Contagious and outrageous! (GAConf18 Review Pt.3)

Firstly, just to say that I hope all you educators out there had a productive, but most importantly, restful Easter break… It’s now the summer term and of course, game time! Best of wishes and luck to you all!

Right then… Part 1 of my Geography Association conference review focused on the two opening keynote lectures on “Guerrilla Geography” and the fact we are all geographers, and in Part 2 I rounded up my highlights from the Friday, including the TeachMeet. For final review, focusing on the Saturday, I’ve picked out:

  • How data is used to explore patterns of human behaviour, including the use of geolocation data to plan for a potential pandemic;
  • Giving your trainee teacher the best possible leg-up by sticking to what’s important;
  • An inspirational geography teacher/adventurer who to me felt like a kindred spirit;
  • Saying farewell to an important cog in the GA’s wheel.

The philosophy of human behaviour

Keynote Address: Patterns in human behaviour, Dr Hannah Fry, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College London

Here’s a neat little trick. Go to any Wikipedia entry… Geography, for example. Now try this…

Clicking on the first non-parenthesised, non-italicised link, ignoring external links, links to the current page, or red links, where do you end up? … Philosophy. Go ahead and try it again with something even more obscure… 

This neat little quirk was showed to us by Dr Hannah Fry (@FryRsquared) at the start of her talk. 97% of Wikipedia articles will end up at the ‘philosophy’ entry. Hannah said that she feels that’s a good representation of her views and her work… all pretty much based on philosophy!

Even “death from laughter” leads to philosophy… (That’s one way of looking at it!)
I had a go at starting with the “Thunderbirds (TV Series)” Wikipedia entry. Amusingly, I found that it led to a one of the other ‘3%’ of possible endings, but still related to philosophy. Thunderbirds lead to Gerry Anderson, to Supermarionation, to APF Films, to ITV and then, commercial broadcasting >broadcasting > distribution (marketing) > marketing mix > marketing > management > organisation > entity > existence > reality (looping with existence, both articles under the ‘philosophy’ umbrella).

Dr Hannah Fry should be recognisable to some of my UK-based friends, having been on TV programmes exploring a range of real-world application of mathematics. The best known so far being “The Joy of Data“.

The out-gassing of laughs were in equal measure to in-taking of learning. First we were told that “OkCupid!” was set up by mathematicians in order to study human behaviour. Getting a particular chuckle was this graph… (Sometimes, groups do live up to their stereotypes, don’t they?!)

Hannah merrily sped us through a number of datasets and visualisations that gave interesting insights into patterns of human behaviour, but also took time to be clear about the practical and useful applications of such data.

For example, visualising the diurnal (day-to-day) pattern of the London transport network enables you to work out pinch-points and bottle-necks in case of a breakdown or failure. Highbury & Islington, for example, only have one tube track and very few alternative options. So if there was a problem at 9am, commuters would be more inconvenienced there than elsewhere in the network.

An animation of London bike share bikes shows pulses of bikes moving into The City during the morning commute, and out of The City in the afternoon. However, there are a couple of irregular patterns embedded in this, revealing that people will ride bikes one-way. If it rained either in the morning or afternoon, then a bike would only go one-way. And, more interestingly, you’d end up with more bikes parked at the bottom of a hill than the top. That’s not surprising, if you think about it! But without the data to show the impact of that, you couldn’t anticipate and make sure you get a truck to pick up bikes and put them back where they are going to be needed the next day. NB: Here’s a really interesting GIS map showing scheme bike schemes world-wide. Worth exploring.

Hannah tells us that data gives us the power to ask “What if?” questions. Stemming from this can be mathematical and computer modelling. Weather forecasting and climate modelling are two obvious examples of “what if” uses of data (what if we continued to burn fossil fuels, what if the wind direct changes etc…)

Demonstrating using spatial-probability to catch serial killers before they commit further murders. Collecting spatial data can help with other issues, such as predicting mosquito bites based on the location of stagnant pools, allowing for a more effective deployment of medical resources; even the possible location of bomb making hideouts based on location of IEDs. Apparently, some mathematicians are also trying to work out who Banksy is using spatial-probability!

Hannah is also an advocate of citizen science. One of her latest projects, in partnership with the BBC is to model the outbreak of a possible disease pandemic, using spatial data from people’s smartphones.

The flu is the biggest killer worldwide in the last century, even more so than war. The Spanish Flu, for instance, killed four times as many people as World War I. Hannah played a short video clip showing that not many people can guess it’s the flu which is the biggest killer out there. In fact, the UK government believe it is the biggest threat, more than terrorism and nuclear war.

The ‘BBC Pandemic‘ being set off in Haslemere by a digitally contagious Hannah. Everyone participating in the study has the pandemic app installed on their Apple or Android smartphone. As the first day goes on, more and more dots (people) that Hannah interacts with turn red. They’ve become infected! You can still take part in this study until the end of May by downloading the app yourself.
If the pandemic spread across the UK, then over 40 million people could end up being infected. If the disease had a 2% mortality rate, the same as the Spanish Flu, then around 800,000 lives could be lost. Hannah shows us that if the government were to really stress the importance of washing hands through a rigourous public-awareness campaign, then the spread of the disease would not reach as far, and would slow down the spread. Furthermore, these mathematical models enable the focusing of efforts on vaccinating ‘super-spreaders’ (people who interact with many others, like teachers), so giving the authorities much more of an edge to slow the spread of the disease.

You left the lecture hall a bit ‘wowed’ by all that. Dr Hannah Fry and the late Prof Hans Rosling use maths to sweep you off your feet and cheering from the roof-tops that mathematics is the best thing since sliced-bread. Formal education, take note…

Helping them to help you is better in the long-run…

Teacher to Teacher session: Supporting secondary geography PGCEs with minimal effort, John Groves, PGCE Geography Student, University of East Anglia

I was delighted to discover that one of our very own UEA PGCE Geography trainees, John Groves, was delivering a session. As someone who helps to train Geography trainee teachers at the UEA, I’ve tried to encourage not just attendance to the GA Conference every year, but to contribute too. Plenty of trainee teachers have many fresh ideas and useful reminders to offer us old fuddy-duddies.

I went along to this not just to support John (trust me, he didn’t need it really… he’s a natural!) but also to hear a bit about this issue from a PGCE’s point of view. A couple of years back, I delivered similar training to mentors at the UEA, so I was interested to see if I was, back then at least, singing from the same hymn sheet.

John summed up the experiences of PGCE students on school placements into two categories: ‘valuable’ and ‘non-valuable’.

Much of his advice was common-sense. However, haze and stress of the job, supporting a PGCE student can feel like a chore, and stress causes common sense to go out the window. But it need not be this way. John was clear that trainee teachers can be very capable, especially if you keep things simple for them, for example:

  • Give them a timetable and a mid-term plan, so they know exactly what topic they are pick up and where they are going with it.
  • Give out seating plans with students names. Even better if they have pictures of the students on them.
  • Ensure your trainee knows behaviour policies, and policies on mobile phones etc. (I would add that it’s a good idea to explicitly demonstrate (i.e. exaggerate, within reason) the implementation of those policies while your trainee is observing you).

At the end of the day, the easier you make life for your trainee teacher, the less of a ‘burden’ they will be, and the more autonomous they will become. This, in turn, takes the workload off you as a mentor.

Well done John for a really engaging and enthusiastic session! In the novelty of grand conferences with wacky and new ideas, sometimes the simple tips are the most useful.

Being a geography teacher is an odyssey in itself

Lecture 27: A teacher’s odyssey to bring adventure into the classroom, Fearghal O’Nuallain, Explorer

Fearghal O’Nuallain’s (@re_ferg) starting story was of the snap decision to cycle from Melbourne to Sydney while working as a chef in Australia. He bought a bike, saddled up and… found it tougher going than he released, only managing a measly number of kilometers in comparison to his initial expectations. He was in the process of giving up but a series of events meant that he continued by necessity, moving short hops at a time. Eventually he realised he could make it to Sydney, and did. Buoyed by such achievements, Fearghal then tackled the world with a childhood friend and the pair became the first Irish team to cycle around the world.

Astronauts claim to experience “The Overview Effect“. Fearghal called his experience the “Underview Effect”; having gained insights into culture, the environment and so much more. However the experience also led to depression, being unable to shake the feeling that no matter in the world, there are always the same issues and same tensions that bog life down. The decision came to do Masters and then Fearghal went into teaching, determined to use his experiences to inspire and educate youngsters.

Being an ‘explorer’ is basically being human.

Fearghal’s statement is hard to refute. Think of every single advance of the human race and you find a level of exploration involved. Exploration of resources, new lands, scientific research… It’s human to enquire. Can you even begin to imagine what the human race would be like today if we never asked “what if?”. It’s therefore natural to the  vast majority of geography teachers that teaching geography: about the world, about the human race, should lend itself to exploration and enquiry. In turn, Fearghal sees being an explorer a natural extension of being a geographer.

I whole-heartedly agree that experiencing and exploring things for yourself makes you a better teacher. Spending time out in Malawi, for example, gave me a huge insight into many things, enabling me to enrich my teaching resources and lessons about development, poverty but also hope, resilience and ingenuity. Not only this, but give me personal perspective also. This needs to be the same for our students also. Geography could be an abstract concept for students in a large urban area e.g. Inner London. So Fearghal believes that the use of his own experiences and adventures increased engagement.

It wasn’t too long into Fearghal’s teaching career that admits he became disaffected with the focus on exams, attainment etc. There was no adventure in the classroom. He needed to reignite passion for the subject. Clearly yearning for the adventure it was time to set out again.

Listening to Fearghal talk about not just his adventures, but the reasons for embarking on the journeys that he undertakes really made him feel like a kindred spirit. I know for sure that I am not alone in feeling the way I do about formal education, the part that I, as a teacher, play in it and the mental health issues that have come with it all. But to have someone so sensitively, passionately and honestly do so in front of a large audience at a national conference was exceptionally comforting. So kudos to Fearghal; a lot of us were comforted by that.

For Fearghal, this brought about “The Water Diaries”.


The Water Diaries chronicles the Adventures of Geography Teacher Fearghal O’Nuallain as he journeys the globe learning about water issues and creating educational resources. For this journey he’s teamed up with Field Scientist Shane McGuinness and FilmMaker Temujin Doran to cross Jordan in a modified New Model Land Rover Discovery investigating water issues and broadcasting lessons to classrooms in the UK and beyond. The journey is supported by the Land Rover Bursary from the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) in London. – The Water Diaries: “About”

So. How about a hitchhike down the length of the Hudson River? Fearghal found himself having an intimate connection with the river, obliged to personify it as it grew from source to mouth. He also gained a cultural insight into the white pick-up-truck-driving Trump supporter, since they were the most prevalent demographic giving him a lift.

And Bolivia…

Fearghal attempted to do the same along the Indus River, the lifeblood of Pakistan. He showed us some amazing images and footage, but unfortunately a lot of it was confiscated by Pakistani intellegence, who weren’t convinced about his motives. Fearghal was asked to leave the country. A geography teacher being mistaken for a terrorist or spy… remarkable!

For the project, supported by the Land Rover bursary, a new model Land Rover Discovery converted into a mobile classroom. The most recent adventure, with the Land Rover was to Jordan. Apparently, you can book school visits with the very same Land Rover.

Go check out the resources page on “The Water Stories” website.


They look fantastic, and I certainly feel that they will bring a bit adventure into the classroom. But, to finish, Fearghal again encourages us to bring our own adventures in too. He says that if you’re willing to take chances and put in the work… you should do it! You’re damn sure I’ll be doing the same with my experiences… regular followers of this blog hopefully get that feeling!

I had a lovely chat with Fearghal over lunch after his talk. I asked him to keep me in mind if he gets another crazy and wonderful idea or urge… Well… you never know! 😉

I’m done… Bring on the caffeine!

IMG_2968I wish to end my GAConf18 review to say a fond farewell and thanks to an absolute star at the Geographical Association. Busy working behind the scenes, marketing, making events happen and ensuring the conference is a success every year is Lucy Oxley. I’ve known Lucy mostly through email collaborations and discussions, but we’ve had plenty of good chin-wags and a drink at the odd Beermeet or two. I’ve always felt in good hands when being involved with the GA either as a participant or as a contributor. Now after many years she’s off to start up her own coffee shop in Sheffield. I know her colleagues will miss her dearly, not just because she was so good at her job, but because she is an exceptionally nice person to boot. When Lucy’s around you know everything going to be alright, and if it’s not, she’ll put it right (or make you feel very comfortable that things don’t always go to plan!). Good luck and best wishes, Lucy! I’m not a coffee drinker, but I’ll make an exception every time I’m in Sheffield. And that, is high praise coming from a staunch tea-drinker! 😉

Lucy is still around for another month taking proposals for #GAConf19. She can expect to get a couple of submissions from me, as always! Also, the official photos from this year’s conference are now on Flickr (a nod also to Bryan Ledgard, who is also ‘retiring’; hanging up his lens as the GAConf photographer!). Resources from the conference sessions will be here soon for your downloading pleasure.

My t-shirt from the Exploratorium fit in really well at the GA Conference. Sums us geography teachers up quite nicely, don’t you think! Photo: Bryan Ledgard.

zzlogoP.S. My sabbatical is self-funded and un-paid. Please check out my paid resources at TES and Teachers-Pay-Teachers! If you are looking for teaching resources for all subjects, not just Geography, please check out ZigZag education’s catalogue by clicking through my affiliate link here. If you do find something useful and purchase, I’ll get some commission to help me pay for a public transport fare etc! 😉 I also have free resources on my portfolio page, and you can check out an index of which of my blog entries match which parts the various UK GCSE Geography syllabuses.





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