Thirty years ago when I took AP Chemistry, I cannot remember ever having a lesson in Chemistry. What theory I had was given standing around the front bench. Theory was explanation to justify why we were doing the laboratory work for that day. There were no chairs or tables, except for the electronic balances kept behind panelled glass. Coming back to High School, we have come full circle. Labs are the explanation to justify the paper work and theory for the lesson. Previously I had never thought of chemistry as theoretical—but it was the hay day of kitchen chemistry when photographic memories were a blessing. What I learned then is hardly in the books anymore. Memory plays a small part. Chemistry is more like Physics—theory learned with mathematics.
Chemistry was exciting and dangerous even if poorly understood. Now its danger is recognized as more insiduous and liability incalculable. Contemporary intellectual elegance in Chemistry and technological advances has streamlined and made redundant the endless chemical analyses and titrations of a former era. However I feel we are left with a crisis. The swing from kitchen to computerised chemistry has emptied the emotionality, motivation and drama from Chemistry.
Here is not the place to take up the implications fully, but the purpose of this unit is to address part of the issue of motivation and emotionality. Currently what was once called physical chemistry is now center stage and all but defines Chemistry. Its theoretical elegance seems lost on my students but may be this could be changed if it could be taught in the context of the great crisis and drama of our day and age—the struggle to preserve the biosphere. Water Chemistry, solubility, atmospheric oxidation/reduction, environmental acids/bases, salts, toxic elements, fuel hydrocarbons and so forth could be the context in which core chemistry can come alive. Rather than teaching environmental chemistry as an extra, in the line margins or in pretty boxes in the text, one puts it into center stage from which to justrify physical chemistry or inorganic chemistry. The laboratory becomes the natural elements of environment, water, air and earth from which the theory takes shape for the student.
The idea is to take existing divisions in typical High School or University texts but instead of letting the environment (or other issue/context) be the application or illustration of the theory, let a study of the environment etc., raise the issues that cause us to look at theory—just as a teenager, I took a break from lab work to appreciate theory. Rather than the environment, we could equally begin with new inventions, products on the market, local firms and enterprises, chemicals used in the home or in the pharmacy or on the street. To some extent this is achieved already in undergraduate courses in Environmental Chemistry, but the focus even in Manahan’s excellent book, ‘Fundamentals of Environmental Chemistry’, is on creating a separate field of study rather than on addressing the pedagogical issues in teaching General Chemistry. The following unit is an example of contextual chemistry with a difference in that each class is structured by an open-ended experiment and the units are designed as a simulated journey through a real world situation. In this case I have chosen the Hydrological cycle and follow an imaginary water molecule as it moves from ocean to sky to earth and encounters with ‘civilization’ before it returns to the sea. Each class is divided into a pre-lab (coming up with a hypothesis to test), a lab (students design an experiment to test the hypothesis), and a post-lab discussion (students integrate theory with their findings). The initiation is a discussion in which students talk about what they already know about the problem of the day. Relevant bites of theory are introduced. An aspect of this is offered to the students to test. The suggested experiments are intended to be mini- labs that can be performed in a single or double 50 minute class session. By tieing in problems, ideas, experiment, conclusions and theory into a single session, each class becomes relevant, experiential, hands on, analytical, contextual, student centred and theoretical.
In the first instance I was motivated to devise this unit to teach chemistry that was interesting to me as teacher, to help recapture for students the love of chemistry that I had gained in a former time and place but that now seemed jeopardised by the inexorable march of ‘progress’, and to find a way to give meaning to chemical theory without it being intimidating to students in the normal everyday range of ability and intelligence. In this latter respect I was helped by the SESAP theories of teaching science, but also from my own philosophy of education centred on the dictum that ‘experience teaches’. The following unit therefore seeks to exemplify four pedagogical truths that I believe to be self-evident and critical in devising any successful chemistry course.
A.S. Neill in ‘Hearts not heads’, provides my first proposition that feeling awareness (experience) is prior to meaningful cognition. Mind, from birth onwards, can only find order from within experiences previously given by our feeling senses. Mind is otherwise empty abstractions or conditioned responses (as in brain washing). Textbooks can describe other people’s experiences and with empathy and imagination we can to some extent enter into their mind sets. In chemistry where we are learning about the behavior of matter, we need to recapitulate journies of exploration of former scientists or enter into simulated journies of discovery. The aim is not to learn facts but for the mind to find a meaningful order within a multi-dimensional experience.
My second proposition is given by Nietzsche. He was deeply opposed to reducing reality to a web of self-consistent logic. Truth is essentially fragmentary and is only grasped as we continuously subject it to experience. The mode in which theoretical chemistry is presented is as if reality consists of mathematical theorems of which chemistry supplies examples. We are lulled into believing that there is such a thing as a mechanistic metaphysic with absolute laws constituting the bedrock. Chemistry is then a closed book or bible upon which the outer edges are gradually being filled in by scientists to provide the actual constitution of reality. In theory at least, one day there will be nothing more to be known. The consequence for the class room is to turn teachers into catechists and students into learners of sacred scientific scripture. Ironically, science has been turned on its head by its own success. We can correct this by teaching it in the manner by which it gained its success, i.e. by subjecting mind always to experience.
Something of course is being built up in the grand edifice called science. For Robin Barrow in ‘An introduction to the philosophy of education’, it is a body of knowledge agreed upon by a professional caucus of experts. A student is initiated as neophyte and the teacher guides him or her through the curriculum given by the academy. In the sense that experience is always mediated through culture (language belongs to culture, not to an individual necessarily), Barrow’s views are profoundly true. Culture, like mind, is no less bound to the need to be subject to experience. The problem with raising curriculum to such an exalted position, (as is typical in the classroom), is that the student is not really allowed to think until at the end of the exercise. Only once we are brainwashed are we safe to ask questions. The resolution of our problem is to see the relationship of individual experience to corporate experience as a dialectical one. The teacher, as representative of the academy and the student as neophyte, are both confronted and subjected to the universe of experience. The teacher acts as a guide and in conversation with the student along the way of simulated experience such as experiments, a cathedral of thought is built up. The foundation, however, is not the academy or textbook, but experience generated in the classroom or field exercises.
It is basic to my theory that the central event in an instructional event is an experience that is inviting to the student and an experience from which the student can learn. Contrary to popular notions, science is not about objectivity. It is about finding explanatory models (the subjective pole) that best fit experience (the objective pole) so as to build up knowledge (science). Science does not allow mere private experience but it is only through private experience that we can make connections to public domains of experience. Subjectivity turns into objectivity once others confirm our grasp of experience by reproducing the events and findings. No amount of accurate use of SI units makes anything more objective -units are arbitrary, relative and based on convenience. It is their use in describing what happens in an experience that enhances objectivity. As we all know, however, experience cannot be taught. It is something that teaches us. Hence the style of these classes are open ended. Experience is the best teacher.