'Pottering' turns fiction into science

26th June 2009 at 01:00
In the second of our series on winners of the Scottish Education Awards, Henry Hepburn meets the Teacher of the Year 2009

When Scotland's Teacher of the Year Iain Houston ambled on stage to collect his award, he divulged the secret of his success: "I just kind of potter."

The 31-year-old physics teacher's "pottering" is not the pleasant but aimless activity of dictionary definition. Mr Houston, who works at St Joseph's College in Dumfries, is renowned for favouring science fiction over dry textbooks: pupils might ponder how much energy is needed to power a Star Wars light sabre, or consider speed, distance and time as demonstrated by Doctor Who's nemesis, the Dalek.

"A lot of the time, I look at books and it's all balls rolling down hills and how hot is the kettle going to get," he says. "I don't care about any of that stuff - and we wonder why pupils are not interested."

Mr Houston stresses that the science of sci-fi alone will not keep pupils' attention; long-term interest in difficult subjects depends on getting them to put in many hours of hard work. He reminds himself of this by learning daunting subjects in his own time, such as sign language and Chinese. "A lot of things aren't interesting because you don't go into them deeply enough," he contends.

He is frustrated by the tendency to teach physics in discrete blocks, which obscures a fascinating bigger picture. The difficult topic of vectors, for example, suffers from being taught in isolation, without a sense of how it can help unlock the secrets of the universe. It is not surprising, he believes, that pupils will ask themselves why they are studying physics and not something with a clearer purpose, such as Spanish or film-making. "We should show them where we're asking them to go," he says.

Mr Houston is driven by what he thinks might interest certain pupils, not rigid, centrally-set levels, and has no qualms about bringing up Advanced Higher concepts well before sixth year: "I think we do pupils a disservice if we say, `that's too difficult.'"

He showed his faith in pupils' abilities after finding dusty old equipment that had been lying untouched in the 100-year-old St Joseph's school building for decades. He scoured the internet and found replacement parts from all over the world, and his pupils are now carrying out experiments with equipment that most teachers would not recognise.

Mr Houston, who is originally from Kilmarnock, graduated with a first- class honours degree from Strathclyde University, before going on to carry out research at Glasgow University and the Technical University of Eindhoven, in the Netherlands. He quickly knew he wanted to leave research for teaching because "I wanted to explain things to other people".

He revels in the "greatest job in the world" because, provided the teacher derives excitement from sparking pupils' interest, there is an endless number of approaches to take.

Mr Houston, an avid reader, believes it is by telling other people what you know that you discover the gaps in your own knowledge. When pupils ask difficult questions, he heads home to read up on their area of interest. He believes that "you can't teach step one if you don't know step 30".

He joined St Joseph's in 2006, after a probationary year at Carrick Academy in Maybole, South Ayrshire, since when the number of pupils taking physics has increased each year and Advanced Higher has been revived following a long absence. Headteacher Bernadette Jones reports, results have "improved tremendously". He introduced oral testing of Intermediate 2 students, some of whom were dyslexic and went on to achieve As.

She praises his creative approaches, and his encouragement of creativity. He refuses to accept that budget pressures should hamper classroom teaching, pointing to experiments which pupils can repeat at home at no cost: using pliers to crush sugar cubes in a darkened room will produce blue flashes; place a glass inside a larger glass, fill with vegetable oil, and the smaller glass will "disappear", demonstrating refraction.

His enthusiasm has proved infectious, explains Mrs Jones: "I bump into people who say they're having discussions around the table about physics lessons. One parent said they check their children's timetables, because they want to find out the next development."

Gwen Ferguson, principal science teacher, believes Mr Houston possesses an ideal blend of traditional standards and affinity with young people. He has high expectations of behaviour, which "some associate with teachers and schools of the past", good manners, is always smartly turned out, but also has a young man's IT skills.

"He displays the erudition of the highly-qualified scientist with the down-to-earth conversation and vocabulary of the texting age," Ms Ferguson says.

As well as his "pottering", Mr Houston told the audience at last week's awards about his instinctive teaching style: "I do what interests me, and I have the confidence that that's going to interest pupils."

He admits, however, that he would not have had the confidence to go with this approach but for his colleagues' support, and would not have won his award at another school.

He was surprised by news of his nomination. Until that point, Mr Houston recalls, he kept asking himself: "Am I really doing the job properly?"

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