Do do run run run, do do run run.
Like most scientists, I'm good at the abstract and the quantitative. I can't imagine how anyone can find basic algebra very difficult, any more than I can imagine doing without the skills it gave me. I know intelligent people who aren’t particularly numerate, but they baffle me. Deep down, I harbour a suspicion that they’re just not trying.
That phrase awoke a hideous memory: Mr Warthog*, my high school PE teacher, swearing at me for being rubbish at sports. I was slow and clumsy and frequently got exhausted, perhaps because of my small hole in the heart. A helpful journalist might have told me:
"Laetitia Prism, in the real world you will never need to run anywhere! I myself get out of breath reaching for the remote control, and I know plenty of athletes who are as thick as porridge."
But firstly, he would have been talking utter bollocks, and secondly, there I was this morning, involved in sporting activity of my own free will. So, aha! I know what it’s like to be put off something by lack of talent and indifferent teaching, and I know what helped me get over it. Here are my thoughts: 1-4 relate to teaching the subject in the first place, and 5-6 to salvaging some joy in it after school. I’d be very interested to hear other people’s ideas based on their own experiences, and I hope I can keep them in mind next time I’m teaching.
1. Reduce competition. Aiming to be best is fun; trying not to be worst is awful. Have students track their own progress over time, rather than comparing themselves to others.
2. Failure feels bad enough: don’t make it public. Having to call out answers to questions must feel as bad for some students as having to attempt a cartwheel in front of everyone did for me, and there’s less need for it.
3. Provide for differences in aptitude. That's easier said than done, but at least never take a "just not trying" attitude without a lot of supporting evidence.
4. Bring in other kinds of learning. The rare mention of nutrition or physiology in PE class gave me confidence: something I understood. Perhaps some historical perspectives, or discussions of relevant news events, could be imported into science or maths class.
5. Make it social. Even unsporty people join salsa dance classes or tennis clubs. Cheap, sociable nature walks or astronomy evenings could be a great way into science, as are Café Scientifique and Science in the Pub talks.
6. Acknowledge that teaching can be poor, especially at the lower end. People will have more chance of rediscovering science if they’re not blamed for earlier failures. Maybe we even need a way to let out pent-up aggression: www.IBlameTeacher.com, anyone? Or to take the concept further, I would be delighted to locate Mr Warthog*, show him my Great North Run medal, thread the ribbon up his nostril, through his eustachian tube and out of his ear, then grab the protruding end and yank hard.
*Name changed to protect Mr Watson. No, only kidding. That wasn't his real name either.