How would Da Vinci fare in a Scottish school today?

4th February 2011 at 00:00
An Aberdeenshire history teacher has been crowned Young Thinker of the Year for his studies on critical thinking and Curriculum for Excellence

He's just been named as Young Thinker of the Year and his ideas on Curriculum for Excellence helped him win the title.

Thom Sherrington, a 24-year-old history teacher from Aboyne Academy in Aberdeenshire, was nominated by the school to take part in the competition. After winning the Scottish Schools Young Thinker of the Year, he went on to win the UK and Ireland title against stiff competition from high-flying young professionals across the country. The contest involved writing a 900-word paper on a topical issue and making a presentation to the judges.

Aboyne Academy headteacher Raymond Jowett is absolutely delighted. "The whole school is very proud of him. And I'm really impressed that he has gone all the way in the UK competition."

Thom was thrilled to win and characteristically thoughtful: "The award that I won was named after Richard Wild, who was a young journalist and photographer who was killed in Iraq. To receive something in his name is such an honour, I can't really put into words how much that means."

Richard Wild was the same age as Thom is now when he was shot outside a museum in Baghdad in 2003.

The awards are run by the Young Programme and were founded in Scotland by broadcaster and journalist Kenneth Roy. The aim is to encourage young professionals to develop their skills as thinkers, writers, researchers and public speakers.

Thom is a refreshingly normal person for his grand-sounding title and his writing is lucid, sensible and entertaining. One minute he is quoting Descartes, the next he is talking about Cheryl Cole.

He is keen on football and sport and enjoys long rides on his bike - very long rides on his bike. Last year he cycled over 1,000 miles from Land's End to John O'Groats with a pal - he says he has time to think when he is cycling. He also ran a half marathon and now he is planning a marathon.

For the Scottish Schools' Young Thinker competition he wrote about Curriculum for Excellence, speculating whether Leonardo da Vinci would have achieved excellence if he went to school in Scotland today.

"My answer was yes, he would achieve excellence, because he was an outstanding genius. But I thought there were a few things that would stop him being such a polymath as he was," Thom explains.

"Sometimes I think we try to teach too much. I think we could benefit from making the curriculum smaller but making it more about learning. So rather than trying to bombard pupils with too many things, which focuses on content retention rather than actual deep understanding and learning, we could benefit from stripping back the curriculum and making it more about understanding."

He also used Leonardo da Vinci's tank as a metaphor, suggesting that teachers sometimes treat their classrooms like armoured vehicles. "We armour ourselves against outside influences, because in the best interests of the children we have got our exam results in mind."

Thom argued that it would benefit pupils more, if teachers got out of their tanks to explore extra-curricular links and engage with the wider school, rather than pulling down the turret hatch to focus on exams.

It's a few days since he won the competition and he is still taking it all in. But back in the classroom he acknowledges he is 100 per cent behind CfE.

"When pupils leave, you want them going out confident that they can learn and they can apply the skills they have learnt in school to outside situations, which is what our job should be all about," he says.

His winning paper in the final looked at whether society values thought, and argued that children must be taught how to think critically to engage meaningfully in their community.

"I feel sometimes, as a nation, we are quite distracted from the real issues," he explains. "We end up focusing on things such as reality television and tabloid scoops about the sex lives of the rich and famous."

His paper was described by the adjudicators as "a piece of mature thinking on thought itself, challenging the tabloid values of the age and questioning whether we value independent thought sufficiently.

"It was ultimately moving in its advocacy of education".

Keeping up the family business

Education has been the family business for generations. Where other families talk about profits and promotions, Thom Sherrington's family talks about teaching children.

Thom's maternal grandfather, Alf Wood, was a primary school head in the north east of England and his grandmother Ivy worked with children with special needs. His paternal grandfather, Frank Sherrington, taught English before becoming a careers adviser, while his grandmother Joyce was a primary teacher.

Thom's dad, Paul, is the principal at Banff and Buchan College and his mum, Janice, recently retired as depute rector at Banff Academy. His older sister Anna teaches, but his other sister, Jenny, made a break for freedom to the legal profession.

It sounds like a family that lives and breathes education. Thom talks regularly about school with his grandfather Alf, now in his eighties. "He's very wise about education," says Thom, during a break from marking essays in his Aberdeenshire classroom.

His parents continue to inspire him. His father Paul has been an influential role model: "For me, he is a very calm and stabilising influence and gives fantastic advice." But he also learnt from his mother, who taught at Banff Academy when he was a pupil.

"Seeing the effect and positive impact she had on children's lives every day, even when she was out of the classroom, is something I think I will carry with me throughout my career. She was so good at her job," says Thom.

"So many people used to stop me. Even the school tough - the hard man - would stop me in the corridor and I'd be worried. He'd stop me and then he'd say to me, `Your mam is amazing.'"

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