Masters and Chemistry lessons - time for a rethink?

Masters for all

Vanessa Kind, Durham

A mortarboard and diploma atop a pile of books

Source: Frannyanne/Shutterstock

I would like to comment on the editorial in the last issue.1 Overall, I think that making teaching a masters-level profession will help enhance the status of teachers. It would add quality to the profession if all chemistry teachers held masters degrees, preferably with advanced study (ie a masters dissertation) of an aspect of chemistry teaching. In Scandinavia, for example, all teachers working post-16 are expected to hold a masters degree in the subject they teach - while we can't perhaps go this far, we could reach a position in which chemistry teachers could have masters degrees that feature chemistry and education, which to me would be the ideal. However, I don't think all chemistry teachers should hold the masters in teaching and learning (MTL) because I see this as a more generic masters degree which is offered mainly through an in-school coaching system. Where this is done well with the support of the head teacher, this could be very good but should not be regarded as 'better' than the masters degrees currently available to teachers in many of our best universities.  

It is also worth remembering that some PGCE courses are 'M'-level, and offer masters-level credits already. Many teachers completing such PGCEs have the opportunity to extend their M-level credits into masters degrees by part-time study. I would not want to see these opportunities diminished in place of a 'one size fits all' MTL.  

The MTL could offer continuation of professional development for new teachers. I think this would be a positive outcome. Doing MTL will help give a focus to the induction year (MTL is planned to start towards the end of a teacher's induction period) and help drive development in the first few years of teaching. For the MTL to have any lasting value it is vital that it is seen as a high-quality, academic qualification. 

The MTL is being fully funded by the Government to help get it started, but my concern will be that this won't continue if a masters degree becomes the expected 'norm' for teachers. To date the Government has only committed funding to two cohorts of NQTs and teachers taking up responsibility posts in schools in England facing challenging circumstances. It should not become an expectation that teachers end up paying for this themselves without any notable return. Unions will have to discuss whether increased pay will be part of the MTL package. 

Of course, post-election all is likely to change. 

Who should be masters?

Andrew Thompson, Cambridge

The concept of encouraging a masters element to the teaching profession can only be a good move. Promotion of continuing professional development (CPD) within teaching is to be applauded because teaching is constantly developing. However, I do not believe that the masters in teaching and learning (MTL),1 as proposed by the Government, should be compulsory because there are many other routes to a masters qualification/standard - both education- and subject-specific - all of which have merit. There is also the point that there are many exceptional teachers in the profession that do not have a masters qualification. 

The emphasis in the first phase of the MTL is on reflection of practice, a research and evaluation process looking at improvement in outcomes, a valuable approach for any teacher. The second phase links to teaching and learning within the subject and key stage. This would, for a subject such as science, have to be carefully structured because teaching outside one's specialism is a real problem for NQTs. A teacher has to be secure in their subject knowledge to deliver content effectively even with the correct educational approach. 

The MTL, I believe, would be better suited to a teacher who has been teaching for at least three or four years. NQTs, and particularly those in their second year, are busy establishing their place both in the profession and in the classroom. At this stage they usually feel under the greatest pressure to develop a routine. It is also in these early years that teachers look to what they are currently doing and where they want to be in the future. Once they are through this process they would be better placed to gain from the MTL course. 

Time is always an issue in schools and I am sure a three-year course will pose such problems for NQTs. The school-based coach may also struggle to find enough time to support the NQT. Moreover, if the MTL becomes the focus of CPD in schools, I would be concerned that it may be at the expense of other CPD initiatives, both from a cost and time perspective. And since the MTL focuses on NQTs, more established teachers could feel neglected in the process. All teachers need to be involved in CPD especially if we are moving towards licensed teacher status. The masters qualification is a good idea that will need careful resourcing and balancing within schools to provide the greatest benefit to all teachers. 

Masters - spare a thought for the pupils

Tim Harrison, Bristol

I was alarmed to read in the last issue of Education in Chemistry,1 that the Government's latest 'initiative' - the masters in teaching and learning (MTL) - is to be aimed at NQTs. The first few years in-post, NQTs have to work very hard to learn the craft of teaching, including: mastering the discipline; understanding specifications; learning how to do class practicals (for chemists, in science disciplines not their own); health and safety issues; school policies; developing and honing their communication skills etc . Their energies should be directed at these tasks and not, at this stage, self-improvement. 

What of the pupils who are to be guinea pigs of the 'experiments' that the NQTs may be expected to perform? And can NQTs really compare methodologies against traditional teaching methods of which they will have little practical experience. What if individual pupils are subject to research by several young teachers - not all new methods being trialled would be successful. Has anyone thought of the affect this would have on pupils? 

And when does all the university contact re support for these courses take place? In the holidays when the NQTs need to be recovering from their term-time work? Or perhaps during their working week when they have to set cover for their pupils and do the course. Again, has anyone thought how this would affect the pupils? 

Where I do see this qualification as being useful, however, is with the teachers with at least five years' experience. Would I do it? No. I did an MSc part-time with the Open University for my CPD, when I needed to keep my brain ticking. The thought of doing educational theory at that point would have left me cold. 

If elements of normal teaching such as restructuring courses in-line with new specifications or introducing new teaching methodologies (being creative with time-tabling), changing from horizontal to vertical tutoring etc carry M-level points then fine, I would support such masters-level courses. But the NQTs are hardly likely to be involved directly in these things. 

Chemistry lessons - time for a rethink?

Alan Dronsfield, Derby

In March, Michael Gove, the then shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, told The Times that he would support 'traditional' school lessons.2 He even went so far as to illustrate his notion by giving his perception of an ideal school day for 14-year olds. Some of us old-fashioned chemists were gratified to see that his day kicks off with double-chemistry. Later, he makes clear that he has no truck with combined or integrated science courses: 'I was amazed to discover that science is not divided into physics, chemistry and biology. It has these hybrid headings about the chemical and material whatever and the Earth, the environment and this and that', he says.  

What surprised me more than his traditionalist view of science education was his choice of the chemical material in his ideal day - esters and esterification. The topic is suggested without any justification in The Times' report and I doubt, rather, if Gove (a graduate from Oxford in English) spends many of his waking hours contemplating how organic acid A might react with organic alcohol B. I admit that I last taught schoolchildren some 40 years ago, but this was then a sixthform topic and I presume it still is today, in most schools. My 14-year olds instead would have been encountering atoms, molecules, constructing formulae, balancing equations and maybe encountering the simple chemistry of the air and oxygen. Educationalists will no doubt criticise the sensibility of teaching esters and esterification to pupils presumably with little or no background in organic chemistry: without knowledge of structural formulae, functional groups and all the rest. But perhaps, on reflection, it should be.... 

As a nine-year old I was 'turned on' by a home chemistry set and was fascinated by chemical change: 'dissolving' iron filings in sodium hydrogensulfate solution to give a dirty green solution and a gas, seemingly locked away in the metal or the hydrogensulfate crystals, that on ignition burnt with a satisfying 'pop'; generating oxygen from hydrogen peroxide and testing it with a glowing splint; burning sulfur and seeing it disappear, forming a choking gas.  

Today, if I give visitors a tour of Derby University's chemistry laboratories I finish with a demonstration that hopefully engenders a sense of wonder. And the reaction I use most frequently is esterification. I use butanoic acid, smelling of baby's vomit and sweaty socks, and ethanol, catalysing the reaction with a few drops of concentrated sulfuric acid. On pouring the mixture into water, the evil smell of the acid has been replaced by the pleasant, fruity odour of ethyl butanoate. 

This instance of chemical change still fascinates me half a century on, and hopefully once in a while it will fascinate one of my visitors too. Just maybe, this is the reason why Michael Gove would like to see esters and esterification being taught to 14-year olds. 

I believe it is time to reshape National Curriculum science, and reinvigorate school science so that it enthuses and fascinates secondary pupils. We also need to address primary science, where I believe much of what goes on is unstimulating, depressingly over-cautious and I fear responsible for turning pupils off our subject.  

Yes let's have the confidence to make some ethyl butanoate with our 14-year olds - amyl acetate, even. Let's purify it in the lab and have yet more confidence to incorporate it in some home-made pear-drops. 

Times Online