Bill Bryson inspires students with focus on ‘understanding’

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If anyone can ignite young people’s curiosity about science then Bill Bryson can. The bestselling author of books like Notes from a Small Island and A Short History of Nearly Everything enthralled 450 students and their teachers last week when he delivere

If anyone can ignite young people’s curiosity about science then Bill Bryson can. 

The bestselling author of books like Notes from a Small Island and A Short History of Nearly Everything enthralled 450 students and their teachers last week when he delivered the annual Prince’s Teaching Institute (PTI) lecture.

His key themes were the importance of understanding science and the value of teaching it creatively but his talk ranged from his fear of being attacked by a grizzly bear during the course of his research to his belief that teaching is “heroic”.

The PTI had invited schools across England and Wales to send groups of year 11 to 13 students studying science and English to the event, which was held at the Royal Institution in London. Applications flooded in and teenagers from 36 schools travelled from as far afield as Pontypridd, Birmingham and Portsmouth to hear the writer speak.

Mr Bryson, pictured right, began the 90-minute session by explaining that A Short History of Nearly Everything was his attempt to understand the world and the universe and that he had known nothing about science when he began working on the book.

“The only advantage I had was my ignorance,” he said. “At first I thought ‘what can I bring to this?’ But what I could bring to it was this infinite capacity to be amazed.”

There followed a lively series of questions, many of them from students, which Mr Bryson did his level best to answer.

He revealed that he is full of admiration for scientists but wasn’t excited by science at school, that education should be “stimulating and exciting and interesting”, and that the one thing he’d like to do but hasn’t is to play shortstop for the Boston Red Sox baseball team.

When a teacher asked how he could get his students to be curious and ask questions, the author told him: “We are all born with huge amounts of curiosity but we don’t value it as a trait. How do you keep that going in kids? Do your best to be interested in everything. Even the most obvious things are amazing.”

Another teacher wondered what advice he had for today’s secondary pupils. 

“They should respect their teachers,” quipped Mr Bryson. “I think teaching is one of the most heroic ways for people to spend their lives. You are giving futures to people. What greater responsibility could there be than that? But kids have a responsibility to respect what is going on and to absorb it.”

Schools represented at the lecture included Ark Academy in Wembley, King Edward VI Sheldon Heath Academy in Birmingham, Gumley House School in Isleworth, Chiswick School, and Stewards Academy in Harlow. 

“An event like this sparks the children’s interest and stimulates the teachers too,” said Russell Perrin, head of science at Stewards Academy, which sent eight students, seven teachers and a science technician. 

“We will link Bill Bryson’s talk into our lessons and there will be a lot of discussion about it all.”

The PTI, which is run by teachers for teachers, aims to inspire teachers in their subject disciplines, develop their subject expertise and give them the confidence to introduce pupils to challenging material. Visit www.princes-ti.org.uk

IMAGE: Patrick Wigg, PTI


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