FameLab is an international science competition in which communicators have three minutes to convey a concept of their choice in a charismatic, clear manner, before answering questions from a panel of experts. Think of it like The X Factor for talking about science. I was recently very humbled to be crowned UK champion for my musical musings, investigating the strange mathematical implications of 60s pop hits and exploring how multi-dimensional music might sound.
Something that surprised me along the way was how few teachers took part – in fact, in the whole of the regional, national and international competitions I didn’t come across one single other school, college or FE teacher. It struck me that perhaps we teachers aren’t forward enough about our considerable talents in communicating vital ideas. As teachers, we know the importance of using charisma to convey potentially complex ideas with clarity – this is exactly what FameLab is based on.
Having taught for 10 years in schools and sixth-form colleges, I think it has never been more evident that with the relentless march of technology – much of which has advanced teaching and learning hugely – there is still no replacement for an engaging lesson and a strong teacher-student relationship. Those who have read John Hattie will already know that nothing has a greater effect on student progress.
'Engage with your students'
My personal "Road to Damascus" moment, in terms of engaging students, came in my first teaching year. I confess that early in my teaching career the student experience was not a great concern to me – I was more interested in trying to launch my band in my spare time. At the end of one lesson around Christmas, after I had shown an inspirational video presented by one of my mathematical heroes, Marcus du Sautoy, a student left the class muttering: “I wish his lessons were that interesting.”
It’s a moment that has always stayed with me. Over time, the more engaging I’ve tried to make my lessons, the more I've enjoyed teaching, and the cycle continues. FameLab was the culmination of my teaching experience and I couldn’t have been prouder to have represented both my country and the teaching profession as a whole.
It has certainly been an anxiety-ridden process. From the first round in a pub backroom in Oxford to the international final, a single slip or inability to answer a follow-up question could have led to elimination. But taking part has led to some amazing offers, from performing at London's Science Museum and Cheltenham Science Festival to taking my folk-maths songs to inspirational shows for teenagers around the country. It’s really the ideal situation for me: now I get to teach maths during the day and sing about maths on evenings and weekends!
Tips for the top
I have always liked this quote from my literary hero, JD Salinger: “You can't stop a teacher when they want to do something. They just do it.” There’s no shame in wanting to be that teacher that students remember and tell their own children about in 20 or 30 years’ time. Here are my three tips for engaging students and inspiring a love for your subject:
- Find a hook: It doesn’t have to be singing a love song to logarithms. In fact, unless you are of a certain disposition I would not recommend that at all. But it’s amazing how we forget that students only spend a small fraction of their day in our subject area, whereas we spend all day, every day there. Reading Daniel Willingham’s excellent book Why Don’t Students Like School? really brought this point home for me. Always try to give your students something to take away to remember the lesson by.
- It’s good to talk: I’ll hold my hands up – I like talking about maths. It’s one of the things that gets me up in the morning. I’m not claiming every teacher should be an extrovert – I personally think of myself as an introvert who has learned extroverted tendencies – but if you don’t show how much you love the subject, your students will struggle to be convinced that it’s worth their time.
- Learn! Learn! Learn!: I think of the day as a failure if I haven’t learned something new by the end of it – especially from a student. The idea of the adult at the front of the class as the font of all knowledge is clearly absurd. With 25 or 30 people staring back at you, there should always be something you can learn from a student, and the learning atmosphere in the class will be much improved for it.
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