You’ve probably never heard of John Baruch. But this quietly spoken astrophysicist from Bradford has already made a major mark in education, introducing practical science to the gaokao – the ultracompetitive school-leavers exam sat by millions of pupils in China every year.
Now the septuagenarian believes he can do much more in helping school systems all over the world to prepare for the technological revolution that is about to engulf us all.
His solution is an unusual one in that it, to a large extent, bypasses schools. And Baruch – a “retired” academic with four visiting professorships in China and the UK – has arrived at it through an eclectic range of ideas taking in a telescope in Tenerife, scandal-filled radio soap operas, helium in Tanzania and grandmothers in West Yorkshire.
He believes that it will be the army of senior citizens he wants to recruit in the UK – rather than teachers – who will be the key to preparing today’s younger generation for the coming world of artificial intelligence and robotics.
“The love of grandparents for their grandkids can catapult our society into the fourth industrial revolution and make people much richer,” he says.
Don’t bet against him succeeding. The academic has a track record of making things happen, from the creation of a robotic telescope controlled by schoolchildren, to changes to the gaokao. The latter is the ridiculously high-stakes make-or-break high school exam sat by teenagers across China every June. For decades it was a traditional pen-and-paper exercise, but, working with local schools, Baruch pushed for a practical science element to be added to Beijing’s version.
“They wanted to move their industry from being a copying industry to being innovative and creative and generating their own stuff,” he says.
Baruch estimates that between 500,000 and 800,000 students a year took the practical in the two years prior to its abolition following “enormous” opposition from parents who wanted their children to “learn what we learned”. It is an example of the old resisting the new, but Baruch says China now recognises the importance of practical science through its inclusion at primary level, which will feed through to high schools as the children progress.
Baruch’s conversation is peppered with references to the “fourth industrial revolution”, and his concern that while countries such as China are preparing for it, the education system in England is not.
He worries about the precedent of previous economic upheavals sparking “periods of chaos” – “Europe had revolutions all over the place” – and believes the UK needs to bring forward the jobs and skills for the coming economy now, before large swathes of the workforce are rendered irrelevant. Education will be crucial to how well our society adapts to this change, Baruch argues, just as it was in the first industrial revolution when two key figures, linked to his home city of Bradford, helped bring some relief to the rapid and disorienting mechanisation of the 19th century.
There was Richard Oastler (whose statue Baruch is pictured with on page 24). Moved by the conditions he found in Bradford textile mills, Oastler wrote a letter opposing “Yorkshire slavery” that led to a successful campaign for a law limiting the working day for factory children to 10 hours. And there was William Forster, the MP behind the landmark 1870 Education Act, which set in train the move towards schooling for all, rather than a privileged, lucky few.
Today, Baruch believes practical science “is the route into technological innovation” and the key to equipping pupils to thrive in the next industrial revolution. But this, he says, is where the UK has a problem: “We are cutting out the practical science. Looking internationally, we are going the wrong way. Other people are looking at practical science and saying ‘we need to do that’. Other people are thinking about innovation and creativity.
“We are looking at facts and education as it was 100 years ago, and that was for a society that we had 100 years ago – a vast colonial empire of administrators and people who ran steam engines.”
Back to the future
That is not to say that the 74-year-old was not served well by his own 20th-century grammar school education in Bradford.
“I loved it,” Baruch says with a fond smile. “One of the science teachers was a friend of the family, so I knew him very well. So that must have influenced me a lot, but the family were interested in science all the time.”
That teacher was Colin Siddons, who went on to win the Institute of Physics’ Bragg medal in 1992. According to his Guardian obituary, which Baruch co-wrote, Siddons “elevated physics teaching into an art” and had a “genius for using common household materials to demonstrate scientific principles”.
But Baruch has not placed teachers at the heart of his solution to today’s educational needs. That decision is rooted in his experience as director of Bradford University’s robotic telescope – a device situated in an observatory on the side of a volcano in Tenerife, which schools can operate remotely via the internet.
In a study, one group of 40 teachers was taken out of the classroom and trained to use the telescope, while in another 40 schools, the teachers were led through the project together with their pupils.
“There was no comparison,” Baruch says. “The ones where we took the teachers out, they did the projects we told them to do. One school did one extra project.
“In the other [group], the average number of extra projects they did was eight. When we looked at the data it was absolutely clear the kids were going into the telescope and using it from home.
“What we saw with the robotic telescope was the enthusiasm of the kids pushed the teachers into learning it. There was a dramatic difference between teaching the teachers and teaching the kids.”
It is, he says, a “completely different model” of education.
“Our whole education model is ‘I know it all, I’m telling you and you do it.’ But that’s not about innovation. Innovation is saying ‘We’ve got all these experiences together, what do you think about this?’”
The same thinking informs Baruch’s current project: a plan to enlist grandparents to help their grandchildren to think like scientists. He singles out the older generation because “in many poor families, it was the grandparents who held the family together”.
“They actually know a lot of practical science,” he says. “They don’t call it practical science, but they know about cooking, their hair, personal hygiene, cleaning, gardening, all sorts. There’s loads of science in that. And what we want to do is take the science out of that and show them the science they do know, but rather than delivering lots of science about stars and this sort of thing, we want to deliver how to think like a scientist: why does this happen? Ask the right sort of questions.”
It is an approach he plans to roll out across Tanzania. Deals made following the recent discovery of a massive deposit of helium in the east African country mean that it will be able to send a stream of students to study science in the world’s top universities. But Baruch says there have been difficulties finding suitable candidates. So in November he will aim to start to solve the problem by launching a soap opera on the radio – “scandal and gossip!” – that contains a science project each week that listeners can do, followed up with text messages to those who have registered. The aim is to give grandparents the tools with which to engage with their grandchildren, and the confidence about their scientific knowledge to help them. He is looking at piloting a similar project in rural China using smartphones.
He also wants to bring the same method to grandmothers and pupils in West Yorkshire; Baruch has talked to Bradford Community Broadcasting – a local radio station – and is seeking funding to deliver the project, which he says would cost £150,000-£180,000 per year for three years. But his ambition extends much wider than Yorkshire. He would like to see Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour adopt the idea, so that it could go nationwide.
Baruch believes the key to getting primary schools to engage in practical science is to first enthuse the children, whose excitement would force the teachers to follow them. But teachers still have an important role, he says – bringing “experience to the mix” and opening the door for children to do things.
Baruch also stresses the importance of networking, and the benefits of people from different backgrounds and areas of expertise coming together to create something that they could not have achieved alone.
He illustrates his point with an example from his own life, after his mother developed Alzheimer’s disease. “She starting ringing us up in the middle of the night, saying ‘I don’t know what to do’,” he recalls. “I installed a system in her house, which had a TV on it and some sensors. If she got up in the middle of the night and went to the toilet, nothing happened. If she was up for more than 10 minutes, my picture would appear on the screen and it would say ‘Hi mum, it’s the middle of the night, don’t you think you should be in bed?’ It was wonderful; it solved it completely.”
During the daytime, one screen would list the big events of the day, while another would show what she had to do in the next half hour. And if the sensors picked up anything strange, it would send Baruch a text message. It kept his mother in her own home for two years longer than she would have otherwise.
He wrote about it academically, but no one took up the initiative – a fact that sums up the importance and value of collaboration.
“This is an illustrative [example] about networking,” he says. “It required somebody who would write the software, somebody who could do with the hardware pieces, somebody who had a marketing ability and somebody who could do the healthcare aspect of it. You needed practical science. You needed a different approach to education, because we couldn’t even put a team of people together to do that.”