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 paneled 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. Much of what I learned then is not in High School books anymore. Memory now plays a small part. Chemistry is more like Physics—theory learned with mathematics.
Chemistry was exciting and dangerous. Now its danger is recognized as more insidious and liability incalculable. Contemporary intellectual elegance in Chemistry and technological advances have 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 computerized chemistry has emptied the motivation and drama from Chemistry.
My curiosity at what has happened in these intervening years was piqued by working for a short while in a hospital chemistry lab. The chemists had been trained in the 1950>s, were miserable and burned out. All of them bewailed the loss of direct experience of chemistry in their jobs. All they did was read off computer data and checked the smooth functioning of the machinery. What contact they had with chemistry was merely abstract. The laboratory director encouraged them to think about what they were doing but when I asked questions, no one was interested. As Kafkaesque as this may seem, I feel it has parallels to the situation in too many chemistry classrooms. Students work out of mass produced paperwork, software, books, symbols and with occasional experiments that have a predictability of cybernetic flowcharts that control for expected flaws or intended products
. As much as we call it chemistry, like that medical chemistry lab it is surely not chemistry, albeit socially useful
In reading in educational theory, I became quickly aware of one major influencing factor. Behaviorism has all but swallowed up educational theory, either directly or by providing the vocabulary used or implicit models of thought, for example, the cybernetic engineering language and models of input and feedback applied to reasoning between teacher and student. I am knowledgeable enough in philosophy and knew a little of Dewey to be very troubled by this. As I read in Constructivist writings, I learned that I was not at all alone, but it was not until I started to read for this paper that I realized how very much bigger is Dewey’s thought than Constructivism and how much he anticipated the current problems in teaching science. Ironically, constructivists, writing largely out of the psychology of Piaget seem to have revived what was seemingly a failed experiment by Dewey’s ardent followers in progressive schools. However, in this study of the four major tenets of Dewey (experience teaches; aesthetic-cogmtion-conation is a single integrated knowing process; knowledge is non-dualistic (science and morality are a single cloth) and a scientific metaphysics is radically non-authoritarian and democratic) I hope to show that Dewey goes further, goes deeper and offers a corrective to key suppositions in Constructivism. I also attempt to show its relevance for both the understanding of the nature of knowledge in Chemistry and its implications for teaching Chemistry. A unit of chemistry, the hydrological cycle follows to give a concrete examplc of how these principles have been applied in a General Chemistry curriculum of an inner city High School.