A Course in ‘Childlike Wonderment’

“I never saw teaching as anything but a priority and a privilege.”

You would expect AAPG member Victor Paul Wright, one of this year’s AAPG Grover E. Murray Memorial Distinguished Educator Award winners, to say that, to take the teaching of geology seriously – it comes with the territory.

What’s fascinating about Wright, though, who is an honorary research fellow at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff and director of PW Carbonate Geoscience, is how personally he takes both the challenges and the disappointments.

“My opening sentence to my first year classes in Paleo was, ‘If you find the history of life on Earth boring then it is my fault, not yours.’”

If Wright’s name sounds familiar, it should. Along with Maurice Tucker, he co-authored the 1990 book “Carbonate Sedimentology,” a bible of sorts to many in the industry and academia – but a bible from which, somewhat surprisingly, he no longer worships.

“I never thought it would still be selling well today,” he said.

At the time, it was the first major review of the subject since the 1970s.

“It went from a postgraduate reference book to more of an undergraduate textbook as the discipline progressed, and I am disappointed no one has attempted the task of a new book,” he said. “The problem is that the subject has, of course, moved on so quickly that a similar book would now require a large team.”

To underscore just how much that’s needed – when asked how the book fits into his curriculum today, he is succinct.

“I no longer use it.”

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“I never saw teaching as anything but a priority and a privilege.”

You would expect AAPG member Victor Paul Wright, one of this year’s AAPG Grover E. Murray Memorial Distinguished Educator Award winners, to say that, to take the teaching of geology seriously – it comes with the territory.

What’s fascinating about Wright, though, who is an honorary research fellow at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff and director of PW Carbonate Geoscience, is how personally he takes both the challenges and the disappointments.

“My opening sentence to my first year classes in Paleo was, ‘If you find the history of life on Earth boring then it is my fault, not yours.’”

If Wright’s name sounds familiar, it should. Along with Maurice Tucker, he co-authored the 1990 book “Carbonate Sedimentology,” a bible of sorts to many in the industry and academia – but a bible from which, somewhat surprisingly, he no longer worships.

“I never thought it would still be selling well today,” he said.

At the time, it was the first major review of the subject since the 1970s.

“It went from a postgraduate reference book to more of an undergraduate textbook as the discipline progressed, and I am disappointed no one has attempted the task of a new book,” he said. “The problem is that the subject has, of course, moved on so quickly that a similar book would now require a large team.”

To underscore just how much that’s needed – when asked how the book fits into his curriculum today, he is succinct.

“I no longer use it.”

Yesterday and Today

A man who eschews his own work has a special affinity for his profession – and a unique modesty of his own place in the scheme of it all.

He can still pinpoint when the connection with earth science seemed right.

“I have been lucky to never lose the sense of wonderment I felt when I found my first fossils – 27 October, 1968, a Sunday afternoon,” he said, “and I get that feeling whether looking at the Gooseneck incised meanders on the San Juan River, or seeing the beautiful textures in thin sections from the Santos Basin Pre-Salt.”

Former students and colleagues talk about his ease in the classroom, how approachable he is, how his mind is almost encyclopedic.

But Wright, who recently retired, feels fortunate just to have done it – even to this day.

“When in the Houston Museum of Natural Science last April, just after the ACE, I was as much awed by the dinosaurs on display there as I was when I first learned about them as a child,” he said. “Some would think that very naïve, but I think never losing that childlike –  not childish – sense is being lucky.”

Wright credits his early education for his successful career – an education he now says students are not getting – something about which he’s passionate.

And he wants this award to draw attention to what he considers is a crack in the geologic academic fault line.

“The changes to larger classes and in the levels of resourcing for teaching have created huge pressures on core skills training. It is this decline in providing such skills that I see as the biggest change.”

And the results have immediate and lasting effects.

“I am most concerned about the decline in the skills base of many young geologists – of course I have to be as objective as possible as there is a tendency to think that “standards are falling” as simply a generational problem, unfounded or not.

“However, I think there is a widespread feeling that there is a skills deficit now in the UK,” he said – adding that the deficit can be felt globally.

“And this matters to the industry,” he continued, “because even if geoscientists do not need to collect the data they manipulate, they do need to understand how it is collected and the limits on its interpretation.”

Specifically, he worries about the increased demands for frequent student assessments, which he said takes up valuable time and motivates students for the quick means of completing assignments; the trend who see “geology as a non-existent subject” with the appointment of non-geologists to earth science departments; the focus on research versus actual teaching; the larger and larger sizes of graduate classes; and, ultimately, the final examinations that lack little if any direct tests on skills, instead focusing on testing memory.

His experience was different, better.

“I graduated from a class of less than 30 students and often had lab classes where there were less than 10 of us,” he recalled. “Teaching was intense, and we left the university with a strong set of skills.”

Thanks for the Memories

Wright, who has more than 130 peer-reviewed articles to his credit, knows he wouldn’t be receiving this award, wouldn’t be where he is today, without the help of many from those days, particularly some professors at Bristol University.

“Brian Williams showed me that enthusiasm was infectious and how important it was to be approachable to students,” he said. “David Speedyman demonstrated the importance of a clear structure to a lecture and to make sure that the students were provided with the clearest notes possible.

“And the late Bob Savage,” he said, “had a gift for turning a dull practical for final year students into an event by getting the students to discuss ideas.”

He wants that type of mentorship to return.

“We urgently need to wean the younger generation of graduates away from seeing geology as something that is solely done at the screen-scale and back to appreciating the spatial reality and complexity of geological problems,” he said.

“We need to ensure our students have the numeracy skills they need to move the science forward, both in academic research and in industry, especially more appreciation of statistical techniques,” he added. “We need to better use new technology, and not as a substitute for engaging with geological materials or fieldwork.”

But then a word of caution.

“Science is done by people, and people are not always objective and young scientists need to be aware of this,” he said.

Finally, Wright said that successful teachers, in any field, never underestimate their students.

Students will thank those who do –  sort of.

“I remember one student saying to me, ‘We don’t like your lectures. You make us think.’”

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