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How can we maintain a balance with nature?

Nature meets the city - a city skyline surrounded by forest

As a lecturer in geology, I often encounter the effects of changes in the balance of nature.

For me, the key to the question “How can we maintain a balance with nature?” is “what is the balance to be maintained?”

Is it to keep the world around us as it is — or even to return it to the Eden that it once was? Alas, that is no longer possible. Some changes are irreversible. The dodo and the Yangtze dolphin have gone forever, as have very many more species.

The wider changes unfolding around us seem to be large on a geological scale, as the landscape is refashioned, as cities grow, the world warms and the oceans acidify. Geologists call it the Anthropocene, the epoch in which geology itself is increasingly driven by humanity’s actions.

So, how can we sustain nature – and ourselves?

To a large extent, we will have to go with the flow. We cannot maintain pristine ecologies while the physical and chemical boundary conditions are changing within and around them.

There’s the nice concept of “ragamuffin ecosystems” (that is, ragged and untidy ecosystems), for instance, that spring up in the aftermath of cleared forests and abandoned factories. These are different from what went before, but they may now be as valuable in harbouring a variety of plants and animals as the beginnings of new, functional ecosystems.

Such orphans of human progress should be nurtured, along with what we find of nature reborn in ponds and allotments and untidy back yards, along highways and railway lines, and around derelict buildings.

Perhaps this phenomenon is not something to celebrate, exactly, for it is merely a shadow of the magnificence that went before. But maybe if these scruffy survivors are sufficiently cherished, and allowed to grow, then we might imagine how, eventually, the world could once more become a green and various place.


How can you use questions like this one in class? Find out more about a question-centered approach here.



Jan Zalasiewicz is Senior Lecturer in Geology at the University of Leicester, UK, and is the author of The Earth After Us: What legacy will humans leave in the rocks? (OUP).

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How can you find a good job?

Woman's hands typing on a white laptopAs part of our series of posts exploring a “question-centered” teaching approach, we asked Phil Taylor, recruitment manager at OUP, to give us his thoughts on the above question, featured in the new course Q Skills for Success.

As a recruitment manager, I spend a lot of time looking for good candidates. Here is some advice I would give to anyone looking for a job in today’s competitive jobs market.

You need to know where to look first. Digital media has had a huge impact on recruitment advertising. Many organizations now focus all their attention on candidate attraction through online job boards or social media sites.

LinkedIn is one such site where you can view current vacancies, and also network with fellow industry professionals.

Joining networking groups allows you to make contact with potential employers within your current profession. In some cases it provides an opportunity to discuss the role further before even submitting a formal application.

When you find a suitable role, it is essential that you tailor both your resume and covering letter to the specific job criteria.

Where possible you should give examples of when you have used specific skills and abilities. You can draw on elements from any aspect of your life, such as education, work, home or community life—as long as you focus on its relevance in comparison to the needs of this job.

If the job requirements are not present in the advertisement, request a full job description from the recruiter.

At interview the recruiter(s) will ask for specific examples of demonstrating these skills. So be prepared to talk about them in detail.

Feel free to share your tips by adding a comment below.

Find out how you can use questions like “How can you find a good job?” in class.


Phil Taylor is Recruitment Manager for Oxford University Press.

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Does everyone need math?

Multicolored abacusAs part of our series of posts exploring a “question-centered” teaching approach, we asked Ian Stewart, author of Cows in the Maze and Math Hysteria, to give us his thoughts on the above question, featured in the new course Q Skills for Success.

Few of us make regular use of the math we were taught. Increasingly, clever gadgetry does all the sums for us. Why, then, do schools insist on teaching it to everybody?

It’s funny how math is always singled out for this question. ‘I never use any of the math I was taught,’ people moan. Speaking personally, I never use any of the history, geography, chemistry, physics, metalworking, poetry, or Shakespeare that I was taught. Or soccer, for that matter.

But no one asks why those things were included in the syllabus. We are taught all these things for many reasons: it’s part of being a well-rounded person; it trains the mind or the body; it keeps kids off the streets; it helps us to understand our world and our place in it; and it offers us more employment opportunities. The same goes for math.

But there’s another reason. Everything taught in school math — algebra, trig, whatever — is of vital importance in some major area of human activity. Thousands of applications of mathematics directly affect our daily life: finding new sources of oil; finding efficient ways to target customers for online sales; sat-nav; cellphones; the Internet; jet airliners; medical scans; even keeping our water safe.

We seldom notice, because the role of math is to make things easier for us, so by the time anything affects us directly the math is hidden away where it can do its work quietly without further human intervention.

Which means we don’t need the math, right? Wrong. We don’t need it to use the gadgets. But where did the gadgets come from?

Suppose that, at the age of ten, say, we told 90% of schoolchildren ‘Math is too hard for you, you don’t want to make the effort, you won’t be able to learn it. So we’re going to make life easy for you: you don’t have to do it.’ Sighs of relief all round. ‘Oh, by the way, that means you will never be able to become an engineer, an airline pilot, a financial analyst, a doctor, an optician, a computer programmer, a statistician…’ The parents would be screaming that we were violating their children’s rights.

We would also be killing our society. We wouldn’t be training enough mathematically competent people to keep everything running, let alone invent whatever new gadgets and methods will be needed in the future.

Find out how you can use questions like “Does everyone need math?” in class.


Ian Stewart is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics and Digital Media Fellow at the University of Warwick, UK. He is the author of Cows in the Maze and Math Hysteria (OUP).

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Where should our energy come from?

Wind energy farmAs part of our series of posts exploring a “question-centered” teaching approach, we asked Mark Maslin, author of Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction, to give us his thoughts on the above question, featured in the new course Q Skills for Success.

As the Director of the Environment Institute at University College London,  I believe that global warming is the most serious issue of the 21st century. It challenges the very structure of our global society.

The problem is that global warming is not just a scientific concern, but encompasses economics, sociology, geopolitics, local politics, and most importantly where should we get our energy from.

Global warming is caused by the massive increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide, resulting from the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

The most sensible approach to preventing the worst effects of global warming would be to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

The idea of cutting global carbon emissions in half in the next 30 years and by 80% by the end of the century may sound like fantasy; however, already the United Kingdom and California have made legally binding commitments to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

There is a large range of alternative energy sources to choose from which produce very little greenhouse gases; such as solar, wind, wave, hydro-electricity, geothermal, biofuels, nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion when we finally get it to work.

In addition, if countries still have to generate energy from fossil fuels such as coal, new technology is being developed called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), which will prevent the harmful carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere.

This move away from fossil fuels will be driven not just by global warming, but also by the fact that gas and oil reserves are running out. Countries in the 21st century have become very aware of ‘energy security’ and want to reduce their reliance on import of fossil fuels.

This is an exciting brave new world. 70% of all global energy requirement predicted for 2030 has yet to be built.  This means we have a real opportunity to change to low carbon energy production in the future.

Find out how you can use questions like “Where should our energy come from?” in class.


Mark Maslin is the Director of the Environment Institute at University College London, UK. He is the author of Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction (OUP).

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How does power affect our leaders?

American flag and microphoneAs part of our series of posts exploring a “question-centered” teaching approach, we asked Keith Grint, author of Leadership: A Very Short Introduction, to give us his thoughts on the above question, featured in the new course Q Skills for Success.

As an academic (I teach at Warwick University, UK) this question reminds me of an exam question that I would set to try and separate out the more thoughtful from the less thoughtful students (an act of power in itself).

Traditionally we consider power to be locked into hierarchies – the higher you are the more power you have.

We also use language that implies power is a possession of individual leaders. That is to say, we talk of ‘powerful leaders’ and warn of the corrupting effects of being ‘too powerful’.

But what if power is not a possession?

If power is conceived of as a relationship between leaders and followers then several things should follow.

First, leaders cannot possess power – if followers comply with leaders then – and only then – are leaders (temporarily) given the resources to lead.

This explains why children do not always obey their parents, why employees resist their employer’s demands, and why armies sometimes mutiny.

Second, we cannot study leadership without studying followers – because leaders do not exist in the absence of followers.

Third, we might stop scape-goating leaders for collective problems because followers get the leaders they deserve – and leaders get the followers they deserve.

So, if the answer to the question, ‘how does power affect our leaders?’ is – ‘the question does not have a simple answer’, what might the alternative answers be?

Find out how you can use questions like “How does power affect our leaders?” in class.


Keith Grint is Professor of Public Leadership & Management at Warwick University, UK. He is the author of Leadership: A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press.

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