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Teacher Spotlight

For the last 20 years Shirin has 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, personalised learning. Her award winning innovations, including the NASA-backed Astronomy Club and national ‘All is One’ STEM Science awards, have reshaped science education for students all over the UK. Alongside this, she is a much-loved Science leader for the Harris Federation. She also consults for schools across the UK and abroad, who follow her curriculum and scheme of work. Her phD, on the cognitive processes of learning, will be completed next summer. 

In A Nutshell

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 soon 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, personalised 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 a much-loved Science leader for the celebrated Harris Federation, where she directly oversees multiple North London academies. Previously she trained and certified all its primary science leaders in her enquiry-based pedagogical approach. She also consults for schools across the UK and abroad, who follow her curriculum and scheme of work. Her phD, on the cognitive processes of learning, will be completed next summer. 

Factual information is not the route to good thinking - in fact 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

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned? 

That factual information, or ‘academic subject knowledge’, is not the route to good thinking - in fact 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 (including Michael Young, my phD supervisor Michael Reiss and James Dillon).

 

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 PhD, and started collecting the data, that I saw that what shapes good thinking is not what we’ve been led to believe. We like to categorise 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.

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