Obituary - Philip Adey, 1939-2013

22nd February 2013 at 00:00

Improve children's thinking skills, Philip Adey said, and their retention of facts will follow naturally. And so the education professor spent his career training thousands of teachers in how to help their pupils learn.

Philip Stanworth Adey was born in May 1939. After completing a chemistry BSc and a teacher training qualification at the University of London, he was appointed head of chemistry at the Lodge School in Barbados in 1963. He stayed for seven years.

He was fascinated by how children learn: he wanted to understand what made certain topics difficult to take in. And so, gradually, he made the move from teaching into academia. He worked for three years as a consultant at the University of the West Indies, before returning to Britain in 1974 in order to complete a PhD at London's Chelsea College. He joined King's College London in 1984. Over the next 20 years he progressed through the ranks of academia, from researcher to professor.

Full of energy, he could find humour in any social situation. A man of honesty and integrity, he believed in treating everyone - student, teacher or academic - equally.

In the mid 1980s he worked with school science departments. He concluded that children's thinking was not being sufficiently challenged during lessons. Rather than being presented with a succession of facts, pupils needed to be pushed to think more effectively. Only then would they be able to make sense of abstract concepts.

Three years after this project had ended, the pupils were achieving higher results than their peers, not just in science but also in maths and English. Professor Adey's subsequent books, Towards a Science of Science Teaching and Really Raising Standards, remain highly influential.

This was around the time that league tables were introduced, and underperforming schools were anxious to offer lessons in thinking skills. But this required considerable training, which the government was unwilling to fund. As a result, Professor Adey's ideas became better known in Europe and Australia than in his own country.

His other focus was on debunking educational myths: for example, he was increasingly disheartened by the widespread belief that each child uses one of four learning styles. We all learn in a range of ways, he said. Improve your thinking and everything else will follow.

But he was no ivory-tower theorist. He was, in fact, very practical: he built his own conservatory and had a fondness for fast cars, which he repaired himself.

After retiring in 2004, he travelled considerably, discovering quite how well-known he was overseas. Though he suffered from multiple system atrophy, a degenerative disease, he insisted on attending the launch of his latest book, the myth-debunking Bad Education, in November.

Philip Adey died on 31 January. He was predeceased by his first wife, Jenny, but is survived by his second wife, Jadwiga, and his sons, Lewis and Gideon.

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