In which I commit myself to what I call ‘YOLO Geography’

It took me a while to find the right words to start this post. I wouldn’t say that my teaching is ‘safe’ – like experimenting with different ways of working; I don’t find my comfort zone particularly comfortable. I like giving high-trust learning activities to my least trustworthy classes, just to stop myself from becoming (too) cynical. Sometimes they even work! I have a running joke with the cleaners over the number of times that I reorganise the tables in my classroom. I’ve very definitely had six years of teaching experience, rather than the same year repeated six times.

But, when I look back to some of the observation lessons that I planned during my PGCE year – having a year 10 class write a protest song about the building of a new by-pass features particularly prominently in my mind – I get a feeling of nostalgia for a time when we, as student teachers, were actively encouraged to experiment. Indeed, I recall a different year 10 class playing a shanty town game using jelly babies and the contents of my recycling bin, at least partly because my mentor wanted to see if it would work but didn’t feel willing or able to try it out themselves. Six years on, I sympathise.

So it is with this post that I commit myself to what I call ‘YOLO Geography’. YOLO, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, stands for ‘You only live once’; to quote Wikipedia, ‘it implies that one should enjoy life, even if that entails taking risks.’[1] The Oxford English Dictionary put it on the shortlist for English Word of the Year.[2] Perhaps most succinctly, Urban Dictionary (NSFW!) defines it as ‘Carpe Diem for stupid people’.[3] It was also recently satirised by The Lonely Island in a song in which the recklessness of ‘You only live once’ is replaced by the excessive caution and paranoia of ‘You oughta look out’:

Probably the best way to convey what I mean by ‘YOLO Geography’ is to present my most recent example.

The first thing I should say about this example is that I can’t claim the credit for the idea. I was inspired by David Rogers [4], who was inspired by Noel Jenkins [5] who, in turn, was inspired by Paul Bogush.[6] The idea is that, for a given learning objective (or a series of linked objectives), students create an RSA Animate-style video, using a mix of diagrams, captions and narration to describe, explain, predict, evaluate (or whatever else is the operative term) in order to present evidence that they have met this objective. In the case of my attempt, the objective was for a year 12 class to explain the formation of emergent landforms (including raised beaches and relict/fossil cliffs) as a result of coastal erosion and sea level change.

I started by playing one of the RSA Animate videos as an example,[7] then followed this up by outlining the task and playing the meanders clip from Noel Jenkins’ blog [5] as an example of what (I estimated) might actually be attainable by a class of year 12 students in a 1 hour 40 minute double lesson. I then divided the class into three groups: one group were to explain the formation and erosion of headlands, the second group were to explain the processes of sea level change, and the third group were to explain how these two sets of processes combine to create emergent landforms. The groups were given some paper on which to practice their diagrams and to draft their script. I told them that the whole thing would be recorded as one single take (for simplicity’s sake as much as anything, this being the first time that I’ve attempted this kind of activity), which meant that each group had to liase with at least one other in order to make the hand-over between groups as smooth as possible.

The resulting video, minus the first 10 seconds (“Ok, I think that’s it recording… Hang on, hang on. Wait for it… Right – ”) but complete with my shoddy camera work, is here:

I then followed it up with a 15-20 minute activity in which students were presented with a past paper question (AQA Unit 1: January 2010, question 3c) and an answer that I’d written. It was designed so that the answer would superficially appear to be solid if not spectacular (apart from having deliberately got isostatic and eustatic sea level change the wrong way round) – say, mid-level 2. However, students were then given the mark scheme for the same question and asked to find a reason why the answer was no better than level 1. The reason was that the causes and the landforms of sea level change were explained in separate sections of the answer. We concluded by discussing how our video might help us to improve the answer. Instead of having a section on causes and a section on landforms, the ideal answer, we decided, would have a section (based on the video) explaining how a relative fall in sea level can lead to the formation of emergent landforms, and a second ‘mirror’ section explaining how a relative rise in sea level can lead to the formation of submergent landforms (including rias and fjords).

As for the video, well, it’s not perfect. Had I stolen the idea sooner, I might have extended it over two or even three double lessons to incorporate content relating to the processes and landforms of coastal erosion (both of which the class had already studied). This would also have given more opportunity for quality control in the form of peer assessment, feedback and redrafting of diagrams and scripts. In fact, I might have rotated the groups, with each group producing first drafts of the diagrams and script for one section, providing feedback on a second section, then acting on the feedback to redraft a third section. One group insisted that they didn’t need a script, which I permitted, simply (in the spirit of experimentation) to see how it worked. Watching the video, can you tell which of the three groups it was? Next year (if I’m teaching year 12, that is), if I follow my own advice, the corresponding sequence of lessons will start with this year’s video clip and the challenge to do better.

One final point: I hadn’t decided, even half way through the first lesson, whether groups would do their final drawings on the white boards at the front of the classroom or on the roll of lining paper that I’d brought in from home. In the event, I decided on a third option – drawing on tables with white board marker pens. I’d been told that at least one of the History teachers in my faculty had done this in lessons, and that you could wipe it off the tables with wet paper towels, but I’d never tried it myself. While groups were preparing their presentations, though, I arranged a line of three tables at the back of the room, and allocated one table to each group. It turns out that it works just fine.

During the lesson, one of the students said to me, ‘Sir, you do know that this could end as a total disaster?’

‘Yeah, well, let’s give it chance to fail, shall we?’ I replied. After all…


[1] Wikipedia (2013) ‘YOLO (motto)’, (site accessed 23 February 2013)

[2] G. Orr (2013) ‘YOLO: You only live once (so get a better motto)’, (article dated 30 January 2013; site accessed 23 February 2013)

[3] Urban Dictionary (2013) ‘yolo’, (site accessed 23 February 2013)

[4] D. Rogers (2013) ‘RSA Style Inspired videos – Factors Affecting Development’, (site accessed 23 February 2013)

[5] N. Jenkins (2013) ‘RSA Animate style meanders: Teach Less!’, (post dated 10 January 2013; site accessed 23 February 2013)

[6] P. Bogush (2012) ‘How to make RSA Animate style videos with your class…, (post dated 26 December 2012; site accessed 23 February 2013)

[7] RSA (2010) ‘RSA Animate – Changing Education Paradigms’, (video uploaded 14 October 2010; site accessed 23 February 2013)

About carljphillips

Geography teacher. PhD in cultural/historical geography (Nott'm., 2006). SF/F genre fiction fan. Liverpool FC supporter. Libertarian. Humanist. Etc. I blog about the theory and practice of Geography teaching, and teaching in general.
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1 Response to In which I commit myself to what I call ‘YOLO Geography’

  1. Pingback: In which I throw a GCSE Geography class into ‘the pit’ | Forwards, Not Backwards. Upwards, Not Forwards.

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