Letter to the editor

As an educator, I have really no way of knowing whether I had a marginal, moderate or profound influence on my students on a certain day — all I know is that my apparent “bad” day was likely not as bad as I thought it was, nor my supposed “good” day as enlightening for my students as I believed it to be. And that’s why I build in multiple redundancies to my system of presentation — multiple types of learning styles with a varying speed of learning, especially for those difficult chemistry concepts. Although Michael Jansen raises some important positive points in his article, “We need to think like economists” (and an earlier similar article — “Time theft”, October 2016, Chem 13 News), I do have some concerns.

Good pedagogy says that it is important to teach concepts in a variety of ways. As an experienced teacher I know students will have different learning preferences (auditory, visual, and tactile), and by approaching problems in a variety of ways, students will have a better chance of understanding chemistry concepts. Doing both activities and labs — which I will grant, consumes valuable time — allows students the opportunity to learn the material, maybe when first introduced, or when it is encountered again in a different “fun” way. For those who get it the first time around, they benefit from re-enforcing learned concepts. You cannot assume all students will automatically “get it” the same way. Some students can answer a question on an AP test, but not necessarily have any real understanding of the underlying chemistry concepts. There are students who would be able to score over 90% on all unit tests but still struggle with their lab work and benefit from engaging in hands-on activities, and some “hoopla”. 

 Yvonne Clifford wearing a labcoat with picture of Marvin the Mole on her back
John Eix presenting Yvonne with this labcoat at ChemEd 2017 Mole Day Breakfast — yes, that is Marvin the Mole on her back

Hoopla does not necessarily mean a time waster. The hoopla of teaching the mole, for instance, does NOT mean students are losing out. It means approaching a notoriously tough topic for some students (concepts like the mole will be difficult for students due to many factors, such as readiness to grasp this very theoretical idea — it is pure folly to think otherwise) in a manner that can make them feel comfortable and ENJOY the experience! Students can learn mole conversions by making pancakes with a mole-converted recipe, as well as completing the standard molar mass conversion worksheet. 

I’m afraid I engage in hoopla around a lot of topics in my classroom, for example:

•    I have been known to dance the VSEPR dance, 
•    sing to Molar Eclipse of the Heart, 
•    dance to ICE ICE baby, 
•    make liquid nitrogen ice cream, 

to name a few. Hoopla helps the students learn, keeps the students engaged and has them returning happily to class despite the daily churn of memorizing, applying, knowing, etc. 

My students also know that some days you have to “Clean the Toilet Bowls” — my metaphor for some of the drudgery necessary to learning — but, in my class, they know that there is always some hoopla lurking around the corner! Studies say if you’re having fun you are more likely to learn! and Albert Einstein stated, “Play is the highest form of research.”

One thing we have to remember when comparing a chemistry class to a business term is that our students are not “widgets”. I feel that it is my job to make them into good scientists both on paper and in the laboratory. 
It is also my job to make them excited about the subject of chemistry by providing some hoopla! I am able to cover the Ontario curriculum for grade 11 and grade 12 chemistry with approximately 8 weeks of lab work — and some additional hoopla. My measure for success is that students return from first-year university thanking me for their success in their chemistry courses and labs! So in my opinion the “time” component works itself out! 

So go for it, add some hoopla to your lessons — it’s worth it! You might even enjoy your day a bit more!