Expert Insights

I like to approach chemistry as a different language, because it used symbols to convey ideas across, but they are not the reality.  When we draw a little stick structure, alcohol does not exist as I’ve just drawn it, it’s a representation.

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.

We all spend a certain amount of our class time going through definitions and jargon and getting students up to speed with the basic area and now that’s material which I take out of the class and put online and let students read and understand that in their own time before they come to the class.

I remember when I was taught this, that the only definition we were given was Le Chatelier’s actual definition, or his principle, and I remember reading that language and going geez, that’s really hard to follow as a student, so I used to always try and present that and then break it down in to a more simple sort of version that I thought would be easier to understand.

I think personally the quicker the students can see that holistic approach to chemistry the better... Because that’s when they start to realise how cool it is.

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.

So I think we just, I used to give them, perhaps, 10 minutes to work on a problem, now I probably only give them two or three minutes.  I find that concentrates them and prevents them just talking about the State of Origin or whatever it is that’s on their mind.  We just need to keep changing the activity, rather than have extended activities... we want them to chat, but I think human beings won’t sit and chat about quantum mechanics for more than two or three minutes, they’ll get onto what they want for lunch.  So it’s that balance.

But if you’re honest, they’ll be honest right.  And I think that’s really important. If you b*gger something up and you really do make a blue or even a little blue, tell them.  Say ‘oh look this was wrong, you know this is what it should be’.  So that’s important - to be honest, to be upfront.  Recognise that we’re dealing, in 2015 or 2014, we’re dealing with OP1 to maybe 14. Recognise the breadth of that class. Don’t teach the top, don’t teach the bottom, teach somewhere in the middle, but try to make sure that you don’t lose the top ones and lose the bottom ones, which is very difficult to do and you only do it with experience.

They struggle with the language of chemistry.  So we sort of need to teach them the process and how to work out how to do these things.  We know that their tendency is just to attempt to memorise reactions.  Whereas if we can teach them to derive … find out what the nucleophile and the electrophile is then all they have to do is draw a curly arrow from the nucleophile to the electrophile, rather than trying to work out what the reaction is itself. 

The actual curly arrow mechanisms are in a way themselves cartoons, how they map to the reality in the way that a Micky Mouse might map to real life.