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.

Lockdown Notes #3 – sport, newsprint, Disney Plus and David Bowie

As has become the norm during lockdown, we chat (virtually) and one of the questions that inevitably pops up is how we’re spending our time. The phrase ‘intellectual pottering’ sprang to mind the other day. It sounds very grandiose. Really it just means pottering but not doing anything practical, such as a bit of weeding in the garden or tidying up the kitchen. It might also be called mental flossing. One of the pleasures of having more time has been doing a bit more reading, going down a few more of those Wikipedia rabbit warrens and scribbling notes down.

One of the reasons for having more time on my hands has been the absence of sport. Watching Warrington Town at home (and sometimes away) and catching Arsenal when they were on the telly filled a fair chunk of the weekend, plus the occasional weekday evening. Then of course there is reading about sport. Checking the BBC Football gossip column is pretty much a daily ritual. Like many people I’m missing sport, though I’m sure not as much as some. I imagine Liverpool fans are a lot more frustrated than I am.

We can tell how big a role sport plays in many of our lives that, even in its absence, we find ways to talk about it, read about and even watch it. Several friends avidly followed the BBC’s re-run of the Ben Stokes Ashes test. If I had to put my finger on it, I guess following sport is like following a story being told live – similar to a soap or the latest political goings on. We’re hardwired as a species to love stories and the drama, emotion and belonging associated with sport make for very powerful stories.

A previous edition of Lockdown Notes looked at ‘content’ and how the way we access it has changed as a result of technology. One of the adverts which keeps popping up on my Facebook feed is for the sports subscription site The Athletic. They have quite an impressive set of writers. I was tempted but I eventually came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t get value for money. If I didn’t have a paper copy, like a magazine or newspaper, I’d probably forget to read it. Price wise though, there was no difference to paying for FourFourTwo or getting The Sunday Times. The number of times I’ve bought a physical paper of magazine to end up not having time to read it. Just strikes me as odd that we apportion different value to physical and digital and the reasons we use to justify the difference don’t necessarily stack up.

On the subject of content, I read an interesting media column on The Guardian suggesting that newsprint editions of newspapers may not survive the coronavirus pandemic. Falling advertising revenues as businesses adjust their expenditure is one factor, but there is also the lack of sales as many shops close and people limit their visits to those shops that remain open. I have wondered whether going to the shop everyday to buy a paper (I have the time to read it after all) is acceptable, but I am erring on the side that it probably isn’t. Seeing national titles and, more likely, local titles falter will be a huge problem. As the columnist Roy Greenslade observes: ‘the biggest news story in a lifetime is killing off the very industry that exists to report it’. There is some solace that there has been an upturn in digital subscriptions, but the shifts in the industry will likely leave our media landscape changed for the worse.

Another ‘content’-related story which has amused be is the uncanny timing of the UK launch of Disney Plus. While there will doubtless be many people who allow their subscriptions to lapse post-lockdown, the global uptake figures exceed what Disney were aiming for by the end of 2024. Disney’s pursuit of streaming was driven by their CEO Bob Iger, who has also announced that he is deferring his semi-retirement until after the pandemic has passed. Only a month or so ago, The Economist profiled Iger at the time he announced that he was stepping down as CEO. As well as his ability to question his judgement and change tack, as he did over streaming, the profile also highlighted two other qualities to which Disney’s success under Iger can be attributed. One of these was Iger’s trust in talent. When Disney acquired Pixar, rather than interfering with their new studio, Iger did almost the opposite and allowed Pixar to ‘acquire’ relevant divisions within Disney and make an even better animation studio. The other quality is all about content – Iger believed in the Hollywood maxim that ‘content is king’. While some thought it was all about owning the power of distributing content, Iger realised that content creation was still key. This drove Iger’s plans to acquire not only Pixar but also Marvel and Lucasfilm, making Disney what The Economist described as a ‘content-and-technology powerhouse’ which makes and, through Disney Plus (and Hulu) distributes content.

All of these references I keep coming across regarding content, creators, distributors and technology remind me of an awesome interview which David Bowie did on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman. In the interview which is well worth watching as my words cannot do it justice, Bowie (speaking in 1999) explains to a sceptical Jeremy Paxman how the Internet will completely change the relationship between media and the audience, disrupting not only the media industry but our very ideas of how we think about and relate to content. It shows Bowie’s prescience and genius, though this isn’t surprising given his reading interests. Another link I keep going back to is the reading list of Bowie’s which formed part of an art exhibition about him. The list can be found here (although a Google search for David Bowie’s reading list throws up some intriguing and occasionally bizarre takes on the musician’s literary tastes).

And it would be impossible for almost anyone to follow David Bowie, so I’ll leave it there for these notes.

Coronavirus to a geographer: an example of how subject disciplines give us powerful knowledge and why that matters

Why having some expertise isn’t a bad thing and what on earth does ‘thinking like a geographer’ mean?

While enjoying my daily exercise, despite the rain, I was again using the time to indulge my newfound taste for podcasts. Listening to The Intelligence (26th March edition, by The Economist) there was a piece about how the coronavirus pandemic may affect Africa. As I have often thought over my years of reading The Economist on and off, it might as well be called ‘The Geographer’, such is the level of geographical content present in so many of the issues it covers. I was also struck by what a clear example of powerful knowledge this was. My ability to understand the issues being discussed so deeply was absolutely because of the knowledge I had, in particular my knowledge as a geographer. Of course, people with deep knowledge in other disciplines would have their own take and while a geographer might have a head start on this article about the pandemic in Africa, I’ve no doubt that other disciplines would offer an advantage on articles about other topics. I was so struck by the example though, that I wanted to unpack it.

I have found myself commenting to classes a number of times over the past few months about how many geographical news stories I hear when listening to the radio on my journey to work. I try to make the links between the news stories and the geographical ideas they’ve been learning about. Amidst the blank faces and expressions of ‘what is he on about’, there is the occasional nod of appreciation, or rather there is a neutral expression which I interpret to be a kid who would be nodding but has a thought for their reputation amongst their peers.

‘When are we ever going to need to know about squatter settlements?’

Teachers of all subjects have at some point or other encountered this query: ‘when are we ever going to need to know about [INSERT TOPIC HERE]?’ Occasionally it’s about one of your favourite topics as a teacher, which makes it all the more tragic when you desperately try to share that spark of enthusiasm that you have. Creating a need to know and instilling a joy of learning are really important and the ability to do these are hallmarks of great teachers. As a novice, I was very frustrated when I felt that I’d fallen short, not least because of the importance of these for the process of geographical enquiry which was so central to my teacher training and my pedagogic understanding.

With time, experience and reading though, I realised that those questions should be treated, by and large, with a pinch of salt. For sure we should point out a topic’s relevance, it’s contemporary links, it’s importance, any potential career pathways related to the learning and such like. We should also recognise that we are the experts in the room, both as teachers and as subject specialists. Just, as David Didau points out, the interests and whims of an 11, 14 or 16 year old should not be considered as binding for the path of their life and career, because they don’t yet know just what is available to them (which makes me think of Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns), we also shouldn’t worry too much if they don’t see the point, there and then, of understanding the characteristics and complexities of squatter settlements.

When I was at school, geography was unsurprisingly a passion of mine, but only really from Year 9 (third year in old money). Only then, my interest was largely driven by having a teacher I liked and by being one of those academic types (read ‘geek’) who pretty much enjoyed any subjects as long as there wasn’t a practical element which required physical co-ordination or exertion. Over those years I remember learning about Kenya, rivers, coasts, economic change, tectonics, etc. By the time I got to A-Level and committed to studying Geography at university, the benefit of maturity and a bit more awareness of how the world worked meant that I increasingly saw the links between what I was studying and how I might end up using it (not that this is the sole reason why you should learn something).

In a way which is entirely understandable and predictable in hindsight, that awareness and appreciation grew. As you know more, you see the connections. As you are exposed to more of life, you see more opportunities to apply your learning. During two years working for BP, the generalist platform that a balanced Geography degree gave me meant I could have a (in my opinion at least) reasonably intelligible discussion with geologists about seismic surveys and commercial analysts about the contractual niceties of hydrocarbon production sharing agreements. Some of this was undoubtedly what is referred to as the ’soft skills’ which learning a subject gives you. It is all borne out of learning and knowledge; borne out of my ability to think and act like a geographer.

Rolling forward to my teacher training at Manchester Metropolitan University and my PGCE tutor tried to get us all excited about the Geographical Association’s manifesto A Different View. I can’t speak for my colleagues but I actually did (see previous comment on being a geek). One strand of the manifesto was ’thinking like a geographer’, which was the concept that studying geography permitted people to think about the world in a unique geographical way. Geographers and in particular geography educators may have sought to explicitly identify this and give it a title, but this is essentially true of all academic disciplines – it is disciplinary thought. Historians, economists, anthropologists, chemists, ecologists, etc will all see the world and approach issues from a particular perspective. Nobody, of course, is limited to a single disciplinary perspective, but we all will naturally draw on our knowledge, our expertise, when approaching a problem.

’Thinking like a geographer’ is not a PR catchphrase – it describes using expertise in a way which adds value by offering a perspective grounded in knowledge and practice which has been developed over time by a community of experts. In some cases, you might be applying this perspective when approaching a problem with a view to influence decisions or even taking decisions. Sometimes though, you are simply able to understand the world around you to a higher degree and in doing so are able to be an active and informed citizen.

Which brings me back to listening to that podcast and all the other things I’ve heard, watched and read over the past few weeks and months as the coronavirus pandemic has spread around the world. What follows is a vignette to exemplify how thinking like a geographer is helping me to make sense of the pandemic.

In a nutshell the segment of the podcast was about how the coronavirus would affect Africa. I won’t seek to summarise it, but rather look at some of the ideas raised and unpack them as a series of bullet points. Each bullet point addresses a key idea or concept which is studied in geography and in most cases on the school curriculum in some guise:

  • Development: the major concern for Africa is driven by it’s comparatively low-level of development. My students should be able to tell you that a majority of Africa’s 53 countries are low income countries (LICs). As a result the ability of Africa to cope – at all scales from the continental to the national to the individual – is going to make it challenging.
  • Climatic: there is some cause of optimism though, in that the spread of coronavirus so far appears to be faster in temperate climates like Europe’s, rather than the hotter climates found in Africa. This must be tempered with the lack of data on this new disease though (hence the term ’novel coronavirus’ being used – a piece of vocab I will make sure my kids understand!)
  • Demographic: another, probably more significant cause for hope is Africa’s demographics. We know from the UK’s categorisation of vulnerable people that older age groups are at higher risk from coronavirus. Less than 10% of Africa’s population is over 65. Maybe the younger population will help African countries avoid the death tolls we’ve seen elsewhere.
  • Health: while the African continent has a younger population though, many African countries, such as South Africa, also have a higher proportion of their populations who have suppressed immune systems due to HIV and tuberculosis.
  • Health systems: it also comes as no surprise that Africa’s lower levels of wealth and development mean that most countries’ health systems will not cope with the pandemic if it affects similar numbers to what we’ve seen in the northern hemisphere. The podcast gave some shocking statistics. The journalist estimated that there was roughly one ventilator per million people and that many American and European hospitals would have greater intensive care capacities than entire African countries.
  • Previous diseases: there was however mention that African governments and health systems have more recent experience of significant disease outbreaks (such as the 2014/15 Ebola epidemics in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone) than most of the nations which have been hit by Covid-19. Whether this will help or not remains to be seen.
  • Government: again it comes as no surprise to say that most African governments do not have the resources or infrastructure to respond in a similar way to what we’ve seen elsewhere, especially in terms of the financial responses seen in Europe. Such as welfare states exist, we’ve seen enough of the issues which more developed countries’ governments have had in ramping up their welfare systems to realise that in Africa the creation or expansion of a social safety net will be challenging. Many governments already have issues with debt and affordable borrowing. There are also questions around effectiveness, practicality and trust. Reaching all communities, especially in rural areas, and being trusted are going to be challenges for African governments. In some countries, spurious advice from religious and tribal authorities may add to these challenges facing government.
  • Rurality and remoteness: while the remoteness of rural populations may make government communication and response difficult, it will also help slow the spread of the disease. It is interesting that in India, there has been much criticism of the botched lockdown where one of the key issues was the number of people trying to head back out of urban areas to their rural places of origin, potentially taking the virus with them. In China, the lockdown on movement between regions has been seen as one of their key achievements in restricting the disease. It will be important for African governments to try and get this right, not least because rural areas will be even less able to cope with the disease if, or more likely when, it arrives.
  • Urbanisation: Africa is the least urbanised continent (only 40% of Africa’s population lived in urban areas in 2015), which must be seen as an advantage, but it is urbanising rapidly, so urban areas are often even more densely populated than we’d see in more developed countries. This population density is one of the main worries around coronavirus. As we’ve also seen in India, there is a conundrum around how socially distancing can be enforced when people live in such large numbers in such close proximity. (There are significant differences in urbanisation rates between African countries and some, especially though not exclusively in North Africa, have higher urban populations – Libya for example has an 88% urban population).
  • Squatter settlements: aha, that is why we’re learning about squatter settlements. Destination for many rural-urban migrants, these poorly built, densely populated areas with poor sanitation and a lack of clean water are incredibly risky places to live should coronavirus reach them.
  • Informal economy: common to less developed countries everywhere and closely linked to those squatter – or informal – settlements, the vast majority, around 85%, of Africans work in the informal economy. This means no regular salaries. Connected with the lack of formal address which life in a squatter settlement entails, many Africans also have no access to bank accounts and this is one of the reasons for many Africans to have a lack of savings which might help during a lockdown.
  • Aid and international help: countries which depend on international aid, especially for their health systems, will find that this won’t go far enough to help them deal with coronavirus. Unlike in previous health crises, such as the ebola outbreak, it is also going to be more challenging for African countries to get international help with so many of their usual donor countries dealing with their own health crises. Other countries however shouldn’t see their own crisis as a justification not to help. Just as the coronavirus has spread internationally, there is a real concern that as the virus continues to spread and spend time in different populations, it will not only survive but could well mutate. So it is shortsighted for those countries ‘further along the curve’ of the pandemic to ignore Africa and developing countries elsewhere. It could well be that we get over the first phase of the pandemic only for the coronavirus to return, this time from a developing country which has struggled to cope with and contain the virus. As well as this pragmatic, realpolitik approach, it is also worth discussing the moral aspect of helping countries in need.
  • Globalisation: the increasing interconnectedness of the world, not just economically, should definitely be considered in understanding the coronavirus pandemic. The movement of people around the world has absolutely caused the global spread of the virus. The patterns of movement, with greater volumes of people moving between richer parts of the world no doubt helps to explain why Europe and North America were amongst the first places outside China to be hit by the virus. The lower flows of people between the ‘global north’ and the ‘global south’ also helps to explain why African countries are further behind on the curve of cases and deaths. Other interesting angles are the global shutdown on flights and the implications of this. Mass air travel is of course seen as one of the key reasons for the acceleration of globalisation in the late 20th century. The environmental advantages of people not travelling have also been noted. It is also interesting how technology, one of the key drivers of globalisation, is helping to keep people connected when we can’t travel. For many years, the virtual option for meetings has still failed to trump the so-called agglomeration advantages which see businesses and people flocking to big cities. Whether the proven-by-crisis ability of large numbers of people to work and for businesses to function with the help of technology might change locational decisions and travel volumes in  future will be something to watch.
  • Diversity and avoidance of the ’single story’: throughout these notes I have been very conscious of repeatedly referring to Africa and Africans. While much of what I have said will apply to most African countries, there are of course many differences in wealth, society and culture. The Economist’s podcast highlights examples from different countries which demonstrate this. One of those ‘common misconceptions’ which must drive all geography teachers to distraction is the reference to Africa as a country, failing to appreciate either the terminology or the diversity. Liz Taylor, I think, has done some wonderful writing on diversity and how we must balance the need for accessibility and comprehension with a recognition of diversity and the complexity which comes with that. It is important to avoid the ’single story’ which masks too much of the reality – I think this applies to learning and communication about any topic, anywhere and is equally true of media coverage of events here in the UK.

These are all thoughts which occurred to me when listening to the podcast or reflecting upon it later. While some of it is recounting the content of the episode, much of it is the expansion, explanation and application made possible by the geographical knowledge which I have learned over the years. Someone without that knowledge simply would not have understood that podcast. Take, as an extreme example, somebody who, let alone think Africa is a country, might not know where it is. Often taken for granted, especially by subject specialists, but just knowing where somewhere is located is empowering. Is it closer or further away? That might tell us how likely people are to travel to and from there to the UK, possibly carrying the disease. Where is it compared to the Equator? That will give us some idea of temperatures, which as I said is one of the causes for optimism. These are just a couple of examples of how a lack of knowledge, or to put it another way – perhaps not having been given access to knowledge – leads to a lack of understanding. On the other hand, with knowledge and understanding comes the confidence to have an informed opinion and possibly to do something about it.

So when we talk about teaching knowledge, we are doing far more than rote learning of facts or ’teaching to the test’, we are inducting people into disciplinary thinking. Giving them a powerful set of concepts and ideas to understand the world. They might not appreciate it at the time, they probably won’t – they haven’t encountered enough of the world yet to see the applications. It isn’t done with a career in mind or because of a particular contemporary relevance, it’s far deeper than that. There’s also lots of research and writing about the importance of learners identifying as geographers, historians or whatever discipline they’re learning. Becoming an expert, or at least developing expertise, rightly comes with a social badge of honour (despite what Michael Gove or Donald Trump might say). It gives us confidence and quite rightly, because we have the knowledge to understand the world and make informed and responsible decisions and maybe positive contributions to society. By understanding the world, we have the power to change it, hopefully for the better.

Knowledge = power = (positive) change. That is why we should teach a curriculum rich in powerful knowledge.

Lockdown Notes #2 – coronavirus, time and relationships

The coronavirus, or rather our response to it, has had an impact on all aspects of life. Fundamentally it has had an impact on time: how (and where) we spend time, our routines, and the ‘cost’ of time. It has also had an impact on relationships: who we interact with and how we conduct those interactions. Such are these dramatic changes to our lives, many people are questioning what the ‘return to normal’ could look like.

Lockdown has forced us to rip up our usual routines. What we do, how we do it and where we do things – all of these have changed. We are spending more time at home. We are relishing the brief opportunities we have to spend outside the house. I chuckled at a comment I saw on social media, referring to Britons taking their daily exercise. The comment observed that seemingly the best way to encourage more people to take up regular outdoor exercise is to tell people to stay at home.

Spending more time at home comes with its plusses and minuses. Some people are enjoying the flexibility of time they have. Others are missing routine. For those spending more time with their family at home, this comes with rewards and pitfalls. Some of course are spending lockdown by themselves, also a combination of blessing and curse. The other side of the coin is of course the family, friends and colleagues who we don’t see – or don’t see face-to-face – which is taxing many people psychologically.

Some people are of course looking at the economic ‘cost’ of time. The old adage ’time is money’ is of course correct in that we do, in many activities, ascribe time with a monetary value – the hourly wage, the day-rate, etc. There is a nexus of relationships between time, money and productivity. With people working differently, or not at all, time is not being used productively in an economic sense. Or rather, it is not being used as productively as it might be under ’normal’ circumstances. More people are working at home. For some people this isn’t new, it is standard or perhaps just an increase in the proportion of their working week where they’re at home. For others this is new territory. Regardless of whether working from home is a new experience, this isn’t of course working from home as most people usually do it. Many people don’t normally juggle working from home with the childcare obligations that school closures currently require. There is much speculation about whether the increased working from home and greater use of technology to keep organisations ticking might lead to long-term shifts in how we work. This might well be the case, but those making decisions need to remember that current working from home habits and productivity isn’t in any way representative, for a host of reasons, childcare being just one.

Having been forced to spend our time differently many of us are probably going to reflect, if we haven’t already, on how we spend out time usually and whether we’re getting it right. While not perfect, I think the notion of ‘spending’ time is very appropriate. Not because of the monetary value mentioned earlier, but because it recognises that time is the most valuable resource which anyone has.

One aspect of that reflection will be how we might conduct our relationships – family, friends, etc – differently. Many have flocked to Skype, Zoom and the like to continue social contact. This is great where possible. For lots of people though, this enforced virtual contact might make them think again about spending some of that valuable time seeing people face to face. Or it might be that the people we’re calling, texting or messaging online with greater frequency than normal (‘because we can’) don’t get relegated down our daily or weekly priorities as soon as normal life resumes (no more ‘I never find the time’).

Humans are social animals and we all share a truth that time is our most valuable, finite resource. Decisions we take on how we spend our time and who with are fundamental to our happiness and the meaning we find in life. I hope that the lockdown makes us realise this more clearly and take some time to think about those decisions we make.

Lockdown Notes #1 – thoughts about content, the media, knowledge, power and the humble pub quiz

Next to my bed is a permanent yet dynamic pile of ‘content’ – books, magazines, etc – an iPad too sometimes, my phone a stretch across to the dressing table. I seem to have a pathological dislike for empty surfaces. Why leave them empty when you could have stuff to hand?

I’ll normally have something to write with to. My preference varies a little. Sometimes its a Moleskine (or cheap imitation). At the moment I seem to have settled on a reporter’s notepad. Spiral-bound. Something about the uncertainty and unsettled nature of the lockdown makes it seem fitting to use a reporters’s notepad. Not so much that I am reporting on events, but rather than it seems less permanent than a leather-bound journal.

One of the things I have been scribbling about, just an assortment of jumbled thoughts, is that very idea of ‘content’. Call it information, knowledge or entertainment. We all consume content to varying degrees. Many pay for access to it. We buy it in print or pay to get behind a paywall. Others are happy with access to the plethora of free content out there, available in ever-increasing amounts and with ever-increasing ease thanks to technology.

Today of course, media institutions find themselves in a scramble to reassess their value chain. Where does their income come from? Where can they extract value from? How are they justifying that value? In the fascinating world of intellectual property, we are given yet more examples of value creators and value extractors.

For me having content, just possessing it, even if I don’t have enough time to read and digest it, is a comfort, even if irrational. During the current lockdown, one of the many pleasures I have found is the increased time I have to read, to digest and to think. The educator in me likens this to how we conceptualise the purpose of education  or more specifically the purpose of a curriculum: it is about the journey you are taken on. A journey from point A, before you read the content, and point B after you have read. That of course takes us to the purpose of content – to influence, to change people in some way.

Content is made to influence, to educate, to entertain. The media, after all, exists to influence and shape society. In a technological age where anybody can produce and distribute knowledge, this democratisation is a huge positive, but should stir some thoughts of caution. The media, the institutions who commission, edit, publish and distribute content, who act as gatekeepers, also offer a brand which might (or might not) be trusted.

Events like the Hay Festival, or TED Talks, SXSW or ResearchEd conferences in education are ‘content hubs’. They offer a way of sharing content; an opportunity for people seeking to influence. People of course also want to act content providers (hat tip to Stewart Lee and his wonderful book title) for the kudos and, in some cases, the income this brings. In some cases, content is produced for the benefit of the producer rather than necessarily that of the audience. There is nothing wrong with that. The pleasure of writing, making or creating is real regardless of an audience.

Content can also of course be seen as intellectual history. Thinking of libraries and archives, especially national such institutions. They are not just guardians but gatekeepers of that intellectual history. They grapple with questions of what to keep and based on what system of valuation. The content they maintain offers a snapshot, not just on what has been thought and said, but the social structures which fostered and permitted that intellectual activity. It also offers insight into the values and structures which determined what was worth keeping and what wasn’t.

For some reason, over the years, one of my many fascinations has also been the losses to our intellectual history. The British burning of the Library of Congress and the subsequent fire in the 1850s when much of the replenished library was also lost. The burning of the Library of Alexandria. Also the routine dynastic sackings of knowledge littered throughout history. China has a wonderful history of building encyclopaedia. Yet with almost every power shift came the destruction of those repositories of knowledge. An acknowledgement that, as with all forms of text, those repositories reflected the views and values of the previous regime but also yet another reminder that knowledge is powerful and power over knowledge has always been important.

I have sometimes pondered when was it theoretically possible for somebody to have read all the books available (in their language at least)? The possession of broad knowledge and the existence of polymaths has shifted with changes to our society and economy.

Economic changes, in particular the principle of the division of labour, have contributed to a shift from generalists to specialists. While generalists still of course exist (and according to some are often very successful), specialism is an idea which has pervaded all aspects of society, not least our education system. Despite recent suggestions that the British and American publics have had enough of experts, we still socially (and economically) value expertise to some extent.

So where are generalists left? One of my lockdown contributions has been hosting regular ‘non-pub quizzes’ via Zoom (do get in touch if you’re interested). The humble act of quizzing may be one of the last bastions of the generalist, in Britain at least where our love of trivia is something of an outlier.

Knowledge, or content, changes people though. Even if by the simple act of helping them answer a question in my virtual pub quiz. Knowledge takes people on the journey from A to B, before encountering the knowledge to after. While I’m not physically in school, one of the things I’m still reading, thinking and enthusing about is the return of knowledge and curriculum thinking to the foreground of educational debates. By giving young people knowledge we take them on a journey. What power. What a responsibility. No wonder the great Ted Wragg said there was no higher calling.

That’s enough of my lockdown ramblings for now. These started as (very) rough notes. I’ve tried to format into some kind of coherence, but not tried too hard. I hope you have enjoyed reading this ‘content’ and that it has maybe sparked a few thoughts.

The Joy of Curriculum

As I (willingly) slave away over my department’s geography curriculum, it has occurred to me that this latest shift in education has done a huge amount to rejuvenate my own passion for teaching. In what was going to be a blog reflecting on the practical steps involved in building a knowledge-rich curriculum, I have actually written a more personal post which brings curriculum change and my own career journey together to serve as a sign that a change in context, whether that be the national policy context or the local context of the school we find ourselves forging a career in, has a huge impact on our daily working life.

A decade ago I was still working for BP. I had been thinking for some time about moving into education. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy working in the oil industry. As I’ve said ‘context is king’ and I loved the context of oil and gas; the geopolitics of the industry and the essential role in plays in our lives. In part I was a frustrated by the disconnect between the excitement of the industry and my part in it. Somewhat linked to that frustration, I suffered from a kind of impostor syndrome. I was convinced that, having never studied business or management in my life, I was going to be ‘found out’ and asked to clear my desk. This lack of confidence in my ability compounded with the frustration with my role as I didn’t see myself rising sufficiently to play a more exciting role in the industry. If nothing else, the experience and maturity I have gained since finally deciding to leave BP, aged 23, in the summer of 2010, has often made me wonder what might have been had I stayed working in the energy sector. That of course is one of those counter-factual, hypotheticals. Teaching training beckoned.

When I trained to teach in 2010/11, pedagogy ruled though even then the work of the Geographical Association with its manifesto for geography – A Different View – showed that at least some educators working in the geography subject community were interested in what we teach as well as why we teach it. After completing my training, another disconnect emerged in my career. By day I was getting to grips with being a geography teacher. By and large, I was told what to teach and my main focus was on getting the kids to behave and make progress. By night, I had chosen to continue my studies into geography education with an MA at the Institute of Education. Through my studies at the IoE, I first encountered the ideas of Michael Young and was an active follower of the debates around knowledge in the curriculum which revolved, in part, around Michael Gove’s curriculum reforms which were taking shape.

I became a Head of Department in 2016, a moment of ‘peak’ curriculum change: a new GCSE and a new A-Level to be developed at the same time. Plus a Key Stage 3 which needed a significant overhaul if we were going to prepare our learners for the new, more demanding exam courses. Even this was curriculum change, the focus was still on how we taught the content – the structure of the lesson, incorporating extended writing, embedding exam technique, etc. The need to provide challenge and evidence progress in every lesson dominated all of our planning. Trying to reconcile these pedagogic expectations with the content of the new specifications was a real struggle. I was (and remain) incredibly lucky that I had a small but incredibly hard-working team alongside me. Three years into leading my own department, we’d changed everything we did. There was no doubt in my mind that the quality of what we were (and are) doing far supersedes what went before it. Sadly this improvement in quality of curriculum and pedagogy hasn’t always translated into exam outcomes (yet), but that is a different frustration and a different story. Amongst the annual churn of the school calendar, my team and I would often comment that we would be done with change this year and next year will be easier. So writing this midway through my fourth year, where we’re in the middle of another perhaps even more radical overhaul, why I am not at all downhearted?

Knowledge is the answer. Although I was very familiar with the arguments around knowledge and in particular Michael Young’s concept of ‘powerful knowledge’, completing my MA and moving onto other concerns like being a middle leader meant that I’d lost touch with the debate and as a result didn’t see the opportunities of powerful knowledge to drive our curriculum development. A new headteacher at my school, with a vision for a knowledge-rich curriculum, together with the national shift triggered by Ofsted’s new obsession with curriculum, has re-sparked my interest in powerful-knowledge and this has helped to rekindle my passion for curriculum development. Yes, we’re producing knowledge organisers and doing retrieval practice, but this pedagogy is driven by the curriculum being knowledge-rich and underpinned by a view that it is important for children to learn subject knowledge. We’ve reviewed every aspect of our curriculum with a view to being more ambitious with our expectations over what we want young people to learn. We start with the ‘what’ and ‘why’ and then think ‘how’ we will teach it. Developing deep and broad subject knowledge over time is the source of challenge in our geography curriculum. Teaching lessons with this ambitious content, discussing demanding concepts and using questioning to tease out and develop learners’ understanding has helped teaching become a joy for me again. For sure, challenges remain. So far we have made, or rather are in the process of making, a structural shift to a knowledge-rich curriculum with appropriate pedagogy. What has to follow is a cultural shift where learners see the value of this knowledge and want to learn it and do well. This is absolutely the harder part, but when the purpose and potential impact is so clear, it makes the effort worthwhile.

Developing a knowledge-rich curriculum has re-energised me as a teacher. It is intellectually demanding. It also feeds my passion for my subject. It requires me to use my ability as a geographer and I have read and watched all kinds of material to boost my own subject knowledge. It also requires me to engage with research on how to best teach a knowledge-rich curriculum in the classroom. Bridging those identities as a geographer and a teacher, to be a professional subject expert is stimulating and rewarding. These changes are a challenge though. For so many teachers, myself included, we have gone for many years without having to address our subject expertise, instead often focused on transferable pedagogies. Going forward, we will need time, space and resources to develop our subject knowledge, our curriculum-making expertise and our research-informed pedagogic abilities. This is a different kind of professional identity to what has dominated for a decade or so. It is an exciting opportunity though and one which we must work hard, as subject and teaching communities not to squander.

Knowledge organisers, retrieval practice and the knowledge-rich curriculum

As teachers swept up in the latest winds of change hitting UK schools and fans of early-era Soccer AM will tell you: knowledge is the bomb. Like many teachers (and Saturday morning telly fans), I wholeheartedly subscribe to the importance of knowledge. Unfortunately, amidst the clamour to become knowledge-rich, some teachers and schools may be missing the point.

Take a look around Edu-twitter and teaching blogs together with an increasing slew of books and articles and it is very clear that teachers and schools and adapting to the ‘knowledge turn’. I have spent a previous blog post looking at exactly how we approach knowledge. The fact that it isn’t exactly clear what we mean by ‘knowledge’ and therefore how we select what to teach and justify why we should teach kind of feeds my motivation for this post. I am worried that, in our efforts to become knowledge-rich, we might be successful at getting learners to remember more, we might not have thought a great deal about what we think it is important for learners to remember.

I am one of those saddos who has thought about the importance of knowledge in education quite a lot. As a case in point, I spent many a happy hour on a sun-lounger during a New Year trip to Lanzarote reading Richard Bustin’s wonderful book Geography Education’s Potential and the Capabilities Approach (which I review here), which offers an intellectually and morally coherent framework for selecting and justifying powerful knowledge to teach to young people. Off the back of this, and whilst developing a curriculum vision for my department, I read Ofsted’s inspection framework, handbook and research overview. I don’t like to be driven by Ofsted, but seeing as they’re one of the key drivers of the knowledge turn, I was interested to see what their view was. Quite frankly, the more I read, the more a little niggle started to grow in my mind.

One teaching strategy which we’re developing at my school, like so many others, is the use of knowledge organisers together with retrieval practice. A quick search on TES resources (other resource depositories of highly-varying quality are available) shows that these are very much in vogue. I would contest however that using knowledge organisers does not automatically make a knowledge-rich curriculum.

As these thoughts were gestating in my head, I read the chapter on knowledge organisers in Mary Myatt’s rather wonderful book on the curriculum. Myatt identifies that ‘the real power of knowledge organisers is that they make us think hard about what we are going to teach’ (p89). As Bustin and others have observed, this hasn’t been a given for many teachers for some time. For a long time and for some teachers for their entire careers, we have been driven by the ‘cult of pedagogy’ (I wish I could remember where I read that – apologies). We have obsessed about how we teach and the what and the why has received disproportionately little time. In order to construct a knowledge organiser (and I agree with Myatt that these really should be done from scratch, or at least carefully adapted from existing versions), teachers have to think about what they want learners to know. This also requires teachers to have really high standards of subject knowledge; something which arguably has also been neglected for too long in initial teacher training and CPD. (One of the wonderful aspects of Mary’s book is the wealth of references you can dip into. Durrington School’s ‘subject planning and development sessions’ which Mary describes sound like an incredibly powerful idea).

Myatt is very clear that knowledge organisers are one element – a sensible pedagogical tool – when trying to implement a knowledge-rich curriculum. As Myatt observes though: ‘the downside to organisers is when they are used as ends in themselves’ (p91). Unless teachers have thought carefully about the curriculum content, which is then articulated in a knowledge organiser, then the curriculum doesn’t automatically become knowledge-rich.

I haven’t done a systematic study, but I do fear that so much of the guidance around knowledge organisers and the associated technique of retrieval practice focuses on the process of making and using these resources, the curriculum thinking is happening separately, if it is happening at all. Whether the motivation is Ofsted’s focus on curriculum ‘intent’, or broader thinking around how we justify the selection  and teaching of knowledge, such as Michael Young’s ‘powerful knowledge’, teachers should be engaging with the what and the why of curriculum.

I would argue – and I think Myatt’s explanation of knowledge organisers shows this – that producing knowledge organisers can be an integral part of the curriculum thinking process. The starting point though needs to be questions like ‘what is it important for young people to know’, ‘why do they need to know this’ and ‘what will this allow them to know, understand or do’. We almost need to start with a blank canvass, using our expertise as subject-specialists to think deeply about what our subjects offer young people.

Without the curriculum thinking behind or alongside them, knowledge organisers are just the ‘cult of pedagogy’ masquerading as curriculum thinking. In fact, unless this thinking has already taken place, then just shoehorning our existing schemes of work onto a knowledge organiser is in my opinion the very antithesis of planning a knowledge-rich curriculum. My only criticism of Myatt’s chapter, which I have unfairly treated in isolation, is that she doesn’t make this point strongly enough. In her closing comments of the chapter, she draws on the same cognitive science which underpins knowledge organisers and retrieval practice. She says ‘knowledge builds on knowledge’ – you know more, then you can learn more and ‘our students become more intelligent when they know more’ (p92). All true. That is the intellectual and moral rationale for teaching knowledge, but unless we think deeply about what that knowledge is, then cognitive science alone doesn’t make a powerful curriculum. Quite frankly – as Mary points out throughout her book – there are no quick fixes to a powerful knowledge curriculum. We only get there by giving professionals the time, headspace and respect to think.

Geography Education’s Potential and the Capability Approach – a review

Richard Bustin has written an excellent book. As well as thoroughly explaining how powerful knowledge and capabilities can be combined, he makes a persuasive case for how this approach could underpin a brighter future for education in the UK.

Powerful knowledge is a concept originated by Professor Michael Young, a physics teacher turned sociologist, who having made something of a volte-face now argues that skilfully selected and re-contextualised disciplinary knowledge should form the basis of the school curriculum. Importantly, this approach does not simply follow Matthew Arnold’s approach of the best that has been thought and said. It takes a more intellectually robust view of knowledge. For knowledge to be powerful, it has been created by disciplinary communities based on accepted social practices which lead to it being classed as ‘knowledge’. This considers knowledge to be dynamic and contestable. Teachers draw from subject disciplines on the basis that teaching powerful knowledge will empower young people by helping them to understand how the world works and how they can change it.

Academics working in geography education, including David Lambert, have developed the concept of powerful knowledge alongside applying the capabilities approach from development studies to education. As Bustin wonderfully explains, the capabilities framework, stemming from the work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, considers what people are able to think and do as a result of an intervention, in this case their education. A capabilities approach shifts the emphasis from the ‘outputs’ of education, such as exam grades, to the ‘outcomes’ of education, in terms of what an education system allows people to do in life. Bustin makes a convincing case that powerful knowledge and the capabilities approach should be interwoven. It is through learning powerful knowledge that people are able to think and do more.

At the moment, these concepts remain largely in the academic realm and are only just starting to permeate into the real world of schools and classrooms. Bustin explores how this has been done, not least through his own practitioner research. The starting point is for subject communities to reflect and agree upon what the powerful knowledge of their subjects is. This is not an atomised list but rather the key reasons or concepts that make the subject powerful. In the case of geography for example, the powerful knowledge is the:

  • Detailed descriptive and explanatory world knowledge, such as place knowledge and the processes of how the world works such as the carbon cycle.
  • Relational thinking, such as the interdependence between various human and physical systems and processes.
  • Futures thinking, whereby learners are encouraged to consider the various alternative future scenarios for how the world will change socially, economically, politically and environmentally.

Having established what makes each subject powerful, those elements of powerful knowledge should form a framework to allow teachers to plan their curriculum to select content which is powerful. Looking at how this has worked for teachers involved in Bustin’s research, I think this could be fertile territory. I am however something of a convert. Ever since coming across the concept of powerful knowledge back in around 2011 as part of my Masters, I have been increasingly convinced that the concept provides a robust intellectual and moral justification for the future of a (powerful) knowledge-rich curriculum at the heart of an education system with human empowerment at its core.

The next steps are critical in terms of how powerful knowledge may shape policy and practice. Bustin provides some helpful thoughts on the structural and cultural changes needed and there is some overlap with my own thoughts on this which I wrote about in a previous post.

Overall this is a wonderful book which gave me a great deal of hope for the future. My interest as both an educator and a politico make me think that powerful knowledge and capabilities provide an independent and robust framework for our education system. It is now a case of making it a reality. Hopefully by reading this book you’ll want to be part of that.

A few key quotes to takeaway…

  • ‘Studying geography is about learning to think like a geographer, understand how geographical knowledge is created, debated and argued over and not simply about learning geographical facts. The same is true for other subjects, learning to think like a mathematician, historian or linguist rather than simply learning a set of facts associated with the subject’ (p58)
  • ’Young (2008) realised that what was needed to reduce inequality was not the complete removal of knowledge of knowledge from all school curricula, but a way for all children to access what had in the past been as the preserve of the elite’ (p61)
  • ‘Capabilities could provide a broader framework that links all these subjects and gives a reason for a subject-based curriculum beyond the simple instrumental notion of exam grades’ (p99)
  • ‘Radical changes are occurring in what democratic societies teach the young, and these changes have not been well thought through. Thirsty for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive.’ (Nussbaum, 2016, p2 on p110)
  • ‘This top down competitive nature of curriculum, a feature of the contemporary education system dominated by league tables, could be seen as a form of capability deprivation as the idea of freedoms and choice as a result of education is removed in the quest for examination grades’ (p114)
  • ‘Powerful subject knowledge can enable choice of careers. It is subject knowledge that enables young people to be able to engage in debate and discussion, to think in new ways, to be able to discern fact from fiction, and these qualities develop capabilities that are of value not only in the adult world but in any workplace’ (p116)
  • ‘What the capability approach enables is a consideration of the choices that are available to pupils as a result of their education. With a capability set, a young person is able to make choices about how to live, and it is these choices that determine their future.’ (p148)
  • ‘The capability approach is empowering for teachers. It is trusting of their professional abilities and their understanding of both their subject and education’ (p152)
  • ‘A capabilities perspective can be used as a means for schools to be explicit about the value of a knowledge-led curriculum. Schools can claim proudly that an aim of education in their school is to introduce young people to the best thoughts and ideas that humanity has ever discovered rather than trying to express it implicitly through examination outputs’ (p166)
  • ‘It is teachers who enable the curriculum in the classroom for the pupils they teach. The aspirations of the capabilities approach give the power and control to teachers and not to examination criteria, or other curricular needs. Teachers must be given freedom to design and implement exciting and engaging lessons. To achieve this, teachers need to be fully trained subject specialists and trusted by leadership teams to enact an enticing curriculum. Yet many teachers do not have the level of confidence in their own abilities, nor the experience, to think creatively about the curriculum’ (p187)
  • ‘A means for teachers to realise the academic potential of their subjects. By focusing on the powerful knowledge of their subjects, young people from all backgrounds can develop capabilities to think about the world and make positive choices about how to live. This has the potential to envisage a world class education’ (p188)