“I have become a Fellow because I feel that teaching really matters. I think it’s extremely important, that as a teacher, you should not appear too arrogant, no matter how much you think you know. There a balance between being patronising and having unrealistically high expectations of your students. You should always try to find the middle ground while, at the same time, being enthusiastic and if possible innovative.” – Sir Martyn Poliakoff, research professor of chemistry, the University of Nottingham
Sir Martyn Poliakoff is a research professor of chemistry at the University of Nottingham. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. A Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, Sir Martyn was also renowned worldwide as Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society from 2011-16, in effect an ambassador for UK science; he is also lead presenter in pioneering YouTube videos, www.periodicvideos.com, aimed at promoting chemistry which have attracted ca. 165 million views. He was knighted in 2015 for services to the chemical sciences, even going so far as wearing his trademark periodic table tie to the investiture at Buckingham Palace. Here Sir Martyn talks about teaching and explains why he wanted to become a HEA Senior Fellow.
To be quite honest, I’m not entirely sure what my biggest contribution to teaching has been. It probably has to be our YouTube videos because they are used so widely at universities and schools. They seem to have had an effect on all sorts of people. Recently we were visited by a 13-year old fan from the USA, who happened to be in the UK with his grandfather, and wanted to come to Nottingham to meet me. It was really enjoyable.
A few days earlier, I had also been on holiday, with my wife at a hotel in Wales. While we were waiting for dinner a young medical student from London came up and said how much he enjoyed our videos. Moments like that are extremely flattering and rewarding. It demonstrates just how many people one can reach through social media. Most importantly, I’ve managed to demonstrate that one can be heavily involved in teaching and science communication science, yet still maintain one’s reputation for research.
I still try to be innovative in my teaching. What kind of medium we as teachers, will be using in, say, five years’ time? That’s a very difficult question to answer. A couple of years ago my colleagues started videoing their lectures. That began changing the way that students learn. You can now tell them to watch the lecture again. Ideas can just suddenly come to you. For example, I recently gave a demonstration lecture for an open day and during the rehearsal we realised – and I’m sure other people must have done this already – that the visualiser, the video equivalent of the overhead projector, is really good for showing experiments to people. You do things on a small scale, yet the audience sees an image which fills the whole screen. The students can see that it’s real, because your hand is shaking, but it’s clearly not a video. In other words, it comes across as genuine. No matter what the future holds in terms of innovation, I hope to increase the number of demonstrations that I do in undergraduate lectures because I believe they are important, particularly in chemistry.
My overriding priority is that my students should enjoy their lectures and find the subjects interesting. Many years ago I was lecturing on a particularly boring topic, so-called ‘ligand substitution in octahedral cobalt compounds’. I was talking away, when I suddenly realised that the students were absolutely silent and seemed to think that the topic was interesting. So I felt I ought to be more enthusiastic. . In the end, I got so worked up that I couldn’t do anything else for the rest of the morning because I was so hyped! I suppose enthusiasm is the one thing that is difficult to teach lecturers to display, but it is important. As an undergraduate I remember going to lectures on theoretical chemistry, which I couldn’t understand at all, but the lecturer was enormously enthusiastic. It was just so uplifting to hear him speak. At some point that enthusiasm, and probably that knowledge, will rub off on the audience.
I have a picture hanging in my office of a former colleague, Alec Campbell. Alec spent his entire working career in the chemistry department at the University of Newcastle. He was the man who taught me to teach; he was my mentor if you like. Many people are not aware that chemistry is compartmentalised into several different areas – organic, physical, inorganic, and so on. The thing about Alec was that he taught the lot. That’s one of the many things I learned from him; one should not be shy to teach quite broadly. Alec managed to acquire a huge amount of knowledge yet at the same time to be a very modest person. I think it’s extremely important that a teacher should not appear too arrogant, no matter how much you think you know. There a balance between being patronising and having unrealistically high expectations of your students. You should always try to find the middle ground while, at the same time, being enthusiastic and if possible innovative.
My travels have shown me that people working in higher education overseas, not only in chemistry, often give more lectures than we do in the UK. They usually don’t necessarily do tutorials, but they do far more hours of lecturing. It is encouraging to find across the world is the passion that most universities and teachers have towards their students. Perhaps there isn’t quite the focus on research in some countries that there is in the UK.. On the other hand, one of the big differences with teaching in some countries is that we in the UK have a great commitment towards our students passing. Our dropout rates, and I’m talking generally about chemistry here, are relatively low whereas many countries have a big dropout rate, perhaps because they are slightly less selective in their admissions.
I’m proud to be a Higher Education Academy Senior Fellow and, hopefully sometime I might become a Principal Fellow. I applied, first, because I think that teaching is important. Secondly, I am in the slightly embarrassing position of having no formal teaching qualifications at a time when people feel that everybody should have them! Students justifiably expect people to have teaching qualifications, and so I felt I ought to do something about it.
Obviously when it comes to teaching one needs to have a certain basic understanding of what it is you are teaching. Yet quite often it can be an advantage if you’re not a specialist in the area in which you’re teaching. Then you don’t feel under pressure thinking ‘I must include this example’ or ‘I must put that one in’, after which you end up with a huge amount of material. Too much, in fact. If you’re not a specialist you tend to think ‘Well, I’ve got 50 minutes, I’ll include these and to hell with the cobalt or the iron example’. If you’ve had to learn it yourself, then you have been in the students’ position. That can be a tremendous advantage, although there are of course limits. When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, I had a tutor who was asked by a professor to give one of the professor’s lectures while he was away.. The professor said ‘It’s very easy – the notes are on my desk’. The night before the lecture, the tutor went to get the notes, and the notes simply said ‘The chemistry of rhodium’. And poor tutor was up all night preparing for it!