Interview with Paul Downie, Royal Society of Biology’s UK Biology Teacher of the Year Award Winner

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Paul Downie. I’m a biology teacher based in Glasgow, where I’ve been faculty head of science. I’m currently on secondment developing West OS [part of the National e-Learning Offer in Scotland providing recorded video lessons created by teachers] and the creator of the Higher Biology Podcast.

You have just won the Royal Society of Biology’s UK Biology Teacher of the Year Award – the first Scottish teacher to have won. Can you tell us about the award, and why you won?

The award seeks to identify and celebrate the UK’s leading secondary teachers. For me, it provided an opportunity to reflect on my practice and share the work that I’ve been involved in over recent years. Hopefully, that work has played an important role in educating and inspiring the next generation of biologists – it’s not an award that I could have won without being surrounded by some fantastic colleagues.

What made you decide to be a biology teacher?

I like my subject, I’m passionate about it, but the biggest thing was that I wanted to leave work at the end of the day – or week – and feel like I’d made a difference. There is a lot of hard work involved in teaching, but it’s a special career, in that you get an opportunity to make a difference to others every single day, and I don’t think that there are many jobs that can give you that feeling.

Can you tell us about your teaching philosophy?

Primarily, my teaching philosophy is to enthuse young people about the subject. To ensure they understand why we’re learning something and why it’s relevant to their life. We need our young people to leave school as both responsible and informed citizens, equipped to participate in debates around global issues which will impact their lives and also to have an understanding of the world they live in.

You took a class of students on an expedition to the Galapagos a few years ago. What gave you the inspiration to do this and what was the primary goal of the trip?

I was lucky enough when studying at the University of Dundee to participate in a research expedition to Trinidad led by Professor Steve Hubbard. It had a big impact on my studies and the direction that I took after that.

It was an incredible experience. It allowed me, at the time, to play a very small part in what I believe is now the largest data set of its kind, looking at the survival rate between tropical and temperate bird species. I always said that if I had the opportunity to give pupils even a little taste of that experience, it was something I’d try to do. 

A young person in an S3 class had asked the question “could we go on a school trip to Galapagos?” and the rest of the class laughed, but the thought in my head was “why not?”

Two years of preparation, two years of fundraising and a lot of hard work by the students and everyone else who was involved, and we got the Galapagos. We wouldn’t have been able to have that experience if it hadn’t been for a range of partners, all of whom played a big role in supporting the trip and we were incredibly grateful for that support, especially our fantastic expedition shirts which were provided by Twig.

Any advice you would give to teachers planning on undertaking such a big trip in the future?

It’s certainly going to be more challenging, given the ongoing pandemic, but what I would say is that you don’t have to travel across the world to find excellent learning opportunities. It was a fabulous trip and a fabulous experience, but there are loads of great places to visit in Scotland, with amazing learning experiences, right on our back doorstep.

Tell us about The Higher Biology Podcast, and the inspiration behind starting it?

I created the Higher Biology Podcast during the first COVID-19 lockdown, really as a response to my own frustration and trying to be able to deliver a more engaging learning experience for young people at that point. Myself and my wife listened to a lot of podcasts, and I started wondering if it was possible to produce something with educational value and add depth to their learning. 

There was a lot of learning [for me] as I went and a bit of DIY, but it was good fun, and hopefully it has provided young people a platform to be able to access really interesting and fantastic subject experts from across the planet to add a little bit of depth and insight into different areas of the higher course, which has been really exciting. 

One of my own students summed it up really well, saying it’s far more interesting than just listening to me talk.

You’ve been a Twig user for a long time. What attracted you to the program?

The quality of the videos on Twig are excellent, simple as that.

How do you use Twig in your lessons?

I’ve used Twig in lots of different ways. The materials can be really good for putting a learning point into context, sharing as part of an example in a lesson, or summarising a piece of learning. They can also be useful for supporting revision as well.

There’s a lot of different ways you can use the videos, depending on what they are. I’ve certainly utilised the heart dissection videos, for example – the class can do a live dissection along with the video and we just stop and pause it on the projector and it gives a really clear visual explanation of the steps involved in the process. Then we might bring the class together to discuss different bits and have a closer look at what we’re doing, and then break back into pairs to do the dissection and get that hands-on practical experience.

You’re also a regular Twig Science Reporter user. What do you like about the news updates?

The quality of the weekly Twig Science Reporter updates are fab. They give really good weekly topical news stories and they never fail to capture the imagination and interest of my classes, particularly in the BGE. 

[I use them] at the end or the start of the week to stimulate a little bit of conversation around topical science stories that are in the news. Equally, I’ve found myself using them in assemblies or in other circumstances with larger groups of young people to take that 3, 4, 5 minute spot in the day and just focus on some different stories from around the world and use it as a stimulus to spark some curiosity and discussion. 

What is a piece of advice that you would give to young people who want to go into a career in teaching?

If you are enthusiastic about your subject and you’re passionate about it, and you’re looking for a career that you can make a difference in, then there is no better thing than teaching. There’s a lot of hard work, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

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