Les Watson has worked in education for 50 years as a teacher, senior lecturer, College Dean, University Pro Vice Chancellor and latterly as a library and learning consultant. You can see his outline cv on linked in here and a list of organisations he has worked with here
The early days
Les started his career as a science teacher (mainly biology) at a comprehensive school in the north of England in the days before the ‘raising of the school leaving age’ to 16. It felt like a a tough assignment at the time with large classes some full of students who definitely did not want to be there. However, he managed to muddle through and certainly enjoyed the enthusiasm and energy of all the young people that he worked with. He learned an enormous amount about working with kids in these early years of his career and started to question whether the education bing provided worked for those experiencing it.
After 7 years Les moved to be Head of Biology at a Community School in the South West of England where he taught for a further 6 years. In this post Les got the chance to teach a wide variety of science courses including the pioneering SCISP (Schools Council Integrated Science Project) that did 2 very exciting things – it took a genuine problem solving approach to learning the sciences and covered all three traditional science subjects in two thirds of the time it would take to cover Biology, Physics and Chemistry as separate subjects. This enabled students to gain wider knowledge and understanding of overall whilst also giving them time to study other subjects as well.
Then I got a computer
Around 1980 for some unfathomable reason Les got really interested in personal computers. At this time affordable PCs were becoming available and he purchased a second hand Sinclair ZX80 for £70. Frustratingly within a few weeks Sinclair released the much improved ZX81 costing, you guessed it, £70!
To call the ZX80 a computer is something of an exaggeration! It looked like an oversized calculator and did not have a ‘keyboard’. The ‘keys’ were built into the plastic of the machine and using them for long periods was really uncomfortable. It also didn’t have a screen and had to be plugged in to a television. Despite these limitations Les spent half term week teaching himself to program the thing. With new programming skills in place he wrote his first computer program that aimed to explain how the ‘random sampling’ method that biologists use to count populations of plants actually worked.
If you studied biology at school you will be familiar with the random sampling method. For example if you want to know the size of a buttercup population in a field you place a wooden frame (a quadrat) that is usually one metre square on the ground at random locations – and then count the buttercups inside the frame. The question is – how many times do you have to do this to be reasonably certain that you know the total population of buttercups? Do you have to cover every inch of the field? The answer is no you don’t – what my computer program did was to draw a graph of the number of quadrats used against the percentage of buttercups found. As the number number of quadrants increases you reach a point where the number of buttercups you have found gives a reliable indication of the total number in the field. Demonstrating the process graphically on the screen helped students appreciate that random sampling works as a way of getting an accurate estimate of the total population without having to count every single buttercup. As he explored more uses of this primitive computer he became increasingly convinced that these machines could play a really important role in education.