In 1999 the Canadian non-profit organisation Companies Committed to Kids ran a television campaign aimed at boosting children’s self-esteem with the slogan: “Nobody’s good at everything, but everybody’s good at something.” By contrast, Public Service Announcements in the UK are about wearing a seat-belt so you don’t kill your dad in a car crash. I mean, they’re both important messages but as a teacher I’m more interested in the first one. It’s rare that I crash a car inside my classroom but I frequently come across students doubting their ability to do STEM (Science Tech Engineering Maths).
That’s to be expected, of course. I mean, let’s be blunt about this…STEM is hard. There’s no such thing as an intellectually perfect person (with the obvious exceptions of Spock and Data from Star Trek) so naturally everyone struggles from time to time. In a perfect world there wouldn’t be any shame in admitting this, but for all sorts of reason we’re often reluctant to advertise our cognitive shortcomings, and this presents a real dilemma for educators.
As both a teacher and author I want to make sure my students/readers feel they can trust me to “know my stuff”. But at the same time, I want them to see me struggle so they don’t feel bad about running into difficulty themselves. If people perceive me as infallible they’re less likely to ask for my help because they’ll be worried about me judging them, but on the other hand if they see me as useless they won’t ask for help in the first place because they won’t believe I can provide it. How do you get that balance right?
I’ve been contemplating this question a lot over the past week with the start of a new academic term, when it struck me that the simplest thing to do would be write a public declaration of various bits of STEM I find difficult. I’m not one for subtlety (check the title of the blog) so, without further ado here’s a list of the top STEM areas you don’t want me teaching you. How's that for a Buzzfeed-worthy title?
Almost All of Biology
This one’s no secret to anyone who has seen me teach the subject. I know virtually nothing about animals, I’m not 100% sure what a chromosome is and I can’t tell you what the pancreas does (something to do with diabetes???). Biology has always been the weakest of the three natural sciences for me, and it's almost a running joke in my department that I'm not allowed to cover a Biology lesson.
It’s hard to pin down why I lost my way with Biology (my high school teacher was actually really good) but for some reason I got turned off to the subject as a teen. By the time I realised it was cool, I was a busy adult and could never find the opportunity to sit down and learn the basics.
On rare occasions when I do have to teach the subject, I read over the material the night before, follow a detailed lesson plan on my desk and by the following night I’ve typically forgotten everything I said. Really, students in my Biology classes might as well just read out-loud from the textbook…that’s more or less what I’m doing.
There are a few exceptions to this rule - I’m fairly well-versed on the brain, the biochemistry of medicines and drugs, and I know a disturbing amount about the composition of plant-matter - but other than that I’m typically worse than a rank amateur. I really wanted to put a Biology metaphor in there but I don't know any! That's the problem!
Basic Mental Arithmetic…that most children can do
I’ve got a tense working relationship with mathematics. The kind you have with a work colleague after you send an e-mail to everyone in the office mocking the shape of their ears, only to realise you accidentally copied them in as well.
I can use mathematics when necessary, but it’s not something I seek out. I only like it when I’m using it for chemistry or physics and if I go outside that comfort zone I’m immediately drowning in symbols. And, without a doubt, the area of maths I’m most clumsy with is basic mental arithmetic.
I’m serious here. I, a thirty one year old STEM teacher with a Master’s degree and a couple of bestselling books to my name, have difficulty doing simple sums in my head. I’ll muddle fractions, I’ll miss decimal places, I’ll get powers of ten in the wrong order and I can’t even sum a series of two digit numbers without writing them down first. I can never split the bill in a restaurant, I am lousy at calculating percentages and I can genuinely see myself getting hauled in front of a judge some day for tax fraud because I’ve accidentally forgotten to carry the one or something.
This can be quite embarrassing in front of a class when I’m struggling to work out 107 - 9 in my head, but there it is. I can explain all four of the Maxwell equations at the drop of a hat, but ask me to work out 60% of 50 and I’m going to need a minute.
There is a mental condition called dyscalculia which is a bit like dyslexia for numbers. I have no idea if I’ve got it (I wouldn’t be surprised) but either way, it doesn’t seem to be something I can avoid. That’s actually one of the reasons I respect people who work in retail. I’ve got no clue how to count my own change, let alone someone else’s.
I’d like to claim this one is just a “fiddly topic” everyone struggles with, but the whole point of this blog is that different people struggle with different things, so I can’t let myself off easy by saying everyone finds this topic hard. But...for the record…they totally do.
Fluid mechanics is the physics of how gases and liquids move and although I can massage my ego by reminding myself that lots of people find it tough, I still suspect I’m much worse at it than most physicists.
You may have come across the entry-level stuff in school yourself. Things like Archimedes’ principle and buoyancy, terminal velocity and air-resistance, gas pressure and expansion etc. They’re all topics I feel edgy when teaching, so if you're in my class and I look a bit nervous talking about these things, it's because I am!
In fact, to give you some idea of how lousy I am at fluid mechanics, I once managed to foul up a calculation so badly I ended up proving the Atlantic Ocean was 3 centimeters deep. Spoiler alert: it isn’t. Clearly this is a topic I’ve never been particularly…wait for it…fluent in! Ha ha ha! Fluid/Fluent? What an amazing use of language! I’m so freaking hilarious! OK, but seriously, buy my book.
And Finally, My Arch Nemesis
If Physics was a 90s video game, the boss at the end of the last level would be (for me at least) the topic of circular motion. Batman has the Joker. Sherlock Holmes has Moriarty. Kanye West has rational thinking. I have circular motion. My ancient rival, tormenting me since before time began.
Circular motion is, as the name suggests, the physics of things moving in circles. Anything from the moon orbiting Earth to balls going round on strings. It’s counter-intuitive, it’s fiddly, it’s mathematically fiendish and it kicks my butt every single time I grapple with it.
With most of the subjects I teach and write about, I understand them deeply enough to explain them in lots of different ways, but when it comes to circular motion I basically just know the facts. I don’t feel like I truly grasp them in my gut. I just cannot get my head round it (I’d like to claim that pun was intentional but it wasn’t. It was, in fact…pun-intentional).
I first encountered this jackass of a topic while studying A-level physics myself at the age of 17. I knew right away it was going to be trouble and the exam I sat on it was so horrible I remember coming out of it and making the joke to one of my friends: “well, there go my University options”. In fact, my score on that exam cost me the top grade at A-level because I nailed all the other papers but bombed that one hard.
This experience of learning circular motion has scarred me so much that I can barely listen to Circle of Life without feeling deep bitterness, and every year when we’re carving up the syllabus to teach, my head of department knows “Don’t give the circular motion topic to tim!” because I’ll go on strike if I have to teach it.
There Is Nothing To Be Ashamed Of
Everyone likes to feel smart. We place a huge value on intellect and it’s no wonder people never want to admit when they can’t do something. But I really think we need to change that mindset. STEM is a vast subject encompassing everything from how lions breed to how computer networks function. Given the sheer amount of information and skills that fall into STEM, it would be weird if you didn’t suck at at least some of it.
There’s so much out there to learn, it’s ridiculous to set yourself the target of being good at everything you ever study. Sometimes you can be smart and still suck at something. That doesn’t mean you’re slow. It simply means you find some stuff hard. Like everyone ever.
I have to remember that just because I can’t do certain parts of STEM with ease, doesn’t mean the bits I can do are suddenly tainted or devalued. In fact, I think this is one of the most important things to remember about the scientific community in general: it's a team effort and it has to be. We're trying to figure out the Universe, nobody can do that on their own!
I’m not very good at Biology but that’s OK because there are plenty of doctors and zoologists who have me covered. I’m not very good at mental arithmetic, but that's OK because Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace invented the calculator! I’m not too hot on fluid mechanics but that's OK because there are so many chemical engineers out there I don’t need to worry about it. Circular motion…that’s a thing which exists.
While I’ll always strive to better myself and face intellectual challenges as they come, I can accept that some parts of STEM I need other people’s help on. And that’s a good thing. That’s what makes STEM so awesome; the collaborations it leads to. Being good at everything has its advantages but it isolates you quite a lot. Being human is much better because it means not only can you help other people when they’re stuck, they can help you too. Not only is there something for everyone in STEM, but there’s someone for everything.
Good luck to all the students out there starting new courses and to all the fallible educators doing their best to help!!!
I love science, let me tell you why.