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Podcast: Geo Conversations with Ewan Laurie

Words by Marissa Lo
29 November 2023

Geo Conversations is a podcast series featuring in-depth discussions of topical issues affecting the geosciences.

In this episode, Marissa Lo, Assistant Editor, discusses the current state and future of geoscience and education with Ewan Laurie, Geography Teacher and Assistant Head Teacher at Guildford High School.

Ewan Laurie has also been interviewed for our 5 Minutes With section, read the article here: https://geoscientist.online

Episode Transcript

[00:10] Marissa Lo: Hello, and welcome to Geo Conversations, a podcast by Geoscientist magazine. My name is Marissa Lo, and today we’re focusing on geology and education. So according to UCAS [Universities and Colleges Admissions Service], the number of undergraduates choosing to study geology has been falling since 2014. And there are many organisations and schemes that are trying to tackle this downward trajectory and show that geology is an important subject to study. So today we’ll be speaking with Dr Ewan Laurie, a geography teacher and assistant headteacher at Guildford High School. Ewan has a PhD in stratigraphy from the University of Greenwich and the Natural History Museum, and we’ll be talking about his experiences as a teacher and his outlook on geology and education. So, thanks so much for joining me today, Ewan.

[00:54] Ewan Laurie: Thank you for having me.

[00:55] Marissa Lo: Can you tell us a bit about your background in geology?

[00:58] Ewan Laurie: Like, I suspect, many geologists, I started off just having a love of the outdoors and a questioning mindset, and being outside was a good thing for me. And I, sort of, slightly stumbled onto geology and ended up doing an A level in geology, which is quite rare these days. Because it went well with what else I was studying, I really then loved it and studied geology with palaeontology at Imperial College, and then I did a Master’s degree after that in Quaternary science at Royal Holloway, combined with UCL at the time. As I was finishing that, I had a chance encounter with Andy Gale, who was at that time at the University of Greenwich. And we were talking about the work I was doing for my Master’s research and the work he was doing in cyclostratigraphy. And that really developed into me doing a PhD with him on the Eocene-Oligocene boundary on the Isle of Wight. I did a bit of work in engineering geology along the way as a site geologist on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, for example, and looking at various landslides on the south coast. But it was when I was finishing writing up that I then chanced upon the opportunity to teach a bit of geography on the side. And I did see that as a, sort of, side opportunity to earn some money when the funding was running out. And very quickly, I think it was about six weeks, after about six weeks, I basically decided that I wanted to be a teacher. So, I got grabbed by it.

[02:21] Marissa Lo: What do you think it was about teaching that really inspired you and captured you?

[02:26] Ewan Laurie: I think it’s that opportunity to light a fire in somebody else. So I was obviously a real enthusiast for geology and physical geography. And I was able to speak to people and communicate that passion to them and help them see where it could fit in their journey and see if it could be something that they want to study. I was also really interested in the idea that the structure of the school year would allow me the time to still travel and do scientific expeditions, which I was quite heavily involved in. So it offered me an opportunity to follow the passions that I had. So, yes, it’s hard work, but it sort of fits with the interest I’ve always had of being outdoors. And so, I’m able to really follow my passions in teaching. That’s stayed with me throughout the past 18 years.

[03:13] Marissa Lo: What’s your journey through teaching been like?

[03:16] Ewan Laurie: So, I started off as a teacher, only teaching two days a week whilst I was writing up, focused mostly on physical geography. And so, the geology element I was bringing to it was something the school didn’t have. I then started teaching the whole syllabus of geography, which required me to kind of go away and learn some things about the human side of it, which I enjoy doing. And so, I’ve been teaching the whole of geography since 2006. I have taught some various other courses along the way. So, I’ve taught a range of different GCSE syllabuses as things have evolved over the years. But for geography, I’ve also taught in the IB [International Baccalaureate] system. So, I’ve taught geology at IB and A level, and also at IB I’ve taught a thing called environmental systems and societies. So, it’s a career where you can really take on different things and put them down again and move around. And I’ve ended up in this role where I’m dealing with the academic enrichment in the school, which means we’re going beyond the syllabus in terms of developing skills and knowledge and attributes in pupils and helping them perhaps find their own passion. I think there’s a real difficulty at the moment in opening people’s eyes to different topics outside of the quite strict curriculum that’s handed down by central government. So, if you’ve got: this is what a geography GCSE must include, or a geology A level must include, and if you’ve got an interest outside of that, it’s really hard to find time to cover that information.

[04:42] Marissa Lo: What are the main points that you enjoy about your job?

[04:44] Ewan Laurie: It is very different from day to day, so you have a rigid timetable, but that fluctuates quite markedly. So last Monday, I was out at the New Scientist conference with the whole of Year Eight to get girls thinking about their potential directions in science and engineering. Then this Monday, I was out in the Ashdown Forest with the D of E [Duke of Edinburgh] group. And so, no two weeks are the same. There is a sort of rhythm to a year, but each week has its own particular standalone moments. So yesterday afternoon, when I would normally be doing some administration and marking and things like that, I was actually speaking to about a dozen different Year Eleven girls about what their Sixth Form options might be. So, we’re constantly involved in the journey that individuals have, not just the sort of delivery of the lessons, that’s the sort of the bit that most people would recognise in teaching as being in a classroom. But actually, perhaps that’s only about half the job of being a teacher.

[05:44] Marissa Lo: So, I know teaching, especially over the past few years with, say, COVID lockdowns, has been particularly difficult. What are the main challenges you’ve found in teaching, say, compared to when you started, to today?

[05:57] Ewan Laurie: One of the challenges and opportunities has been the tech. And one of the things that teaching did almost overnight was it went online and went onto Teams and various other platforms for COVID and lockdown. And one of the things I learned about myself there was that I’m definitely an in-person person, if I can be. And whatever else we were able to keep going online, it’s not the same actually as being in the room. So, I think teaching is one of those jobs which won’t ever really be work from home, it will definitely be in the room. But when I did start out, we had computers and projectors, but they were slow and clunky. If you wanted to use the computer in the lesson, you better get there ten minutes in advance to switch it on. Whereas now I almost never give out paper. Paper is for tests. All of the girls in our school carry an iPad and an Apple pencil, so, they will still use paper for various things, but they can do a lot of their work on their iPad, which means they’re not carrying around 15 kilos of exercise books all the time.

The other challenge is the ever-changing landscape outside the room, you know, talk about changes to A level structures. Education is a bit of a super tanker, does take time to change around. So, coming up with new specifications. The idea that we will teach math to 18 for everybody to some degree is, I suspect, amongst our audience, probably broadly welcome, I suspect amongst some 14-year-olds, pretty unwelcome. At the moment, I would say, I don’t know a school in the country that’s not struggling to hire math specialist teachers. It’s really difficult to find math teachers, physics teachers, chemistry teachers who have both the capability to teach the subject, the subject knowledge, and the mindset for teaching.

So, we’ve got the challenges and I think it can be a bit of a political football. There’s no such thing, I think, as a perfect exam system. But we are perhaps beginning to move more towards a wider basket of subjects in the Sixth Form, and more skills focus, not simply a sort of knowledge dump and an understanding dump, which is where A levels fall down, perhaps compared to things like the IB, which is you must study six subjects, including your own language and an additional language and maths, at least. That’s seen as the narrow version when you only do six, whereas we’re pretty much unique in perhaps usually only doing three subjects to A level. So, it might be our version of normal, but the rest of the world is doing it very differently. One of the things I think has happened over the past 20 years, certainly since I was at school, is A levels really have become largely a university entrance mechanism, in my opinion. Whereas I remember in my Sixth Form years, there were people who were doing A levels because you needed A levels in order to work behind the bank counter, for example, or you needed them to access the job market in particular areas. Whereas for everybody now, more or less, everybody who starts off doing A levels has that intent to go on to do further study. And that mindset change has perhaps almost invisibly slightly changed what A levels are about. And so, the focus is much more on the assessment than it is on the actual journey and the learning that’s going on.

[09:14] Marissa Lo: Where does geology fit into all of this? At least from my perspective, I wasn’t offered it at GCSE or at A level. I only found out what Earth sciences was when I was looking at university prospectuses. So, I’m sure you can comment on how prevalent geology is as a subject. We’re talking about the core sciences – what about geology?

[09:34] Ewan Laurie: Yeah, I mean, there has been absolutely huge amounts of money thrown at STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths] in general, and particularly getting girls into STEM, so that’s the sort of environment that I’m in. And sciences and engineering are incredibly popular and so people are alert to sciences in general. But geology really seemed to lose its place in the compulsory syllabuses of things like physics and chemistry. So, one of the problems is there isn’t that moment where you get shown some geology, whether you want to or not, and you learn that this whole subject exists.

So, I think geology’s problem is, one, you need to have the subject specialist who could teach it, and there are some really good, sort of, core heartlands of geology out there, and I think the Earth Science Teachers’ Association is doing a really good job of trying to keep those going. But if you ever lose geology, if that person leaves, somebody else suddenly going, yeah, now I can pick that up, no problem. I don’t think that’s very common. And so going out to the job market and saying, I need a geology teacher, I think that’s quite a niche, a niche role to have. So, a school would need that person to be able to contribute to the science teaching or the geography teaching or something else in order to sort of justify their position.

We’ve got a really crowded curriculum, so turning around and saying, right, we’re going to launch geology. Or a teacher being in a school and saying, look, I’m teaching you physics, I’m a geophysicist, I could teach A level geology. So that person being there is a first step, but then there’s still somebody at the other end of that decision saying, but when and who’s going to get taught by you? And what are they not going to do somewhere else? So, there is a cost base associated with any decision to introduce a new subject to the timetable. And, at the moment, particularly in the state sector, that funding just isn’t there. So, there’s that dual problem of trying to wedge geology in when the curriculum is already full and finding the subject specialist who can do it. I’d find it highly unlikely that a school leadership team might sit there and say, well, the one thing we’re missing here is geology. What I could see happening in some schools is geologists becoming science teachers and then saying, look, I could deliver this, including the fieldwork requirement, which is there for A level, including the practical skills requirement, and say, I could deliver this. How about that? I think it’s difficult to get it going and get it off the ground. And I know the Earth Science Teachers’ Association would be really welcoming and supportive of anybody who was getting geology off the ground in a school. But I suspect actually, sadly, it’s going the other way and the numbers who are actually studying geology are going down rather than up. But I do know that there is interest. For example, when we’ve had Sixth Formers put together teams to enter the school’s geology challenge, they have switched onto that in a different way and sort of thought, all right, okay, this is a subject in its own right. And then that’s given me a door to push on and discuss with people.

I mean, I was going to say if anybody wanted to be a teacher, just don’t wait, don’t hesitate. Go and find out what it’s about and contact your local school and say that you’re available and you’d like to find out more. Can you come in and have a look around or meet someone and talk about what it might mean to be a teacher? Because these days a lot of teachers are training on the job, as it were. So, it’s not, right, stop everything, go to university for another year and then come out the back end of that. That will suit some people and it’s a possibility. But many schools, particularly for sciences, if you can teach it, they will train you on the job. There are good schemes available for that. So, it’s not a sort of take a gap and earn no money, it can be straight into the classroom. And if you go to any of the teaching jobs websites, one of them is called TES Jobs, T-E-S jobs, from the Times Educational Supplement, you can see just how many vacancies there are for teaching science. And then once you’re in the door, you can then decide, can you influence that location enough to teach geology as well?

The time when geology was just that bit more visible in communities, i.e. just there were many more active quarries, mine pitheads, things like that. People said, that’s about rocks, I’m interested, this is how people make money around here. There’s an obvious need for me to study this subject or an obvious route for me. I think that’s become a bit more invisible and that’s really sad from my perspective, because I think geologists are eminently employable. I don’t know many unemployed geologists. You can go out there and say, well, what I’m about is looking at incomplete information from a variety of sources, then make sense of that, and then usually produce relatively short and coherent reports about that information. That skill in its own right of being able to recognise what’s missing and do the best you can with the limited information is something that I think is widely applicable, and geologists have that in spades. But you don’t necessarily sit down and learn that, you’re looking at a field section or you’re looking at a geological map and thinking, what don’t I know? Where’s the missing time? Where’s the missing information? And you’re always trying to put together that incomplete picture. And I think that approach, that mindset of doing the best with the information you’ve got, is something that geologists are really good at.

[14:41] Marissa Lo: It would be great to chat about some other subject options that I know are coming up on the curriculum. I think you mentioned natural history as a subject option. Is that going to be offered at, say, GCSE level or A level?

[14:53] Ewan Laurie: So, the proposal at the moment is to introduce a GCSE in natural history, which was going to be, sort of, first teach in about 2025, I think. So that would be the first year, and the first assessment would be 2027. It was very much an idea that had its moment and was landing at the right time in political circles and so it did get picked up, so it has gone through. We’ve had quite a few education secretaries since then, and so we’ve always got that nervousness around: will something make it through the transition of ministers or the transition of governments, potentially, in the future, and actually be something that gets studied? There are various points of view in geography teaching circles about whether this poses a threat or not. Ultimately, I don’t think that is true. Anything that introduces young people to the natural world and makes them think about their place within it has a good chance of making them think about what’s going on underground as well, and therefore maybe switch them on to that moment of thinking about doing geology, Earth science at university. Every kid loves dinosaurs and they all know a dinosaur; they don’t need to be shown that in particular. So, there’s something intrinsically interesting about our subject and elements of our subject. People are wowed by things like volcanoes, and I think we need to just use those simple ways in, the bits that people already know, to show them that there’s a science behind this and there’s a way of investigating it and a livelihood to be earned as well.

And I think actually, as geology is going through a bit of a transition itself, a sort of decarbonisation and movement from trying to do one thing to potentially trying to do others. That’s part of a bigger conversation about what geology is really for. But we are going to need to mine our way to net zero. We are going to need specific minerals in great quantities, and the Cornish Lithium Project is a good example of that. And so, we can show people, if they have an interest, that there is a future to be had in Earth sciences, but they’re not going to find it for themselves. It is up to the Geol Soc and interested teachers on the ground and other bodies to actually get in there and say, look, actually, what about Earth sciences?

So, if geologists listening to this thinking, well, I could volunteer to go into my local school and give a talk about what I do and what my subject is about. Just get onto them and don’t take no for an answer, because I think if every Fellow hearing this could get into their local school and say, what about geology? That might make quite a big difference to the numbers who are taking it. If you don’t know it’s there, you can’t study it. So, we probably need to do a better job of our marketing.

[17:26] Marissa Lo: The identity of geology is a difficult thing to pin down. As you said, we don’t have a granddad, maybe, or a father that’s in mining anymore. That culture is kind of declining over time, but the need for mining hasn’t gone away. We’re just doing it in a different way, in sustainable ways, or towards fuelling the green transition, electric cars, and things like that.

[17:48] Ewan Laurie: People growing up in mining areas, or sort of around places like Aberdeen, the growth isn’t necessarily there. So, they’re not saying, well, there’s a job for me, if I could be a geologist, and therefore there’s something for me there. We almost need to show people where that is. And I think perhaps geology maybe is slightly struggling for its identity at the moment. And I certainly feel like a geologist all the time I’m walking around and I’m thinking, well, this hill exists. I’m sat on a hill in Guildford, and that hill exists because it’s chalk and the surrounding rocks are weaker. And I can explain that and explain to the girls the way that the Weald has formed and the tectonic background to that, and they can start to go, okay, so the river that’s down the bottom of the hill has carved out the entire notch that creates the hub that is Guildford. Again, if you don’t have those concepts introduced to you, then you can’t begin to marvel about them. And unless you’re marvelling about the world and curious, then why would you study it?

I also wonder whether in days gone by, perhaps when the global labour market was less established, there was an imperative for geologically based businesses to make sure they had a supply chain of the next generation of geologists, where perhaps today they don’t, say, well, if we can’t get them from the UK, we’ll get them from somewhere else. And so, we know how good geology-based universities are in the UK, so we don’t have a problem with the quality of the courses available. But if people don’t want to turn up and study it, then they don’t really have a future. Because I think in a world where people are paying £10,000 a year fees and the cost of living is putting a pressure on it, there has to be an economic imperative attached to studying a subject for most students, not necessarily all, but for most. And geology needs to make its case, I think. You can make a good living as a geologist. You might not always be actively a geologist. You might not always be in the field or working in something which looks very, very obviously geological, but you’ll be using that geologist training, that mindset that you’ve developed to interrogate different problems. You might be helping run a school, but you’re still using the training that you got.

[19:52] Marissa Lo: So, we’ve mentioned different initiatives, say, from the Earth Sciences Teachers’ Association or the introduction of a Natural History GCSE, let’s say blue sky thinking, if you had loads of time and resources for this, what else would you do?

[20:07] Ewan Laurie: So, if I make a comparison with geography, geography has what’s known as a subject association. So, the Geographical Association is about geography teaching, and the ESTA [Earth Sciences Teachers’ Association] does the same thing for geology. But when any decision is made about geography, they are in the room and they’re able to say, if you’re rewriting the sort of prescriptive content for what should be in an A level or what should be in a GCSE, they’re able to influence that discussion. And I’m not sure that we’ve got enough of a voice at the table when new science specifications are being decided or dictated, because it’s one thing for us to be able to contribute to the geology curriculum, but there’s so few people actively taking those at GCSE and A level that it doesn’t have the impact we need. What you really need is for GCSE level science to have compulsory and very obviously earmarked geological elements. That’s a difficult thing to do, but that’s where I think you can make the most difference, because ultimately, then, hundreds of thousands of pupils are seeing a bit of geology because they have to, before they get to it. Whereas just learning a little bit about rocks in geography is probably not enough. It’s hard to make sense of why it fits and where it fits, whereas if it’s part of the science curriculum that you’re looking into earthquakes, volcanoes, et cetera, it’s easier to light that spark. And then people say, well, actually, I might not opt for geology, even if it is available at A level, but I’m going to take chemistry, maths, physics, so that I’m in a position to take geoscience or Earth science at university. So, people need to be, given that initial moment, that initial trigger, and I think we’re not quite in the conversation at the moment.

Blue sky’s thinking: people like the Geol Soc get endowments from geologically based industries, which they can spend on an entire team of young ambassadors that go into every school in the country giving talks about why geology matters and what people can do with it. And then I think that would make quite a big difference, but I don’t know where that funding is coming from, I’m afraid. The money question is a big one, I think because science and engineering in my lifetime or my teaching time have never been more popular. So, there’s a cake out there, we just haven’t got a slice of it as geologists.

[22:20] Marissa Lo: Thanks so much for sharing all of your views today, Ewan. I hope you enjoyed discussing all of this and thank you for your time.

[22:26] Ewan Laurie: It’s been great. Thanks for having me.


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