Teaching Chemistry

Chemistry is very intriguing in its incarnation as a subject in the senior school curriculum. Perhaps its notoriety for being a subject that forces the student to memorize a lot of factual information is surpassed only by that of biology. Names of dozens of compounds, their chemical formulae and structures, chemical reactions which they undergo, the equations for those reactions, the conditions required for those reactions… it is a huge mountain to swallow. At the same time, there are very complex concepts involved that are quite counter-intuitive, and without which even the conceptual parts of the subject degenerate into something which has to be “mugged up”.

I liked chemistry as a student. I first started learning chemistry as a subject when I reached the eighth standard. I studied in a CBSE school, and chemistry was not really a separate subject, but part of the science paper. We had separate classes for chemistry, nevertheless. I don’t remember much of what I learnt back then, but I have a vague remembrance that there wasn’t much that was taught. It was mostly the basic ideas of elements, compounds and mixtures, atoms and molecules, carbon compounds etc. I also remember quite clearly an experiment demonstration in which our teacher showed us the preparation of soap from oil and sodium hydroxide solution.

My real association with chemistry started in the eleventh standard, when I took up physics, chemistry and maths along with computer science as my subjects in higher secondary school. It was truly a time when the horizons of knowledge just broadened like anything, and I seemed to learn so many new things about the world we live in, that all seemed to fit into each other perfectly.

Chemistry, along with mathematics and physics, seemed to offer glimpses of an insight into what our world really is made of, and how it works. It made one pause and wonder and appreciate how intricate are the mechanisms that drive chemical reactions in plants which convert useless carbon dioxide into the invaluable carbohydrates which we eat, how the energy locked up in a particular arrangement of atoms and electrons in the carbohydrates is released when it is broken up again into carbon dioxide, how a similar reaction powers our cars and thermal power stations, how we are made up of atoms that were formed billions of years ago in stars and so on.

It was a truly revolutionary, worldview shaping body of knowledge. Perhaps because of the intense connection I felt with it, and the power that I felt it gave me in knowing the world better, I had a good relationship with the subject. I never struggled to find any motivation to learn the rules for writing electronic configuration, or memorize facts about the transition elements, or learn different reaction mechanisms in organic chemistry. I had taken this group of subjects under the guise of preparing for engineering entrance exams. To be honest, right from the beginning I was not convinced that I really wanted to become an engineer, but the subjects were intrinsically interesting, so my reservations about taking up engineering didn’t stop me from engaging with them fully.

So I studied chemistry for two years, engaging with it as deeply as I could with the resources at my disposal. Then after twelfth standard, I joined the National Institute of Technology Calicut for BTech in electronics and communication engineering, and thus ended my relationship with chemistry as a student. We did have a laboratory chemistry course during the first year at NIT, but it was a set of highly specialized experiments which none of us really knew why we were doing them.

It is in this context that I happen to join Sahyadri School as a chemistry teacher. Many people ask me why I wanted to teach chemistry, of all subjects. The truth is, I never wanted to teach chemistry. In fact, I didn’t have any particular subject which I wished to teach. I just wanted to be a teacher in a school like Sahyadri. Given my education after tenth standard, physics, chemistry and maths are the three subjects I could have taught. They needed a chemistry teacher at the time and I thought, Why not?! I could give it a try!

In my first year of teaching, I was asked to handle chemistry for classes 8, 9 and 10. I was momentarily taken aback when I first saw that. I had said I could handle chemistry, but I had not realized that I was going to join as a “chemistry teacher”, that I would be the only teacher taking chemistry for the entire senior school. I remember walking into the chemistry lab for the first time, seriously wondering what I had gotten myself into! It brought back memories of working with salts, and pipettes and burettes back in eleventh and twelfth, but I realized that now it was different. I was going to have to handle the lab when there were twenty odd highly energetic adolescents moving about under my charge!

Before long I had started teaching chemistry to all the three classes. The ICSE curriculum, I learnt, was much vaster than its CBSE counterpart and as far as chemistry was concerned, this meant having to learn many more facts than a student in a CBSE school would learn at the same stage.

In tenth standard, I started with topics like the periodic table and chemical bonding, where there was at least some logic and conceptual understanding involved, where I could start conversations with what the children had learnt earlier. In eighth and ninth standards, I started with the study of matter, and ended up spending class after class on meandering discussions and conversations which practically led nowhere, and bored both the students and myself.

Having dived into teaching without any training in classroom teaching, I found myself just walking into the class with virtually no preparation other than the patchy and limited knowledge base that one gathers as a student in the process of studying for exams. The first thing I had to do was to read up more about the history of how ideas came to be, and what were the experiments and observations which led to different scientific concepts we take for granted today. That turned out to be an interesting and absorbing endeavour, and led me to several good resources for teaching chemistry, on the internet.

Even if one knows thoroughly the complex and interconnected web of concepts, it’s a challenge to present them in a coherent and engaging manner. Needless to say, I felt totally unequipped to teach chemistry. I wondered whether I had taken up the wrong subject, but then I felt it would have been the same whatever the subject I taught.

One really starts learning when one teaches, because when you are teaching, inconsistencies or gaps in concepts stare you in the face. You realize, for example, that you’ve taken it for granted that water contains some H+ and OH- ions and find it difficult to explain to a student why it should be so since I had never asked the question before myself. It forces you to look further to understand better since you need to put forth a coherent explanation. Not that one always finds the answers, but at least you know better what is it that you know, and what is it that is beyond your current scope of understanding. Which is everything, I feel.

Every now and then I come across some such gap in my conceptual understanding, as well as the conceptual gaps in the curriculum. Either through questions posed by students, or through questions which occur to me when I try to prepare for a class or through the “wrong answers” which students give. I scribble them down here and there, but need to find a systematic way of doing it.

Out of necessity I had flung myself full length into learning more about chemistry, but I decided to stick with chemistry in my second year of teaching, to carry forward all the work done in my first year. I had become quite fascinated with the conceptual domain of chemistry- especially how one looks at atoms, molecules, ions, chemical bonding, reactions, and where all this fits in the larger picture of how one looks at the world.

Despite this potential richness in the subject, chemistry remains a difficult subject to teach. The curriculum demands that the student learns so many facts- most of which wouldn’t make any difference to a student’s conceptual understanding if they didn’t learn it- for which there is no reason why anyone should learn them unless one would like to pursue higher studies in the subject.

You can only teach parts of chemistry, and tell the student to memorize the rest. Unless the teacher is so deeply immersed in the subject that she has enough stories about all the little details that the student has to learn. Even then I have my doubts about how effective one can be with so many facts to transmit.

I used to feel very confused about teaching chemistry. It was a subject that I liked, but still it felt strange and frustrating often. It was an important milestone for me to realize for myself which parts of chemistry I liked and which parts I didn’t really care about. More importantly that there was such a distinction, and a blanket statement like “I like chemistry” needs to be examined further.

It is true that a teacher has to be passionate about the subject she teaches, but when you don’t identify with the topic, I think it’s important to be honest and say, “I don’t know what more is there to this chapter than a set of facts and have no idea why the board wants you to learn it. Anyway, let’s see how we can effectively learn it.” Without accepting that, I’ve found myself teaching a topic, and in the middle of the class wondering what was the point of it all, and getting derailed.

It’s been an interesting experience. I’d never imagined I’d teach chemistry one day, but that’s what I’ve been doing for the last year and a half! Along with the learning in the realm of academics, equally important (or perhaps more) has been the learning in the realm of how to look at the work you are doing, and how to establish a meaningful relationship with it.

Have you passed through a moment in life when you’re completely on your own? When there is only you, and the universe.

All your life compresses itself into an image and flashes across your eyes.

There are no desires left, nor are there any laments. Only the plain fact of life remains. And the smallness of me in it.

I look at the world for the first time with open eyes, and try to see everything in it… because I’m curious to know more about this world I happen to inhabit.

Nothing more to rebel against… no more dreams to pursue… I’m free. I can live now. I can learn now.

Learning through Teaching

Three months have passed since I’ve started teaching here at Sahyadri School. I haven’t been blogging nearly as much as I would have liked. It’s not that I don’t get any time, but there are so many things to be done, that I just don’t feel like sitting down and writing. But as my good friend Moulik put it, I should keep writing regularly- otherwise I would forget my observations, and also new experiences come in and replace the older ones, and I wouldn’t get to see their evolution. I hope I’ll start writing more regularly now.

This Saturday is the Teachers’ Day celebration. I’m really looking forward to it, as it is going to be my first Teachers’ Day as a teacher! On that day, the 10th std students take up the role of teachers. The teachers even have to sit in the 10th std classes and listen to them 🙂

I think being with kids is forcing me to be a bit more witty and talkative. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the amount of talking I have to do. It’s not something I’m used to, but I’m enjoying it because I see that I’m learning a lot about myself when I place myself in a situation in which I have to talk, I have to take charge.

I’m also learning that teaching in the classroom is not a straightforward, simple task. It’s not enough to know something, you have to really design how you will reveal that piece of information in a striking manner. And there are so many details which you have to keep in mind while teaching, like what and how you are writing on the board, how to steer a discussion in a particular direction, how to get everyone involved.

I’m badly lacking in many of these areas, but I’m very lucky that I have senior colleagues here who would visit my classes occasionally and without being judgemental, point out something which I had totally overlooked. I’ve also occasionally got some enlightening feedback from my students. I’m slowly learning how to teach more effectively. I really don’t know whether teaching is going to be my long term occupation, but what keeps me engaged right now is that this whole process is gradually revealing to me a part of myself which had never been given the chance to surface.

A Few Thoughts on Education – 2

4. Education and Learning
In the last post I mentioned that education was failing in helping the children acquire different skills. Why does education fail in making children learn? Probably because education is designed without considering at all what we know about how human beings and children generally learn things.

Modern cognitive studies suggest that lectures are the least effective ways of teaching, and that no one actually learns anything unless she’s involved herself in the activity. Further, we know that we learn languages by actually picking up bits and pieces from our environment. Perhaps that’s how all learning takes place, and that’s why a suitable learning environment is important for proper learning to take place.

I’ve been lucky to get to know a person who has worked with tribal artisan communities. He says that there learning takes place naturally and without any coercion. He says that true learning is need based, and in these tribal communities they keep using their creativity all the time to meet the challenges they face. Their learning is fun, because they are not made to sit down and memorize dry facts or figures.

5. Alternatives
How can we overcome the problems of education? It would be unrealistic to expect wholesale changes in the structure of schools and colleges in the next few decades, because people still don’t have half a clue as to what is wrong with it. Can we do something while standing within this framework?

Schools can start by putting fewer children in each class, so that every child would have more space for their individuality to grow into. Also smaller classes mean better interaction with the teacher and could give the teacher more freedom to experiment better methods of teaching/learning.

Colleges are supposed to be places where you enter as a boy and leave as a man. Apart from being centres of excellence, they should provide an atmosphere of freedom which encourage the students to question conventional ideals, ponder the effect of personal choices on the society, reflect on the state of the world etc. Critical thought is something that’s seriously missing in most of us. We’re too worried about grades or whether we’d get a good job. College life should instil in the student the confidence to rely on her skills rather than her degrees to make a living.

Other than this I don’t know what can be done within this framework. I’d like to know what the readers think of this.

6. Knowledge and Wisdom
We are accustomed to thinking of knowledge as good in and of itself. But knowledge without wisdom can be a dangerous thing, as we are finding out today, with our actions proving destructive to the very biosphere that sustains us. As E.F.Schumacher said, “Man is too clever to survive without wisdom.”

What is wisdom? It is a form of knowledge, about what works and what doesn’t regarding our activities, our way of life and the world we live in. It is passed on from generation to generation in the form of culture. And it’s not just humans that do it- many animals do, most of the more “intelligent” mammals do it almost just like us.

But the world has been changing so fast in the last couple of centuries that wisdom of one generation became seemingly irrelevant to the next and we have lost a lot of valuable wisdom in the process. And without wisdom, the pursuit of knowledge is of little use, because we don’t know where a piece of knowledge fits in the scheme of things.

We have lost valuable wisdom, but I think through critical thought and action we can still find out what works for us and create new wisdom. We need a balance between wisdom and knowledge- because wisdom which doesn’t renew itself through knowledge can lead to superstitions. With this wisdom we can find out how we can live without needing to destroy our home, and we can pursue new and relevant knowledge with the beacon that is wisdom.

A Few Thoughts on Education – 1

Education is something I’ve been thinking about for the last few years. I thought it’d help me a lot to put down my thoughts somewhere in an ordered manner and consolidate them, and that’s why I’m writing this post.

1. What is Education and why is it deemed necessary?
The young ones of any animal species need to learn a lot before they are able to stand on their own feet, and fend for themselves. This is true for every species, more so for mammals and even more so for human beings. Our human world is a complicated place, and there is so much a child needs to learn before she can become independent, that’s why we need a dedicated education system, which divides the world into smaller, simpler pieces and present them in the form of subjects and curricula to the child. The role of education should be to enable the child to stand on her own feet by the time she grows up. I believe most people would agree to this concept of education.

2. Education as a failure
If that is what education should be doing, it is a miserable failure. In fact, most people realize that it is a failure. That classrooms and exams are not doing a good job of teaching children different things. We all know the easily avoidable tension, frustration and fear that academic competition instills in many children, even driving some to commit suicide. Many of us think of education as a necessary evil, because we feel that don’t have any other alternative, and after all, many children do thrive in it, so the ones who don’t are considered to be just not as brilliant.

But as for enabling a child to stand on her own feet, education is a failure. Perhaps it gives her a job because of her qualifications, but it’s not the skills that education gave her that will help her earn a livelihood. If anything it would be skills acquired beyond or even in spite of the education system. So is education necessary at all? Except that it is an excellent way of sorting people? Which brings us to…

3. The Economics of Education
Some time last year I happened to read an eye-opening article by Daniel Quinn- Schooling-The Hidden Agenda. In it he says- “Suppose the schools aren’t failing? Suppose they’re doing exactly what we really want them to do–but don’t wish to examine and acknowledge? Granted that the schools do a poor job of preparing children for a successful and fulfilling life in our civilization, but what things do they do excellently well? Well, to begin with, they do a superb job of keeping young people out of the job market. Instead of becoming wage-earners at age twelve or fourteen, they remain consumers only–and they consume billions of dollars worth of merchandise, using money that their parents earn. Just imagine what would happen to our economy if overnight the high schools closed their doors. Instead of having fifty million active consumers out there, we would suddenly have fifty million unemployed youth. It would be nothing short of an economic catastrophe.”

Of course, this is not to support child labour. But imagine a situation in which children of 12 or 14 were quite equipped with the skills necessary for living and were ready to take on the world (as they are in so called primitive tribal communities), it would be an economic catastrophe.  Also..

“But keeping young people off the job market is only half of what the schools do superbly well. By the age of thirteen or fourteen, children in aboriginal societies–tribal societies–have completed what we, from our point of view, would call their “education.” But the last thing we want our children to be able to do is to live independently of our society. We don’t want our graduates to have a survival value of 100%, because this would make them free to opt out of our carefully constructed economic system and do whatever they please. We don’t want them to do whatever they please, we want them to have exactly two choices (assuming they’re not independently wealthy). Get a job or go to college. Either choice is good for us, because we need a constant supply of entry-level workers and we also need doctors, lawyers, physicists, mathematicians, psychologists, geologists, biologists, school teachers, and so on. The citizen’s education accomplishes this almost without fail. Ninety-nine point nine percent of our high school graduates make one of these two choices.”

I’d like to add one function for education, as I mentioned in the end of the last part- that of a sieve. In our complicated hierarchical society we need people for a vast variety of jobs, with different requirements and benefits and we need some system to segregate people- education does this very well and reasonably fairly. It’s an improved form of the caste system.

(to be continued…)


Active Listening

Ever since I started learning how to play the flute a couple of months ago, I’ve been slowly returning to the musical world which I’ve been missing for quite a while. The last time my mind was so completely immersed in music was back when I was in the Twelfth standard. The flute is indeed a wonderful instrument. You can carry it anywhere you want, and playing even a single note on it is so gratifying. Needless to state, I’m still a novice at playing it, but to be honest, I’m amazed by my own progress. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could get a consistent tone so quickly, let alone play melodies on it.

Well, this post is not about my flute playing. My thoughts have been wandering about in the realms of listening and music appreciation. How do we perceive and interpret music? Why is classical music so sparsely appreciated? And why is popular music (some of it very poor in terms of musical content) so popular? Is knowledge of music really required to appreciate and savour good music?

I don’t mean to say that each and every person in the world should listen to classical music, but at least those who learn music should be able to appreciate it. Jimmy master, my music teacher, always says that you don’t have to learn music to be able to enjoy its blessings. For that you just have to be an active listener and learn to love music. It is a challenging task, which demands our total attention and devotion, but its rewards are just as rich. Perhaps its the effort involved in the beginning, that makes many people shy away from music with some content. They just want something nice playing in the background, which gives them a “kick”.

While I was browsing, I found a very good online course on music appreciation on the Rice University’s open course material website. It is aimed especially at people with little or no musical knowledge, who would like to be more active listeners. It adopts a top down approach, and illustrates the basic aspects of listening through listening exercises, without going into theoretical details. In fact, it’s just what one needs to learn to appreciate music without learning music. It’s not based on any single style of music, and is universally applicable to all genres. Even if you are not interested in classical music, it could help you to listen to popular music more intelligently.