Finding the humanity in the science: Or the sweet spot of Let’s Think through Primary Geography

Written by Leah Crawford


I’m an English graduate, an English teacher and a Let’s Think English Tutor.  Whether by nature or nurture, it is the study of the humanities that has caught my interest and driven my learning. I have come to know that the discipline of geography straddles the divide of the sciences and humanities: to me a powerful relative unknown.  We hear that interdisciplinary synthesis is what we will need to solve the complex problems we face in the world like climate change, then I find myself invited onto a project team developing the first small suite of Let’s Think through Primary Geography lessons for Year 5 and 6 pupils.  

Before the team of Let’s Think tutors, teachers and geography specialists met, I was invited to read through some early drafts of lessons on maps and scale.  A human story had been used to invite children into the journey, scaffold their understanding and their manipulation of variables.  Michael Walsh has written with clear insight here on the importance of story to focus and scaffold learning here.  But, I have to admit, my mind would not be persuaded that these problems helped me to better understand the human condition.  The questions about scale and distance still seemed like maths in disguise.


The question of run-off and relevance

Some of you may have read Stuart Twiss’s blog documenting the birth of our small but perfectly formed Let’s Think through Primary Geography project.  I was there for those ‘run-off’ experiments with a watering can: 6 foot plus of Stuart, like the Big Friendly Giant, simulating light, intense and intermittent rain on compacted, aerated and vegetated surfaces; on flat and sloping ground.  He asked us to use the same expert language back to him – establishing a shared language code for the model that we would then ask children to think about.  Once these concrete variables were established, so enters the weasel question of cognitive conflict:

“How much run off will there be?”

“Well, it depends…”

“On what…?”

And so pupils began to share their awareness and socially construct their understanding of the interplay of variables and complex relationship of rainfall frequency, intensity, gradients and the compaction and saturation of the earth.  See – not easy.  This was more than fun with a watering can.  The cognitive stretch was tangible in the ensuing reach for connectives, ‘and’, ‘also’, ‘as well as’, ‘if’ and ‘when’.

Let’s Think programmes endeavour to be relevant to the curriculum and to pupils, whilst they stimulate that sweet spot of progress in reasoning that we believe as their teachers will be of wider, general benefit to them in life, not only in geography.  

Reasoning about the variables leading to run-off is an important step towards understanding what contributes to flood risk and eventually abstract modelling of reduction of those risks.

So we knew it mattered to our educational purpose – did it matter to the pupils?  

It seems it did.  Our observers fed back that in a lesson busy with activity, small group discussion and props, every single pupil was focused on the task and on their small group dialogue.  In a socially and cognitively ‘noisy’ task like this, pupils’ attention could easily drift but it did not.  In the bridging discussion at the end of the lesson, when asked if they could think of a situation when there had been too much run-off, the groups did not find it difficult to generalise to incidents of flooding locally and nationally.  When pupils then moved to smaller scale models with trays, sponges and jugs of water in class – there was still a clear sense that slowing or reducing the run-off mattered.  Moreover, teachers were asked ‘When can we have another Let’s Think Geography lesson? And told ‘That’s the best geography lesson we’ve ever had.’ 


From collaborative reasoning to action

We had been rigorous in checking relevance not only to the current National Curriculum Programme of Study for Geography but just as/more importantly (select your preferred determiner) the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and in particular how they have been translated into the SDG Learning Objectives guide for educators developed by UNESCO. UNESCOs objectives for each SDG have three domains: cognitive, socio-emotional and behavioural.   Cause and effect reasoning with manipulation of an increased number of variables was clearly cognitive.  The Vygotskian social constructivist engine ticking in all Let’s Think lessons to an extent helped us to meet the socio-emotional domains in that learners would collaborate and develop understanding with others.  Our Piagetian progression spine would encourage gear shifts over time from a personal, to a group, a local even a global perspective.  We did seriously wonder whether this progression would be possible for our age 9-11 year group within just a few lesson episodes.  And finally, the behavioural domain.  The UNESCO objectives set the challenge that education in each SDG should promote not just thinking, but action.  Action in favour of those who are most threatened by climate change.  Action through the promotion of climate friendly activity, choices, even policy.  

Achieving improved collaborative reasoning, applied to increasingly wider frames of reference with a sense that increased agency would lead to informed action really was demanding more from us as Let’s Think teachers and tutors than before.


Then came the T-shirts.

Supported by the experience and insight of Dr Verity Jones, Associate Professor of Education at the University of the West of England, our next cycle of lessons started with a pile of second-hand t-shirts.  We moved from:

  1. selecting and classifying what makes a ‘good’ T-shirt from the pile (it’s a nice colour, we like the logo, it’s softer); 
  2. to understanding and representing the waste (in energy and materials) in a linear fashion economy; 
  3. to effortfully envisaging how circular processes could be introduced into the t-shirt industry as they have been for paper.  

After two intense hours of socially situated mental activity, we asked: 

‘What now makes a good T-shirt?’


  • It should be recyclable
  • It should be made of better material so it can last longer
  • It should cost more so that those who make it get paid properly
  • It should be made closer to where it is sold
  • It needs to be made with different kinds of bleaches and dyes


And finally: ‘To whom does the choice of a t-shirt matter?’

It matters to us and it matters to the planet.


Why does Let’s Think Geography matter?

Throughout this project, we have known that we are standing on the shoulders of the Cognitive Acceleration Pedagogy giant, here.  Let’s Think lessons so often do matter to children because they feel safe, they are included: they contribute and are heard.  As a group, there is a feeling of connectivity, even when exploring difference and difficulty, because the group (is supported to…) steer through challenge, towards ideas that are gaining traction and are well-reasoned.  The creation of new ideas and insights is tangible and builds efficacy.

Indeed, new insights from interdisciplinary research institutes (CANDLE and The Social Brain Institute) – combining neuroscience and social science –  are confirming that effective processing in the brain cannot be separated from our social and emotional context.  Learners who feel they are socially connected, who are engaged in frequent feedback loops, who feel they have autonomy and who are working with a desirable level of challenge, crucially on matters that are of importance to them, have increased levels of energy fed to the brain.  Learning, of a safe, collaborative, dialogic, rigorous well-pitched and affective nature is literally brain sugar.

We are daring to think that our most successful Let’s Think Geography lessons have mattered to pupils because of these very dimensions.  At a deep ‘scientific’ layer of the learning river, we have been deepening pupils’ reasoning around complex systems, causal relationships and with the T-shirts lessons, the dimension of moral justice.  Just as deep has run the layer of learning about ourselves and our relationship to the world that is both home and resource.  Pupils’ frames of reference have moved from themselves, to the group, to society and the wider world.  They have begun to construct age-appropriate and hopeful ways in which they can have choice and agency in the face of complex problems.  Finally, they have begun to understand how the responsibility for change sits with industry, innovation and legislation, as well as but not only with themselves.

The humanity and science demanded by the vision of the SDGs has been a powerful influence on our existing understanding of CA pedagogy and the extent to which children will think hard together and be moved to act differently, when learning matters.