Paul is an astrophysicist, who focussed his research on galaxies and black holes in the early universe, before catching a bad case of the teaching bug. Since then, he has focussed on teaching large classes, both in-person and online. He is infamous amongst his students for talking much too fast in an incomprehensible pommie accent, and for his dubious taste in waistcoats.
He has been involved in many educational innovations, including using role-plays to teach astrophysics, developing the ANU's first MOOCs, which have currently been taken by over 300,000 students from 178 countries around the world, and for teaching the large 1st year physics classes without any lectures. He has won a wide range of prizes for education and science communication, including the 2016 Australian Award for University Teaching.
Q: What does it mean to you to be an ANU Distinguished Educator?
Damned if I know! It is a great honour, but we are all trying to define what this role means, and how we can use it to advance education across campus. I'm hoping that the prestige of this role can help us help you - if you see something that needs to change or be re-thought, but you can't make headway, talk to us and maybe we can use the leverage given by this position to open doors or help persuade those in positions of power.
Q: What motivates and inspires you?
As a university, we are custodians of an incredible body of human wisdom and knowledge, acquired over thousands of years. All too easily, this can become a dry collection of facts and theories to be rote learned and then forgotten. But oh! when we can get some taste of this into the hearts and minds of our students, what a difference it can make.
Q: What are you committed to?
Education is all about the students, not us. It's about what they learn, not what we teach. And it's about what they carry away with them and can use, years from now, not what they rote-learned and repeat in the exam.
Q: If you could give one piece of advice to a new teacher, what would it be?
Paul's first law of teaching: No teaching plan ever survives contact with the students. Students almost never behave the way you think they will, and what is going through their mind is very seldom what you think. So it's crucial to spend a lot of time listening to students, reading their work, surveying them, and acting on what you learn. There has to be a feedback loop - you teach something, the students react to it, and you learn how they are thinking, what they do and do not understand, and work to correct the gaps. All too often we just "fire and forget" with our teaching.
Q: Tell us about an approach you've taken in the classroom of which you've been proud
I'm particularly proud of that I've been able to successfully "flip" the large 1st year physics class: replacing lectures with highly interactive workshops and video tutorials. This is popular with students, and has substantially improved both how much they learn and their attitudes towards studying physics.
Q: If the VC asked you how you would change teaching and learning at the ANU, what would you say?
Two of the biggest challenges in teaching are long-term memory (the ability to remember what you learned more than a few minutes after the end of your final exam), and far transfer (the ability to apply the knowledge and skills you have learned in different contexts). We virtually never assess whether we are achieving either of these, yet if we want ANU graduates to be effective in making the world a better place, both are crucial. I'd tell the VC that as a first step we should systematically measure whether our students can remember what they were taught long after the course finishes, and whether they can apply it in different contexts. Let's say we teach someone to think critically in a history class about (say) the French Revolution. Does that improve their critical response to (say) the latest political news?