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March 08, 2017

Tasty Teaching

Tasty Teaching

Chemistry is an abstract subject riddled with possible misconceptions and areas for confusion. One of the educationalists who made great contributions to tackling this was a Scotsman, Alex Johnstone. He approached chemical education from an information processing perspective, which views the mind in a similar way to a computer. The best way to deliver chemistry to young people, he argued, was to introduce challenging ideas in a concrete way first of all. There is perhaps no more concrete of examples to students than food and drink, and these have worked wonders for engagement and understanding.

To demonstrate the concept of conservation of mass in chemical reactions, it is common to carry out reactions on scales to show that mass is not created or destroyed. Inspired by Johnstone, I instead bought a pack of microwave popcorn and asked my Year 10 pupils to predict whether the mass of the pack would go up or down, or stay the same. To my surprise, the pack lost mass as well as whetting the appetite of the class before lunch. Students explained that this was caused by the pack not being air tight, allowing steam to escape. When it came to chemical reactions, they had little difficulty then applying their knowledge to explain mass changes in open and closed systems.

Popcorn typically goes down well with a drink however, and it was a 2L bottle of Pepsi Max which served me in demonstrating trends in the Periodic Table to both Year 8 and Year 10 classes. Using the bottle as an electron, I asked one student to hold onto it closely while another tried to take it off them. Of course, the ‘electron’ was held. I then asked the student to hold the bottle at full arm’s length, and repeated the exercise. The bottle was easily taken, and each class managed to use this to explain why elements lose their electrons more easily as their atoms get bigger.

Last but not least, chocolate. When tasked with teaching bottom set Year 10 classes about chemical formulations, I looked to the ‘concrete first’ approach for help. Chocolate is a complex formulation of cocoa, sugar, milk, and other ingredients, and the composition affects how it looks, tastes, and feels. My technicians were able to find the best white, milk and dark chocolate money could buy at Asda, and the students did the rest. Initially in disbelief at being allowed to eat chocolate in a science lesson, the students made excellent observations about how the different chocolates tasted, snapped, and melted. Students with usually very weak literacy skills used a wide range of good words to describe what they saw and relate these to the formulation of the chocolate.

The research literature shows that understanding is stronger if the learner actively engages with new information. In turn, this is more likely if that information is presented in relevant and relatable contexts. For this approach, Dr Johnstone, both my students and I have you to thank.

Further reading: The biggest contributors to 'meaningful learning' and its relation to engagement were Ausubel and Novak and a nice research paper, looking at students doing compulsory chemistry at American universities available freely, is: Grove, N.P. and Bretz S.L. 2012, A continuum of learning: from rote memorization to meaningful learning in organic chemistry Chemistry Education Reseasrch and practice, 13, 201-208 Accessed via:!divAbstract (you may need to cut and paste this into your browser)

November 30, 2016

Bloomin’ Marvellous: Taking my hat off to Bloom by Lauren Atkins

Questioning a student prompts thought, it allows them to pick apart elements of History in order for them to investigate why events happened, what their impact was and also what would the world look like if these events did not take place.

After six weeks of teaching, it became apparent that my lessons were not as challenging for higher achievers as I had hoped; back to the drawing board it was. From writing about Bloom’s taxonomy in two of my assignments, I thought this would be a good place to start. Bloom’s theory follows a linear format, ideal for students studying History. I found that, in theory, if the taxonomy was incorporated within my lessons that I would be able to challenge my higher achieving students. Bloom stipulates that students need to start by recalling information and through questioning they are guided to the evaluation stage. In my lessons, I found that some students arrived with prior-knowledge and so, beginning with the ‘knowledge’ and ‘comprehension’ stages hindered their progress. I then looked at activities that would help to challenge the higher attaining students in the class. After research, I found De Bono’s ‘Thinking Hats’ as this activity allows for students to begin at various levels. However, as Bloom’s theory applies to History so well I thought it was important that this form of questioning was incorporated. I combined the ‘Thinking Hats’ activity with Bloom’s questioning. Students were then given a colour, representative of the stage they should begin at, in their book, they then had to complete three sections. This task immediately challenged higher ability students whilst differentiating for those who need additional support. Students utilised their historical skill set and analysed the information they were given before synthesising and evaluation. I found that because I was researching the theory at the same time as applying it, I could tailor it to meet the needs of my higher attaining students within lessons.

There is one potential problem here though, in History it is important for students to empathise with a source to evaluate it. This is a skill that I am currently developing with my Year 7 groups through questioning, for example, ‘why do you think the Black Death was portrayed in this way?’ ‘How does it reflect people’s fears at the time?’ Through this ‘high-order’ questioning students can empathise with the source which inevitably aids their ability to evaluate it. By understanding why a source has been published, students are able to then evaluate why it is representative of the time. To combat this, I placed great emphasis on ‘empathy’ within the ‘synthesis’ stage. Bloom instructs that this stage is reserved for inference and imagination; both concepts which link to empathy. Students, through questioning are asked what can they infer from the source? From this we can then ask them to imagine they are living during that period, ‘what might their key concerns about the Black Death be?’ ‘What were people’s fears about the Black Death?’ This allows higher attaining students to reach the top stages of Bloom’s taxonomy thus extending their knowledge and challenging them appropriately in lessons.

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