THE BLOG

Get Out the Maps and Ditch the Sat Nav - Go on, You Can Do It

05/05/2015 11:26 BST | Updated 01/05/2016 10:12 BST

We are becoming too reliant on sat navs to find our way around, losing the valuable basic skills of map reading and compass use.

These are in danger of turning into heritage talents, alongside spinning your own wool and hand-written letters, without a greater appreciation of their value. This starts at school and home.

Part of the problem is that people are becoming sedated by software and forgetting that the most powerful, brilliant computer of all is their brain.

A whole generation is growing up without the pleasure and challenge of reading a landscape, or a map, let alone the chance to wonder at how astronomy helps establish a precise location.

Instead, the most taxing task for most is pressing the 'search' button on a device, at a stroke humbling one of the greatest applications of science in human evolution.

The ability to find our way has spurred the development of civilisation since time began, underpinning global trade and all that has come with it.

Do we really want to evolve into a species that relies on a machine to get itself reliably between points? It hardly seems an uncompromised advance.

Global positioning systems are a wonder of our age. But the systems' advance should not be at the expense of human understanding about course setting. As anyone who has ever been told 'left' when 'right' was plainly a better option knows: machines make poor choices.

But there is more to it than just losing a skill. Navigation teaches self-reliance. The ability to read a map, to find North, to assess distance and topography are all invaluable human skills.

Most jobs involve dealing with conflicting information, or looking for information within data. Navigation teaches people about accuracy and errors. The words 'do I really believe that?' are always on the lips of professional navigators. Even to use global positioning systems well you have to know what not to believe.

For example, car drivers routinely assume their sat nav system will find the best route for a journey. It actually finds a route.

The danger of relying on software to resolve problems is that we become users of technology rather than creators of it.

There seems to be a views that information technology is what needs to be prioritised in schools, almost as an end in itself. This is despite clear signs that children, in fact, take to it quite easily and rarely need the intensity of teaching effort it attracts.

That ability is hardly surprising. The whole dynamic of software development over the past 30 years has been for ever easier use, to produce results with a minimum number of key strokes.

The problem with ease of use is that it presents no conceptual challenges. The brain is left largely inert whilst calculations are made by a software 'brain', one without the intellectual elasticity of its human creator to make connections and judgements.

It offers no need to draw upon spherical trigonometry or simply understanding angles. It does not encourage visualisation, with the mind and mind's eye working in harmony.

Whilst it is excellent to see projects like Raspberry Pi in schools, as the ability to understand basic computer science is vital, software does not produce all the answers to our technical challenges, only some of them. It does not develop any understanding of physical properties.

Navigation offers schools the chance, for instance, to teach how sensors measure acceleration so accurately that an aircraft can cross the Atlantic and know its position to within a quarter of a mile, just from accurately sensing its own motion through space.

Students need to be equipped with this fundamental science, not just computers, to develop the next 'great thing' whether in their own immediate lives, or later in the workplace.

Because nobody knows what the next innovation will be, first principles must be taught as the basic tools of intelligent technical discovery. They must be made to seem relevant, and nothing is more suited to doing that for a young mind than navigation with its challenging, fun outdoors focus and practical applications.

The basics of science, maths and engineering all coalesce around the task of reaching a destination out of sight, and students hardly feel the intellectual pain.

Navigation teaches how to make a decision based on factual data and variables, which we know as judgement. Computers do not make a judgement, they carry out a task, or at best rely on programmable probability theory.

Above all, navigation involves maths, which is a hard subject to get out of the classroom. As with so many aspects of mathematics, navigation is a great way to train the mind, to foster a real understanding of measurement, accuracy and resolution.

Other education benefits include the ability to gauge angles and distances. Once these are understood the scope for setting practical activities is limitless.

Navigation really is as much about judgement as scientific absolutes. It fosters a valuable 'professional scepticism' grounded in the confidence to make decisions that scientific knowledge brings.

There is no need to wonder where the course work will come from. Some of our greatest, most inspiring achievements owe a debt to navigation. The lunar landings are perhaps the greatest example of our ability to chart a way.

Working out how to launch a spacecraft and then kick it out of the earth orbit to the moon was an extraordinary achievement. But the maths involved is well within the capability of schoolchildren.

There is a great story to tell of human development, about the raw observation of the natural world and the motion of the celestial bodies, which was all the Vikings and other great seafarers had more than a thousand years. But there is an even better one to experience. Try it.