Hey Ms P.L., if you could be a superhero based on an element in the periodic table, who would you be?”
Hardly the ground-breaking, significant question a teacher might want to elicit from the next generation of budding chemists. I was in the middle of a lecture about a central idea in chemistry: PV= nRT. Wandering through the rows of students seated on laboratory stools, I expounded the virtues of the Ideal Gas Law and how it expressed the relationship between pressure, volume and temperature in the reality of our everyday atmospheric conditions. Then came the question about which superhero I would be. Everybody sat up, all eyes on me, full attention.
A crucial aspect of teaching is self-reflection. In this situation, I caught myself disseminating content and, although I was passionate and excited about what I was talking about, not all of my students were. So what was it about the superhero question that got their attention?
The question sparked their curiosity and got them asking more questions. They wondered what I would say. Which periodic table superhero did they want to be? Would I stop talking about PV=nRT and start talking about something that really interested them? What other interesting questions could they think to ask and which ones would I entertain?
We need to spark curiosity in our chemistry classrooms and create spaces where students want to explore questions, preferably ones more directly related to the curriculum. At the same time, we need to provide the theoretical support so that students can thrive. The balance is delicate. Students do not often come to a subject like chemistry with a lot of prior knowledge. Their scientific studies need a solid grounding in our current understanding of concepts. The ability to understand and apply prior knowledge to new situations builds confidence. On the other hand, we can only progress in science education if we allow students to venture past established content and discover science and questions on their own. We need a “dynamic equilibrium” between investigations that teach skills and confirm beliefs and experiments that are open-ended and require student inquiry, risk, research and rigorous error analysis. We also need to challenge all students to push their boundaries regardless of their initial level of confidence, knowledge and ability.
To get beyond the theories of the “best ways to teach science,” we need to create systems where teachers and students interactively create the best places to learn science. There is no perfect way to learn science. Teachers need to take into account the contingencies of each situation they encounter and use their flexibility, innovation and leadership to identify with each student’s level of readiness to learn and seek the best ways to reach them. By collaborating with colleagues, teachers leverage the expertise of others and get inspired by the creative and effective strategies other teachers are using. Fads in new teaching strategies will come and go and teachers need to experiment, see what works but never align with only one “best” method. Learning environments need a diversity of strategies to capture the diverse learning needs of students.
I think the best places to learn science do five things really well:
• Spark student curiosity;
• Teach the fundamental concepts in a logical, meaningful way;
• Provide many opportunities to explore questions and test established theories;
• Engage students and build confidence;
• Challenge each student to push their boundaries.
To create these spaces teachers need to:
• Practice self-reflection and inquiry;
• Collaborate with colleagues;
• Use a variety of teaching methods.
Back to the original question: what superhero would I be? Engaging with those we are teaching means thinking along the same trajectories. After a slight pause, I responded: “Captain Platinum. A noble, rare and valuable hero who is impervious to corrosion (and corruption), defender of the equilibrium of the universe…at your service.”
Jennifer Pitt-Lainsbury is a senior chemistry and science teacher at University of Toronto Schools, facilitator of student participation in the International Chemistry Olympiad and the 2014 winner of Chemical Institute of Canada’s Beaumier Award for High School/CÉGEP Chemistry Teachers.