Science syllabuses across the country are being updated this year - a result of Michael Gove's "educational reforms". Syllabus-alterations happen a lot though, so it's pretty much par for the course. Some topics within a subject get shelved and others get brought in (oh, and in case you're wondering, the plural of syllabus can be both syllabi or syllabuses).
The new Science schemes are heavier on content than the previous bunch and there are a few nastier topics to contend with, but on the whole they cover the same basic stuff. One thing I'm glad to see the back of however is the topic of paint drying.
Let's be clear about this: I'm not telling a joke. The GCSE Chemistry syllabus I've taught for the last five years had, as part of unit C1, the Science of paint drying. A subject so boring we have a phrase for it to mean "the ultimate in boring-ness".
Apparently, someone at the head offices of our exam board decided that paint drying was a topic which would help inspire the next generation of Scientists.
Was it a joke? Did someone submit the topic as a Christmas-party prank and it got approved so they just kept their heads down? Was the chief of the exam board married to someone who worked for Dulux? Had money changed hands?? It's a bad sign when the story of how something got into the syllabus is more intriguing than the topic itself.
So imagine you're a teacher. You care about your subject, you think it's important. You also know that many of the teenagers in front of you are probably tired and don't really want to be in school. Most of them are patient because they know you want to help them, but a few are poised to kick off if they get bored.
And you have to stand there and explain to them why they need to learn about paint drying. Do you fess up and go with the honest, although soul-crushingly familiar words "we've got to learn it because it's on the syllabus"? Or do you lie and tell them this is the most exciting, most relevant topic in the world?
One thing I've learnt about myself as a teacher is that I'm really bad at faking it. A few years ago, when I was newer to teaching, I tried to fake enthusiasm for a topic in order to motivate the students. They saw through it immediately of course, and I decided to just be myself. You can't make the Science of paint drying interesting. Well, maybe you can, but I surely can't. I mean, if you're teacher-of-the-year you can probably make anything interesting, but for most of us teachers we have limits and paint-drying is well beyond mine.
But the idea of "putting on an act" is very interesting. As a teacher you have a similar job to an actor in many ways. You have to stand before an audience, deliver some content, keep them interested for the whole show and make sure there's a clear narrative to what you say. But teaching isn't acting, and I'll try to explain why.
You're often taught, during teacher training, that it's important to put on a persona for the classroom, some kind of character to preserve your own sanity. The idea is that you are "tim" when you're in the office but you become "Mr James" when you step through the classroom door.
I remember one of the tutors on my training course demonstrating this one morning. He marched into the room and yelled for silence (a room of adults) then took a register as "Mr Grunthorpe". I even got told off for saying "yup" rather than "yes, sir" when he said my name. He kept it up for ten minutes, before he paused, grinned at everyone and went back to being Frank. I can't deny it had an impact.
I know other teachers who are very good at this. I've seen them. One minute they're talking to me in the office as "Horace" and then suddenly they're "Mr. Nipperhosen" or whatever. I'd like to say you should always be yourself in the classroom but there's a good reason for all this persona-stuff. One story in particular will demonstrate this painfully well.
I was at chess club one Thursday evening. The student I was playing outwitted me brilliantly with a discover checkmate after ten minutes. I was impressed, surprised and entertained so, as we sat laughing at my defeat, I let slip the words "Tom you clever *@$^#!" Argh.
This was how I'd respond if someone outside school had outwitted me as cleverly as this year 11 had done. But I let my mouth run away and acted like a normal person. He froze, as did I, and then he laughed even harder. The head-of-year happened to be in the room though and I was taken aside and spoken to. Rightly so.
If I'd said that to a stranger (who I was mysteriously playing chess with) there would have been no issue of course. But teachers are expected to act and speak a certain way. If you swear at someone in Tesco's you're just rude. If you swear at a student, that's a different matter altogether.
Now this may come as a surprise to you, but I'm a human being, as are most teachers. Sometimes we say silly things, sometimes we make off-colour jokes and sometimes we use naughty language. In other words, we act like ordinary people. But when you're in a classroom you've got other people's kids in front of you and you want to be a good role model. Many parents would be very unhappy if you acted like a normal person.
I remember once talking with a priest and I said something which surprised him. His reponse was to blaspheme loudly in the middle of church. For what it's worth, this made him seem more human to me, a real person who spoke like regular folk do, but I could imagine someone writing to the archbishop in complaint.
My point is that the chess-playing incident was an example of me letting my guard down. As a result of this I decided to make a real effort to be "Mr James" and I discovered two things about myself. One, I wasn't very good at acting and two, it actually made me a less effective teacher.
None of the students I currently teach have ever met the old "Mr James" but, to give you an idea, I was briefly nicknamed "The Colonel" at my first school. I strode around the playground with a determined authority. I never smiled, I never told jokes and I didn't take any nonsense. I made my sense of authority on Science clear. Nobody could question or challenge me. But I really sucked at it.
I wasn't good on discipline, I just snapped and shouted at people. I wasn't someone pupils could talk to if they needed help, I was the austere guy who bled knowledge. And I couldn't keep it up. I was spending so much time on acting that my love of Science got buried beneath my desire for people to believe the tough-on-discipline act. So I threw the whole thing out the window and decided to just be myself and talk about Science.
For me, teaching isn't about performance, it's about shifting gear. The person I am in front of a class is always there inside me, I just keep him subdued when I'm not in school. The same way people chanting at a football match aren't faking their enthusiasm. They don't act like that in the grocery store, nobody sings boisterous songs at the frozen peas, but their love of the sport is 100% authentic. They aren't putting on an act when they go to a match, they just uncage a different side of themselves.
So, when we cover a subject I'm not fired-up about, I can't fake enthusiasm for it and, if I'm honest, those lessons are probably not my best.
I went to school with a guy who could act though. He was one of those people who could vanish into a role, so much that you didn't even recognise him. That's not a joke either. I once went to see him in a play where he was a mentally-deteriorating soldier suffering from PTSD. And you'll notice my wording there. He wasn't playing this character...he WAS this character. I'd gone along expecting to see my mate playing a soldier. Instead I saw the soldier.
I'd known this guy since I was 12, yet I didn't recognise the person in front of me. It didn't look like a performance, it was just a different guy! But that's what made him such a good actor. He could somehow change his brain, voice, mannerisms and movements to bring a character to life. I still feel like that soldier was a real person. If he saw me teaching however, he'd still recognise that it was basically tim james.
When I'm in front of a class I'm probably a little bit more hyped-up than when I'm sitting at home with my wife talking about crumpets or whatever. But the guy I become when I teach is still me. I'm not pretending to be anything I'm not. In fact, when I'm teaching is probably when people are seeing the real me. I just watch my language a bit more. So if I am acting, I'm playing a character who is 99% myself anyway.
The time for exam results will soon be upon us. It’s always an occasion for me to reflect on my life and ask the question we all have to ask from time to time: what am I doing with my life and why am I doing it?
Earlier this week I had coffee with two former students. It was a bittersweet experience (and a bittersweet coffee) to see two people I’m very proud of, and who I miss dearly, making their way in the world. There was a time when I’d talk to them all the time, but now they’ve utterly outgrown my classroom. It’s a wonderful feeling, but also a sad one, which I suspect many teachers are familiar with. They've flown the nest and moved out of my sphere of influence. Also, I spilt coffee all over my trousers.
So I’m feeling all wistful. Time to write a heartfelt blog about why I became a Science teacher. We’ll begin with a thoughtful, soul-defining image and caption.
Me as a Teenager
Anyone who’s known me since I was a teenager knows I’ve always loved Science. Actually, that’s not technically true. I’m pretty sure the day of my year 12 Chemistry coursework, after screwing up my results and spilling concentrated Lithium Hydroxide all over my fingers I may have uttered the words “I b****y hate Chemistry!” to my best friend, but barring that one morning, I’ve always loved Science.
There is a question which I think is worth answering though. Why am I a Science teacher rather than a Scientist? To be clear, I do consider myself a Scientist because a Scientist (to me at least) is someone who tries to think Scientifically. But I don’t make my living from doing Scientific research, I make a living by standing in front of people who don’t want to be there and telling them about Science. Why do I do this strange thing?
The head-teacher of our school was once sitting beside me at the year 11 prom and asked me this very pertinent question. “So, tim, it’s clear you love Science, but why did you become a teacher rather than a researcher, say?” At the time I gave him the stock response I always give, which I’ll get to later, but I thought I’d take some self-indulgent time to explain (for those who are curious) what motivates someone to do this job.
Teaching Myth 1: Long Holidays and a Short Working Day
Something I hear a lot is that teachers must be lazy because we don’t do a 9 – 5 shift. Obviously teachers work 9 – 3:10 and spend their holidays lounging around, being fed grapes by servants. And the holidays are enormous. We get two weeks at Easter, two at Christmas, three half-term breaks and a six-week Summer, which I'm currently enjoying. That’s 13 weeks of holiday while the average non-teaching job offers 5.6 (28 days to be precise). It certainly does look like teachers get an easy ride. Except there’s a few details worth considering.
According to the Department for Education’s most recent survey (2014) the average secondary school teacher works 55.7 hours per week. If those were the official contract hours it would actually be illegal because an employer is not permitted to demand over 48 hours per week from their employees.
According to the Trades Union Congress, the average person in the UK works a 43.6 hour week, so if we multiply that by the number of weeks the average person in the UK works (46.4 weeks) we learn that a non-teacher in the UK typically works 2,023 hours in a year. By contrast, the average teacher who works 55.7 hours a week for 39 weeks ends up working 2,172.
The average teacher works 149 more hours per year than a non-teacher. That’s roughly 21 extra working days. I’m not claiming teachers work harder than non-teachers though. We probably don’t. But while non-teachers are running a year-long marathon of gradual grind, teachers are running sprints for a month, then taking a rest. During term time I work insanely hard and then put my brain in a vat of ice every half-term break.
Teaching suits a very particular personality type. The “give it everything you’ve got and then crash” personality. I couldn’t sustain the level of energy required to be a teacher for 46 weeks straight (it would hospitalise me). But I can definitely keep it going for a couple of months, provided I have a week off every now and then.
I’m also not trying to argue that teachers have it tougher than other people. I’m just trying to remind everyone that although teaching may look like a nice relaxing job, it sure as shoot isn’t.
Teachers aren’t doing their job because it’s easy. They do 13 months’ worth of work in 10, so complain all you want about us getting long holidays. We earn them. Booyah!
Teaching Myth 2: Those who can – do. Those who can’t – teach.
The idea is that people who can do something skilfully will actually do that thing. If they fail, they become a teacher because they’re not quite good enough to make a living from it.
I’ll admit it’s probably true for some teachers. Like any job, teaching has some people who aren’t there by choice and there are some people who teach their subject because “what else were they going to do with their degree?”
But, for the most part (I’d like to believe) teachers are in the job because they can do, and they want to teach others how. I mean, the implication of “can’t do, therefore teach” is that anyone who has a skill immediately wants to keep it to themselves and hoard their knowledge so nobody else can do it. Clearly, that’s nonsense.
The very fact we’re no longer living in damp caves scrounging in the dirt for scraps of dead squirrel-meat is because people are willing to share what they’ve learned and pass their skills on.
And, for the record, we can do Science, pretty well thank you very much. Within my school’s Science department we have loads of teachers who graduated with 1st Class degrees from Russell Group Universities. Many of us have PhDs and Masters qualifications and some even have special awards for Science.
We have people who self-taught their entire degree, people who earned the highest A-level scores in the country, Oxbridge graduates, former high-earning engineers who took enormous pay cuts to do the job and so on. Many other schools can boast similar credentials, I’m sure.
And it’s not just in Science. One of the teachers of business at my school is an honest-to-God millionaire who made his money through excellent entrepreneurship. And he teaches. He doesn’t need the money, he does it because he wants to pass on his knowledge. A lot of teachers are actually pretty skilled people who could be doing other things.
And, for the record, when I finished my master’s degree (during which I invented my own equation and theorem) I was offered research positions with several groups and was head-hunted to work in computational quantum mechanics. I was also awarded a significant financial bursary by my University to pay some of my student fees because they wanted me to remain there. I’m not boasting by the way, I’m making a point. Actually, I am boasting, but I worked hard during my degree and did really well, I get to boast about that.
The point is: teaching was not a last resort for me, but something I actively pursued. I had plenty of options and the same is true for many other people in my profession. They are teachers because it’s what they want to do. I can do, and I teach. I should get a bumper sticker with that on. If I owned a car. I don’t though. Maybe I’ll just get it stencilled on my trousers.
Teaching Myth 3: Teachers Earn Loads
Teaching Myth 4: Yeah but you earn a decent amount.
Alright, I think teachers get paid reasonably-ish. The office for National Statistics April 2014 ASHE estimated that the median income for a full-time employee in the UK was 27K per year. Newly qualified teachers earn 21K and teachers who’ve been at it longer (if they’re lucky – we’ll get to that in a moment) max out at 31K. So actually, a teacher’s salary is pretty typical for a UK employee. Not too bad, not too mind-blowing.
The only frustration over teachers’ pay comes from seeing what our equally qualified friends wind up earning. Like I said above, a lot of teachers have excellent A-level and degree results, so we’re highly employable. With our grades we could be doing something far better paid and that's the source of annoyance.
It’s true that in my friendship group from school I wound up earning the least out of all of us. I’m not walking around with a ball of seething jealousy in my stomach though. Obviously not, they’re my friends and I’m happy for them. But I’m a human being and sometimes I’ll see things they can afford, holidays they can go on etc. etc. and I’ll wave my fist at the money gods because I’m just as qualified and work just as hard...and they earn way more. But hey, I chose to become a teacher.
Now, remember when I said teachers would go up the pay scale if they were lucky? Well here’s how it works: the teacher’s pay scale isn’t automatic like many other public-sector jobs. At the end of each year we can apply to go up a level (until we reach the top rung), and the decision is largely based on how our students have done in exams.
The assumption by the powers-that-be is that teachers will want to start teaching kids better if there’s a money incentive. I’m personally insulted by that because it implies I’m not really bothered how my kids are doing and I need some incentive. Believe it or not, most teachers want their students to do well for the students’ sake and incentivising us with money doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to how well we try and teach.
I try to teach to the best of my ability because I want to give the kids in front of me a good education. Perhaps the people who made this decision are motivated by money and therefore assume everyone else is, and perhaps it’s hard for them to imagine what it must be like to love your job, but for a lot of teachers the reason we’re teachers isn’t to do with money, otherwise we would have taken that other high-paying job we’re qualified for!
The fact I get paid is obviously important (after all, I need money to access the whole food and shelter thing), and I obviously wouldn’t turn down lots of money if offered. But I’m not a teacher because I have to pay the bills. I’m a teacher because I want to be a teacher.
Offering me a sliver of extra cash won’t actually change how well I teach. Sorry, but it won’t. I will keep teaching as well as I can, same as I always have, and I’m doing it for the kids, not my wallet. There are no teachers out there going: “wow, I’d better start caring whether my students pass, I can make some serious knicker if they do!”
The other problem with this payscale scheme is that it assumes better teaching = better grades. Well, just imagine you’re a head of department and you’ve got a fantastic teacher in your team and one who really can’t be bothered. Suppose you’ve also got a brilliant class full of motivated students who are going to do well regardless, and another class of grumpazoid chimp-hybrids who would rather be whipping each other with bike chains than learning Science.
You pair the talented teacher with the tougher class, right? And then the lazy teacher gets the good class who are going to do well anyway. Whose results look better and who goes up the payscale?
Money’s not everything but it is important and teachers get a sort-of satisfactory amount. I’d like us to get more, but I recognise there’s lots of people with lots of jobs and we can’t all get as much as we’d like.
Thing is, I’m not a teacher because it’s an easy job and I’m not a teacher because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I’m not in it for the money and I’m certainly not in it for control or power (if you like having control and power, you would very quickly find teaching is not the job for you, because you basically don’t have any). I’m a Science teacher for loads of other reasons. Here are the main ones.
Reason 1: I’m in it for the species
I was once talking to someone I knew about the importance of getting people interested in Science. I really do believe it’s of vital importance that as many people as possible be Scientifically literate. Science has brought us out of the caves, given us modern medicine, technology, global communication and helps us look out at the vast expanse of space to find our own significance. Science is one of the key driving forces (if not the driving force) of the human race’s astonishing progress.
The more people who care how we relate to our Universe, the more people start to see the bigger pictures. I want to make sure our next generation has people who can think scientifically so they can navigate us through the problems we’re going to be dealt.
I am a Science teacher because I have admiration for the human endeavour and I want us to thrive because I truly think we could be worthy of it. Yes we’re flawed and yes we stumble, but look at what we have done in such a short space of time. Science is the key to our survival and I want to play a part in that effort.
After I’d said all this, the person I was speaking to said “tim, you can’t save the world.” I agree, I can’t. But there’s no harm in trying.
Reason 2: I like the people I teach
Teenagers get a bad rep. Yeah, fine, teenagers make mistakes and say stupid stuff, but have you ever looked around and noticed how dumb some of the stuff adults say is? I think there’s all sorts of reasons teenagers get criticised (I won’t get into it right now) but for what it’s worth I really value the insights and opinions of the students I teach.
Teenagers aren’t stupid, they aren’t sulky and they aren’t overly emotional, at least no more than adults are. Next time a teenager says something which bugs you, and your knee jerk response is to go “damn teenagers!” or “young people today”, take a moment to actually think about what it is they’ve said that annoys or angers you. And then think: do adults do those things as well?
Sometimes I’ll be teaching a student and they’ll get on my nerves (surprise, surprise, teachers don’t have infinite patience and love in their hearts for everything kids do). Things like arrogance, apathy, being unnecessarily confrontational etc. etc. But it would also get on my nerves if an adult did it. In fact, I struggle to think of a behaviour I dislike which is exclusive to teenagers.
Teenagers are human and, as it happens, often more open-minded, more carefree, more humorous, more optimistic, more ambitious, more irreverent, more willing to change their minds and more willing to learn than a lot of adults I meet.
Also, Biologically speaking, teenagers’ body clocks aren’t wired the same as those of an adult. A teenager’s circadian rhythm (the thing which determines sleep cycle) lags behind daylight significantly. Teenagers start to wake up about 10-11 O’clock and they don’t get sleepy until very late at night. So actually, a lot of the reason teenagers might seem sulky or moody or grumpy is painfully simple: they’re tired. If we based the school day on Biology it would start and finish a lot later (but does anyone listen to me???)
Reason 3: Science can make people happy
Science is one of the most exciting and optimistic things you can study becuase the world is beautiful. It’s astonishing, weird, incredible, and full of unending mystery. Nature is elegant and Science is exquisite.
We didn’t exist for 13.8 billion years of time and we won’t exist for countless trillions after we die. We are privy to a grand spectacle for 70 or so years and it's a waste of that time if we don't try to appreciate all this majesty and complexity. How lucky we are to be given such an opportunity.
I'm a Science teacher because when I look at the world around me, I’m filled with joy and hope. I want to share that with other people.
Reason 4: I like Teaching people stuff
Seems like an obvious one but it’s hard to pin down what this feeling is exactly. I think every teacher knows the feeling they get when a kid suddenly goes “oh! I get it now!” and you’ve helped them see something they couldn’t before. I can’t really explain or analyse it any deeper than that, but there’s something wonderful about helping someone grasp something. It doesn’t happen every lesson of every day with every student. But when it does happen it’s something really special.
Reason 5: I want to make a difference
As I said earlier, teachers don’t get paid a whopping amount in terms of money. But we are paid in the kinds of memories few other jobs have. As a teacher we have such potential to influence the lives of people for the better. To quote Socrates (one of the first great teachers) “the direction in which education sets a man will determine his future happiness”. Teachers have the ability to help shape a person and knowing I’ve made a difference to someone’s life is something I never want to give up.
When I did my GCSE exams, I began holding Science revision sessions round my house for my friends. They’d come along and I’d crash-course them through the GCSE. After the exam, several of them came up and thanked me, saying they wouldn’t have passed without my help. And wham, it hit me that this was something I wanted to do with my life.
The reason I’m a teacher, the real reason, the deep reason, is because it gives me the chance to make a difference. Sometimes it’s a small one; nothing more than making a pupil laugh when they’re in a bad mood, sometimes it’s a big thing, helping students pass their exams or choose a career path.
I remember the teacher who began it for me. My year 10/11 Chemistry teacher, Mr. Evans. We’ve all got a teacher like that in our past, I suspect. The one who pushed a button in our brain we didn’t even know was there, who showed us what we were capable of.
By incredible good luck, Mr. Evans was followed for me by another inspiring teacher, Mr. Miller. He’s the person who persuaded me to consider teaching as a career. I had reservations about it for a long time, but Mr. Miller was the one who pushed me into it and the thing is, he probably didn’t even realise he was doing it.
And then at University, my research supervisor (who shall remain mysteriously anonymous as it’s a running joke that I never tell anyone where I went to University) so we’ll call him Dr S. He’s the one who trained me to think like a Scientist and stretched my brain further than I thought it could reach. I didn't really know what my intellectual limits were until Dr S took me to them.
The point is, these three guys will be with me for the rest of my life. The impact they had on me is profound and can’t be understated. I’m a very happy person who loves what he does and I’m so grateful I was put on this path by those guys. That’s why I’m a teacher, because I want to make a difference to other people, the way Mr Evans, Mr Miller and Dr S made a difference to me.
The reason I’m a teacher is in the thank-you cards I get at the end of the year. It’s in students shouting my name as I walk past them in town. It’s in the hand-shakes I give pupils after they’ve finished their exams. It’s in the times my students make me laugh so hard I can barely breathe and in the tear-filled goodbyes I say to beloved classes. It’s in knowing I’ve had an impact, even a small one, on someone else’s life. And knowing that they’ve had the same impact on mine.
And finally the stock reason
When people ask why I’m a Science teacher it’s usually in the middle of conversation and they want a quick response. So I have an answer ready. It’s just as true as the other reasons. And, like almost all the best quotations about Science, it comes from Carl Sagan. On this occasion, the opening chapter of his magnificent book The Demon Haunted World. Sagan, when asked why he was so passionate about teaching Science, said:
“When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.”
I do what I do because of love.
I love Science.
I love being a teacher.
Neil Degrasse Tyson: techinsider
Niels Bohr: tumblr
Jason Statham: tumblr
Walter White: momentumbooks
As the caption above points out, his Holiness Pope Francis will probably not hear about my blog so I should make it clear I'm not writing to him, I'm writing about something he said recently. As part of World Youth Day, Pope Francis said "we are living in an age of sin", "I’ll say it clearly with its first and last name – is gender" and “Today, children are taught this at school: that everyone can choose their own sex. And why do they teach this? Because the books come from those people and institutions who give money."
The Pope has made it clear in this statement that he opposes the genderqueer movement and seems to particularly be worried about what's being taught in schools. This struck a pretty big nerve with me because I am one of those school teachers who is educating people about sex and gender and (as I said in my last week's blog) I come down very much in support of genderqueer rights.
So this is a tricky one and I don't want to get into theology. I'm not a theologian and, as I've said before, I keep my religious stance very private, both online and in the classroom.
I could be a passionate atheist, I could be a devout Catholic. I'm not going to say, so I'm going to ask you to avoid making any assumptions about me. Unless I've spoken to you about it personally, you don't know what I believe about God. But this isn't a dicussion about God, it's about Biology.
The Pope has openly criticised my position. I could stay quiet on the whole thing, however I feel that would be a cowardly response. I'm not afraid of discussing "difficult" topics in Science and Philosophy, so I decided I would write a few words about my thoughts on what the Pope has said this week.
Can you disagree with the Pope?
I'm well aware that in writing this blog post I will upset some readers and I am sorry. It's not my purpose to cause pain, but I am (obviously) going to be disagreeing with his Holiness. This is very dangerous ground for some because of an oft-quoted and oft-misunderstood dogma of the Catholic faith: the doctrine of Papal Infallibility.
Papal Infallibility is the teaching that the Pope can, on some issues, be regarded as unquestionably correct, meaning if he teaches something as part of his infallibility, whatever he teaches is to be taken as true. If the Pope decrees something as an article of faith to be held by all Christians, it is not to be challenged. He does not make mistakes.
Therefore, if I try to argue that the Pope is wrong about something I am challenging not only him, but his percieved infallibility and therefore the Catholic Church as a whole...which I'm not wanting to do.
However, the teaching of Papal Infallibility is a little more subtle so we need to be abundantly clear on what it means. In fact, Papal Infallibility has a very precise definition, laid down in 1870, which states that the Pope must clearly declare what he's saying to be an infallible decree. So, unless the Pope himself is defining one of his own teachings as part of the Infallibility doctrine, people are allowed to challenge and question him.
Most Popes do not invoke the infallibility right because most Popes are not idiots, most Popes are pretty sensible. Pope Benedict 16th once said "the Pope is infallible in very rare situations" and Pope John 23rd said, rather bluntly "I am not infallible".
Popes know they make mistakes, of course they do, they're usually highly educated men with backgrounds in Philosophy and Catholic history. Popes are human and they are well aware of it, so they don't use their infallibility to decree whatever they want. In fact there is a very short list of declarations which have been decreed "infallible" by the Catholic Church and most of them relate to the nature of Jesus or the Saints.
So, to challenge what Pope Francis said earlier this week is not challenging his Papal Infallibility, because he did not declare what he was saying to be infallible. Catholics can disagree with him, atheists can disagree with him and nobody is crossing any religious doctrines by doing so.
I'm not attacking Pope Francis as a person, either. For what it's worth, while I do feel he is mistaken on this issue, a lot of the time I have a great deal of respect for his teachings. He strikes me as a wise man who wants to focus on the Christian doctrines of substitutionary atonement and the love of Jesus...I just think he's misinformed on the Biology here. Which is fine, he's not a Biologist!
Isn't it a matter of opinion?
As I've said in pretty much every other blog post (so much that my regular readers can probably chant it along with me now): you are entitled to your opinion, but you can't have an opinion about nature.
When the Pope talks about sex and gender he is talking about the natural world. Not only that, he's talking about the easily observable natural world. If the natural world says one thing, you can't challenge it by saying "well I disagree". Reality doesn't work like that. If the evidence says x, you are only allowed to challenge it with counter-evidence, not your gut feeling.
I disagree with what the Pope said on gender and sex because I think he's getting his Biology muddled and I shall present my evidence. It is my responsibility to present a counterargument based on evidence and those who wish to challenge me (and you're more than welcome to) must do so with their own evidence.
If you want to defend the Pope, go for it, I'm willing to be argued around. But saying things like "well that's just your opinion" doesn't carry much weight with a Scientist - just being honest folks. So, I do think the Pope is wrong but I'm not advocating satanism, I'm not trying to oppose God, I'm not being paid for saying this and I'm not going on opinion or gut-feeling. I believe the Pope's mistake is simple:
It's not about Choice
I'm not going to pick up on the Pope using "gender" and "sex" synonymously, that would be a little pedantic because we know exactly what he means. He's objecting to the idea of teaching children "that everyone can choose their own sex" (he means gender).
Well, the thing is, I agree with him 100%. You can't choose your gender and it would be inaccurate to teach that you can. For the same reason you can't choose the number of legs you have. If a teacher got up and told her class "you can have as many legs as you want" I'd be first in line to object. The Pope is right, it would be wrong to teach that gender is a choice, but that's not what schools are teaching, that's not what Biology is saying and that's also not what the genderqueer movement is about.
The Pope seems to think that trans and genderqueer people are naturally born cisgendered (male in a man's body for instance) and then choosing to be something else. This is not the case at all. Gender does not seem to be something you can choose, but it can mismatch the typical anatomy. Look at the story of David Reimer, the male person who was raised female and ended up killing himself due to depression. Gender is an inbuilt thing and you can't easily change it.
The Diamond study points to the genetic components involved and the work of neuroscientists like Zhou, Chung and Swaab have shown that gender is most likely determined by neural architecture, specifically the BSTc region of the brain (there are likely other factors but this seems to be a principle one).
Genderqueer people choose their gender no more than a person chooses the colour of their skin. In fact, many genderqueer people, given the choice, would choose not to be genderqueer as it can lead to all sorts of legal, social and cultural problems. Genderqueer people are often made to suffer because of their being genderqueer identity.
If we replaced the word sex/gender in the Pope's words with the word blood-type then it would read "children are being taught they can choose their blood type" and that would definitely be wrong. But no Biologist or Biology teacher is teaching that because blood type, like gender, seems to be something you are born with.
Granted, a very small number of people do make a mistake and decide they are genderqueer when they are not, but (as I said in my previous blog) that number is, at most, 5% of the trans community. 95% of people are a lot happier after the transition.
The number of people who identify as genderqueer is less than 1% i.e. the majority of children do not identify as genderqueer. Some boys might try makeup on and some girls might dress in army fatigues but this isn't the same thing. A trans person isn't just dabbling with being feminine or masculine as all children do...it's their entire life.
Likewise, letting children know that some people are genderqueer doesn't necessarily mean every child will decide they are. After all, letting children know that some people get A grades, doesn't necessarily mean that every child will suddenly get As (trust me, it don't work like that guv).
But what it might do is give the genuinely genderqueer students the confidence to admit to themselves, and to others, that they are genderqueer, without feeling any shame over something which is perfectly natural. Being genderqueer is natural in the same way having green eyes is natural. Uncommon, yes, but not a chosen thing.
If we rephrase the Pope's wording to reflect what the Biology is telling us it would read "children are being taught in schools that gender is something you're born with". And who could possibly object to teaching children that?
His Holiness, Pope Francis: cruxnow
I love science, let me tell you why.