Letter to the editor

RE: “Translating research into classroom practice”,

Michael Seery, Chem 13 News, September 2014, pages 5-6.

  • The biggest difficulty in having research become practice is changing people’s ideas about teaching. As a new teacher in the early 1970s it was evident that students had difficulty solving problems. Research had already been done into “How to solve it” (G. Polya, Doubleday& Co., Garden City, N.Y., 1957) and “How to Solve Problems” (W.A. Wickelgren, W. H. Freeman & Co, 1974). I read, studied and then applied these methods. I noticed students gradually found problem solving easier and improved their marks and understanding.

When I shared my findings at a 1983 conference, there was not much interest. By 1991, Dr. George Bodnar, Purdue University, was giving a ChemEd 91 talk on problem solving using Polya’s methods to a packed room. I am not aware of how many teachers tried these methods. In the meantime, Chem 13 News did publish a few examples of problem solving using metacognition methods, although this term was not used at the time.

One student whom I tutored used this method to solve problems on a test but was failed, even though all answers were correct, because the teacher could not understand the solutions.

In 2001 I was part of the writing team for a grade 12 chemistry text for Ontario. When I proposed using my problem-solving method — similar to what texts now call GRASS (Given, Required, Analysis, Solution, Statement) —  both reviewers and editors rejected the idea because “No one teaches that way!” This then is the problem in transferring research into practice. If it has not been or is not being done, publishers and teachers do not wish to make changes. It takes a long time to prove there may be a better way. It is interesting to see that good problem-solving methods are now in many texts, and that sessions are offered at conferences on these methods to help both teachers and students.

Metacognition can go beyond mathematical problem solving. For science fair projects my students have tackled the following problems with great success: electroplating aluminum, extracting silver from old photographs and negatives, proving spices can preserve foods and determining the factors that allow gelatin to set. Now that I am retired, I am searching out former students to see if they continued to use these problem-solving methods. Those I have found that do, say that they have little trouble on university exams with this method even when many of their classmates have failed. Some who are still using problem-solving in their successful careers include a lawyer, computer consultant, business professor and art teacher.

My book “Advantage Chemistry” is available from Fitzhenry and Whiteside Company in Markham ON if you are interested in this method of solving chemistry problems.