Monday, August 22, 2005

Let Us Entertain You

New chemistry teachers, learning how to tap dance.

The first part of my reflections on teaching high school chemistry focused on the differences between what we do in the classroom and what seems to be expected in academia. From there
I went into asking how it is that we can justify doing certain types of in-class demos, specifically demos dealing with group 1 elements. So I arrive at this point, and to me it's in a real sense a large part of the real problem with science education at the secondary level in general, but certainly in chemistry. These days we seem to be far more focused on entertaining students than in imbuing them with the skills that are a natural part of a science curriculum, and that moreover are a necessity for them to be successful in the world that they're about to step into. Today science teachers not only have to be members of their local teacher's union, but card carrying members of the local entertainment local as well.

Learning indeed should be fun, and on some level it should be entertaining as well, but a consistent cry that I hear in high school education is that we science teachers have to grab their attention, we need to "make" them interested. In the case of chemistry this is thought best to be facilitated through demonstrations. This seems to represent something of a pedagogical shift in learning from my days in high school chemistry where, for the life of me, I can't recall a single demo. I recall a lot of hard work in class, a lot of labs where we got our hands dirty, but nary a demo. Maybe in my school we were different, but then I know that throughout my four years of high school education I never had the sense that I was there to be entertained by my teachers. No, my recollection was that I was there to learn, and I wasn't always going to enjoy the experience and sure enough I didn't. The problem isn't simply a matter of personal nostalgic dissonance, but rather that entertaining students doesn't really seem to work.

In Feb of this year released a survey that it commissioned titled "How Prepared Are Public School Graduates?" [Blogger's note: if you click on the Achieve hyperlink a PowerPoint presentation for the study can be obtained to the right of the home page.] This survey included four groups, graduates of high school that went to college, graduates that went onto work after high school, college instructors at the freshmen level, and employers of high school graduates. The report covers a broader range of concerns than what I want to address here, which is primarily focused on the sciences. With that in mind, this is what we can glean from the report:

I. High school graduates felt there was a gap in their science and math training:
College students: 44% and 42%; non-college students: 51% and 41%

II. College instructors and employers felt there were gaps in the following areas for recent
high school graduates: Science: 36%/24%; Math: 52%/32%; Thinking analytically: 66% /42%; Work and study habits: 65% /50%; Applying what's learned in school to solving problems: 55% & 39%

The NY Times in Students Say High Schools Let Them Down informs us that the Achieve results are consistent with other studies showing similar gaps between what students are learning in high school and what they actually need to know to function in a post-secondary world.

To add fuel to the fire, this past week the Times ran Many Going to College Are Not Ready, Report Says , which addressed the performance problems seen with students taking the ACT. For those not in the know, per the ACT web site:

The ACT is America's most widely accepted college entrance exam. It assesses
high school students' general educational development and their ability to complete college-level work.

  • The multiple-choice tests cover four skill areas: English, mathematics,
    reading, and science.
  • The Writing Test, which is optional, measures skill in planning and
    writing a short essay.

We learn from the article that out of the 2005 participants in the ACT only 26% of test takers in science and 41% of them in math were able to meet the established benchmarks for those areas of study.

It seems that no matter how you look at it we're sending high school students out into a world ill-prepared for either college or the work force. Moreover, as per the observations of college professors and employers, these students have insufficiently honed their thinking abilities, nor have they acquired the necessary work habits to tackle and easily fit into the environments high schools are ostensibly intended to ready them for. Is it any wonder why a gimlet perspective might bring into question an emphasis on demos and entertainment when the results seem so under spectacular? Entertainment is certainly not the main culprit here, but it's part of the stink of the problem and a skewed perspective that seems to put a greater emphasis on entertainment and grabbing student attention with fire, smoke, and explosions, vice with the warning that if you don't get this now, if you don't make the effort, if you don't take this seriously and invest in it some serious work, you'll be at a loss when you leave here and you'll be trying to make up for this at a time when you have the least amount of time and opportunity to do so.

It does seem that getting back to the basics is in order. This doesn't necessarily obviate demos in chemistry, but rather it should set a standard for demos that include clear cut pedagogical goals and cost justifications for special handling and storage, which together would likely eliminate many demos, or maybe not; it'd all depend on how a teacher went about this and how creative he or she was their justifications and student expectations. However you cut it, though, demos solely for entertainment purposes is a no-go, and somehow, and frankly this is the great question and problem, we need to figure out how to re-install the vigor and rigor in our science curriculums such that we help to turn out thinkers who are well-prepared for the world that greets them and which is not at all otherwise to be friendly to the slow of foot or dim of mind.


Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Demos in chemistry class should be a reward for good learning by the class. If the entire class was rewarded for doing well on the latest quiz (for example), it would teach kids that they need to collaborate (help each other), which is, surprisingly enough, just what scientists (and employees) do in real life! Besides, it has been demonstrated again and again that the best way to really learn something is to teach it to others .. and kids in the classroom can learn really well from their peers because they are with their peers much more than they are with their teachers.

And yes, as a college "professor", I agree 110% that students are woefully underprepared for college and for a working life because they not only cannot do the basic minimum required to succeed in a basic job, but the bast majority of them can't think their way out of a paperbag.

Of course, the same can be said about their parents; otherwise, so-called "intelligent design" would not be an issue anywhere in this country.


11:41 AM  
Blogger James said...


I have to admit that I've never had someone suggest demos as a reward - interesting perspective. I'm inclined to think that they've value if they indeed support a specific learning objective and are used with such a goal in mind, though I can appreciate the "rewarding" aspect of them, too.

I am inclined to think that parents are indeed a part of the problem. I don't think there's a teacher out there who hasn't a horror story, or many such stories, about a parent who makes excuses for not holding their kid to a standard of learning and achievement which should be expected and demanded from our educational system. I definitely see the problem here as being multi-faceted and it needs to change as kids who can't think their ways out of a paper bag are never going to make it in the sort of world we seem to be creating.

4:19 PM  
Blogger Out From Within said...

In chemistry, the only entertainment provided was chemical reactions, and these laserdisks The World of Chemistry, with Don Showalter. It was hillarious trying to watch real chemists try to perform experiments like a circus act.

Educational though.

3:24 PM  
Blogger James said...

:::Laughing::: Well, so long as you got something out of it it couldn't have been ALL bad!

6:05 PM  
Blogger QuickSauce said...

As a non-teaching non-scientist, but avid fan of pedogogical theory, I wonder if the intended purpose of demos isn't a slightly-off-the-mark attempt to connect science education with "regular" life. As in, perhaps if a teacher were to emphasize everyday instances of chemistry, s/he could hold the students' interest. The example that comes to mind is, "How does soap work?" It takes the concept of polarity and puts it into a situation that every student is aware of. Likewise, demos give real life experiences of something that is largely abstract in class, but they aren't connected to usual experiences. A whole series of "How does X work?" could be really engaging.

Just a thought.

9:27 PM  
Blogger James said...

I think the "this is real life" aspect of demos is definitely a factor, and there's some definite validity to that. But very often there's a simple intention to entertain, to keep the students engaged for as much time as possible and to give them something to talk about. That isn't on the whole a bad thing, but a demo shouldn't out of hand be considered a good thing unless there's a logic thought process engaged that can realistically justify it and tie it to specific learning.

9:41 PM  
Blogger mikealexander04864022 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:20 AM  
Blogger she falters to rise said...

I'm a big fan of demos and students teaching students. I'm also a big fan of teaching the students less rather than more. Chemistry was the thorn in my side (and continues to be so) all through college. I think I struggled so much with it because I couldn't visualize much of the material and because I wasn't sure how to apply all the facts and rules that I was memorizing. If my high school biology teacher had taught chemistry, I think things would be different because he was big on socratic method, demos, applied learning, etc. Demos should never be for entertainment, though. There's a big different between using a demo to engage versus to entertain. I think the key to that difference is student involvement in the demo--are they a part of the experience or are they watching the experience.

12:32 PM  
Blogger James said...

You've a very good point with regard to the student involvement in the demos and the overall activity of the class. Trying to figure out how to do that and from there to perfect it is going to be my biggest challenge as I'm of a mind that you have to get the kids involved as much as you can, especially in a subject that is conceptually non-intuitive, which chemistry surely is. How do do this, how to engage them and make them part of the experience, is going to be what keeps me on my toes for the coming years, or quite possibly for as long as I'm doing this.

12:56 PM  
Anonymous Drew said...

Whiz!Bang! demos are some of the worst possible tools if the aim is to teach chemistry.... it gives students a silly, absurd view of what chemistry is, and what chemists do, and the idea that it doesn't relate to their lives at all. The American Chemical Soc. spends far too much time and energy planning and supporting cirricula that perpetuates all the bad sterotypes; students need to realize that yes, chemistry can be difficult, but worthwhile. Pretty demos just gloss over it all, and make it into a farce.

6:40 PM  
Blogger James said...

Drew, I'm with you to a point as on some level I do see the use of demos as useful if you can tie them to specific things that the students are learning. But on the whole I'd have to say that there's more to support this line of thinking than not inasmuch as demos are not nearly the concern, if they're a concern at all, at the post-secondary level. One would think that were it that important to use as a learning tool that their use would carry over into college, but alas they do not.

Some things, though, I think bear doing if they demonstrate something that the students may not otherwise be able to see very easily. But highly conceptual topics don't always lend themselves to quick demos. On the whole I'd have to say I'm more in your corner on this one than not.

3:03 PM  
Blogger chris said...

It's interesting that we consider that either the students or their parents must be at fault for classroom underchievements educators witness and are forced to suffer.
I wonder...could teachers have anything to do with this "crisis"? What about the curriculum - has it no role in the equation?? In my research (i'm in English ecuation) i've found that when "we" talk about students being underprepaired we often examine the who's, not the why's or the what's. The "problem" (whehter it's students lack of reading, lack of science knowledge, lack of political awareness, etc.) is NOT as simple as saying "the parents don't demand enough from their kids."
An often cited piece of scholarship in the fields of linguistics, anthropology, ethnography, education, and English is _Ways With Words_ by Shirley Heath. One of the reasons is b/c it addresses, in great depth, many of the questions posed here and above: teaching methods and pedagogy; student motivation and performance; parental and community involvement; economic issues affecting schooling; language use and it's role in the classroom and a number of other issues.
It's a rather long book, and well worth the effort it takes to get through the whole text. If you're interested in the meatiest part, you can skip to the final 2 chapters + the epilogue.
Btw, using ethnography as a way to TEACH (and not just as a methodology for doing research) has some (surprisingly?) phenomenal results.

11:03 AM  
Blogger James said...


First, I would be hard pressed to say that there's anyone "one" party that's responsible for our current educational problems. That said, No Child Left Behind places the burden for correcting the problems on teachers and school administrators. As I said in my post, this is a four-point problem, one which includes teachers, administrators, parents, and students, but the ostensible solution for it, and the negative consequences for not fixing the problem, is dumped on the first two points. However one wants to look at the problem I'm quite sure that this isn't reasonable, fair, or apt to solve any problems that by and large indeed do lie outside the school house.

You're emphasis on ethnography, or the study of human culture, essentially proves my point. This isn't a problem isolated to one place, or one of four points as it were, instead it's a result of a consideration of an entire culture. To me, though, that's merely the nuance to what ultimately is what's required and that's that ALL points in the problem (if we're to make it simply a four-point issue) are responsible and accountable for what's expected. Right now students nor parents aren't, and regardless of whether one has an ethnographic perspective or not (assuming that the ethnograpy of an inner-city school will differ from a suburban one, or a southern one from a western one, etc.), if all parties aren't working towards the same end then whatever the goals may be they shan't be attained en masse. You can also be sure of one thing, No Child Left Behind doesn't make provisions for the nuanced considerations of ethnography.

Thanks for the reference, I'll be on the lookout for it.

11:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To all,

I just completed reading the article at hand and I am an undergrad at Oklahoma State University pursuing a secondary ed degree with emphasis on chemistry. My mentality on teaching is that there is a single mind that I will soon have to teach. There are two worlds within a students life, the educational world and the non-eduactional world. How one affects the other is not the point here, it is that within a young persons educational world, THEY, are responsible for their success or failures. I agree that the home can have somewhat of an effect on a students success, but to say that home life is the total reason for failure, I would have to disagree.

As far as our educational system, I think more people can agree with what I'm about to say, IT'S WACK! Current day education is robbing the creativity in young people by forcing them to take these so called "core" classes. Let me say that my main focus is solely related to college courses because I understand that within the high school realm, a student needs to be exposed to different subject areas. But why was I forced to take 4 history courses when I'm a science major? I, like most people, am not wealthy but I had to spend thousands of dollars on classes that I will, in no way shape or form, use in my career path. The subject of chemistry is the one thing I have been strong in and have enjoyed. I tutor young students here at the university and I love to see there faces light up whenever I show them how easy the subject can be. That leads me into my next thought, many of today's subjects areas in education are NOT hard, they are just TAUGHT hard. General chemistry, I will not say is extremly easy, but it is alot easier than alot of people make it out to be. My general chemistry professor my freshman year was a super nerd with little people skills. Don't get me wrong he is a brillian man, but the way he taught was too advanced for the students in the class. I will incorporate a single idea into my classroom once I complete my teaching certification, and that is "simplicity"! I will teach my students the basics of chemistry, and ONLY the basics. I'm not going to give them mounds of excess information that I myself barely understand. That is what my general chemistry professor did, he would go off on rants about a single element and fire off words that none of us students had any idea of.

Teaching to me is the idea of sharing information from one mind to another.

12:31 PM  

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