Adventures over the rainbow

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
Victoria Neumark assesses what it takes to be a TESASE Science Teacher of the Year, and introduces the contenders for the awards

When I was eight I would ask my father about the rainbow and he would never tell me about the pixie who painted the sky but the real story about light and he would make it just as interesting."

Michael Cousins, at 25 one of the youngest regional winners of the TESASE Science Teacher of the Year Award, glows with enthusiasm when he talks about his family, his physics teacher father ("absolutely brilliant, I'm hopeless compared to him"), his love of teaching ("the best feeling") and his hobbies ("there's only about three minutes in the week when I'm not doing something").

Watching him teach Year 7 science at Presdales Girls Comprehensive in Ware, Hertfordshire, his energy and commitment seem to knit together the eager, puppyish questions of 11-year-old girls in a shared sense of adventure.

"Our results were wrong, Mr Cousins," says one pupil.

"Not necessarily. What were the results in the air experiment?" he asks.

In air, nine out of 10 plants grew; in carbon dioxide 10 out of 10.

"So, what does that tell you? Has anyone heard of the greenhouse effect?" After a bit of faltering (this is a low ability group) something off the telly is remembered and the teacher points out the most important lesson: "We were wrong in what we thought originally but now we think differently."

Michael Cousins sees falsifiability at the heart of his science teaching. One of his favourite devices is the cardboard box with something rolling around in it.

Pupils have to make and explore hypotheses, building up theories from evidence. "That's science," he says. "I know there's one group that's got it but I haven't told them. They just keep testing it. I'm the only one in the school who knows what's in the box."

Other favourites of his teaching armoury are passing a live wire through a sausage to make them aware of the need for safety (this eventually had to be abandoned for safety reasons and to preserve the laboratory ceiling) and getting senior staff who are just passing through to join in class calculations.

Year 7 enjoy a Science Club with Mr Cousins and GCSE students a discussion group on the philosophical and ethical aspects of science which has directly encouraged more of the girls to choose physics at A-level. As enthusiastic about IT as physics, he encourages up to the minute use of computers for recording.

Eventually, Michael Cousins hopes to run his own physics department ("not a headship, I wouldn't want the administration"). Expanding on why he enjoys his job so much, he says: "The physics is not difficult. The beauty of it is thinking up new ways to explain and making sure they have structures in their mind to help them understand."

He is co-writing a book with his father. Physics Examples for Assessment and Revision is aimed at those taking maths GCSE for the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board and is being field-tested at Presdales. As, he says, some of the most exciting moments in his life come when joining his GCSE and A-level students to find that they have got an A.

Even more, the fact that one of his pupils now wants to be a physics teacher is deeply pleasing. "She's the brightest physicist in her year by a long way but I'm thrilled that she sees physics teaching as something she wants to do."

Does he find it difficult being a young male in a girls' school? He shrugs it off. "You just have to accept that it happens, follow all the rules about not being alone with anyone and, above all, just don't be creepy." He smiles: "After all, I hope now the crushes are more because they are learning something, because they like being in the lessons."

And other interests? "It's quite sad really, I'm just becoming an anorak. All the time I'm looking around for things to illustrate physics. I don't teach from notes any more, but I work a 60-hour week and I'm always looking for new ways of showing things, new ways of seeing things."

In-between times, ju-jitsu, and books, drawing and painting claim his time. He loves the theatre but disclaims any deep affinity with actors. "Teaching is more about explaining, really, not about getting people to look at you. " Sleep is a low priority.

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