Expert Insights

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I think for a lot of people, before they started chemistry, especially if they haven't done any chemistry before, they've got no real understanding of the difference between macroscopic things and microscopic and atomic sized things. We all know how important that distinction is.

I find it [teaching] enjoyable, and I think that if you’re enjoying teaching something then your passion and desire and enjoyment gets transmitted to the students.  It’s not necessarily easy to teach, but it’s satisfying and generally we want to inspire them to increase their level of intrinsic motivation to want to continue to study chemistry.

We teach way too much stuff.  We teach way too much stuff that we used to teach because students didn’t have the resources available to them that they’ve got now.  I mean if you look at the resources - they’ve got textbooks, they’ve got electronic media, they’ve got Sapling. They can do the problems in their own time in a guided way with something like Sapling. We don’t have to do it, all we’ve got to do is give them the framework to solve the problems.  And I think we often misunderstand how much we should give them because I think we underestimate the value of letting them solve problems in a guided way with things like Sapling.  And I think, you know, in the old days we’d just do problem after problem after problem, which is as boring as anything.

You're learning a new language as well as new concepts. There's lots of vocab, so terms like electrophile and nucleophile and many others. So learning the language, learning the code that we use, the curly arrow code, and then starting to apply that in half a dozen or a dozen or so different contexts, different reactions.

The concept of a continuum is, I think, really important in chemistry and… what I see is that students come up with this issue of things being black or white.  They struggle with this concept of the in between stuff.

We do an awful lot of focus on teaching but realisticly, authentic assessment that actually engages the student, that’s a tougher ask... I set a lot of essay type assignments. I think we ought to do more of that in science.  But when I started doing this I used to get very poor results and it’s taken me a little while to realise that the students weren’t understanding what the questions was.  They didn’t understand what I meant by compare and contrast or discuss or argue for this.  So increasingly now I use workshops to actually spend time with the students unpacking, what is this essay assignment about?  What am I actually asking you to do?  What do you need to think about? And not assuming that they know how to write an essay.

And it’s taken me a long time to discover what sort of teacher I actually am.... I had a colleague who said to me, ‘oh you’re a narrative teacher’.  I said, ‘I’m a what’? ..... I tell stories, essentially.  I tell stories.  I turn everything into a story in some way... and again, analytical chemistry lends itself to that.  That you can link it to stories that are in the media, personal experiences, my own personal research experience.  The student’s own experience.  So it’s shared.  So while I thought I was a straight forward didactic teacher, you know I just stood there but I’m not, I asked students, ‘alright who’s got experience of this’, and then I use a narrative form to get that across, and it seems to work.

At the start of every class my standard thing was ‘can you see me, can you hear me, can you see the slide?’ I would always look up the back for someone to put their hand up and always I would never talk to the front row. I’d always talk middle and back row and if someone was talking in the back row I’d pick them up and say ‘hey you, be quiet’ and then they know that I’ve seen them.

So you’ve got to focus on the whole class not just the people at the front - the people at the back as well.  Because sometimes smart people sit at the back as well, not just the dummies who want to get out. You’ve got to make sure you know everyone in the class.  And the surprising thing is that most kids sit in the same place every lecture.

So you can actually recognise where they are and who they are.  You don’t know their names but there’s a pattern in the way they sit.  You’ve just got to be aware of that.  So the trick is to embrace the whole class with your - you know physically, just with your eyes and and the way you talk.  You know, when you wave your hands, wave it to the back row. Make sure they’re involved.

I think what I try to get students to see is that we use models and you use a model, while it works. Then when it doesn’t work you develop a more sophisticated model, and what we’re doing now is developing a more sophisticated model of the structure of the atom, of bonding between atoms. So they find that difficult, the fact that you’re putting aside the model you used previously and developing a more sophisticated one. I think that’s something, it just knocks their confidence a bit. I think we’ve got to convince them that, actually, what your teachers told you at school wasn't wrong, it’s just that this is more sophisticated, that science is all about building models to explain reality.

It always seems like we're starting from further behind than a lot of the other sciences are because they seem to know less about chemistry when they get here.  If I say ‘think of a famous physicist’ you probably already have thought of three.  Then you could go outside and ask someone to think of a famous physicist and they'd probably think of at least one of the same ones.  You do the same thing with biologists.  If I say to think of a famous chemist … that's within chemistry circles, we can't do it.  We can name one but you know if you go out there and say, ‘Who is this person?’ they've got no idea.  So for some reason … we've never … chemists have never been able to popularise our topic, our content.  We've never been able to make it exciting enough that someone who is not studying it still wants to know about it.  And so I do think we've got a bigger challenge, for whatever reason.  Maybe there's something about chemistry that makes it less enjoyable, I don’t know.  There's definitely been an ongoing issue for us that it's not … people just don't know anything about it... Most people know Einstein's theory of relativity.  You don't see that really in everyday, go, "There's the theory of relativity at work." Newton's Law, sure, you see those and you … but, yeah, everybody knows Einstein.  And a lot of … I'll call them lay people, I don't like the term, but non-science people, could probably give you a hand wave explanation of what the theory of relativity is about, which is a pretty abstract thing.  I mean, if we think of the equivalent types of things in chemistry that are that abstract, nobody has a clue.  We teach them in third year to the remaining hard core people that are left.