Distillate: David Read looks at recent chemical education research

Chemical symbols in speech bubbles

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To get to grips with complex scientific concepts, students need to develop the ability to use language correctly so they can engage in genuine 'scientific meaning making'. Teachers play a crucial role in this, by facilitating conversations in the classroom which support the achievement of this outcome. Brett Criswell has carried out a detailed study into the discursive practices of five teachers, giving a fascinating insight into the impact of their choices on student learning. The problems posed were ones which were likely to generate answers not aligned with the accepted principles of chemistry, and so placed the onus on the teacher to drive students' progress from preliminary ideas to more formalised scientific explanations.

One of the most striking features of this study is the quantity of data generated in the analysis of the lessons, with over 500 pages of video transcripts being processed through the use of a coding system, which allowed a meaningful analysis to be carried out. Reading through the small sample of data presented in the article will be of great interest to chemistry teachers at all levels, with many examples of familiar misconceptions and misunderstandings among students being addressed by the teachers involved. The author provides a critical analysis throughout, giving a commentary which may be of assistance to readers wishing to develop their own ability to reflect on their discursive classroom practices.

A key conclusion is that the teachers involved tended to restrict the opportunities for students to fully express their understanding, preventing them from engaging in dialogue with students which could deepen conceptual understanding. The author suggests that professional development opportunities where teachers can engage in video reflection may help them to expand their repertoire of discursive approaches leading to enhanced outcomes, although it is acknowledged that the 'uncertainty of letting go' of the direction of a lesson is potentially unsettling for those who like be in control of their classroom.