In which I throw a GCSE Geography class into ‘the pit’

Back in February, I wrote a post about what I called ‘YOLO Geography’, in which I committed myself to experimenting and taking risks with my approach to teaching [1]. This post is YOLO part 2…

At the start of this month, we took our GCSE Geography classes on a field trip to the Holderness coast to collect primary data for their controlled assessments. Part of the data collection involved using ranging poles and clinometers to measure the gradient of the beaches that we visited, building up a series of overall beach profiles for the students to compare in order to assess the effectiveness of the different management strategies in place along the coast.

In previous years, in advance of similar field trips, I’ve taken a lesson to explain and model the collection of gradient profile data before taking students outside to practice these skills more independently on the small hill leading up on to the school field. Inevitably, on the actual day of the field trip, I’ve had to explain it all over again. At first, I thought that the problem might have been with the quality of my initial explanation; however, if that had been the case, then I wouldn’t have seen students engaging in independent practice later on in the lesson. Instead, I decided that the problem had been that students had been too passive during the explanation phase, and that I needed a way to actively engage students at a much earlier stage in the process.

Enter ‘YOLO’.

The previous week, we’d had a whole-school INSET session delivered by Andy Griffith [2]. During this session, he mentioned the idea of ‘the pit’. I’m not sure whose idea this was originally; I first saw it mentioned on Ritchie Gale’s blog at the end of August, in which he described ‘the pit’ as ‘that mental space of not knowing the answer, being stuck, being in the dark and not knowing immediately how to get out’ [3]. In the most basic terms, I understand it to involve setting students a task to complete, giving them the resources that they need to complete it (but in an entirely unstructured way), then letting them make sense of these resources in order to work their way towards completion.

So I duly decided to experiment with using this as a way of teaching gradient profiling. The activity was very simple – I split the class into groups of four, and gave each group two ranging poles, a clinometer and the following seven statements (cut up and mixed into a random order):

Ranging Poles card sort

I told the students that the statements, when arranged into order, would give them a step-by-step guide to using the equipment, then said that they had ten minutes to work it out for themselves. Some groups tried to order the statements first; others focused on the equipment before returning to the statements for confirmation. Meanwhile, I watched, redirecting students when they were heading in the wrong cognitive direction but otherwise remaining content to observe. After the 10 minutes were up, I asked one group to feed back to the rest of the class, presenting the step-by-step process as they had understood it, while I encouraged the other groups to give feedback after each step. We then moved on to an independent practice phase which, this being October, had to take place in my classroom, with chairs and tables standing in for hills.

So did it work? I don’t have any effect sizes or similar quantitative data to share. All I can say, without any kind of confirmation bias, is that the class in question did not need any further explanation on the day, but instead were able to go straight into the data collection process independently of me.

As regards a more general conclusion, I wonder if this kind of teaching is particularly well suited to this kind of lesson content, where there is a strong focus on skills acquisition and development alongside a minimal knowledge base. Does this kind of teaching work where there is a stronger focus on knowledge and understanding? Or is it best reserved for skills-centred lessons? Has anyone ever used ‘the pit’ to teach other aspects of Geography (or, indeed, other subjects)? As ever, please leave comments below…


[1] C. Phillips (2013) ‘In which I commit myself to what I call “YOLO Geography”’, (post dated 23 February 2013; site accessed 21 October 2013)

[2] see A. Griffith and M. Burns (2012) Outstanding Teaching: Engaging Learners (Carmarthen, Crown House Publishing)

[3] R. Gale (2013) ‘How I will self-assess my R.S. / Philosophy teaching in 2013/14’, (post dated 23 August 2013; site accessed 21 October 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.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to In which I throw a GCSE Geography class into ‘the pit’

  1. There are two conflicting pressures here. You remember better what you think about, so it is often best to provoke thought about what is being learnt. However, you understand better if your cognitive facilities are not overloaded and if you avoid thinking about the wrong thing and so being told directly is often better than “discovering” or “figuring out” something or learning from errors. Hard to find the balance and I’m surprised in your example that you’ve found it where you did. Generally, being told and then thinking is best for building memories, perhaps your “redirection” was actually more vital and useful than you thought?

    • carljphillips says:

      Possibly. Everything you say is in agreement with what Dan Willingham (in “Why Don’t Students Like School”) says about learning, so I’m certainly not about to elevate this post above far more substantial evidence and claim that discovery learning is “the way”. I don’t know that this approach would have worked with any of my previous classes, and I don’t know that a direct instruction approach would not have worked this time around. Honestly, the main reason why I wrote this post was to share a lesson idea with other Geography teachers. Given the limited sample size, and in the absence of a control group or any objective measure of progress, the best I can say of this approach is that in this one specific case it seemed, on an entirely subjective basis, to work – though, as you say, it might have been my interventions rather than the “discovery learning” approach that made the difference. (Thanks for the reblog though!)

  2. Pingback: In which I encourage students to ‘level up’ | Forwards, Not Backwards. Upwards, Not Forwards.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s