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Teacher Spotlight: Shirin Sheikh-Bahai

Every month at ITZA we give the floor to one inspirational teacher and ask them our three favourite questions. This month, we’re speaking to Shirin Sheikh-Bahai, former Science Lead Practitioner at Harris Federation and long-term ITZA inspiration.


Shirin Sheikh-Bahai

Anyone who knows Shirin uses the word inspirational in the most sincere and superlative terms. If you don’t know her, it’s possible that she’s shaped the science syllabus you’re teaching; soon there’s every chance that her work will be changing the way you think about thinking.

Raised in revolutionary Iran by parents who embedded a deep love of learning, Shirin was captured early on by the mysteries of space. At 14, when NASA sent her a treasured brochure on the Cassini spacecraft, she had her first contact with the organisation whose mission sparked her life’s passion, and would eventually support her transformational research.

Shirin’s remarkable journey as an educator started by accident, when, in 1998 - then a physical scientist, and a mother to a three year-old son - she left Iran and moved to the UK. While undertaking an Astrophysics degree at the Open University, she began attending her son’s new school, quietly observing the ways of British teaching. It wasn’t long before her deep knowledge and intuitive way of guiding young minds made her integral to the classroom. But she had also stumbled upon a revelation of her own: learning is about questions, not answers - and she would go on to explore the relationship between the questions teachers ask, and the way students think, at the UCL Institute of Education.

For the last 20 years Shirin has, as a science specialist teacher and leader, and now researcher at UCL Institute of Education, developed an enquiry-based science curriculum, pedagogy and assessment in which students are supported to navigate their existing knowledge and unique thought processes to construct new knowledge and achieve deep, personalized learning. Her award winning innovations, from the NASA-backed Astronomy Club, the national ‘All is One’ STEM Science awards, to ‘The wonderful Me’ book for early learning, have reshaped science education for students all over the UK. Alongside this, she is the School Improvement Science Director at Canary Wharf College Trust after being a much-loved Science Lead Practitioner for Harris Federation for 9 years, where she was directly overseeing multiple academies science education. Not only does she train and certify science educators in her pedagogical approach, she also consults for schools who follow her curriculum and scheme of work, in the UK and abroad. Her PhD, is on students’ Thinking and Questioning in science education.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned?

That factual information, or ‘academic subject knowledge’, is not the only route to good thinking - in fact, sometimes, factual information can be the biggest barrier to good thinking, because the boundaries of thought become limited when we evaluate based on ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. The true meaning of the word 'knowledge' is more complex and powerful than we teach in schools, as researchers have highlighted for years. This discovery was a huge shock to me. As a physicist, with an evidence-based world view, I believed for many years that factual information was the main factor in becoming a better thinker. It was only when I began my research, that I saw that what shapes good thinking is not what we’ve been led to believe. We like to categorize students from certain socioeconomic backgrounds or cultures into certain categories of thinking. We perpetuate an idea that disadvantage determines the quality of the mind. I teach some of the most deprived students in London, and they tend to be my best thinkers. Knowledge is powerful; but in order to become a better thinker, we need to work from a different toolbox - we need to understand how each of us receive this knowledge, how we perceive and interpret this knowledge, how our upbringing and emotions and personality, even our genes, filter and interact with that knowledge. This is what my research is focusing on, and it will be the first of its kind to bring this into classrooms.

What is your most treasured memory of teaching?

The moment I really fell in love with teaching - which happened quite a long time before I became a teacher. I was fascinated by the ability of my students to learn difficult concepts, including the ‘life cycle of the stars’ and ‘formation of matter in the early stage of the universe’, and I started creating science programmes with academic institutions that would stretch them beyond the curriculum. This ‘mind to mind’ connection with the students became the centre of my attention and I fell in love with it. This inspired my enquiry-based or ‘self-teaching’ pedagogy, and the award winning programmes where learners take the lead and the teacher is an equal player in the collective pursuit of deep knowledge. My ‘All is One’ project for children aged 10-11 on particle science, with the Royal Society and Dr Francisco Diego from UCL, for example, unlocks so much creativity. We’re learning about molecules and DNA and quarks, and the timeline of the universe’s creation, but I always get asked the most amazing philosophical questions. One student aged 11 asked me if it was possible to see an interpretation of God in the String theory; another challenged our criminal justice system when they grasped how environmental factors affect genes; another considered how much more respect they would give to an apple, and a chair, and all beings, because we are all made of the same cosmic fabric.

The one thing education needs more of to meet tomorrow’s world is...

Collaboration across different fields, and investment in educators to enable them to put progressive research into practice. I’ve learned that it’s extremely rewarding, but very challenging, to bridge and communicate across academic research, teaching practice and the scientific community. It’s allowed me to influence at policy level during the UK’s review of curriculum, which has been the most rewarding achievement of my career, but it has taken a lot of support along the way from many wonderful colleagues. I’ve been lucky enough to have investment and time to observe and learn from my students as a researcher, not just as a teacher. Providing similar opportunities for practitioners, by offering time and resources, will generate more creative approaches to growing young minds and will ultimately narrow the gap between research and practice as they come to understand the cognitive processes happening inside their students’ minds. So the message is, invest in and educate the educators first!

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