Variety in Chemistry Education: The Keynotes #vicephec15

In the absence of a coherent way to structure my thoughts post conference, I shall start randomly and allow this post to meander somewhat. There may be greater coherence in later posts. My note taking was completely through Twitter this year which was an interesting experience but the collective notes made by all participating are far superior to mine alone. I really enjoyed this year’s variety in chemistry education, the keynote and workshops I attended were truly excellent and engaging.  I’ll start with a tale of two Keynotes.

I enjoyed Prof. Paula Heron of the University of Washington discussing interactive teaching and conceptual development in physics. Whilst extremely envious of the massive sets of data (cohorts of 1500, multiple sections, multiple years), the evidence was pretty clear that simply being interactive was insufficient to really get to the level of desired conceptual understanding.  Heron also presented evidence that where questions rely on intuitive concepts, performance may well be the same before and after instruction. With this in mind, formulaic or procedural questions were poor at teasing out misconceptions so things like multiple choice questions with appropriate distractors and then free text to explain the choice of answers were better. In case you were wondering, instruction (teaching by telling) doesn’t see much improvement for questions that don’t rely on intuitive or preconceived ideas. Even if we point out to our students an idea that is incorrect, they may be unable to resolve the conflict that creates and we need to support them better. Reassuringly Heron also pointed out that instruction should be evidence based not technology based: don’t replace the ideology of transmission based instruction (sage on the stage) with the ideology of student discussion based instruction.

I was looking forward to Prof. Paul Taylor (U of Leeds) when I heard the topic was ecopedagogy. As my Sustainable Chemistry module is entering its third year of operation with a new ‘distance learning’ variant for students in China, I was excited to see the subject getting centre stage. Taylor emphasised the need to embed Education for Sustainable Development into HE curricula, and also the need to teach in a manner that doesn’t privilege humans over other groups of humans or other organisms. This derives from Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  We were then invited to consider the importance of place and sent off outside to complete various activities to help us consider our sense of place and how the environment might link into our teaching. Finishing with the idea that while historically universities were designed to hide us away from the everyday world to allow us to focus on our studies, the role of modern institutions should be to expose us to a diversity of ideas, Taylor finished with a warning: we must teach sustainability.


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