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phil scott

Professor Philip H Scott, BSc, MEd, PhD, FInstP

Professor Philip (Phil) Scott, Professor of Science Education and an internationally-renowned authority in the field of teaching and learning science, died suddenly on 15 July 2011.

Born in Co. Durham in 1953, Phil Scott read Materials Science at the University of Sheffield and then completed a PGCE at Leeds.  His subsequent career as a school teacher was characterised by conspicuous success from an early stage.  He taught first at Calder High School, Mytholmroyd, where he was promoted to Head of Physics in 1978.  In 1981, he was appointed as Head of Science at Aireborough Grammar School in Leeds.   During this period, he also became involved with research being undertaken at the University through his association with the Children’s Learning in Science (CLIS) project, directed by Professor Rosalind Driver.  He made a very active and valuable contribution to the project, acting as convenor of a working group of science teachers undertaking development work on the teaching of physics, and made a significant contribution to the national and international reputation of the CLIS project.  In 1986-87, he was seconded from his teaching post in order to allow him to read for an MEd at Leeds.

Phil Scott’s professional expertise and interest in the theoretical foundations of science pedagogy led to a fixed-term appointment to the School of Education in 1988, as BP Lecturer in Science Education.  Responsible for the provision of a national programme of in-service training linked to the CLIS project, he ran courses for LEA science advisers and others.  He organised and presented the programme very successfully, in the process building up a solid network of links across the country and engendering considerable support for the work being undertaken in science education by the University.  In 1990, he was appointed as Senior Research Fellow and Co-ordinator of the CLIS project, responsible for managing a range of research projects. 

At the same time, he began work on his doctorate, which he was awarded in 1997.  His thesis was entitled Developing science concepts in secondary classrooms: an analysis of pedagogical interactions from a Vygotskian perspective.  Behind this somewhat daunting title lay an impressive analysis, rooted in the work of the early twentieth-century Russian psychologist and author, Lev Vygotsky, of how pupils developed their understanding of scientific concepts. In particular, Phil's work focused on how this process was prompted and sustained by the language and pedagogic strategies embedded in teacher-pupil discourse.  His work on the application of socio-cultural theory in the analysis of classroom dialogue was later expanded and articulated in a series of influential publications, most notably the book Meaning Making in Secondary School Classrooms (2003), which he co-authored with his Brazilian colleague, Eduardo Mortimer of the Federal University of Minas Gerais.  At the time of Phil’s death he and Eduardo were working on a book where they further developed their ideas.

Throughout the 1990s and beyond, Phil Scott published extensively, with his research also embracing studies of pupils’ understanding of the nature of scientific knowledge.  One fruit of this was the co-authored volume Young People’s Images of Science (1996).  In all, his impressive list of publications includes two co-authored books, one co-edited book and numerous chapters in books and papers in international journals.  He was appointed to an established lectureship in 1993, promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2000 and gained a Readership in 2004.  Later that year he was appointed Professor of Science Education and became Director of the Centre for Studies in Science and Mathematics Education (CSSME) in 2008.

Over the years, Phil Scott, in collaboration with colleagues both at Leeds and other institutions, attracted major research funding from bodies including the Economic and Social Research Council, the National Curriculum Council, the European Commission, the Institute of Physics, the Nuffield Foundation and the National Science Learning Centre.  Numerous accolades came his way.  He received frequent invitations to present research papers at international seminars and conferences, and in the last three years alone gave eleven keynote presentations at international meetings in countries including Iceland, Mexico, Norway, Sweden and the USA.  For many years he was Associate Editor of Studies in Science Education, the leading international research review journal in its field.  He became Joint Editor in 2007.  He served on a number of other editorial and review boards.  In 2008, he was voted onto the Executive Board of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching in the USA, thus becoming one of only two European members of the Board; in the same year, he was appointed Visiting Professor of Physics Education at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.  Only recently, he was awarded the 2011 Bragg Medal and Prize by the Institute of Physics for what was described in the citation as ‘his influential research in physics education which has had a significant impact on teachers and the teaching of physics in secondary schools’.

Throughout his career, Phil Scott remained firmly wedded to the belief that the insights provided by research should be effectively communicated to classroom practitioners.  He worked tirelessly to this end.  In 1994, he acted as consultant to a BBC television programme, Simple Minds, which went on to be widely used in professional development courses for serving teachers.  With funding from the National Science Foundation, he collaborated with colleagues at the Smithsonian Institute at Harvard University to produce a series of television programmes for high school science teachers.  He acted as ‘Expert Guide’ for two of those programmes, introducing and leading live interactive broadcasts from Harvard to sites across the USA, with audiences of up to seven thousand teachers.  In 2002, he became co-leader of a national project in the UK under the title Supporting Physics Teaching 11-14.  Extensively funded by the Institute of Physics, this involved the research-based development and evaluation of materials to support the teaching of physics to 11-14 year olds.  Between 2007 and 2009, he was commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families to produce materials to support interactive teaching.  These materials drew directly on his research into language and learning in secondary schools and formed the basis for professional development activities for science teachers throughout the country.

Complementing Phil Scott’s impressive record in scholarship and research were his outstanding gifts as a teacher, both in secondary school and higher education.  His students on the PGCE and Masters courses, and those he supervised in their doctoral studies, quickly came to recognize his over-riding concern for their learning, and their broader well-being.  They rewarded this with an exceptional level of affection and respect, which continued long after they had left the University.  His reputation ensured that he himself was in considerable demand as a research supervisor of students drawn from many parts of the globe.  He participated fully in University affairs, including serving at various times as MEd course co-ordinator, admissions tutor for the Secondary PGCE course and head of postgraduate taught courses.  He and a colleague were responsible for developing a new MA Teaching and Learning programme designed specifically for post-PGCE students, with the first cohort of students graduating in 2009.  As Director of CSSME, Phil Scott guided it through a period of sustained growth, both in research income and the number of research students.

Phil Scott was a lively and engaging person, characterized above all by a wonderful sense of humour. His loyalty and tenacity of purpose found expression in numerous ways, not least in his life-long support of Sunderland AFC.  He had the priceless combination of a magnetic personality and the kind of razor-sharp intelligence that enabled profound insights to be portrayed as mere common-sense.  His research was conducted with a wide group of colleagues in Leeds, elsewhere in the UK, and beyond.  He was a generous but tough collaborator who was never satisfied with second-best.  He was truly an outstanding teacher, with the ability to incorporate seamlessly theoretical insights about pedagogy into practice, and an expert in rendering the complex simple.  Many members of the academic community in science education first met Phil through a video, made in the 1980s, to demonstrate approaches to teaching science that were informed by insights about science learning.  The pupils, normal 13-year-olds in a North Leeds school, were talking with insight and passion about the atomic structure of matter – clearly revelling in the intellectual stimulation of the activity.  Phil’s teaching provoked the same reaction everywhere: student teachers, international Masters students and research students all warmed to the material in focus, and to him.  Through his research and research-led curriculum development he made a major impact on physics and science teaching in the UK and around the world.  Former students are now moving into leadership positions in science education around the world, thanks in part to the grounding that they received in Leeds and through their contact with Phil.

Phil was very reluctant to admit his own abilities and only applied for promotion following serious pressure from family and colleagues.  His enthusiasm for his work was unfailing and infectious.  Most colleagues in the School of Education can tell stories about their personal relationship with Phil, how he brightened their day and how he remembered their stories.  Nobody disliked Phil, many loved him.  His innate humour and capacity to find dry insights on events were valued by all and were, no doubt, developed as part of his lifelong support of Sunderland Football Club.  Behind the affable, humorous exterior, however, was a serious and sensitive person who needed quiet time alone or with those most close to him.

For all of these reasons, and for his outstanding academic gifts, he was both extremely popular and well-respected among colleagues and students alike.  His early death is a deep and great loss to his family, friends and colleagues, to the University and to science education.

Phil is survived by his wife, Joan, and daughters, Julia and Anita.

The funeral service will be held on Wednesday 27 July at 1.30pm at Park Wood Crematorium, Park Road, Elland, HX5 9HZ, and afterwards at the Cedar Court Hotel, Ainley Top, Huddersfield, HD3 3RH.

There are to be family flowers only. Donations may be made to the British Heart Foundation or to support science students/teachers (details to follow). Donations can be made directly or via the funeral directors: Valley Funeral Service, Valley Road, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire HX7 7BZ.

In memory of Phil Scott, the flag will be flown at half-mast on the Parkinson Building on 27 July.