Apr 082014
Two boys surviving winter in Norway in a small wooden hut

Connor (Year 9)


I first came across this extraordinary independent film at the 2014 Banff Mountain film festival. It’s won countless prizes and awards and deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. It’s downloadable at Vimeo on demand from this link. The teaser pretty much sums up the plot line…

I was curious to see how the film would be received by students of different ages and took the opportunity of an enforced absence to set it as cover. I set three simple tasks to complete after watching:

1) Where’s the geography? (Why do you think you are being shown this film?)

2) What questions do you have after watching it?

3) Sum up the film in a sentence

Collating the key words from the responses to the first question highlighted interesting variations in the way the film spoke to different year groups. Despite evidence to the contrary, Year 7  have not done any work on recycling, although the landscape project is still fairly recent in their collective memories and we did make reference to Svalbard at the start of the year. It does look as though they’ve been exposed to a degree of “greenwashing” (though hopefully not in my lessons.) Year 8 on the other hand, did weather last term, and clearly thought that the film was being shown for that reason. Year 9 have just finished a unit of work on development which included a reference to Bhutan’s slogan “Gross National Happiness is more important than GNP”  so I was very happy to see several students reflecting on the film’s references to quality of life vs standard of living.

Year 7


Year 8

Year 9


Responses to the second question were perhaps more predictable, with many students asking somewhat disappointingly what the two characters were trying to “achieve”. It’s quite telling that few students seem to be able to conceive of outdoor adventure and fun being an end in itself. Encouragingly, several wanted to know where the beach was located, which is slightly more encouraging and would make a good piece of detective work. (I found it in about 15 minutes on Google Earth)  More interesting was the student from year 8 who wondered if they could have managed without mobiles and a supermarket.

As a potential offering for the four word film review site, Ellie from Year 7 managed to be the most concise with…

“Surfing til dawn”

and Kathleen from Year 9 offered…

A truly amazing winter


I’m certain that there’s a great deal of potential learning to extract from this wonderful film. Despite the prevailing orthodoxy, occasionally there is a strong argument to be had for not splitting films into bite sized chunks, and instead just give students the chance to be captivated. Whether the theme is landscapes as part of a “fantastic places” – type unit, the impact of latitude on weather and seasons,  a comparison place study, or extreme tourism at GCSE, the film has a lot to offer. I suspect it could be a good precursor for introducing the John Muir Award into a school.

If you do discover the location of the beach – do keep it a secret. I might even see you there next summer!

North of the Sun on Vimeo


A group work activity on development indicators

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Mar 082014

It’s been a number of years since I was indoctrinated by Professor Hans Rosling to no longer refer to LEDCs and MEDCs when referring to the development status of a country. Here’s why…

The AQA GCSE syllabus A requires that students are familiar with the correlation and analysis of development indicators and of course the Gapminder website is a crucial teaching aid. Students have to be mindful of the dangers of using a single statistical measure of development and aware that countries have different development priorities and  perceptions of quality of life. I devised the following activity as a group work task to sum up this aspect of the syllabus.

Five groups were established and the activity introduced via the first slide of the presentation embedded below. (Needs to be downloaded from Slideshare to work as intended)

Each individual was given a table of 2012 development statistics and a commentary. The examples were carefully chosen to represent nations with very different development priorities. Each group was tasked with creating a rank order of the countries based on the statistics, the commentary and their own opinions.

Once the initial task was complete, the groups passed their rankings clockwise around the room, spending a couple of minutes perusing and commenting on each others thoughts. Once the circuit had been completed, each group had to construct a final ranking, taking into account the all the information and their newly acquired understanding of development priorities.

As part of ensuring that everyone was fully involved, certain students were randomly selected to describe and justify their final rank order. Much debate took place, though there was 100% agreement in terms of the top and bottom placed countries. Conveniently, since they all chose Norway as the most developed nation, I was able to introduce the Human Development Index data for 2013 which confirms their finding and illustrates the usefulness of this measure of development.

This is a nice little activity which requires very little planning and develops really interesting interaction between group members. Groups become accountable to each other and nobody can opt out of the final task. Originally it was intended as an “expert groups” activity and the passing on of their work was actually suggested by the students themselves. To my mind it fits nicely with Dylan William’s assertion that group goals and individual accountability can double the speed of learning.

Jan 292014

We’ve had a bit of a wall-based revolution in recent months as we’ve emerged from the spectre of Special Measures. Student work seems to have been deprecated in favour of attractive and colourful but rather uniform creations that focus on achievement and motivational photos of kids at work. This isn’t a criticism at all, but I thought it would be nice to take the initiative back in my own room at least and hand responsibility for display over to the students. Suspecting that too much independence wasn’t likely to achieve the new corporate standards, I got the students to commission the media resources officer to make the display to their specifications. This is the result…


The finished display incorporates a variety of contributions from every student in the class. The Wordle element aggregates a homework task, and other items include haiku poems, creative writing and Google Earth 3D modelling. Some volunteered additional work in the form of extended writing and poems that were  of exceptional standard. The display was completed with the addition of miniature photographs of the student’s heads which they placed on their favourite part of the work.


The overall result is a display of really high quality work to which the students feel a real sense of attachment. There is no mention of levels, or indeed any written feedback from me at all.
I used the slides below in a short teach meet type presentation about the display for staff.

Designing Geography

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Jan 142014

Via Alan Parkinson, I came across the work of Simon Jones whose Slideshare contains a great selection of presentations that combine cutting edge “pedageography” with professional design skill.

Better PowerPoint design has been a recurring theme from bloggers that don’t have to teach a full timetable but the simplicity of Simon’s design language has inspired me to think again about my own resources and I began with a re-work of an old lesson about the issue of ageing population…

There was a dramatic improvement in engagement with the new resource which I think was partly down to the improved design, or maybe I just had a little more confidence in my delivery with better support from the visuals?

I really look forward to see how Simon’s new business venture will turn out. I’ll be subscribing that’s for sure! Follow Simon Jones on Twitter to keep up to date with his work which includes the new Vimeo channel Geography Soup and a sister resource on Slideshare.

Feedback and Assessment: thoughts from a Twilight session

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Nov 302013

We’ve begun formulating some ideas for improving on the way we use feedback at school. I was impressed that for the first time during an INSET activity we were encouraged to reflect on recent ideas from influential teacher bloggers. We found the following blog posts particularly useful:

Tom Sherrington on Closing the Gap

Alex Quigley’s posts on DIRTy WorkImproving Written Feedback and Make Your Marking Policy a Feedback Policy

Shaun Allison on Verbal Feedback

Andy Tharby on Marking: Minimum Effort for Maximum Pleasure

David Didau’s classic piece  Marking is an act of love

Joe Kirby’s What if you marked every book every lesson?

Part of the twilight involved a book scrutiny which provided plenty of reassuring evidence that a variety of interesting and effective practice was flourishing in different departments. We established some core principles that could underpin a new policy on assessment and feedback and then began to list a range of helpful strategies.

Towards the end of the session the accountability agenda injected itself somewhat uncomfortably into the discussion by raising the perennial issue of what constitutes a reasonable time interval for marking books. Feeling that a rigid policy  in this regard could actually undermine any transformational practice, we suggested that teachers should be required to demonstrate understanding of the principles of a new assessment and feedback policy. The implication is that we need be able to make feedback work more effectively and that the days of ticking and flicking to suit a marking timetable should lie firmly in the past. Closer scrutiny of assessment and feedback at department level will be required to ensure not just compliance, but understanding of good practice.

The presentation below represents the very start of our thinking and the plan is that by sharing it via our Google Apps-based network, all teachers can contribute to a dynamic resource that improves over time.

Code-based marking

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Oct 172013

I mumbled through a presentation on marking at the inaugural Taunton Teachmeet last night, still somewhat shell-shocked from a day of HMI. Here’s the presentation I used. I forgot to mention that one of the main justifications for this approach to marking (which I’ve been trialing for a while) is that it avoids the issue of students focusing exclusively on grades, rather than my carefully crafted, formative comments. I also neglected to say that students have their own assessment record sheet on which they record their grade and the main target for improvement. For what it’s worth the strategy seemed to sit well with an inspector-type recently. As noted in the credits, the whole marking strategy is a synthesis of ideas from a number of other people, particularly Alex Quigley, Tom Sherrington and Joe Kirby, and quite possibly David Didau.

Finally, congratulations to Bob Ayres at Bishop Foxes for hosting an excellent event.