A Letter to Future Chemistry Teachers

Perhaps the most helpful article I have ever read pertaining to my future as a chemistry educator was “Advice to My Intellectual Grandchildren” by J. Dudley Herron.  Herron worked as both a science educator and as a researcher of the best way to teach chemistry, and because of that his words have both inspired me and given me endless amounts of thoughts and ideas as I prepare to embark on my own journey into the science classroom.

One aspect of this journal in specific that I resonated with was his statement that chemistry educators work within two cultures.  That is, chemistry educators have to draw from the humanities side of things (such as child psychology and sociology) along with the subject of chemistry itself.  Anyone who has gone through a science education program in college can attest to this–life is a balance between science classes that you share with pre-med and engineering majors and psychology classes you share with other educators and speech pathology students.  It’s a delicate blend, but it’s crucial; as a chemistry educator, we have to have a solid comprehension of chemistry itself along with an understanding of how our students’ brains are working.

Image result for chemistry education

Herron spends a large portion of this essay discussing the topic of constructivism, which is where I’ll focus most of this blog post.  Here are his key points:

  • It’s physically impossible to transmit an idea into someone else’s brain.  This seems like a, “Well, duh!” kind of statement, but think about it…how many teachers have you had who adopted the mentality that students are a “blank slate”, waiting for knowledge to be poured into them?  This concept is literally insane.  Impossible.  Laughable, actually.  We can speak or motion or write down our thoughts but nothing can take a whole, complete idea and make it transfer completely into a student’s brain.
  • Constructivism is simple and easily accepted as an IDEA, but when we have to actually implement it we run into problems.  Many people love the idea of constructivism itself, and think, “Oh, yeah!  I want students to construct their own knowledge!”  Then they proceed to go on lecturing and giving cookbook labs in the classroom, leaving us all scratching our heads and wondering what happened.  It’s simple, actually–we make assumptions of others’ brains and comprehension and act like we can transmit knowledge.  For example, I’m assuming that you all can read and understand English, and I also assumed that you know what constructivism is without giving a definition right off the bat.  So indirectly, I’m trying to give you my knowledge on the subject without allowing you to fully construct your thoughts…let’s change that, shall we?
  • What the heck is constructivism?  Take a guess from the root of the word…construct, right?  Constructivism is simply the theory that we all construct our own knowledge of things based on experiences.
    • What are some examples of constructivism you’ve experienced in your education?  Leave your responses in the comments below!
  • Constructivism is impossible to avoid.  Herron put it extraordinarily well in his advice to us future chemistry educators:
    • ” the signals we receive through our ears, eyes, and other sense receptors are necessarily processed by our brains under the guidance of existing mental constructs—declarative knowledge, attitudes, reasoning patterns, intellectual habits, and the like—each of us is highly susceptible to misunderstanding what we are “taught.” It is implications of this kind that have made constructivism a powerful influence on chemistry education.” (Herron, 2008)
    • Essentially, Herron expressed time and time again throughout this paper (and many of his other works) that all of our understanding of the world is constructed in our heads.  If this is the case, it is completely ludicrous to think that we can avoid utilizing constructivism in the chemistry classroom–it is, in fact, the only way we learn.

One of the biggest focuses regarding constructivism that Herron had was addressing the laws of nature.  Constructivism is supposed to be constructed based off of experiences and observations of the natural world–so why do we have the “laws of nature” as a strict set of knowledge being taught in chemistry and physics classrooms?  Laws of nature are, in fact, abstract knowledge of relationships that are independent of the objects themselves–you can’t just walk around in the park and stumble upon a law of nature.  Herron says that this is because “knowledge is constructed, but it’s not just a construction–learning involves the interaction between our existing schemas and sensory perception.”

Image result for newton and apples

So yes, Newton’s laws were based off of an apple–but do his laws describe apples?  No; they describe the relationship between objects and gravity, so rather than a physical construction it becomes logomathematical knowledge (as put by Piaget).  Or, more simply, it’s experienced based knowledge rather than physical observation, and it’s a law that can be shown to students so they can construct the relationships themselves based on their own observations rather than being told, “This is Newton’s third law”.

Now, how can we use constructivism in the chemistry classroom?

Here are some ideas:

  • Use laboratories and hands-on experiences to allow students to explore a subject, coming up with their own ideas on relationships between objects.
  • Utilize PhET simulations (link here: https://phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/isotopes-and-atomic-mass) to let students play with molecules and see how they behave during situations.
  • Have students come up with definitions for things (guide them, but let the definitions be their own wording).

Use students’ backgrounds to impact their learning.  Students come from all different backgrounds with all different experiences, and this will have a direct impact on how they learn.  Use this to your advantage!  Engage and connect with your students based on what they already know and what they experience outside of school daily.

Constructivism is essential in the chemistry classroom.  If you don’t believe me, just read Herron’s article yourself–he offers incredible advice for future educators, along with a plethora of research to back his claims regarding constructivism’s positive impacts in the classroom.  Have any other thoughts on this?  Leave them in the comments below–happy teaching!



Herron, J.D.  2008.  Advice to My Intellectual Grandchildren.  Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 85 No. 1.  Accessed via http://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/ed085p24



About Naomi Patten

Future Science Educator Miami University Class of 2019 Follow me on Twitter @MsPattenScience
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8 Responses to A Letter to Future Chemistry Teachers

  1. Naomi Patten says:

    I love this idea! Relating atoms to cars is a perfect example of how we can construct knowledge based on something we already know (like the pains of parking in a high school parking lot, for example). This is exactly what we’re looking for in a science classroom!

  2. Naomi Patten says:

    I absolutely agree, it’s hard to take a subject like chemistry (which is so focused on things we CAN’T see) and make it relatable! This is where creativity as teachers comes in–we have to find a way to make students interested and excited about how they can compare big things (like cars) to little things (like atoms) in the way they’re interacting.

  3. Naomi Patten says:

    I totally agree, PhET simulations make atoms visible, which is physically impossible. Since atoms are so hard to comprehend, making them visible using a computer technology then comparing them to other things we physically know (from background knowledge) will help students construct an understanding of how molecules are working wayyyy below the surface–and hopefully peak their interests too!

  4. Naomi Patten says:

    This is exactly what I was thinking! Constructivism used specifically in chemistry is really unique, and I wanted to focus on it because I’m particularly passionate about this subject. Also, it is absolutely unavoidable–we have to construct knowledge, because students aren’t blank slates and never will be.

  5. Aesa McComb says:


    I thought it was really cool how you worked constructivism specifically into your own chemistry classroom! I think being specific in terms of the subject matter helped your blog take form here. I also really liked the part where you talked about how constructivism is unavoidable. Kids are going to come in with ideas and potential misconceptions whether you want them to or not, so it’s better to prepare and use these to your advantage. Excellent post!

  6. Shay says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this! It was so easy to read and understand! As a non-chemistry minded person I was wondering how a chemistry teacher could use constructivism in a chemistry classroom. You made it a bit clearer. Every student has some sort of idea in everything, the teacher just has to help unleash those ideas.
    I really liked your ideas on how to implement it in your classroom. I think using the PhET simulations would have really helped me in chemistry just because it would have helped me understand what was going on.

  7. radfortj says:

    Naomi, I like the specific approach you take in this post. I think it is really important to have concrete examples of constructivist teaching in order to teach as one effectively. Chemistry is a very hard topic to teach and even harder when it is taught in a constructivist classroom. Your post discusses helpful ways to do this in a very effective manner. Definitely something I will reference in the future.

  8. mulligmg says:

    When I think back on my classes in high school, the one constructivist lesson that was used by a teacher that stands out to me is when my Junior year chemistry teacher explained how electrons fill the energy levels of an atom by comparing the electrons to cars in a parking lot. By relating these concepts, I could build on prior knowledge I had to better understand new information.

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