James 3 verse 1 (ESV) "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness"
Wow – isn't this a powerful passage? We have all encountered teachers who have been inspirational and sometimes have changed our lives; and also some who might have been suited to a different profession!
Exceptional science teachers rewarded
Two inspirational teachers have recently been "judged strictly" and awarded the Prime Minister's prize for science teaching in Primary and Secondary schools.
Brian Schiller of Seacliff Primary School in Adelaide uses science as a basis for teaching a wide range of topics throughout the curriculum, including language, music, literacy, and of course numeracy. He gives his students ways of learning where they can be active, and they thus become motivated to learn more – then they have to write about their discoveries. He encourages them to use their imagination and ask "why" - not just look for a standard "correct" answer to their problem.
Geoff McNamara from Melrose High School in Canberra has a lab full of interactive displays relating to the real world – all constructed by the students, sometimes with the help of one of the 80 visiting scientists he has "on his books". Wherever the students look, they are learning something about science in the real world. He also has a mentoring program for talented students to undertake individual projects.
I am sure these teachers follow the KISS (Keep It Short and Simple) principle when they start a new topic, to engage the students' curiosity before delving into more complex ideas and concepts, then encouraging the students to do their own research.
When we are writing about scientific or technological concepts for a non-scientific audience, this is a particularly important idea. In many cases, the intricate details do not need to be spelt out in rigorous scientific terminology after all, if we get the message across in Plain English or with the use of a diagram or good analogy.
Professor Brian Cox (OBE), is exemplary in being able to explain complicated ideas simply; he is so entertaining that he has become a remarkably successful science communications superstar. He aims to make science part of normal social conversation – without dumbing down the concepts. On his recent Australian tour, tickets for his shows were as scarce as those for pop concerts – in fact, he even made a science presentation in conjunction with music played by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra
Knowing a bit about how the brain works
Understanding more about how the brain works can perhaps help us to emulate Brian more closely, and to communicate more effectively with non-specialist readers.
Australian researcher, Dr Cordelia Fine, dispels the myth that boys' and girls' brains learn differently. She says: "In the majority of cases, the differences between the sexes are either non-existent or they are so small so as to be of no practical importance in, for example, an educational setting."
Her research helps us realise that, in imagining our readers, we should assume our topic to be of interest to "anyone" whose interest we can spark with our careful explanations – we should not try to write articles for one gender or the other.
On a completely different tack, an American research team has shown that brain cells (neurons) use less energy when the person (or animal) is performing a familiar task, than if they are learning a new task. The researchers postulate that the brain becomes more efficient after a task has been well-learnt.
For those of us writing for non-technical readers, this should indicate we need to introduce new and complex ideas gradually, with illustrations and metaphors that are familiar to the reader first, so that we do not "strain their brain" which uses more energy for new ideas or tasks.
This research project has another implication for scientists, and those of us who like reading reports of new research. Care must be taken when we are interpreting (or reporting on) the modern "high tech" methods such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). For example, it has been assumed that the neurons that "light up" on an MRI screen (ie those using most energy) are those most important in the task being performed. However, this study above indicates that if the task is a familiar one, then the neurons may not be so active. Sometimes it is important to correlate scientific results with more than one research project before drawing conclusions about them.
The public wants more science reporting!!!
A recent article in "The Conversation" website reported on a petition asking radio station JJJ to include science as part of every news report. This request is backed by surveys which show that the general public was more interested in hearing about science topics such as health issues, new medical discoveries, environmental issues, new scientific discoveries and new inventions and technologies than they were about sport or politics. However, 45% of those surveyed thought they were ill informed about these interesting topics. There seems to be a gap here!!!!!
In this article, Peter Ellerton from the University of Queensland, made several points about the difficulty of presenting complex ideas in a short space (or short time); and he also commented that the number of specialist science reporters is decreasing (notwithstanding the dedicated science programs on radio and TV that are of high quality).
An award-winner with sage advice
Professor Lesley Hughes (researcher into climate change at Macquarie University) has won the Australian Government Eureka Prize for Promoting Understanding of Australian Science Research. She seems to have some of the answers to the questions posed by Ellerton (above).
In an interview, Professor Hughes mentioned most of the points we have been discussing here. But she added a few more. She said that she has learnt that focusing on catastrophic risk can switch people off, and entrench their contrary views even deeper. Instead, she advocates using Plain English, relying on visual aids rather than graphs, LISTENING to your audience and addressing their individual concerns, and understanding and addressing what they believe rather than relying only on "rational" argument.
Those of us who try to communicate something we are passionate about, to a readership who may not think the same things as we do, can usefully follow this advice. And moreover we certainly know a good Bible teacher when we hear such a one.
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html