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WHAT IS “PATCHWORK ASSESSMENT” ALL ABOUT?

Summary (the short version)

  • Patchwork Assessment (or Patchwork Text Assessment) is an alternative to exams or traditional coursework, and may be particularly appropriate for introduction as part of a module being redesigned for flexible digital delivery.
  • It involves students creating or curating numerous “patches” of content or activity through the module, and using them as the basis of a final summative assessment that adds up to more than the sum of its component patches. It is not merely a portfolio, as the components themselves are not summatively assessed.
  • Advantages include opportunities for improvements in inclusivity,  student engagement, and the deployment of strategies for generative learning. 
  • Disadvantages include unfamiliarity to both students and staff, and potentially significant workload in developing new assessments and inducting students into the process.

Introduction:

I have been asked to put together some notes about Patchwork Assessment for the benefit of colleagues who might be encountering it for the first time while developing alternative assessments in place of traditional unseen exams. As a “beginner” in this myself, I have organised the notes in Q&A format, and I invite colleagues to correct me if they think I have misunderstood anything, missed any big questions or given any wrong answers. My approach here has been to adopt and adapt rather than to copy slavishly from a template, and I imagine that colleagues reading this will do the same: take these notes as a starting point for their own ideas.

Here are my responses (PGK) to imaginary Questions from Curious Colleagues (QCC).

Q & A about Patchwork Assessment

QCC: Before we start, are these just your own ideas or is there a framework of pedagogic research and experience behind this?

PGK: There is an extensive framework of published research and experience around Patchwork Assessment, but my answers here are personal opinions based partly on that framework and partly on my own experience. For a starting point into the literature about Patchwork Assessment, please see the reference list at the end of these Q&As. Two  key sources to begin with would be Winter (2003) and Jones-Devitt et al. (2016).

QCC: So, is Patchwork Assessment just a fancy term for “Portfolio”?

PGK: No. Some of the literature is quite adamant that thinking about Patchwork Assessment as simply a portfolio assessment is unhelpful, because we are not assessing a collection of material but assessing something developed from that collection, the collection being an extended student activity that precedes the assessment item. However, I confess that when I first started to think about Patchworks, the idea felt at-least somewhat related to the idea of a portfolio. Now, I find it helpful to differentiate between the patchwork collection (the patches or items that you might think of as a non-assessed portfolio) and the final patchwork assessment (the assessed item that emerges from, or uses, the patchwork collection). We are not assessing the collection, but assessing something that the student creates after they complete the collection. Some sources do refer to the final assessment as a stitching together of the patches, but I think of it as needing to be more than just that: more than just the sum of its parts.

QCC: If it’s not a portfolio, what how does a Patchwork Assessment work, then?

PGK: There are two stages to the activity.

(1) Throughout a module, students create and assemble (short) items of work (patches) that are not themselves summatively assessed, (but may be formatively assessed to provide constructive feedback, or may be shared and discussed in peer groups). These patches can and should be quite varied, ideally with students having a choice of which ones to engage with. They might include personal notes on a set reading, a short reinforcement exercise, an online group discussion, a reflective commentary on a lecture, a topic summary, or a student choosing their own local case study or application of a theme from a taught session and producing a development, commentary or illustration of that in their own preferred format. Blog or vlog entries might work well, or some type of course-long workbook. A lot of these activities could be things that we like to image students might be doing anyway as part of their independent work, but we are giving them a bit of a steer and a push. Tutors might “prompt” activities alongside each lecture or online session. These items are not themselves summatively assessed and it is up to the module leader how closely they want to “enforce” engagement. Having students share and discuss their activities with their peers in a shared module space can be helpful.

(2) At the end of the module, when students (should) have assembled (at least a partial) collection of different items from those that have been recommended through the module, the summative assessment requires them to do something with their collection. This might be an applied or practice-based task where the collection is used as the basis of something such as a planning application or a grant application or a professional report or a job application, or at its simplest it  could be that they are asked to produce a written reflection on their collection, with items from the collection being presented as illustration or evidence within that summative report but not themselves being assessed.

If it is set up properly, the quality of the final summative piece will depend partly on students having effectively engaged with the collection of formative patchwork items along the way, without the collection itself actually being assessed.

QCC: Does the tutor have to mark all these little pieces of work!??

PGK: No. The patchwork items are not themselves assessed. They are materials that the students are compiling for themselves, to use when they do the final component. It is up to module leaders whether the students have chances for interim submissions, peer-group discussions, etc in order to get formative feedback as they work up their patchwork, but certainly there is no formal assessment of this stage of the activity. Most staff will need to manage this process carefully to keep their workloads appropriate, and there is no requirement that staff will be heavily engaged in this stage of the students’ work once the framework of instructions to students is set up.

QCC: What if a student simply doesn’t do the in-course formative items? Can they just write the report at the end and somehow get away with it?

PGK: If they haven’t collected their items, they can (and must) still do the summative assessment, but if it has been set correctly their work will be severely limited by the lack of evidence or illustration from their patchwork items. The final piece has to be designed to build on (rely on) the collected items, so the quality of the overall assessment will depend on the quality of the collection even though the collection was not in itself assessed.

QCC: What if a student does excellent work on the (formative) patchwork items but does a poor job on the summative write-up: do they get credit for the component items?

PGK: The assessment is based entirely on the summative item. This will include reference to the patchwork components as examples, illustrations or evidence, but the mark is assigned for the summative piece, not the patchwork parts. Theoretically, a student could do good work creating their component items but then get a poor result if they do not use them effectively in the actual assessment.

QCC: Do the students present the patchwork items within the final report?

PGK: This will depend on the exact nature of the final report that you have set. It could be set up so that the patchwork items are “behind the scenes”, or so that they have to be incorporated in some way within the report, or as an appendix. If students are be asked to submit their collection there is a danger that the exercise reverts to the level of a portfolio. Alternatively they could just insert items (or parts of items) from their portfolio as bits of evidence or examples for things they are doing in the summative assessment. The tutor does not need to read and mark all the collected items… the final report should be free-standing (albeit with those references back to patchwork items or activities).

QCC: So what is the final report…  is  it “about” the patchwork items?

PGK: This is up to the tutor to decide and will depend on the nature of the module. A simple approach would be to have students write a final report that basically describes their patchwork collection, but I don’t think this really makes much of a step up from basic portfolio-plus-reflection. A more sophisticated approach could be, say, to have students complete a new task or solve a problem using their patchwork items. They could build from their patchwork to develop a new textbook outline, or create a public-facing or industry-facing document about the module, the topic, or their experience… Or based on a patchwork of local case studies a student might compile a national-scale proposal.  It is really up to the imagination of the module designer to find activities or missions that will enable students to create something new and freestanding that somehow draws on their experience of assembling the patchwork and somehow uses their patchwork items towards some greater outcome. In some contexts there could be a specific “question” for students to write in response to: “Making specific reference to items from your patchwork and/or to the patchwork as a whole, demonstrate how x, y, z, and propose how A and B in the next ten years”. This is for individual tutors to decide in their own module contexts, and provides a huge amount of flexibility.

QCC: Do you announce the final assessment up front, or at the end?

PGK: Again, either way could work depending on how you organise the module. If you want students to knowingly build a patchwork for a particular purpose, and if you want them to make decisions for themselves about what to collect en route,  then giving them the final assessment “question” at the very start of the module would make sense. On the other had if you set the exact components of the patchwork yourself (for example as a basic year-long workbook of exercises) then it might make sense to reveal the exact assignment at the end, a bit more like an unseen exam. At the moment I think that announcing everything up front gives the students a greater degree of responsibility and autonomy.

QCC: How does the student know what to do and when to do it… is there a roadmap?

PGK: Some modules might build the patchwork creation into a weekly “task list”, basically telling students what to do and when to do it. (eg Week 1: complete KLE exercise 1, read reference items 1 & 2,  and write a 200-word reflection on your existing knowledge…”). Other modules could leave it much more to students to decide what to do when, but in that case very clear suggestions, examples, etc would be needed. Certainly, for students who have not done this before, I think that really very clear guidance will be necessary, even if the guidance is based on sets of choices. For example, there might be pathways leading towards different optional final assessments, so students collect items relevant to their particular target. In my own context, I can imagine having suggestions such as “At this point in the course for your patchwork collection either identify the most intensively researched examples of a soft-bed and a rigid-bed surging glacier (if you are working towards patchwork-text assessment option A) or identify a research programme that has used numerical modelling to simulate surge behaviour (if you are working towards patchwork-text assessment B)”.

QCC: What’s the advantage of this over a more traditional assessment?

PGK: There are several advantages: for example – inclusivity and motivation to engage. Students may be better motivated to engage with their module throughout, as they can collect, create and compile their patchwork components based on activities week by week as the module progresses. Also, it is usually up to the student to identify the pivotal moments in learning that they want to include as patches in their collection. It will be hard for students to leave everything till the end and rely on last-minute revision as they might do for an exam, as opportunities such as group activities, lecture-connected exercises, etc roll by throughout the course. Another advantage (especially if the module offers lots of choice or flexibility in what a student can include in their patchwork) is inclusivity, as students will have a variety of different activities underpinning the assessment, and should have the opportunity to select what items to work on or what media, methods or platforms to use. Patchworks promote assessment for learning rather than just assessment of learning, and   encourage the use of  student-centred teaching methods. There is more about this in the literature (see reference list).

QCC: And what are the disadvantages?

PGK: Having just embarked on introducing this type of assessment into my own modules I would say the initial disadvantage is the set-up cost in the tutor’s time. It would be very quick and easy to replace a traditional exam with, say, a take-home exam or yet another essay, whereas inserting a Patchwork Assessment into an existing module feels a bit like taking the sugar out of a hot cup of tea, or threading the veins into a raspberry ripple ice cream. Patchwork Assessment doesn’t feel like a bolt-on; it is something that needs to be integrated into the fabric of a module in a fairly complex way. Students will require a significant amount of direction at the start of the module to understand the importance on continuous engagement and the value of developing and assembling worthwhile patches that will eventually stitch together as a component of the final assessment. This will involve a more substantial fraction of the module’s total hours than would be needed to explain a simple essay-plus-exam assessment structure. 

The HEA practice guide identifies one particular issue that is with thinking about at the outset: resistance! Both students and colleagues may find this novel and initially disconcerting, and may need to unlearn some of their preconceptions about how learning and assessment are aligned.

QCC: Your introduction said Patchworks could help with “generative learning”. What’s that?

PGK: Generative learning is a term often used alongside “active learning” to differentiate between “passive” learning activities such as listening or reading that involve memorization for inserting knowledge into the brain, and activities such as  organising, applying, summarising or re-teaching that involve learners using the material that they are trying to learn, which leads to a deeper level of learning and retention (eg Fiorella and Mayer, 2015). In our context, that might be achieved by setting patchwork activities that include these types of activity and will lead students away from over-reliance on time sitting in front of a lecturer or reading pages of text over and over again. Inviting students to summarise and re-teach something from their reading would be an example of a generative learning activity. Enser (2020) provides a short discussion of the value of summaries (summarising a lecture, summarising set readings) as a way of engaging students with generative learning.  Patchwork assessments can give tutors good opportunities to embed these sorts of activities in a distributed manner throughout the module, also enabling the implementation of strategies such as spacing, interleaving and dual coding in such a way that students do those things as part of their own generative learning rather than simply “receiving” them from the tutor standing and delivering.

QCC: Can you provide a concrete example, with student resources, of how to do this in Geography?

PGK: Watch this space!

References:

Enser, M. (2020). What’s the key to remote learning? You already use it. TES Times Educational Supplement 21st June, 2020. https://www.tes.com/news/whats-key-remote-learning-you-already-use-it

Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. (2015). Introduction to Learning as a Generative Activity. In Learning as a Generative Activity: Eight Learning Strategies that Promote Understanding (pp. 1-19). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781107707085.003 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/264233729

Jones-Devitt, S.,  Lawton, M. and Mayne, W. (2016). HEA Patchwork Assessment Practice Guide. 18pp. Higher Education Academy, York. https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/patchwork-assessment-practice-guide

Winter, R. (2003).  Contextualising the patchwork text: addressing problems of coursework assessment in higher education. Innovations in Education and Teaching International Vol. 40, No.2, 112-122.  http://www.cetl.org.uk/UserFiles/File/reflective-writing-project/PatchworkText-winter.pdf

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The deadline for submitting your dissertation is almost upon us, and many of you have already completed and submitted your work. Well done. However, there are inevitably always a few students in these last few days desperately trying to salvage something from the wreckage or, to put a more positive slant on things, trying to make sure they have perfected their opus before finally handing it in. If you are in that position, here are a few last-minute tips for you.

  • It’s probably too late now to redesign your project, develop a new sampling strategy or deploy a new analytical method, so don’t worry about anything at that scale. Relax. It’s too late. Instead, focus on quick fixes and last-minute checks (I’ll suggest 3 quick fixes below). Obviously do a careful proof-read, make sure you have followed all the House Style rules, and check the regulations about exactly how to submit the assignment. Check that your Conclusions map onto your Aims. Check that your Discussion maps onto your Literature Review. Check that your pages are bound in the right order. If you think it has all gone horribly wrong, look at Chapter 10 “Help! It’s all gone horribly wrong. What can I do?” in Parsons & Knight (2015) “How to do your Dissertation…”.
  • Quick-fix no.1: The Abstract. The abstract is one of the most important bits of your dissertation, one of the bits that most students mess up and one that can very quickly be fixed to make a good strong starting point at the front of your dissertation. The examiners typically look at the abstract several times, and it is often the first thing, and then the last thing, they will check at they assign your mark. Even if your dissertation is riddled with flaws, a strong abstract can still put the examiner in a positive frame of mind. The abstract needs to be simple and to-the-point, providing in one sentence each: your aim, your reason for doing it, your method, your observations and your conclusion. There is a model abstract in Parsons & Knight (2015) (it’s box 9.7 and page 136) that you can use as a checklist to make sure your abstract covers everything it should, or that you can use as a template if your own abstract is totally shot to pieces.
  • Quick-fix no.2: The Conclusion. Like the abstract, the conclusion is something that the examiner will dwell on, and is a point where you can convince the examiner of your outstanding excellence even if the rest of the project has holes the size of Arizona in it. Keep the conclusion brief: don’t use it to whine about how you didn’t have enough data or used the wrong equation. You can put all your whining and grizzling in the discussion. In the conclusion, focus on the positive. Include just clear, direct statements of what you have found out. You can even turn your failings into positives: “this project demonstrates clearly that method X, which was employed here, is not the correct method for future research to employ”. (If you play that gambit, make sure you also change your overall aim to include something about “testing method X”!) Use a numbered list or some bullet points. Tell the examiners that you did something, just in case they hadn’t noticed. This is your last chance to impress them.
  • Quick-fix number 3: The Reference List. Your examiners are not so naïve and foolish that they will be blinded to your intellectual inadequacies by a long shiny reference list. However, examiners are easily impressed by a long shiny reference list, and if there is nothing else for them to cling on to, being able to give you some credit for the quality of your sources will perhaps enable them to find you a few extra marks. At this late stage you don’t have time to rewrite your literature review or spend another three weeks in the library, but a couple of hours on Google Scholar or your preferred academic search engine can do wonders. Here’s the quick trick. Insert sentences into your literature review or methods section along the lines of: “many other researchers have employed similar approaches including Adams (2012), Baker, (2014) and Clarke (2016)” or “Similar work has been carried out in New Zealand (Adams, 2012), Bali (Baker, 2014) and Jamaica (Clarke, 2016). Even if you don’t now have time to get to grips with these papers that you have just scraped up from Google, or build them convincingly into your story, you can at least list some papers and then, of course, you can add them into your meagre reference list making it less of a liability to your prospects.

There are a lot of other quick-fix tips for last-minute checks and repairs on dissertations, but at this stage you don’t have time! The three above should at least give you something, whether it’s a hike up from appalling failure into the realms of a bare pass or, I hope, a lift from an already excellent project into one that your examiners will find to be outstanding. For more advice, of course, I will refer you to Parsons and Knight (2015) and Knight & Parsons (2003).

Good luck.

 

References:

Parsons, T. and Knight, P.G. (2015) HOW TO DO YOUR DISSERTATION IN GEOGRAPHY AND RELATED DISCIPLINES (3rd Edition)  (Routledge, London)

Knight, P.G. and Parsons, A.J. (2003)  HOW TO DO YOUR ESSAYS, EXAMS AND COURSEWORK IN GEOGRAPHY AND RELATED DISCIPLINES  (Routledge, London)

 

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NB: This post is published both here and (in due course) on Keele University’s Learning and Professional Development Centre “Solutions” blog: http://lpdcsolutions.blogspot.co.uk/ 

It seems appropriate that my first blog entry for Solutions, which I intended to submit for the start of the academic year and which was supposed to be about teaching time management to newly arrived students, should have been delayed by two months because I have been overwhelmed by – amongst other things – teaching time management to newly arrived students.

Most academics think about the start of October in the way that other people think about the start of January: a new year, big hopes, good resolutions, a fresh start. The new academic year brings with it a fresh crop of the bright young intellects that, changing every year, help to keep our own ideas fresh and constantly renewed. It is an exciting, promising time. I have had nearly forty new years now as a university lecturer or student: enough academic fresh starts to fill two of the lifetimes of my average undergraduate. I’ve done this before, and for me it is not scary. But for you, dear student, this is the first time. We see this academic induction, this welcome week, this fresh start, from very different perspectives. And I need to remember that.

We can try to serve as good examples to our students, but we don’t always have to be models of perfection. The fact that I have time-management problems of my own does not undermine my position in teaching time-management skills to students. It strengthens it. I am teaching from the front line of right now, not from long-remembered experiences of “when I was in your position”. I can face a problem on Monday, figure out a workaround on Tuesday, and teach it to my tutorial group on Wednesday. In my mid fifties I can’t pretend to put myself in my new students’ teenage shoes or claim to be facing the same struggles that they are facing as they settle into University. But I can share with them my equivalent struggles, and show them that fighting battles, finding coping strategies, and dealing with everyday academic problems are normal things that we are all learning to do. If a student sees that I am still learning, and still struggling, perhaps the student will feel less inadequate about their own struggles and their own early setbacks. It’s OK to find University difficult. These challenges are supposed to be here.

And here, for me, is the challenge of induction week. We want to be positive, supportive, and encouraging, but we also have to be honest, realistic and pragmatic. We want to say well done for scoring those A-level grades, but we also have to point out that much of what was covered at A-level was fundamentally flawed. Many of my students begin their degrees hoping for clear answers and reliable certainties. I have to tell them that there are no clear answers and that study at University will introduce them to a whole new set of uncertainties. Welcome on board, but hold on tight.

One of my Welcome-week activities that seems to help students feel at home is the start-of-course diagnostic assessment. Students seem accustomed  to having lots of tests and quizzes at school, so having a 15-minute short-answer test included alongside the many unfamiliar experiences of induction week seems to steady the ship for some of them. I tell them that the idea of the test is to help me work out the correct level to pitch material in the early sections of the course, and that it will also give them a broad indication of how far their pre-University work has prepared them for this new stage in their academic journey. They do the test, I let them mark their own or their neighbour’s paper straight away while I talk them through the answers, and as I take in their marked papers I give them a handout with all the questions and all the correct answers on it for them to take away. A couple of days later I see the students again, and tell them that in fact the first test was just a rehearsal, and the real diagnostic assessment is today. I tell them to put away any notes or devices, and I hand out the new, real diagnostic assessment. It is, to their surprise, identical to the one they did before. And here I deliver the first big lesson of the week. I was never interested in whether they knew the answers to the questions on the test. It doesn’t matter: they are only at the start of their learning journey. What I am interested in, and what I want to bring into the students’ line of sight, is what they did when they were presented with a body of information – answers – to take away. Usually, none of the students, or certainly very few, have done anything with the handout from the first test or followed up topics that they were unsure about. The marks for the second test are usually no better than the marks for the first.  And here is the teachable moment: the students can see that they totally blew their opportunity to do well on the second test by not following up the feedback on the first test; and they see that what I care about is not their factual knowledge but their approach to learning and their engagement with course materials. If there is a “mark” for the diagnostic assessment, it is the difference in scores between test one and test two. Most important of all is what you chose to do after test one. Or perhaps it is what you will do after test two. Welcome to the programme. Welcome to university.

Generally, this two-stage diagnostic assessment works well, but one potential downside is that I am in a small way tricking or misleading the students, and I don’t like to mess with their trust too much early on. It is important that the students see the key lesson from that exercise (why I had to trick them with that first test), and it is important to (re)establish trust quickly through other activities. One small way that I try to do that is by joining in with the students on further in-class exercises that they do. If I ask a tutorial group to take 60 seconds out and try to write a one-sentence answer to a sample question, I take that same 60 seconds and try to come up with a sentence of my own. Not one that I prepared earlier, but one made in the same time that the students are making theirs. I can then be much more believable if I agree (or disagree) with their argument that 60 seconds was not long enough, and they can even sympathise with me a little if, when I read out my own attempt, there is some comical error in it. If the students can then suggest improvements to my attempt, just as I suggest improvements to theirs, then we are (as a happy by product) well on the way towards addressing issues that surround the new NSS question about whether students feel part of a learning community. Of course they do – they are teaching me at the same time that I am trying to teach them. We are all in this together, even if we are looking at it from different perspectives of experience. And that is one of the most important lessons to incorporate into induction week. Even if it means that the time management exercise has to wait until next time!

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I am starting a new category within this blog to house posts for a new writing project. So if you see anything new with the “The Places We Have Known” category you will know it is part of that project, and if you decide to follow that project then you can just look up everything in the “The Places We Have Known” category! If it takes off, I’ll move it into a new blog. If it dies the death, it may as well do so here, quietly, while nobody much is watching. Whether this is part of the empire or part of the termite army remains to be seen. Watch this space but, as always, avoid holding your breath. Why is it called “The Places We Have Known”? It’s from Proust: “The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience.” Like everything, it is about Geography, History and Memory.

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I’ve heard a lot of colleagues lately complaining that they can’t teach some particular lesson in exactly the way they used to or exactly the way they want to because this year the room is wrong, or the number of students is wrong, or the weather is wrong. These people seem to depend on the happy conjunction of a precise set of circumstances for their teaching to work, and their teaching plan crumbles into dust if things turn out to be different.

Me, I have a different approach. If the room turns out to be a sloping lecture theatre instead of a bench lab, or if it turns out that there are loads more students than I anticipated, or if lightning storms mean I can’t use the surveying kit, well, we’ll just make the most of it, find a workaround, and do the best we can. Teaching a Geography class is not the same as building a nuclear power station or launching a rocket ship to Mars: it’s ok sometimes to use your professional imagination and make it up as you go along. Is the class too big for you to run your planned seminar session? Break it into buzz groups for a bit. Can’t use the big metal poles for surveying in a storm? Dig out the old-fashioned tape and compass kit and let the students learn a new approach. Projector malfunction? Excellent, you’ll have to improvise with the whiteboard and a piece of cheese!

For example, I decided this year to up-scale my “looking out of the window” exercise from a small-group tutorial activity to a large-group lab exercise. The exercise essentially involves students looking out of the window and making a series of observations about the world outside. Well, I got to the room and found that the windows were all blocked off with security screens, so there was no chance of looking through the window. A disaster? Not at all. If you can’t look through the window, just look around the room instead. Improvising with the unexpected constraint made the exercise more engaging for me as a teacher, and since the students didn’t know what was “supposed” to have happened there was no negative impact on them. They thought they were doing the old “let’s look around the room” exercise!

As a University lecturer, and no doubt in many, many other lines of work, you have to assume that your best laid plan will be laid low by some unexpected circumstance, and you need to be adaptable at zero notice to change what you are doing, invent workarounds, and make the best of whatever you find yourself working with. It’s much like everything else in life: if you spend the available time regretting all the things you don’t have (windows, smaller groups, more equipment…) then you won’t spend it making the most of what you do have.

When you walk into the lecture room, come prepared with a few back-up plans, an open mind, and a willingness to improvise, experiment or explore. After all, that’s what you would expect the students to do, isn’t it?

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I worry occasionally, of course, like most people, not only about whether there is such a thing as truth but whether, if there is, it matters anyway. Perhaps I worry about it more than some. When there is more than one truth available (yours and mine, the one seen from here and the one seen from there), should we choose between them or should we just leave them both out there? I usually find myself coming back to my old anecdote about T.E.Lawrence’s house in Dorset. I grew up believing that he had the inscription “Nothing Matters” over his door, and that notion made a deep impression on me over many years. Subsequently I became unsure as to whether that inscription really was there, but I decided that, in fact, it didn’t matter whether it was or not. What mattered was that I had spent all those years living with the notion. In a way, now that I am in doubt, I prefer not to know for sure.

Recently I have been reading again, a lot, John Keats’ poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” – the one that begins “Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, And many goodly states and kingdoms seen…”. In that poem Keats uses a couple of examples to illustrate a feeling of astonished discovery. One of his examples, the idea of discovering a new planet, makes perfect sense, ties well into historical fact and would have been especially topical for Keats because he wrote the poem only a few decades after the discovery of the planet Uranus.  Keats’ second example, the one that ends the poem and keeps bringing me back, is the one about “Stout Cortez”.  “Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men Look’d at each other with a wild surmise — Silent, upon a peak in Darien”. The story that Keats had in his mind, apparently, is the story of Cortez crossing the Isthmus of Panama to make the first European sighting of the Pacific coast, telling his men to hold back as he went to the crest of a hill and looked out at the Pacific for the first time. His men, from below, could see Cortez’ reaction, but could only imagine what he must be seeing. It’s a great story and a great example of that kind of moment of discovery, but it turns out Keats got it wrong: the conquistador in question was not Cortez, but Vasco Balboa. One commentary that I have read suggested that Keats was quickly made aware of his mistake, but decided to leave Cortez’ name in the poem and to leave Balboa out of it. Perhaps the name was harder to scan or rhyme. Clearly, Keats didn’t think it really mattered. For a long time I took Keats’ story at face value and believed that Cortez “discovered” the Pacific.  I only recently found out about the Cortez / Balboa mixup. What should I do with that? The poem is now seriously, deeply flawed in a matter of historical fact. The Cortez reference has no truth in it… or at least the truth has been thoroughly garbled. Does it matter? What would Lawrence of Arabia have said?

While I was embroiled in all this over the last few weeks, the Chief Executive of the Environmental Protection Authority of South Australia threw another spanner in my works. I tweeted, combining references to Elton John and John Keats in what I thought a pleasing way: “I feel as though I live my life in wild surmise upon a peak in Darien”. The Chief Executive tweeted back: “Ah, that failed Scottish overseas experiment derailed by capitalists and climate change….?!”

One of the great things about Twitter is the way that in 140 characters, or fewer, somebody can cast your own point of view into an entirely different light and throw open a whole new book, a whole new Realm of Gold, of which you were previously ignorant. If I ever knew much about the 17th Century Scottish Darien Scheme, then at some point it leaked away and deserted me entirely. Evidently it is historically very important. Some people see it at the root of Scotland’s acceptance of the Act of Union with England, and others at the root of Scotland’s subsequent emergence internationally as a business-oriented economy. Others, such as myself, have ignorantly developed our personal world views largely (ok, entirely) unaware of the facts of Darien. But looking now closely into those facts, one fact in particular catches my Geographer’s eye: the fact that the events on the frontier were deliberately misreported so that a false impression of what was going on would make a particular desired effect when the news reached home. It reminded me of the North American Agrarian Myth, the (mis)naming of Greenland, and many other geographical deceptions in the name of propaganda. Truth is a slippery thing, and may not be the thing which makes the difference in the end.

For now, however, I struggle on through these difficult weeks, wrestling with Cortez and Balboa, Keats and Lawrence… and the Myth of Fingerprints.

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Alain de Botton recently published a list of “ten commandments for atheists”, and I thought it might be fun to try and think what the ten commandments for Geographers might be! It might also make a good teaching exercise, getting students to come up with their own versions of such a list. Here’s a first attempt from me:

Ten Commandments for Geographers

1. Thou shalt be curious about the world around you.

2. Thou shalt make detailed, accurate and thoughtful observations of the world.

3. Thou shalt communicate effectively the observations that you make and the implications thereof.

4. Thou shalt strive always to see the big picture as well as the fine detail.

5. Thou shalt explore.

Phew… that’s enough for now. I’ll try to think of 5 more for a for a follow-up post. Suggestions please! You could always give these first five to your students and let them come up with the rest.

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Haiku, again

Starting another round of trying to get students to try writing Haiku as a way of honing their observation and reporting skills, I looked back here to see whether I had said anything about this exercise previously. The entries are quite well hidden, so I thought I’d re-post some of the text here so it would be together in one place… in case any of the students seek it out!

“One of the hearts of Geography is the search for a sense of place: the quest to identify, capture, record and represent the essence of a location. Japanese haiku poetry does much the same thing. Sometimes at the scale of a bug under a leaf, sometimes at the scale of a view to the distant horizon, Haiku try to capture in a succinct and tightly formalised way the essence of what a geographer would call a landscape.”

“I’ve been thinking a lot recently about using haiku in teaching. Haiku are great for encouraging concise and precise writing, and they are also good for training students to look carefully and notice things. I spoke to the 3rd-yrs on Friday about how the best way to make yourself really look closely at something was to give yourself the task of representing it or recreating it in some way. For example, by making a model, doing a drawing… or writing a poem. Look really hard and write what you see. The first attempt will be trivial, so look deeper… repeat until you are seeing things you never noticed before. I really like the idea of Geographical Haiku. Yes, of course all genuine Haiku are geographical in that they refer to an aspect of the natural environment, but I’d really like to develop haiku that refer to a specific location and could be geotagged on google earth. I could set students an exercise to write about their home area, or a place they visited, and plot the poems up onto a big map. May be such a thing already exists in google earth… may be one of my excellent students will read this, seek it out and let me know. Meanwhile I put a few up on twitter now and again.”

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I tell my students that Geography is all around them, even in the small everyday places that we take for granted. “The truths,” I say “are not out there, they are in here with us; quietly behind that upturned box or in between our tea time and our evening walk.”

Some of the time I believe what I say. I believe that we can find Geography even in the small places. But sometimes I think: no, that’s just not right.  Geography is in the mountains and the oceans, in the desert and the sky. Geography is in the hearts of explorers and in our stories of far-flung islands. Geography is the giant constellation in which we are the tiny points of light.

But just as when our fathers taught us that there are three ways to melt ice, although we know now that they were wrong, when our time comes to teach our sons and daughters we teach them the same three ways.

We tell them what we must. There is no point in teaching them our truths. They have to learn their own.

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One of the hearts of Geography is the search for a sense of place: the quest to identify, capture, record and represent the essence of a location. Japanese haiku poetry does much the same thing. Sometimes at the scale of a bug under a leaf, sometimes at the scale of a view to the distant horizon, Haiku try to capture in a succinct and tightly formalised way the essence of what a geographer would call a landscape.

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