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Fearghal O'Nuallain: geography teacher and explorer

Fearghal O'Nuallain: geography teacher and explorer
14 Oct
2018
Fearghal O’Nuallain is a geography teacher and explorer. His edited book, The Kindness of Strangers, is on sale now, with all proceeds going to Oxfam's work with refugees

I’m a geography teacher that goes places. I’m trying to bring the field into the classroom, and to engage a wider audience with geographical issues through adventurous story telling.

What appeals to me most about geography is the fact that it embraces messiness. And the world is messy, that was one of the things that was really impressed upon me when I cycled round the world. When you move slowly over long distances, what stands out is how gradually things change, and how connected things are. When you’re talking about cultures, and even the physical characteristics of the world, everything merges into each other much more gradually than when you sit at home, looking at something through a screen. That’s what’s great about geography, we’re forced to go outside and engage with the world, and are reminded that the world is messy, and not nice and clean and easily packaged.

Cycling round the world left me with a sense that geographical understanding and environmental awareness is very important, and teaching offers a really nice way of giving that back. So that’s where the impetus of getting into the classroom came from. That’s not without frustration, because obviously just as the best way to teach music is by giving students an instrument, the best way to do geography is not to sit in a classroom and prepare for GCSEs and A-levels.

It’s very difficult to get students out into the field nowadays. I’m guessing most geography teachers who are passionate and engaged are also quite frustrated, because we would love to be outside a lot more.

The Water Diaries was borne out of a sense of wanting to find a vehicle for bringing the excitement and the adventure of the field into the classroom. To me it’s really exciting if you can mesh the curriculum with adventure, and find ways of using adventurous storytelling to animate and engage with actual stuff kids need to learn. When camera crews and journalists go out into the field, they could have a chat with an educator beforehand, so that they can later share some of their assets to be curated into something that is useful for a teacher in a classroom. The next best thing, or even the better thing, is an actual teacher going out into the field and collecting their own assets. You know what you’re looking for and you know what you want.

The Kindness of Strangers came, like everything, from a journey. I visited the ‘jungle’ in Calais in 2015, and Daniel Martin, my co-founder, also happened to visit within a few days. We were both struck by the fact that here was a slum, which we’d seen in other parts of the world, essentially on our doorstep. When you move in RGS-IBG circles, you’re constantly engaging with people who’ve done impressive, daring, dangerous journeys, and who are celebrated for that. Here I was talking to people who had done these most amazing, dangerous journeys, but because they had no other choice. I met people who’d rowed across stretches of water risking their lives, who’d walked really long distances, who’d done all these physical feats. I was struck by the parallels between the human spirit, in terms of adventure, and also the exact same spirit in people who were undertaking difficult journeys out of necessity.

I was looking for a way to meld those two stories together, so we set up The Kindness of Strangers as a simple platform for storytelling. The basic idea was to get people who’ve done heroic things to tell stories about their vulnerabilities and times when other people had helped them, and to get people to see the humanity in people from other places. So far we’ve had Ed Stafford, Al Humphreys, Leon McCarron, Sarah Outen, and many others, while Levison Wood wrote the book’s introduction.

It’s quite interesting that everyone seems to come back with the same story of people who are really welcoming and friendly, and how we’re all so similar to each other. I know this sounds really basic, but it’s important than we keep banging that gong about basic human values and similarities, because there is a worry that things are turning in a different direction away from that really important message.

This was published in the October 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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