I found myself sitting across from a pre-service teacher recently. And not just any pre-service teacher, but the one that would spend some half a year observing and practicing in my classroom. She asked about class schedules, and the structure of the day, what sort of concepts were taught, what she needed to know to be successful.
Then it tumbled out of my mouth…
Chemistry doesn’t matter.
My immediate thought was, but I’m a chemistry teacher, chemistry is life! Get it together, Brown!
Then I said, “Of course chemistry matters”, and moved on to talking about how I wanted her to start the year off focusing on relationship building.
Not my best transition, but this stuck with me. Why did I say that? And why do I still find it a meaningful statement?
Chemistry, Hamlet, The War of 1812, it all matters; but it isn’t what matters most.
Because you know what? The students of today don’t inhabit the same world that we did. They are connected 24/7, the content of every course isn’t locked away in some teacher or professor’s mind anymore, they gain knowledge on demand. Memorizing most facts, including that age-old chem teacher favorite of the periodic table is, as Sherlock would call it, a waste of your brain-attic. In fact, he goes on in The Five Orange Pips thusly, “I say now, as I said then, that a man should keep his little brain-attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it.” Little did the original Sherlock Holmes know that someday the contents of every library on the planet would be accessible to all via the internet.
A teacher’s duty is not a transaction of facts, we are so used to looking up facts multiple times a day, it’s second nature. No, it’s the learning HOW to learn, and HOW to approach new ways of understanding, and HOW to incorporate all of this growth and meaning into who you are and the way in which you interact with the world that we must teach our students.
When I unpacked why I told a pre-service chemistry teacher that no, chemistry doesn’t matter, I realized that I was truly on the same plane as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS.) The NGSS lays out the future of science teaching with a leaner amount of content and a heavier focus on students learning to do the heavy lifting of figuring out the why and the how. I didn’t fully appreciate this concept during my pre-service science teaching classes. Today, I understand the NGSS push for student to do labs based on inquiry instead of procedure, to challenge them to discover relationships before telling them an equation, these are meaningful and translatable skills. Teaching chemistry shouldn’t be packing equations into their brain attics, but building lasting skills that will serve them well for years to come.
Time to go revamp my curriculum for next year, because anyone can Google the chemical symbol for lead, I’d rather have students that can solve the problems lead causes.
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