Discussions from the magazine, blog, website and social media

Education research

In November’s Endpoint article, David Read called for teachers to engage with education research as it can ‘provide a fresh perspective and new ideas to enliven teaching and enhance outcomes’.

David Smith tweeted about the situation in higher education:

Always amazes me research-focused academics are not prepared to experiment/research their own teaching methods

And Tina Overton added:

and happy to ignore evidence too.

A commenter on Reddit described their experience:

Interestingly, it seems that a lot of people hear ‘education research’ and think of large-scale government research. That definitely has its place, but there are also a lot of us at the university level who are former teachers and want to get into classrooms to do observational research to determine what is best for kids.

Students and technology have changed so much since I got my teaching degree eight years ago, and I think we have an obligation to find out the best ways to reach this generation.

Also on Reddit, nealius said:

Yes education research is important. Especially for languages (my field). The problem I have with it is that teachers are expected to both a) teach and b) research/publish. The problem? You should have dedicated teachers and dedicated researchers. You can be a good teacher but a terrible researcher, or a good researcher but a terrible teacher. The two are not connected in any way whatsoever. Unfortunately universities don’t seem to care about this and insist on applicants for even part-time positions having a list of publications. The result is less focus on teaching and an accumulation of [poor quality] articles put out there to fluff up one’s CV.

In response to the question ‘Why should chemistry lecturers engage with education research?’, Rissa Sorensen-Unruh replied:

My reason: being truly upset that I didn’t really know what worked and what didn’t.

Harry Cather had an answer to this as well:

The main reason is to prevent the continuation of teaching methods which have no scientific basis being sold as obvious when they are just based on the educationists’ personal thoughts.

Eric Demoncheaux described how he’d like to see all teachers engaged with research:

Education research is a key feature of our future and all teachers should be given educational research mentors. There should be some time put aside for training, goal setting, and progress review. In my team we call them Have A Go meetings. If teachers know they need to publish to advance their career, the shift will be swift.

Nicholas Schlotter responded:

I’m sceptical that we need to be doing our own research in educational methods. In fact, I do not believe most of us are in a position to run a valid study. Using what little we know about learning to our individual courses, fine: use the rest of your time to learn chemistry!

Limestone cycle

In his most recent blogpost, Tom Husband needed to get something off his chest – he can’t find much to like about the limestone cycle. Tom explained how he finds it less than engaging. We wondered what you thought:

Peter Hoare tweeted:

Disagree. Talk about all other industrial processes which use the products and you get to make your own lime water!

Kaye Chem said:

As a chemist, I like it. It’s satisfying. As a teacher, I find the context dull.

Kristy Turner found good reason for it to stay:

Agree context isn’t exactly inspiring but it’s a nice pause to bring together a lot of good chemistry.

Al Chemy is also a fan:

Actually I’ve always found the limestone cycle pretty good value.

Students can carry out the limestone cycle in the lab practically themselves. We get conservation of mass and tests for gases at the same time which leads into balancing equations. We can make materials like concrete and again test them in the lab. We can compare historical processes like the limekiln (great video available from the BBC’s Edwardian Farm series) with the modern limekiln process.

Compare that to the Great Barrier Reef, which requires A-level concepts of equilibria and needs a context that most students have never seen themselves.

No point in arguing anyway – it’s gone in the new GCSE I believe.

GCSE changes

Al made an interesting point, and Joanna Furtado blogged for us not long after on ten things you need to know about the new chemistry GCSE. Joanna explained how, while none of the new specifications have yet been accredited by Ofqual, a highly prescriptive national curriculum means there’s unlikely to be big differences between them. One change though is that it is likely limestone chemistry and the carbonate cycle will no longer be included, as well as other topics around chemistry in context:

Julie S saw this as good news:

Hooray – no more limestone cycle and tectonic plates!

On the other hand Keith Andrew Ross wasn’t so sure:

Chemistry becomes meaningful only through context, so it is alarming that this seems to be being downplayed [in the new national curriculum].

Of course as teachers we will want to put the contexts back in, each to their strengths. However the regulations really should include the chemistry of the climate  – the role of the reactive gas oxygen in providing the ‘umph’ in the use of fuels and food and the build up of carbon dioxide during combustion leading to its increase in concentration in the atmosphere, and the problems of large-scale use of first generation biofuels which rob farmland of food crops leading to deforestation. Although photosynthesis is part of the biology guidelines, it needs to be included in chemistry also as an essential part of carbon chemistry.

I applaud the introduction of condensation polymerisation, it being the way life polymers such as proteins, DNA and carbohydrates are built up. Also for understanding the greenhouse effect, the way multi-atomic molecules in the air (such as OCO and HOH) are able to absorb infrared should be included.

One of the major reasons why science is a compulsory part of the GCSE curriculum is not to form the basis for A-level study, but to enable those who ‘give up’ science study at 16 to understand how their planet works and so help them look after it properly. It’s the context that is so essential at this stage of their developing understanding.

However it is worth noting that exam boards may still choose to include the limestone cycle in their final specifications, to add further depth to the content.

Flipped teaching

Michael Seery recently took a look at all the published research on flipped lecturing in chemistry. He wrote a summary of what he found, considering why teachers flip their lessons, how they do it and how students respond.

Mike Casey wrote a comment to describe his own experiences:

My (limited) experience with flipped courses suggests that the approach works particularly well when the learning objectives have a very strong focus on skills that the learners should master, as opposed to knowledge that they should acquire.

In organic chemistry, I think that topics such as structure determination, designing synthetic routes, and solving mechanism problems, lend themselves particularly well to a flipped approach. This is because the supporting concepts and information can be provided in the prescribed reading/viewing material, freeing up the class time for students to practise the relatively complex skills involved.

The perspective of teaching the skills needed by practising chemists was advocated in a recent paper by Talanquer. Indeed, deciding to try the flipped approach in a couple of modules caused me to modify the learning objectives to place greater emphasis on solving authentic problems, as opposed to demonstrating familiarity with background theory and facts. In turn, that forced a redesign of the reading/viewing material to emphasise, and make explicit, the necessary problem-solving strategies. This change was a knock-on effect of trying a flipped approach, and one that I did not fully anticipate, but it  strongly influenced subsequent decisions on which courses might work well in a flipped mode.

Enrico Uva had a question:

I’m just wondering why so many flipped classroom approaches rely heavily on videos and online quizzes. Why not have students read, draw diagrams, manipulate molecular models or experiment in advance? Sometimes I suspect that although advanced preparation is definitely effective and recommended, it’s also promoted by some to peddle more use of technology.

Michael responded:

Yes, I was surprised at the reliance on screencasts in pre-lecture preparation when completing the review. One could argue that it is a passive approach.

However, I would suggest that it is an efficient way of getting a core message across that can be picked up on in lectures; and it can of course be combined with other active approaches as you suggest. In my own pre-lecture work, I would offer students a screencast, but they had sheets to complete that involved drawing, working out, etc.

Using quizzes is just a convenient way to automate some simple questions about understanding.

So I would answer your question by saying that it is in part convenience/efficiency, but from a place of good intent rather than the desire to use technology for the sake of it.