Vincent Bovill loves the quirky thoughts that drive children's minds. "The way they remember and what they remember, I tap into that quite a lot." He is prepared and "endlessly fascinated" to follow the twists and turns of their logic, no matter how skewed, especially when it comes to teaching science, a specialty which has earned him praise and public recognition.
Last year he was a regional winner of The TES Science Teacher of the Year Award as well as scooping a Primary Science Teacher Award from the Institute of Physics. He attributes his success to his ability to keep things simple and meaningful, and to his curiosity about the thoughts children may already have about a subject.
Good teaching, he believes requires a flexible response to pupils, a listening ear, patience and a developed sense of humour.
At the start of a topic he always invites pupils to express their ideas on paper. "Then you can see the way their minds are working and do something about the misconceptions. We are often a bit too keen to impart our knowledge without considering their thoughts. Such consideration could save us a lot of time. "
For example, taking a classic experiment about "materials" he invites initial responses to the question: How do you separate salt from sand? Some pupils write: "You put the salt to one side and the sand to the other." Some talk about sieving, and one or two have already moved on to the possibility of dissolving the salt in water.
After he takes the pupils through the process, he asks the question again. "I do this as a test of my teaching," he says, "to see how much their level of thinking has changed." One girl who has clearly made progress writes about filter paper, funnels, dissolving and evaporation. But another persists in writing: "You put the sand on one side and the salt on another." "Either that girl is winding me up or she needs some extra help," he says.
Vince Bovill's classroom is arranged like a tidy workshop, everything has a place, easily accessible to children. "I am a role model. I like to put up clear, presentable displays so that the children too get into the habit of presenting tidy work." Questions about scientific topics are set out on the wall, with a list of relevant vocabulary. "We use words like streamlined, angled, surface, resistance, dependent, variable, test-tube holder otherwise everything gets called 'a thingy'."
Simple, attractive equipment is also laid out, ready to use at any time. "Kids need to get their hands on equipment." And he goes out of his way to answer questions whenever they arise.
During a project on chromatography, in which the children drop water on to food colouring to detect the yellow ring caused by tartrazine, an additive which can cause hyperactivity, he recalls how one girl had interrupted morning registration.
"I was tempted to tell her to sit down, but then I thought, 'no, she has something important to say'. Amanda wanted to tell me that she had found tartrazine in her nan's food colouring. Here was a girl who was carrying on with the work at home, so I explained to the class right then what she had achieved."
Vince Bovill trained in music; his interest in science came much later when a textbook he'd ordered called Magic Tricks, described the making of a square egg by boiling and soaking in vinegar. Suddenly science could be fun and simple. From then on he was hooked, going on to take teaching diplomas in science, setting up a science society for teachers in Sunderland, designing science in-service training courses at Durham University.
"Primary teachers have great guilt and fear about science. If they are prepared to share in the children's ignorance, if they are prepared to be honest and to question and research themselves, then they will get somewhere. "
The children at Havelock, says Vincent Bovill, are warm, affectionate and funny but tempers are easily aroused and trouble flares quickly, requiring a speedy settlement. " Nip it in the bud, keep calm and keep smiling, that's my philosophy." With such children he feels it is crucial to be flexible and to "plan for spontaneity".
"Sometimes, they come in in the morning and you sense immediately that you're in for a bumpy ride; they're coming in noisy, you can't do a thing with them. It might be something that happened on the street the night before. I never meet fire with fire. I get them sitting down on the carpet, I lower my voice, I settle them that way. But it might mean that I change all my plans at the last minute."
Although a careful planner, Vince Bovill says he refuses to get bogged down with paperwork; record-keeping is to the point and he avoids jargon. "Too much paperwork makes you tired and a tired teacher is no good to anybody."
* TES Science Teacher of the Year details available with an A4 SAE from the Association of Science Education, College Lane, Hatfield, Herts AL10 9AA