Alom Shaha is a physics teacher in London. He has also worked in a variety of roles in television on shows such as ‘Science Shack’ and ‘Horizon’. His creative approach to science communication saw him recognised with a fellowship from Nesta, a charity with a mission to help bring great ideas to life, and in 2012 he released his first book, ‘The Young Athiest’s Handbook’.
I think learning is a really complicated process which is probably different for every single one of us
On getting interested in science
I’m kind of envious of those people who say that they were into science from a young age and may have had chemistry sets and their parents took them to the science museum and so forth; I didn’t actually think I knew what science was until I was in secondary school and then at the start of secondary school I didn’t particularly enjoy science, it seemed to be, you know, biology was about labelling diagrams and chemistry was about mixing chemicals – which was quite fun but I didn’t feel I was understanding much – and physics was just plain hard.
And it was only when I was about 14, 15, doing my GCSEs that I had two fantastic teachers, a chemistry teacher and a physics teacher who transformed my understanding of science, really, and it was a kind of intellectual leap from thinking about science as facts and figures and really complicated stuff to seeing that science was about modelling the real world and looking at patterns in nature and seeing those patterns and being able to manipulate them and use them for our benefit and that science wasn’t about a single truth but about trying to get truths and better approximations to the truth if you like, and that just because I didn’t understand something at that point didn’t mean I was stupid, just that I hadn’t become sufficiently familiar with the models that we were supposed to use to explain phenomena like electricity.
On the best way to impart science to kids
If I knew the best way to impart science to children, I’d be the teacher that I want to be; I don’t think it’s straight forward, I think learning is a really complicated process which is probably different for every single one of us, I don’t think any of us learns in exactly the same way as anybody else and that’s why teaching is so difficult. I think there are things we can do to try and maximise the learning that goes on in our classrooms but I’m not sure there’s any one single method of getting all the children in a single class to learn at the same time.
On planning science lessons
I think enthusing is actually quite easy, there’s so many things in science that you can use to enthuse and engage children with, I don’t think that’s the difficult bit, I think the difficult bit is using the enthusiasm you generate to then get them thinking about the science and actually grasping the science and that’s the challenging bit because science is difficult. I often have a problem with people who say things like, ‘science is fun!’ you know, it is fun but, as a friend of mine said, science isn’t fun in the same way that a threesome or a football match is fun. Science is fun, I think, mainly for those of us who end up pursuing it as a career or in further education. Science is fun because of the intellectual challenge, the intellectual joy it gives us, and the kind of fun I think people often associate with science in terms of blowing things up or watching beautiful or interesting phenomena, I think that’s a short-lived kind of fun and the real joy in science comes from grappling with the ideas and coming to the sense that you understand them and I say that – the sense you understand them – because I’m not quite sure what understanding something really means and often I think what understanding something in science means is being familiar with ideas and models and theories so that you can apply them to the world so, for example, if you think you understand electricity what you should be able to do is look at a situation in which electrical phenomena are involved and then be able to use the models of electricity that you’ve learnt to explain those phenomena. And if you’re even better at understanding something you should be able to use the models of science that you’ve learnt to predict what’s going to happen, so there’s a tactic that I use in school for teaching which is to try and come up with something interesting to show the children but to ask them to predict what’s going to happen, to explain their prediction and then to observe what happens and then to see if their prediction was correct, if so, why, and if not, why, and then for me that’s a testing of understanding and that’s when I think science lessons can work really well and when you as a teacher start to believe that our students have learnt something.
On a difficult science to teach
One of the hardest subjects I find to teach is actually electricity because electricity’s basically magic; if you just take a look around the world and all the different technologies that shape our world, you know, computers, iPhones, all that kind of stuff, they all rely on an understanding of electricity. Electricity isn’t simple to understand, and I think some of the models we use to explain electricity to young people are so flawed that I’m not terribly sure they’re useful and I’m not convinced that we ought to be teaching about electricity to very young children in fact because I think you require an understanding of all sorts of other elements of physics before you can even begin to grasp how electricity works. That’s a controversial thing to say and it offends some of my teaching colleagues when I say that, but I think electricity is such a difficult concept and the models that we use to actually understand it at anything approaching a sophisticated level are so complicated that I would want students to learn a whole lot more physics before they even start looking at electricity. So, yes, electricity is my toughest subject to teach.