How do you teach students that don't want to pursue science in the future? Peter Banks talks about his experiences.

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Angus (not his real name) is a 15-year-old student in my lessons. He’s very intelligent and is about to take a double science GCSE exam. He should achieve an A without much difficulty. However, while he has managed to turn up to some of my lessons, he hasn’t ever handed in any homework. 

I imagine most teachers would be tearing their hair out desperately worrying about their statistics, but Angus – a violinist – has spent a lot of his time winning music competitions all over the world and playing concertos with several top flight orchestras.

Out of focus

I’m one of the luckiest teachers in the world – I’m a keen musician and also the chemistry teacher at a fantastic specialist music school. I rarely teach more than 10 pupils at a time and behaviour is – at worst – significantly better than most schools I’ve ever been in. Having said that, most of my pupils have an affliction that all teachers I know struggle with in their classes, albeit for very different reasons: a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

Having spent most of his life working towards his ultimate dream, Angus is not interested in science. And, let’s be honest, he doesn’t need to be. He will almost certainly excel in his chosen career with or without a good grade at GCSE science.

But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be enthusiastic about science. Am I to blame for not sparking his interest? And, more importantly, how can I spark the interest of students whose focus is clearly elsewhere?

Borrowing with interest

The position I find myself in is not unlike that of many teachers all over the country who teach in much more challenging situations. What can we do to engage our pupils? One trick we all use is an explosive and visual demonstration. My favourites include the thermite reaction, woosh bottles, group one metals, as well as some of the subtler organic reactions at A-level.

However, this is, at best, a simplistic and short-term solution. For me, such demonstrations lead to engagement for a lesson or two at most before pupils revert to their I’m-here-because-I-have-to-be pose. I have a good repertoire, but I can’t conjure up a lifetime of temporary solutions.

What I aim for is something more long term – I make use of, and teach, transferrable skills. I ask students to use skills they already have in a chemistry context, as well as teaching them skills through chemistry they can then apply to their musical practice. These include research, presentation, pattern recognition, teamwork, communication, data analysis and fine motor skills.

Long term learning

Encouraging independent curiosity is one of the most important things I do. At some point my pupils will need to be able to learn on their own. This is very much a long term project and I’ve already written about one of the ways I try to do this

I still have a long way to go before all of my pupils are signing up to take chemistry at A-level, but by trying to encourage them to develop skills that are useful for their lives outside the chemical sciences, as well as any career within, I can help build their enthusiasm to take their scientific study that little bit more seriously. And who knows, some might even enjoy it almost as much as I do.