Passion and Inspiration

Rule no. 1: Passion

I had only been teaching for about three years (mostly junior cert science and leaving cert maths) and was getting fed up with it. I would have liked to have been teaching Physics but there were already two physics teachers in the school so it wasn’t looking like that was going to happen any time soon. I reckoned a change of career was in order but had no idea what I wanted to do. When a colleague mentioned a masters program in science communication offered jointly by DCU and Queens I figured why not, so handed in my notice and bought a few homework copies.

I don’t remember much about the lectures in DCU – mostly they were to do with communication theory but the lectures were pretty boring (the irony wasn’t lost on me). There were two exceptions to this; one was the director of the program – Professor Kirk Junker, and the other was Professor Helena Sheehan. Kirk was an inspiration in that he was professionalism personified. I never once saw him get annoyed and every student was respected and treated as if they were the only student in his class. It was an example I have tried to follow ever since in my own teaching, but it is for others to decide how successful that has been.

Helena was most definitely a different kettle of fish. While she also had a deep respect for her students, the one word I would use to sum her up would be passion. I have never met anyone so passionate about their teaching and their subject matter.

For me it was a complete revelation. Apparently a teacher’s job is not to just impart knowledge to students – you can actually let them see how much the subject matter means to you as a teacher. And students won’t laugh at you as a result, in fact they will actually respect you a whole lot more. I can still remember sitting in her class and thinking that I have to get back into my own classroom and give this a go. If nothing else I owe it to my students. It has now become one of the first pieces of advice I would give to any new teacher – be passionate; if you find the subject matter to be fascinating then for God’s sake let the students in on it. No amount of technology can replace that gift.

It helped that I also found the subject matter of Helena’s lectures to be fascinating; philosophy of science? – I never knew such a thing existed. Science was just science, a disinterested pursuit of knowledge, and no proper scientist could be interested in dirty words like money or fame. How wrong I was, but that’s for another day (to get a feel for what Helena was teaching us just go to her web-page . To see a 25 min video of Helena in action click here for the 54 mg download or here for the 27 mg version (I don’t know why these aren’t just on YouTube – it’s powerful stuff).

This was all prompted by a wonderful post written by Helena as part of A University Blog: Diary of A University President

Helena finishes with the following words. They could only have been written by Helena.

When I was young, I was a 60s generation activist and I wanted to change the world. Much older now, I still do. The ensuing years have brought many disappointments and defeats. It has been difficult to sustain dissidence over the decades. The secret of doing so was to learn not be so all or nothing about it as I was then, to find what I believed and what I could do about it and to do it every day ‘like exercise’. I haven’t changed the world in any grand way, but perhaps I planted a few seeds that made it just a bit different than it would have been otherwise.

Some nice Quantum Physics resources

I may have mentioned previously that one simple way of seeing which science concepts appeal to the general population is to look at popular science programs and note what they are concentrating on; chances are there won’t be much of an overlap between this and the school syllabus. Quantum theory is a case in point – the BBC aired a wonderful Horizon documentary a couple of weeks back entitled “How long is a piece of string?” and while I didn’t catch it when it first went out I figured it was just a matter of time before it appeared on YouTube. Broken up into six ten-minute slots there is a lot of potentially useful material there for the physics class if you’re prepared to drift off syllabus.

The Beeb is understandably a little finicky about their programs appearing on YouTube so you might like to download it while you can.

Hat-tip to my colleague Jerome Devitt for reminding me about this – why is it that our colleagues in the humanities seem to be more comfortable discussing the philosophical implications of modern science than we are?
Have the rest of us really tested and tasted too much?

While I’m at it, probably the most popular YouTube clip on the weirdness of the quantum world has got to be the following clip taken from “What the bleep do we know?”.

It really is a wonderful crazy world out there.


I hate Science Week

I find it very difficult to get excited by Science Week.
In fact let me just come straight out and say it; I hate Science Week.

Why does it exist? Like so many other great ideas we have here in Ireland, it seems we have one because England has one.  And why does England have one? – for the same reason we have one; to let all our young folk know that science is fun. Obvious innit?

Well no actually. Irish students study three years of science at Junior Cert – surely this is enough time to convince anybody that science is fun (assuming  it  is).

But this is the point – Science as we teach it in school is definitely not fun. The science concepts which the department syllabus tells us must be covered could not be more mind-numbingly boring if we tried. Any hint of a concept which might be actually interesting has been very carefully removed.

How can you teach Biology without mentioning evolution?

How can you teach energy without mentioning the big bang?

How can we teach energy without explaining that it’s not just another chapter – it is the one concept which ties all others together?

How can you teach the atom without reference to the idea that the structure of the atom is such that we are all almost totally empty space?

How can we torture our students with graphs without ever expecting them to know why we use graphs?

How can we teach Ecology without mentioning global warming?

How can we teach reproduction without mentioning overpopulation or homosexuality?

How can we teach about food without mentioning obesity?

How can we teach genetics without mentioning forensic science – one of the few areas which has become ‘sexy’ of late?

How can we teach mass without mentioning that 90% of the mass of the universe is ‘missing’?

How can we teach about size without mentioning the incredible scale of the universe – from the very small to the very large? It’s incredible to think that there is absolutely no reference to astronomical or cosmological objects in any any science syllabus at secondary level – we might as well go back and tell that the Earth is the centre of the universe after all.
Check out this link for an interesting starting point to astronomy.

How can we mention time without giving reference to the incredible age of the earth?

How do we manage to avoid talking about extinction of species, radiation and cancer, the incredible complexity of the biological cell, the jiggling of atoms etc?

At the risk of being totally ridiculous could we not delve into psychology and look at the evidence which is there to suggest that we are very easy to manipulate and that almost all of us could be persuaded to do some very nasty things to our fellow humans given the right ‘persuasion’? Just because psychology didn’t exist when the first science syllabus was put together two hundred years ago is hardly justification for not including it today.

Obviously every teacher will have their own pet loves and hates, but underneath there must me a core set of ideas which are inherently interesting fascinating. Should we not be starting from this point and working out rather than the current approach which obviously doesn’t work?

Do we really need to focus on activities like measuring the density of a stone using an overflow can, plotting a graph of the extension of a stretched string or demonstrating the action of a digestive enzyme?

It’s one thing to blame ‘the system’ for not being able to change anything, but at this level we as teachers must surely have a strong voice, yet rarely if ever have I heard a teachers suggest that we should radically overhaul what we are teaching – indeed I suspect there would actually be considerable resistance to this at teacher level.

So forgive me if I don’t get excited by one more demonstration-lecture on exploding custard and water changing to wine. It’s just that the problem with science education is a bit deeper than this, and one week highlighting the so-called ‘fun’ in science does little more than remind us that for the rest of year it is as boring as dishwater and we’re doing a very poor job of rectifying this.

Assessment: the tail that wags the dog

chasing tail


All this talk about whether leaving cert results or aptitude tests are better for gaining information about a student’s ability to become a doctor reminds me of the story of the drunk looking for his keys under the streetlight.


A cop walking his beat one night finds a drunk on his knees, searching for something on the street. The cop asks the drunk, “What are you doing?” “Looking for my car keys,” says the drunk. The cop asks, “Where did you lose your keys?” “I don’t know,” the man answers. The cop, a bit perplexed, asks, “Then, why are you looking here if you don’t know where you lost your keys?” Responds the drunk, “Because the light is better here, under the streetlight.”


Why does our education have such a focus on assessment? Because that’s the only bit we can put a number on.

And we do love to put numbers on things.

The danger arises when this very dubious practice becomes ingrained in us to such an extent that all the stakeholders assume it is a ‘natural’ process.

Certainly students associate ‘points’ with intelligence, and identify ‘good’ teachers as those whose students get ‘A’s.

Of course there are very valid reasons for doing this; the point is that in so doing we are reinforcing the notion that this is right (and again that word ‘natural’).


Assessment then turns into the tail that wags the dog.


Look at the aims and objectives of any syllabus at senior or junior level – they are full of wonderful aspirations.

This particular one can be found at the beginning of every leaving cert subject syllabus:


The general aim of education is to contribute towards the development of all aspects of the individual, including aesthetic, creative, critical, cultural, emotional, expressive, intellectual, for personal and home life, for working life, for living in the community and for leisure.


I wonder how much time authors spend reading this when they set out to write their textbooks.


Palaeontologist and popular-science writer Stephen Jay Gould looked at the origin of the I.Q. test in his wonderful book ‘The mismeasure of man’.

He used the term ‘reification’ to describe the fallacy of putting a number on something that couldn’t be quantified (in this case intelligence) and with this very simple process an incredible transformation takes place. Because the concept has now got a number everybody assumes that the concept must be measureable and therefore the concept must be valid.


Wasn’t it Margaret Mead who said that she was taking her daughter out of school so that she could get an education?

What would Jesus do?


If Jesus was around today, would he use Powerpoint?

Would he have an Interactive WhiteBoard?

Would he twitter/blog/youtube/podcast/mindmap/moodle?

Would he give out about the syllabus?

What would be his homework policy?

Could he turn the other cheek to Batt?

The following does the rounds every now and again:

Then Jesus took his disciples up the mountain and, gathering them around him, he taught them saying: blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are the meek; blessed are they that mourn; blessed are the merciful; blessed are they that thirst for justice; blessed are you when persecuted; blessed are you when you suffer; be glad and rejoice for your reward is great in heaven.

Then Simon Peter said, ‘Are we supposed to know this?’
And Andrew said, “Do we have to write this down?’
And James said, ‘Will we have a test on this?’
And Phillip said, ‘I don’t have any paper.’
And John said, ‘The other disciples didn’t have to learn this.’
And Matthew said, ‘Can I go to the toilet?’

Then one of the Pharisees who was present asked to see Jesus’s lesson plan and inquired of Jesus, ‘Where is your statement of objectives?’

And Jesus wept.

I’m with you in spirit.

Ernst Mach: the problem with Science Education


1859 marks not only the 150th birthday of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, but also a somewhat less well-known occasion; It was the year Ernst Mach published the first of his 500 publications (his last was published five years after his death, in 1921).

Most will know of this man through his association with the speed of planes;  Mach Number is the speed at which an object is moving divided by the speed of sound.

But Mach has offered much more to the world of Science; he lived in a time when Philosophy and Science went hand and hand, and he made many contributions not just in these areas, but also in Psychology and Educational Theory. He wrote a number of text-books for school science, but was very critical of the tendency of cramming as much as possible into the syllabus.
This quote sums up so much of what is wrong with our schooling: 

I know nothing more terrible than the poor creatures who have learned too much . . . What they have acquired is a spider’s web of thoughts too weak to furnish sure supports, but complicated enough to produce confusion.

Mach was also an advocate of what are known as ‘thought experiments’, these later became famous through Albert Einstein and his idea of sitting on top of a light beam.  Indeed Einstein went on to give credit to Mach for his ‘philosophical writings’.  It’s probably no coincidence that Einstein’s views on education were not that dissimilar to Mach’s:

One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect on me that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.

Of course this was all over one hundred years ago. Obviously it’s all changed since then.
It would appear that we have some explaining to do.