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David Perks
head of physics at Graveney School in London, and deviser of the Debating Matters sixth-form debating competition


Science seemed to offer me certainty while I was studying for my A-levels. I was fascinated by the power that mathematics gave me to calculate the motion of bodies in a simplified Newtonian universe. But the power of science also contributed to my belief that the world was something that human beings can not only understand, but change for the better.

I was lucky to live through the optimism of the initial moon landings, and Raymond Baxter’s tenure on the TV series Tomorrow’s World, which I watched without fail as a youngster. The promise of science and technology was difficult to avoid while I grew up.

Having gone on to study physics at Oxford, I lost my belief in a Platonic universe governed by mathematical beauty. Instead, I came to a more profound appreciation of the capacity of the human mind to fathom an explanation of the natural world based on experimental science. I was lucky, in that my tutors at Oxford still believed in teaching from first principles. I was treated by my tutors as if I could make sense of everything they knew about physics. This was the greatest respect they could have paid me.

As a physics teacher, I have always tried to find the time to teach from first principles, in the belief that I am giving my students a chance to work physics out for themselves. This has become of increasing significance to me, as belief in the capacity of pupils to cope with formal science education has receded. I have had many battles with my students as a result.

The intellectual integrity of the subject often means that I find myself teaching outside of the syllabus. One group of students, after leaving, presented me with a T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘FCUK the syllabus’. The one lesson I really try to get across to my students is that scientific theory is nothing, unless backed up by experimental evidence. This is something that I missed in my own education.

What inspires me to teach science is that despite the pessimistic times we live in, teaching young people science can help reveal to them the power we all have to both understand and shape the world.

David Perks is a contributor to The RoutledgeFalmer Guide to Key Debates in Education (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).