Dr Spencer Wheaton – Senior Lecturer, Department of Physics

01 December 2014

Dr Spencer Wheaton, a "home-grown boy from UCT" got early teaching experience as a student tutor, and after his honours degree, took a two-year break from postgraduate studies to teach physical science at a local high school.

He recalls that although he was an expert in the subject matter, he didn't have a clue about teaching, and learnt a lot from those early experiences.

"One of those early lessons for me was that very few learn just by listening to someone else; you learn best by doing," he recalls. "The big mistake that I made in those early days was thinking that I could stand in front of the class and give a wonderfully clear exposition of physics and expect them just to get it. I remember getting those first test scripts back and realising that they hadn't got it at all!"

This realisation still informs his pedagogy today – he creates multi-dimensional, active experiences for students.

"You have to know where your students are coming from and what motivates them. One of the courses I teach is physics for non-physics majors; and those students are not particularly passionate about physics, otherwise they would be majoring in it, so I have to meet them where they are at and choose an approach that best sparks their interest."

He tries to do this by making connections with the real world and linking the physics to what they might be majoring in. Knowing that no two people learn the same way, he also tries to create variety in his approach.

"What works for one student, might not work for another, so you need to have as big a toolkit as possible of methods for teaching: using demonstrations, simulations, videos and stories."

Using these tools also allows him to break down barriers and be more approachable. "I think the most important thing is to be true to who you are," he says of his teaching style. "Students pick up on that, and they recognise when you are genuine. I am boyishly excited by my discipline, and that comes through. Lots of students are not terribly excited about physics but at least they appreciate that I am, and it helps to spark their interest and motivate them. They also see when you are putting in a lot of effort, and almost feel morally obligated to do the same."

An irrepressible passion for their discipline, a genuine enthusiasm to impart knowledge and the desire to make a difference are three of the standout qualities shared by six academics who have been honoured with awards for their teaching efforts. Read more about these six teachers: Dr Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk, Assoc Prof June Pym, Dr Linda Ronnie, Prof Delawir Kahn, Assoc Prof James Gain and Dr Spencer Wheaton.

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