Teacher takes Chemistry in a year - Al McConville in TES

Posted on 23rd January 2017

In a recent article for TES, Al McConville, Bedales Deputy Head, Academic, reflects on the possibly rash decision to take his GCSE in Chemistry from a standing start in just a year, alongside an already demanding schedule.

Al explains that he decided on this course of action partly to redress his decision to drop the subject when at school himself in favour of Latin, but also to remind his professional self of the challenges of struggling with a new subject and difficulties with academic material.

In September 2016, he announced his intentions to the assembled school, and exhorted those present to be his emotional and intellectual supports. He promised not to consult the Chemistry department, and solicited help only from the student body. “Ask me how it’s going in the corridor”, he urged, and threatened to turn up in lessons and ask for help with things he didn’t understand.

One term into this endeavour, he says: “I wanted to remind myself what it was to struggle with a new subject and to encounter difficulties with academic material, so I could better understand the experience of my students”, adding that Chemistry GCSE is no cakewalk for the uninitiated. He has been guided in his endeavour by Barbara Oakley’s book A Mind for Numbers: how to excel at math and science (even if you flunked algebra), but observes that putting advice into practice is a long way from simply knowing what to do.

The students have subsequently played their part, he explains, asking after his progress with both amusement and genuine interest. When they ask why he is doing it, he explains that he is trying to demonstrate that learning about the world is a wonderful thing, even if there is no obvious need to do so.

He is unsure as to whether he will make the grade, but whatever the outcome be believes the experience has made him a better teacher because of the opportunity it has given him to empathise. He says: “On occasions, it has been thrillingly energising to switch into totally alien activity, and at other times it has been headbangingly frustrating. I have appreciated the opportunities to be open about my ignorance, both with staff and students. My astonishment when students don’t follow the wisdom I put before them has diminished considerably.”

The full article is on the TES website (subscription may be required). See a profile of Al McConville here.