘why don’t I know about that’ and that dents your confidence, it makes you feel inferior. Its not just conversation of course. I’m normally quite happy reading The Economist or the front half of `The Spectator, because my geography education plus my political geekery means I have a pretty good grasp of enough knowledge to get through most articles. Turning to the arts & books section, or heaven-forbid picking up The TLS, and I am left feeling like a man overboard in a cruel sea of cultural references in which I struggle to stay afloat. And I speak, as I said before, as a degree-educated, middle-class bloke. For sure I could have read differently, but those gaps were not all of my own making. Where those gaps – that ignorance- emerge from differences in schooling, these are the unacceptable inequalities that we can do something about.

On cultural capital

In this second in a series of three posts, I look at the concept of cultural capital. This follows my previous post on ignorance in which I argued that challenging ignorance should be a main aim of schooling. Offering cultural capital is a key strand of challenging ignorance and makes it essential that we get it right.

Cultural capital is one of the many new buzzwords of the English education system. It is also one laced with confusion. I’m going to try and avoid repeating David Didau’s excellent post which discusses some of the problems with how we’re currently talking about cultural capital. Instead I’m going to link to the thread of my three posts on challenging ignorance to tackle inequality.

Before I make my argument though, I think it’s worthwhile to state my position which dovetails with what David had to say in his blog:

  • Cultural capital is a concept originated by Pierre Bourdieu, which posits that culturally valuable knowledge is a form of capital like material wealth.
  • Culture should be broadly defined as the ideas which humans have accumulated over time.
  • Cultural capital therefore is not just reading books or going to the theatre or a museum, as vital as those things are. We need to distinguish between cultural capital and ‘being cultured’.
  • Cultural capital should also not be reduced to the checklist-style approach of E.D. Hirsch who coined the dangerously similar-sounding term ‘cultural literacy’ and wrote the obnoxiously subtitled book What Every American Needs To Know. The superficiality of this approach fails to acknowledge the complexity in how certain knowledge comes to be culturally valuable. I argue that a vital part of cultural capital is that students understand why they’re learning it.
  • Due to the socio-economic structures which exist, access to cultural capital tends to reflect what might be termed as social class.

In unpacking exactly how we define cultural capital, an immediate and significant question is how do we decide what is ‘culturally valuable’. I personally don’t get too caught up about this where others see the inherent choices as too political. I appreciate there are a whole manner of problems in how we apportion cultural value. Writing this a week after campaigners tore down the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol due to his involvement in the slave trade, I am not trying to downplay concerns around diversity and representation in how society apportions cultural value.

While undeniably writing this from a position of ‘white privilege’, I don’t feel we should be deterred from embedding cultural capital in our schools and here is my reasoning:

  1. Any curriculum choice is selective and choosing the cultural capital we give students access to in schools is no different. We cannot cover everything and we need to make it clear that we’re not doing so. Students need to be aware of the remaining ‘unknowns’.
  2. We must be explicit with our choices. This is the tricky part. We need to ensure that students understand why they are learning about what they’re learning about. This includes why something is considered valuable. Just as we try to tell students in our subjects why we’re learning about plate tectonics or covalent bonding, students should be given some insight into how society apportions value.
  3. We must allow students to understand that value changes, just as knowledge changes. In geography, we teach about how the theory of plate tectonics emerged over time. This offers an insight not only into how knowledge is made, but how it is challenged. As the Covid-19 pandemic is proving, there is no such thing as ‘the science’. Most knowledge is contested. The way we value things changes over time. We need to try and communicate this to students.
  4. As well as the cultural value which leads to us teaching it, there are three values which are gained by teaching it. First is the educational value in terms of the benefit which students derive from having cultural capital. Like any knowledge, cultural capital is ‘sticky’ and it allows other knowledge to stick to it. So by teaching about a broad canvass of people, places, poems, paintings and processes, we give students a framework to add other knowledge to – it facilitates further learning.
  5. Cultural capital also gives students a social value in terms of allowing them to engage with other people. It offers students the intellectual arsenal to have discussions and understand what is going on with a range of people, in a range of situations. I can recall conversations through my life, at university, in the workplace or in social situations, where the something has come up in conversation which I have little or no knowledge of. This is confidence-sapping. It leads to impostor syndrome. So by ensuring everyone has access to culturally valued knowledge, we are levelling the playing field to avoid people being or feeling excluded.
  6. As a result of this confidence, cultural capital also has a societal value. Cultural capital helps to tackle the ignorance which I wrote about in my last post, which is responsible for inequality being replicated and persisting. By giving students both knowledge and the confidence which that knowledge offers, they will be better placed to engage with society, hopefully in a positive way.

Cultural capital therefore is about enabling all students, regardless of background. For those from disadvantaged backgrounds it should be liberating. Cultural capital is a vital strand of how schools can tackle ignorance and inequality.

In the third and final post in the series, I write about the actual process of learning. For all the work and writing I’ve done on curriculum, powerful knowledge and cultural capital, I am very aware of the challenge of actually getting students to engage: we can’t just focus on the quality of water in the oasis, we have to make sure the horse drinks!

On Ignorance

This is the first in a series of three posts which draw together some of the thinking, reading and conversations I’ve recently had. In this first post, I consider the issue of ignorance and how challenging ignorance should be one of the fundamental aims of schools.

In 1942, William Beveridge recognised ignorance as one of the ‘five giants’, a series of challenges which Britain needed to overcome after World War 2. Despite the widespread embrace of Beveridge’s report, not least by Clement Attlee’s reforming Labour government, many of the social ills identified by Beveridge persist.

Ignorance, which I define broadly as a lack of knowledge, is one of the worst forms of inequality, not only because it does so much to cause other social ills (want, disease, squalor and idleness, to use Beveridge’s list) but because it also plays a huge role in replicating inequality. Unless ignorance is challenged, inequality will persist.

Ignorance leads to a lack of agency and choice. Without knowledge and understanding of the world, it is not possible to fully engage in it. Apathy is in part born of ignorance. I would suggest ignorance may lead to certain views and opinions, but the relationship between knowledge and opinion is far more complicated than to suggest that educating everybody better will lead to everyone having the same views. Far from it, challenging ignorance is about sparking a better standard of debate rather than generating agreement.

Ignorance and apathy of course suit some people and some sections of society. When ignorance and apathy persist, the status quo goes unchallenged. That’s fine if you think the status quo is fine. Unfortunately ignorance stops people from evaluating the status quo properly to consider whether they want to change to change it, let alone having the tools to do so.

The relationship between ignorance, apathy and the status quo is especially pernicious though, in that a narrative exists in which people and communities are led to a self-narrative to legitimate inequality. I’ll never forget my late mother telling me that I shouldn’t really be trying to get into politics, because it wasn’t something which ‘people like us’ do. Although I am not a Marxist, I always had some sympathy for Paul Willis’ work, Learning to Labour, which highlighted how a hidden curriculum saw schools mirror industrial workplaces and led to cohort after cohort of disengaged, disaffected boys move from the classroom to the factory floor where they would show a similar apathy and lack of ambition.

It is this unchallenged narrative, where ignorance and inequality are legitimised, which gives all the more reason to use education to tackle ignorance. I say so while defining education in the liberal-humanist tradition. This isn’t explicitly challenging the status quo by telling children that it is wrong. It is giving children the knowledge and understanding to have more choice and power. The power to make up their own mind and then do something about it.

I am not in favour of politicising education. The creeping of government into education since Callaghan’s ‘secret garden’ speech of 1976 has caused more problems than it has solved. The solution to political interference is not politicising the curriculum. The liberal-humanist tradition favours the teaching of knowledge in a critical manner and in a way which enables children to grow up to be politically engaged.

We must be careful when considering Paolo Freire’s view of teaching as a political act. What exactly do we mean by political act? We cannot use teaching to try and replicate our views and opinions, nor the views of the government of the day or any other part of the establishment. This doesn’t mean avoiding controversial or political issues though. Quite the opposite. It means that we have to teach controversial and political issues better. We need to teach children in a way that explicitly recognises where knowledge comes from, how it is contested and the way knowledge is used to form opinions and underpin debate. Then we give children the tools to construct and challenge their own world view, rather than have them inherit ours.

Challenging ignorance so that children can themselves grow up to challenge the world (if they choose to). That is not only a political act free of controversy, but a matter of social justice and a moral imperative.

In the next post, I look at the related issue of cultural literacy. Then in the third and final post, I reflect on the actual process of learning and how we make sure that, having provided a tempting oasis of powerful knowledge, we then make sure the horses drink.

Armchair philosopher

It is a Saturday. The sun is shining, which is something of a novelty this week. I am sat at my desk looking out onto my garden. Procrastinating – or mentally pottering – as per usual, I take a look at the TLS’ website and serendipitously chance across the exact article which reflects my present circumstance: The privilege of boredom.

Descartes’ philosophy was borne out of isolation. Having the time to think has been one of the blessings of lockdown. For some people at least. Anil Gomes, the article’s author and an Oxford philosopher, discusses the relevance and practicality of a philosophy conducted in isolation. How valuable is the thinking we do when detached from life?

This set my thoughts tumbling. We live our lives in layers, or perhaps on different scales. We have our work life; our professional selves. Our social animal (or recluse). Then we have our self, perhaps truest, when we are alone and look in the mental mirror. Like the layers of the earth, or scales of a map, our different lives are of course entwined. Some (im)balance of order and chaos results.

In those moments of reflection, I am sure I am not alone in scratching for meaning. Contemplating. Evaluating. Analysing. Always analysing. Over-bloody-analysing. Questioning. Sometimes filling myself with that existential angst: the clock is ticking and what is there to show for it?

I find myself alternating between the grand, or possibly just allusions to grandeur: embracing life, the universe and everything. Wanting to grapple with and grasp the big picture, the macro, the meta. If all the world is a stage, then what is my role?

And then I revert, or maybe retreat, to a contentedness with the trivial, the mundane, the mediocre, the banal. I find myself happily basking like a frog atop a lily pad, floating on his small pond. The textbook plodder which I hold in such derision when my mind is in macro mode, is suddenly what I myself have become.

Why? Maybe it’s a natural rhythm of personality. Like an intellectual, emotional okey okey. Or maybe it’s because being on the ambitious offensive all the time is just draining of energy. Maybe a balance is needed; it is just recharging the batteries. For I do always switch back. I seem to snap out of the plodding and go back to plotting, asking, in the word’s of The West Wing’s President Bartlett: what’s next?

The curriculum fashion

There’s a brand new talk

but it’s not very clear, oo, bop,

That people from good homes

Are talking this year, oo, bop, fashion

Fashion, David Bowie (1980)

As I reviewed and refined a Year 7 scheme of work on ‘the geographies of fashion’ as part of a(nother) major curriculum overhaul, I felt it offered a really good opportunity to ‘concretise’ some of the heady curriculum challenges which everybody is currently trying to grapple with.

This blog looks at the big picture of curriculum thinking, then looks at how I have applied that thinking into selecting and planning a scheme of work. I also look at how we work with geographical concepts and how this helps with the challenge of making critical geographers.

Curriculum is very much in vogue. Everybody is ‘doing curriculum’. Quite frankly this scares the shit out of me. As Claire Stoneman observes: ‘although there are conversations about curriculum, there aren’t really conversations about curriculum’. People talking about ‘curriculum tools’, such as knowledge organisers, or filling in pro-formas to outline intent, implementation and impact is not people talking about curriculum. Claire is right – curriculum requires deep thinking, it requires us to take a step back, to take our time and to intellectually engage with our subjects.

The big picture

Like, I am sure, a lot of teachers, I have relished the renewed focus on curriculum. It offers some of the ‘intellectual attraction’ which Alex Quigley has written about. This renewed focus has also reemphasised the importance of subject specialisms, not just in terms of subject knowledge but also in terms of subject specific pedagogy. How wonderful it would be if Adam Boxer is right when he writes that ‘teaching and learning is dead’.

In my department, we have largely embraced our whole school’s focus on a knowledge-rich curriculum. As the good cynic I am, I’m always dubious of things that sound like a buzz phrase. This focus seems different though, in that it is based in evidence. Way back in 2011-13, when I was completing an MA which largely concentrated on curriculum, I have been a convert to the concept of teaching ‘powerful knowledge’ in the sense defined by Professor Michael Young. I have also read enough popular psychology to be wary of affirmation bias though. Was I buying into this fad simply because it matched my world view?

For those of you who haven’t come across the concept of powerful knowledge, read my previous blogs on the concept, or better still read David Didau’s excellent Making Kids Cleverer. (David has also generously summarised some of his key arguments on his blog). In one of those serendipitous moments, the lyrics to Bowie’s Fashion state one of the key points – powerful knowledge is the stuff ‘that people from good homes are talking this year’.

Ok, so it isn’t just this year. They’ve always talked about it. It’s the knowledge, including cultural capital, which contributes so much to the disadvantage gap, the vocabulary gap, social mobility and so on. It is the knowledge which everybody has a right to and which, if people are in possession of it, enables them to have a better life. Sadly it is also the knowledge which some educationalists have argued against the teaching of because it seems to favour and perpetuate educational disadvantage. I would argue that it is the failing to teach powerful knowledge which allows inequalities to persist.

Anyway, I digress, we have embraced this idea of teaching powerful geographical knowledge. That was probably the easy bit. Now it is a case of thinking through and planning a powerful knowledge-rich curriculum. Despite being a fan of creative destruction, we started with what we had and looked at where the powerful knowledge was. We looked for the gaps. We ended up with a set of topics which would offer a broad and deep geographical education, in terms of conceptual, locational and procedural knowledge.

And fashion made the cut?

We had taught a fashion topic at my current school since before I started, I have always taught a fashion topic and fashion still has a place in our powerful knowledge-rich curriculum. At first glance it sounds ridiculous. Surely this is a throwback to the almost content-free teaching of the noughties, where we tried to teach everything through geography apart from geographical knowledge. I would argue otherwise.

One of the pieces of work (which will, at some point, merit it’s own blog post) is how we explicitly teach big geographical concepts like place, interdependence and scale. Looking at the scope of a topic on the global fashion industry, it is such a fertile topic for grappling with those powerful concepts. So that was the first thing I have done: identifying how each lesson can tie into those big concepts. I’m looking at the idea of a concept map which we can develop over the course of the scheme (hat tip to Simon Renshaw for sharing his work on this with me). A key challenge of teaching these abstract concepts is being able to concretise them (see chapter 5 of Kirschner & Hendrick’s fabulous How Learning Happens). Fashion offers those opportunities. It also offers opportunities to make links between students’ everyday experiences and powerful disciplinary knowledge.

Fashion design

To help us implement (apologies) the powerful knowledge-rich curriculum, I produced a comprehensive curriculum outline. Based on departmental discussions, where we really allowed our inner geographers to break out, it was essentially a list of the detailed knowledge – concepts, processes, locations, procedures, etc – which we wanted to cover in each topic. By mapping it all out together, we could see the big picture and the overall coverage. We could identify the links, which we could then make explicit, and we could also see the progression. Michael Fordham and Christine Counsell are quite right when they say ‘the curriculum is the progression model’ and putting together our outline showed this. Our stated aim is to ‘make good geographers’, not to get students good grades. If we do the former, the latter should take care of itself.

I then set to work on a lesson-by-lesson outline. I did not set out to reinvent the wheel. I looked at what we’d done before and identified what was already good. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was already lots of powerful knowledge. (While the idea of a knowledge-rich curriculum may be made out to be new, it is not replacing a knowledge-free curriculum). Working with pen and pencil, I drafted out what I wanted to do each lesson. I identified the key ideas, the key questions, the links back and forth between lessons: ‘If we introduce this idea here, we can go back into more detail there and then call back on it in these lessons too’. This is the kind of ‘careful thought’ which Claire Stoneman argues curriculum lives on and I agree.

Making the implicit, explicit

I love this phrase, which comes from David Didau’s wonderful book on literacy. The notion also applies to those big, powerful, organising concepts in geography (and no doubt in other subjects too). Place, space, interdependence, scale and so on – as again I’m sure in other subjects, there is no single correct list of these concepts (Richard Bustin does a valiant job of collecting them together in his book on powerful knowledge and capabilities). These concepts are, by nature, abstract. As such teaching them is challenging. On reflection, I’m not sure whether I have ever attempted to teach them explicitly, certainly not below A-Level. And yet, when we think about the students we identify as ‘good geographers’, they inevitably demonstrate an implicit appreciation of these concepts.

So for me, going forward, it is a case of not leaving it to chance. Anybody can become a better geographer. By explicitly teaching them geographical concepts, we are not only providing them with a powerful toolkit, we are also helping them to understand what geography is all about and begin to recognise themselves as geographers.

Interdependence, scale and globalisation

While we may end up touching on other concepts, I have settled on these three as focuses for the fashion scheme of work. I wouldn’t say globalisation was on the same tier of organising concept as interdependence or scale, but I would argue it is crucial to understanding the topic, and the other two concepts.

It is also worth noting at this point that the fashion scheme of work is part of an ‘arc’ of schemes in Year 7, starting with a topic on the UK and going onto a case study of Liverpool (one of our nearest major cities) as a global city. As such, the concepts are introduced gradually and returned to, with as many concrete examples as possible.


The key question for the scheme of work is how are our clothes made? It revolves around the idea that fashion is a global industry. So we introduce the concept of globalisation early on to look at how the fashion industry works and how it has changed. By looking at where students’ own clothes are made, we can concretise the concept. We can then explore how and why are clothes are made in that way.


From starting to understand how globalisation has changed where our clothes are made, we can then introduce the idea of interdependence – that idea that the connections with other places make us dependent, them on us and us on them. When looking at the global supply chain for a pair of jeans, we can see how people in far flung corners of the globe rely on each other, to varying degrees. In later schemes of work, we’ll look at how interdependence can be within human systems, within physical systems and also between physical and human systems.


Having considered how people and places can be interdependent, we can also introduce the different ways which geographers understand the concept of scale and introduce the different scales from the global down to the local. Not only can we look at how different processes and actions happen on different scales, but also look at how actions on one scale can have an impact on a different scale, just as interdependence shows us that an action in one place or system can impact another.

Critical geographies, critical geographers

I said earlier that the stated aim of our curriculum is to ‘make better geographers’. Unpacking exactly what this means is worthy of another blog post in itself (don’t worry, I’ve made a note). In thinking about that notion though, I am conscious of the challenges around addressing values, ethics and politics in our curriculum. If you’re going to teach about the global fashion industry, you will inevitably cover issues which are controversial to some degree.

So how should we engage with controversial issues? One hypothetical option is to try as best as possible to ‘stick to the facts’; to try and teach the knowledge in a values-free way. This is impractical and arguably not preferable. What is the point of making a better geographer, if we don’t want them to engage with a world in which they will inevitably come across political and ethical issues?

The risk in this area comes from teachers passing on their values, whether consciously or not, to their students in a way that the student cannot identify where objective fact and their teacher’s subjective views start and finish. Again, there is a call for us to make the implicit explicit. We need to borrow the tools from the history classroom and discuss whether things are objective, subjective, biased, contextualised, etc. We need to give students opportunities to form and debate their own views. We should challenge their views and let them challenge ours too.

In short, we need to exercise an abundance of care – we must be mindful of what we say, the resources we use, the questions we ask and the activities we set. I would argue that this is made easier though in a powerful knowledge-rich curriculum, where concepts are taught explicitly. We are effectively giving them lots of food for thought. There is plenty of ‘content’ now, whereas perhaps before we allowed our own views to dominate in, if not a vacuum, a less knowledge-filled lesson or topic. Now, if we present the knowledge and give students an appreciation of how this knowledge is made and open to challenge (again, this is a key strand of powerful knowledge, as I and others have explained elsewhere), we can be more confident in allowing students to form better opinions than was previously the case, not least because they have the means to justify their views with knowledge.

So to go back to David Bowie: fashion may not be a brand new dance (nor is curriculum), but it carries more than enough weight in a powerful knowledge-rich curriculum. Which is the type of curriculum which we need to teach to people, from good homes and bad homes, again and again. Because if they do it over there, but we don’t do it over here, we’re doing our students a disservice and the disadvantage gap will persist. Oo, bop, fashion.

I’m going to try and take a look at the idea of ‘curriculum artefacts’ or ‘curriculum resources’ in a future blog post, looking at how we can marry together the higher-level curriculum thinking with the reality of planning and resourcing lessons. I might also look at the choice of activities we use in the world of a (powerful) knowledge-rich curriculum.

The lyrics of ‘Fashion’ are copyright of David Bowie (1980) and I apologise unreservedly for bastardising them, however I did it for a good cause. If giving young people access to knowledge, regardless of their background, is not a worthy cause, then I don’t know what is. I’m sure David would have agreed.

Quiz biz

Many people have turned to quizzes during the lockdown, either as quizmaster or quizzer. There is probably still plenty of need for socialising at a distance. There will also be a need to help pubs get back on their feet when they reopen. Quizzing is a great answer to both of those problems.

To help in my own little way, I have put together some quiz resources. You can find them all under the quizzing page on this site.

Under that page you will find a link to my complete quiz archive. You can also find a short and partial directory of quiz sites which can help you set a quiz, plus some advice on how to run one.

If you’re reading this and the lockdown is still at large, you’re more than welcome to join one of ours. Find out more on Facebook.

Lockdown Notes #6: my journey as a culinary novice

In true metropolitan elite style, I have sought to better myself during the lockdown. This has involved finally getting stuck in to learning how to cook…

A chicken and leek gnocchi gratin – one of my favourites so far.

It started with a conversation with a colleague in the pub after work on a Friday. I can’t recall how it came up, but he recommended a food delivery service called Gousto. It sounded interesting so I ordered my first box and suddenly four recipes arrived. I didn’t really have a clue what to do.

I hadn’t made much food from scratch before. A bolognese, a fish pie (which, while ultimately delicious, was a stressful experience) and some pasta bakes. Even the pasta bakes involved sauces from a jar. To be honest other than a pretty mean omelette (not that complicated I know, but I am proud of them), I couldn’t cook.

For clarity, I could make food: ready meals, popped and pinged, or anything that just needed heating in a microwave or oven. I’d never learnt how to cook properly. Unlike other households, where I imagine you might learn from helping a parent in the kitchen, my mum’s arthritis meant we simply didn’t have many meals cooked from scratch. It was tins and packages. This wasn’t a problem; I could work an oven and, as anybody who has seen a photo of me would attest, I was never going to starve. Beyond the simple turning of dials though, cooking was a mystery.

Chicken katsu curry – sadly some of the chicken got overdone, but still a very tasty step on the learning process!

In fact, when the first Gousto delivery arrived I realised I didn’t even have a ‘wide-based pan’ which is an almost ubiquitous requirement of Gousto (and many other) recipes). A quick trip to Tesco solved that and the lovely ‘Go Cook’ sauté pan I purchased has well and truly proven value for money.

Gousto didn’t just remove the excuse of not having the right ingredients, the recipe cards are miraculously simple to follow. It’s also fair to say that the added time available during the lockdown has been crucial. Before lockdown, I was missing a number of recipes. The ingredients were going to waste, just as in the pre-Gousto era. The lack of competition from eating out has definitely helped too.

Altogether a perfect storm of circumstances left me with no excuses and in putting the time to good use, I now have a new passion for cooking. I’ve made curries, bakes, paellas, soups, pastas and much more besides, in all kinds of styles and from all sorts of cuisines. I try to order different recipes every time, to broaden my knowledge, skills and confidence. Indeed, the learning process has been quite interesting as I’ve also been reading a lot of educational psychology during lockdown and the experience of a novice, being guided along, is one I feel familiar with.

One of my non-Gousto forays – a delicious cheese and chorizo tortilla!

The journey goes beyond throwing ingredients together though. I’ve reorganised my kitchen, I’m making extra meals from scratch using my newfound skills and I’ve invested in new pans, knives and – unsurprisingly for a bibliophile – cookbooks!

So my cooking has been my most significant lockdown life hack. Like so many of the positives I’ve been fortunate to enjoy during lockdown, the challenge will be maintaining these new habits when things go back to ‘normal’.

Lockdown Notes #5: the art of queuing

Shopping has become a risky activity. Now when we undertake one of the state-sanctioned journeys beyond our property, we have to socially distance ourselves. On my trips to the shops so far, I have been very impressed with how retailers are managing my fellow plebs as we frantically try to think of things we can buy which may be considered ‘essential’ to counterbalance the frankly shameful quantities of booze in our baskets and trolleys. When I open my front door on a Thursday, at least a few of my claps are directed towards shop workers and all those behind the scenes keeping the shelves and fridges filled (especially in the alcohol aisle).

Retailers are playing their part. Some are taking it a little too far – I have heard rumours of a zealous member of Morrisons staff who parades up and down the queue of waiting shoppers spreading optimism and positivity through song and a bubble machine. I haven’t witnessed it myself and, to be honest, having heard the reports I am avoiding Morrisons for fear that I may have lost my usual filter to mitigate my reactions to such behaviour.

As a nation of shopkeepers, we shouldn’t have expected anything less really. The supply chains and logistics have coped and adapted to the new Covid-19 landscape. Unfortunately though, even with our retail prowess we couldn’t quite overcome one unsurmountable problem: the variable skill of the British shopper.

In particular I refer to the art of queuing. I am fairly sure that, if we didn’t actually invent the queue, we certainly, like so many other ideas, stole it from another country and refined it to the point of raising it to an art form. Were a reputable polling company to take on the challenge and ask a global suite of respondents to play a word association game about the people of Britain then our place at the very pinnacle of world queuing would feature at or near the top of the responses. The Chinese and Singaporeans may be on the peak of mathematical ability, but frankly what use is being able to calculate the cost of your shopping basket if you have no civil way of waiting for your turn to pay?

No, we Brits can queue better than anybody else. We can start and manage a queue in any situation, especially when one really isn’t needed. Even in the trenches of the Great War, valiant Tommies queued patiently waiting for their turn to get machine gunned down. If we can queue under that kind of pressure, this pandemic should be a cinch. Alas, like all forms of socialisation and cultural transmission, there are those who can queue and those who cannot. Personally I think the queuers are winning on the evolutionary front. The number of people who can queue is in a clear majority (a properly clear majority, not like 52-48%). Unfortunately the inability to queue is the most social of problems. Unlike, say, IBS, it doesn’t just affect the afflicted, we all have to pay the price.

I think the presence of queuing etiquette in so many people makes the price even greater. We can go days, weeks, perhaps months on end without encountering a member of the queuing illiterate. Then when we do come across one, we are often at a loss as to what to do – do we audibly tut and roll our eyes (another British forte)? Do we politely point out where the back of the queue is? Or do we just tell them to use their fucking eyes and see that we were there first?

I was confronted with this dilemma when visiting a Co-Op recently (the location of which is best left anonymous). Walking up to the shop I noticed a few people queuing outside. Adapting to the 2m distancing wasn’t a problem for the queuers; it’s that kind of challenge which makes life meaningful. I identified the last person in the queue and stood behind them. Two metres behind them of course. All was well with the world until a gentlemen rounded the corner, dragging along a lidless version of one of those shopping bags on wheels (I don’t think it started its existence lidless). Headphoned up, he wandered towards the shop doors, at which we, the line of queuers were aligned towards at approximately five o’clock on the clockface. There were four or five of us in the queue. Each of us had gone through that same, instinctive queue joining process. It really cannot have been that hard, but oh no, he stood by himself at approximately eight o’clock. Oblivious.

What were we going to do? Surely one of us is going to say something? He must have just not been paying attention. Nobody said anything. We looked around surreptitiously, just to check we’d all noticed, maybe to see if somebody was formulating an appropriate response. The silence continued. Then the doors opened, a shopper came out. Mexican standoff. It was all down to the lady at the front of the queue. She won’t give way will she? No! Hurrah. She just walked in. Lidless-shopper-trolley man looked shocked. His mental cogs were whirring. Then he started to move. At last, he’s realised there was already a queue. What a silly man he’d been. He was going to join the back. Oh no, wait! He’s gone and stood in the exact spot the lady had just vacated at the front of the queue. In a shocking act of effrontery to his fellow would-be shoppers and centuries of British tradition, the cheeky bastard had jumped the queue. Did he realise? Surely nobody can be that ignorant? More importantly, one of us now has to say something. The British don’t stand by in the face of such bad sportsmanship. Who will say something? I don’t need to say anything, I thought, someone else will do it. Time ticked on. It’s ok, somebody will do something, or maybe he’ll realise his error. These things just don’t happen. It isn’t allowed. Then the doors opened and through he wandered. I didn’t look around to see what the other queuers were thinking. I’d like to think they shared my sense of shame. It was a sunny day and that is why I went out wearing sunglasses; they weren’t supposed to hide my tears. For those of us who knew how to queue who were there outside the Co-Op that day, a small piece of us withered and died. Maybe a small piece of Britain withered and died that day as well.

Lockdown Notes #4: the Lockdown Appreciation Society (membership = 1)

Having almost completed five weeks of lockdown, I feel that I simply cannot contain it any longer. I just have to say it. I know I am probably in a minority (and I’ve just had a quick look for any polling data, but to no avail). Here goes: I am quite enjoying lockdown. I happily consider myself a fully paid up founding member of the Lockdown Appreciation Society (membership = 1).

I don’t want to suggest in any way that I am trivialising lockdown, nor would I expect many other people to share my positivity for a host of reasons. It is my personal opinion, based on my experience and it needn’t have gone this way. In the beginning, I had the virus. Or rather I think I had the virus. Literally as we were ushering the remaining students out of school on Friday 20th March, I felt the symptoms creeping up on me. I spent the best part of the first week exhausted as my body battled and then started recovering from the virus. Even then, as soon as it became clear I was going to be one of the lucky ones who’d only be mildly affected, I was finding the positives: I lost the best part of a stone in weight over the week. Unfortunately the subsequent four weeks of lockdown diet and drinking have put pay to that. One of the most unsettling experiences of the virus was losing my sense of smell. There is something oddly disconcerting about visiting the toilet sans odour; maybe that’s just me.

As soon as it became clear that I was on the mend and I had the energy to start making the most of the time, I quickly appreciated the novelty and luxury of the situation. I had suddenly switched from being someone who is normally time poor to being completely time rich. Far from ever being bored, I have found myself constantly engaged in a multitude of activities which I have satisfactorily entitled ‘pottering’.

I have been able to read more, especially the weeklies which drop through my letterbox, normally on a Friday, but just form a pile of the great unread. I found the time to do a flurry of writing of which this diatribe is just the latest example of. Perhaps most significantly I have relished the time to cook, exercise and quiz.

I came across a wonderful comment that the best way to encourage the British people to do more exercise is to impose a lockdown. I am very much guilty as charged. I have been out on all but one of the days since I completed my seven days of isolation. I have loved the walking, helped by the wonderful weather. Truth be told, the walking isn’t making enough of a dent against my calorific intake which has ballooned with boozing and snacking, but it has done wonders for creating that headspace. While walking I have also truly become fixated with podcasts. I love listening to the latest episodes from The Economist or The Spectator, interspersed with the odd show from the Local Government Information Unit (rock and roll). Occasionally though, I leave the headphones off. I just listen to nature and the quiet.

When I get back from my walk, which I invariably set off on at around six o’clock, I indulge another new habit: cooking. Growing up I never learnt to cook properly. I put this largely down to the fact that my mum, who was disabled, often cooked ping and dings or other oven ready, quick and easy stuff. She showed me how to do this. So I knew how to use an oven and a microwave but while I would never starve, I have never truly considered this as cooking. Back in February, a colleague at work put me onto a service called Gousto (thank you darling Dan). When at work, I muddled through recipes but found one or two a week wouldn’t get made. It was tough to get into a habit, or rather to break old ones. Now, with so much time, I have cooked from scratch nearly every day. Obviously I cannot eat out during lockdown, which I would do multiple nights a week, but even on the takeaway front, I think I’ve done a grab and go three times at the most. In five weeks. That is a seismic shift only akin to the shockwaves I would generate if my lockdown blubber-fest of a body trips over a tree root next time I go for one of my woodland walks. As well as taking away the excuse of not having ingredients, or not knowing what to buy, the Gousto menu cards have literally been like a cookery course. For someone who lacks practical skills or dexterity like me, this is an achievement where the credit lies solely with the teacher and in no way with the learner.

After dinner I begin my stint as a community key worker, in the form of a virtual quiz master. When I came up with the idea, or rather stole the idea, only a few people had started doing them according to social media. Now of course they’re the new normal. What started as two or three quizzes a week on Zoom became a commitment, between a mate and myself, to provide seven quizzes a week. Having been a quizmaster in a real pub, some years ago, this seemed like a rebirth. It’s been great. As well as hopefully providing some entertainment and social contact for others, it also gives me something to do, some structure to my days. It also provides that need to perform which is normally catered for in the classroom.

If there have been any drawbacks to this new paradise called lockdown, it is the fortune I have spent on upgrading the tech in my house so I can work (and quiz) easily from anywhere in my house or garden (first world problems, I know). The other drawback is that all my new habits, the key ingredients in my house arrest happiness, are they are all evening based. I have a superbly structured day from 6pm onwards. The problem is motivating myself for the better part of the day before that. As is usual, though perhaps worse than it has been recently, the absence of getting up for school has shifted my body clock back to nocturnal. This isn’t the greatest of problems, except for I will kick myself if schools reopen and I haven’t made at least the slightest of dents in that to-do list which all teachers have ‘for when they have time’. Sadly, without the time constraints and deadlines built into a typical school day, week or term, on which I have become so reliant, I am almost useless at motivating myself and holding myself to account.

A couple of people, quite randomly, have commented that I probably needed this unexpected break, both physically and mentally, after the six months or so I’ve had with the election on top of a typical school year. I hadn’t thought about this but there is a truth which, if nothing else, seems to justify my current approach, so I’m all for it. More than any of my new habits though, I am trying to spend some time thinking about ‘what next’. Yes, a bit on an intellectual level thinking about politics, society and the economy. But more importantly, what next for me. Having time and space to think is so precious and normally so rare. The growing fear I have at the back of my mind is that I won’t be able to take enough of this lockdown lifestyle on when we ‘go back’. My answer is just to find a way to retire or somehow monetise my pottering activities. Lots of people are talking about learning lessons from the pandemic. I think I have learnt my most important one already, now I need to find out how to live by the lesson.