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.
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.”
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:
— NEO LMS (@neolms) October 20, 2017
- 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