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Thinking Is Hard (When You Tell Me What to Do)

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I like to think of myself as a fairly calm and rational person, but there’s a few things that really set me off:

“Science is hard.”

No, it’s not. Mythbusters says so. It’s the story behind the science that may be hard.

I drew this at the beginning of the school year. I don’t remember why. But this is how school often feels to people:


Maybe I should make it my background.

And while I was good at school, I hated memorizing lists and vocabulary (and I am still terrible at remembering names and dates). It’s just not 1. interesting, and 2. meaningful. One teacher called standardized tests “bulimic learning,” because you take in massive amounts of facts, regurgitate it all, and forget it immediately. (Sorry for the graphic nature of that last sentence.)

I taped a quote above my desk:

I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught. — Winston Churchill

The reason I’ve been uncomfortable with a couple of sections of my curriculum is that it’s very mechanical and boring; I need (really, my students need) a better story. The reason I hate teaching empirical formula calculations is that it’s not very useful now that lab equipment does the detection and even some identification automatically, and students won’t need this stuff unless they take college placement tests.

There’s a big mental shift between doing calculations mechanically and explaining why it all worked. This conversation (of which similar versions have floated around the math Twitter community lately, regarding algebra, geometry, and calculus curricula) is starting to congeal some ideas I’ve had all year. There’s a question about the depth versus the breadth of the material covered in any classroom.

So where do you draw the line? Teaching chemistry, which isn’t on state tests, I have the luxury of relatively little external pressure (however, there are still elements of chem in the NGSS, although those standards are nebulous enough to get by with a physical science course, rather than a full-blown chemistry course). However, I feel the pressure of potential colleges: if it says “chemistry” on my students’ transcripts, I assume the college thinks I covered particular topics. I feel obligated to give my students what I consider a first-year chemistry course, with chemical reactions, balancing equations, sig figs, moles, and stoich. But all of that is mostly mechanical, and frankly, not very interesting. It also lulls students into thinking that calculations will always be presented in a particular way. They have little to no knowledge as to what they’re actually calculating or why they should care.

After my fantastic class yesterday, I feel obligated to change, not what I’m doing, but how I’m doing it.


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