Elephants rarely get cancer: less than 5% of captive elephants die of cancer, compared to 20% of humans. Elephant genomes have at least 20 copies of the tumour suppressor, p53, which may explain their low cancer rates relative to humans, who have only one copy.
"Oh!" they say and you see their face light up as the penny drops. This is one of the joys of working in teaching. Currently I’m working in teacher professional development, at the UCL Institute of Education, and I see that face on teachers too. One of the courses I run explains the neuroscience of learning and the teenage brain. There are changes in the brain during the teenage years, a sort of puberty of the brain, that helps to explain what can otherwise seem like inexplicable behaviours. In addition we have some fairly good (in terms of well evidenced) theories of learning based in current neuroscience. Armed with this knowledge teachers can plan their lessons better, and at key points in that course I see the ‘penny drops’ face.
Being a science teacher with a strong academic background, including time spent in research, I am able to bring what I know about the scientific method to the classroom. Neuroscience, in which I did my MSc and MPhil, is one of my favourite subjects: it is fascinating, but it is also an incredible tool for improving learning. When students understand how the brain works they understand why revision is important and how to go about it. When teachers understand they are able to make their lessons more productive.
I apply the rigour of evidence and scientific thought to my teaching as whole. When someone says “you should do this, it improves learning”, my first question is ‘what’s the evidence?’ and my second is ‘what’s the mechanism?’; and I owe that to my scientific training. In a profession inundated with initiatives and pressure from all directions, it is helpful to be able to look at each suggestion in this way. It is one of the reasons I am glad to have pursued the sciences, and one of the reasons I am passionate about sharing that understanding of the scientific method with students. I know that whether or not my students become the STEM professionals of the future, they will need to make decisions for themselves and their communities. Armed with scientific skills they will be better placed to make informed decisions.
I love to share my passion not just for the scientific method but also just for science itself. It can be a challenge to teach a subject everyone has to study up to 16, and though it can be heart warming to have a student who from the outset loves science, it is brilliant to be able to turn on a student who is switched off from the subject. “Miss, science isn’t important to my life!”, and variations of that are statements I have heard often. Relishing this, I turn to the student and say “Tell me something that is important to you”, and then proceed to link whatever they say to science. I always get there!
I’m returning to the classroom to teach this September and can’t wait. Although studying at Cambridge wasn’t easy, I loved it because I love learning. I think one of the reasons I love teaching so much is this love of learning. As the end of term approaches, I remember another phrase that students would throw at me, this one generally reserved for one of the last lessons of term: “Miss, can we do something fun today?”. I always take great pleasure in replying: “Yes, we are going to do something fun today [dramatic pause as students start beaming and almost jumping out their seats]. We are going to… [extra pause, as they look at me expectantly]…do some learning!”