60 Second interview with Oliver Choroba, researcher turned teacher

Oliver Choroba is the only member of an SCI Committee holding the position of Education Secretary (for the Thames and Kennet Group). A former PhD student and research fellow in chemistry at St John’s College, Cambridge, he jumped ship in 2004 and now teaches chemistry at Charterhouse School.

Why did you give up research to become a teacher?
Two reasons: first, I wasn’t the most skilled when it came to experiments, although I always liked doing experiments on paper, ie thinking about problems. Second, I didn’t agree with the prevailing ‘publish or perish’ attitude of ‘modern’ science – and the hunt for, and subsequent waste of, research money and resources. I now see that (negative) competition is the inevitable consequence of a modern and essentially money-driven environment. This is quite unlike the past, where there was time to think and tackle a problem, which may not immediately produce a swell of publications.

What do you most like about teaching?
I enjoy the freedom to think and develop ideas on how to teach science, I hope in an exciting fashion (which can be very hard indeed).

What do you think about current teaching methods and education in the UK?
We have just started the first year of the Pre-U course at Charterhouse, and for my subject it looks very promising. Pupils get taught ‘real’ chemistry in a proper context without the constraints of an over-restrictive mark scheme.

I do not agree with making the subject what it is not, a walk in the park. Sciences, and especially chemistry, are demanding – and so it should be. It would be wrong to take away the opportunity for pupils to exercise their brains to the full extent. Children have not lost the ability to think for themselves over the past decades. However, this opportunity has increasingly been taken away from them by making exams/syllabae too restricted and straightforward. It is a reflection of the way things are going in society; children are mollycoddled so that they are unable to discover things for themselves.

What do you do in your capacity as education secretary?
I promote chemistry and science in schools, particularly at secondary school level. I am currently working on the ‘Best Sixth Form Chemistry Award’, for which schools nominate promising chemists at ‘A’ level stage. We also put on plays and tours to promote science.

What is the one thing that you think is crucial to pass on to children in terms of education?
Pupils must have the ability to think for themselves. A school should give them food for thought, but pupils should eat it up themselves.

What appeals to you about working with SCI and the Group?
It gives me the opportunity to spread the word and contribute to education with a wider audience. SCI gives me the networks and the funding to do the work I do in schools, and more importantly, it gives me its name and gravitas. It means I am part of an important body, which promotes the application of science for the benefit of society.

What is your philosophy on life?
Enjoy and deal with it anew every day – it may be over all too soon.

Do you have a hero or heroine?
If so who is he or her, and why? I like Bertrand Russell’s philosophy. He wrote on many important philosophical, scientific and educational topics and I believe that he was one of the greatest thinkers of modern time.

Thames and Kennet Group

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