Neil Monteiro argues for engendering an interest in science in our students
Does it matter if our students are interested in the subject we are teaching? Should we care if they are enthusiastic or engaged?
Most educators, quite understandably, see their role in engendering interest and curiosity as subservient to their main goal of teaching the facts of their subject. A fascinating demo can be squeezed in if time allows. But are we missing something by taking this approach?
As a science show presenter, I rarely get to spend two days in the same school. While this means that I don’t get to see students’ progress, the upside is that I have no prior expectations of them. And so it’s regular for students to offer up answers to questions they wouldn’t usually cover in class. Things like, ‘What was the Greek name for Apollo?’ or ‘What did SpaceX recently do?’.
I find that teachers often mention that these students aren't usually so keen.
Now, I wouldn't for a moment argue that a one hour science demonstration talk has magically turned the most reluctant student into a modern-day Newton. The explanation is more mundane: an outside speaker is novel, the topics are different to what science classes normally cover, and the format of a science show itself tends to encourage students to get involved.
But, the most interesting thing is where the students learn these titbits – more often than not, it’s YouTube.
I realise that most adults wouldn't consider YouTube to be particularly educational, but there's an effect here that is very easily underestimated.
Where students spend their time ...
Out of interest, I did a back-of-an-envelope calculation on how much time students actually have outside of school – and the answer surprised me.
Out of a total of 168 hours in a week, 70 are (supposedly) spent asleep and an average of 35 hours are in school – leaving 63 hours of free time outside of school. That's nearly double the amount of time spent in school. But this is for a standard school week – once you include holidays, in-school time accounts for only 25% of all waking time.
So why, when we identify a deficit in student understanding of citizenship or numeracy, does society immediately turn to adding more to the school curriculum? Instead of trying to cram more into the grossly overburdened school day, we should look to enriching the vast majority of students' time.
… they learn
I am certainly not suggesting that we can simply sneak more into homework. Nor do I think that we can hope for kids miraculously opting to read university-level textbooks at home for the sheer fun of it. But what happens outside school matters a lot – and if students are interested in a subject, they’ll use that time to learn.
Take my own school-age (and continuing) obsession: Star Wars. I spent a large proportion of my childhood watching the films, reading the novels, building my own X-wings and pouring over fictional technical manuals of spaceships.
Looking back through these, a diagram of a lightsaber stands out. It includes descriptions of light focusing, magnetic coils and conductors. This is late secondary school science (albeit in a fictional context) aimed at ten-year-olds.
The educational psychologist Alfie Kohn, in his deliberately provocative book ‘The Homework Myth’, says, ‘Excellence tends to follow interest’. Any child that has a genuine interest will, without any real intention, learn about the subject of their interest and any subjects connected to it – provided the opportunity is available to them.
Knowledge for free
And opportunities are available. YouTube, with all its superficial Let's Play videos and vlogs, contains a huge amount of science content. Smarter Every Day, Veritasium and Crazy Russian Hacker are some of the most popular channels on the site, all of them are about science and all have millions of subscribers.
Crazy Russian Hacker in particular is incredibly popular with teens. Try asking any class of students and you'll find that the majority know of him and watch his videos. And they're doing it in their own time, out of interest.
This is, of course, to say little of Wikipedia, wikiHow, Khan Academy or the myriad other sources of knowledge available for free.
Shift in focus
The flipped classroom model that's begun to gain prominence, especially through the very successful Khan Academy, has shown how an alternative approach is possible – in this model, school time is given over to a kind of tutoring, with the bulk of learning being done outside of school.
This modern version of self-learning could easily be dismissed as wishful thinking, except when you consider the fact that students are spending 75% of their time outside of school and that the world of knowledge is now so different than it was just ten years ago.
But policy-makers are are unlikely to prioritise such radical shift in focus anytime soon, if ever. Instead, we can look at the small changes that can make a difference.
We can choose to focus on interest rather than only knowledge. Even if we just prioritise five minutes at the end of a lesson for an awe-inspiring demonstration, we can create a more engaging environment for students and teachers. Learning might just improve, too.
Neil Monteiro is a science communicator and presenter based in the UK. You can find him at www.neilmonteiro.com