Stop telling us how to do our job

One of the things I love about being the sole chemistry teacher in an independent school is my autonomy. I can teach in the manner I see fit; I can make last-minute changes and executive decisions — the school doesn’t interfere. (That said, if my classes are a circus or if my graduates are unprepared to deal with the rigours of university chemistry, I’d be gone.) My school is closely inspected by the Ontario Ministry of Education; I’ve got to play by the rules, whether I agree with them or not — we all do.

I prefer the way the College Board, the body that administers Advanced Placement courses, operates. Teachers submit their syllabus for approval. Once accepted, teachers can teach the way they want; the final arbiter is the AP Exam. The College Board offers tons of support, but it’s at the teacher’s discretion. No consultants or high-priced “experts” tell us how to do things. We’re not told to sort our questions into what I see as meaningless categories: Knowledge, Inquiry, Communication, Application (“KICA” to my Ontario colleagues).

It annoys me that chemistry teachers are frequently told what to do by people who, in many cases, have no business telling us how to teach chemistry. Chemistry teachers learn chemistry at university, but they need to learn their “trade” at the hands of experienced chemistry educators, not by people who don’t know a separatory funnel from an erlenmeyer flask. In an ideal world, these teachers of teachers would still be in the classroom, or not too far removed from it. The apprenticeship model makes sense. We don’t want a plumber who was taught by an “expert” with a graduate degree in education. Apprentices learn from master tradespeople. This is how chemistry teachers should learn their craft.

As for a chemistry curriculum, we need something prepared by master teachers, university professors, and professional chemists. Not by government policy wonks, who are often driven by a political agenda. When the curriculum gets watered down — or overloaded — we do everyone a disservice. Especially our students: these kids aren’t stupid; let’s stop treating them like that.

As a textbook co-author, I was appalled at the way publishers had to adhere to a curriculum that I, along with a bunch of my colleagues, thought was sometimes dodgy, all because school boards would — or could — purchase only books that are 100% compliant.

Typically, it is not front-line, experienced teachers who want to incorporate fancy-schmancy technologies or the latest fads into the curriculum. I am not convinced that our students need iPads or lab probes or any of that expensive equipment. (I attended a professional development lab session where the presenter had us do an activity involving data collection with probes and a hand-held computer. With so much talk about the computer-driven data collection, there was no — and I mean no — mention of the chemistry.2 When the technology becomes more important than the chemistry, we have a problem.

In this age of cut-backs and “right-sizing”, why is soooo much cash being squandered on technology whose impact on learning is questionable? And by learning I mean learning — not having “fun” or tapping into the snake oil dreamt up by someone who really has no business dreaming up these things. How many teachers — and there are plenty of über-qualified ones — could be hired instead? Or how much more effective professional development could be done? Or how many full-time lab technicians could be hired?3

We need qualified teacher candidates — chemistry grads, preferably — to be guided through the curriculum by experienced, successful chemistry teachers without the mindless busy work and edu-babble. We don't need chemistry taught by people who don't know how to teach chemistry.

A rant like this might not make me any friends in some education circles…


References and notes

  2. The lab was electrolysis of H2SO4(aq) in case you are interested.

That’s another story

(In the way of background, please be so kind as to read a recent column by Margaret Wente, published in the Globe and Mail.1 This piece was developed before I saw Ms Wente’s column, but there are some interesting parallels…)