Issue Date: July 3, 2006
Chemical Education Reform
This guest editorial is by Francis X. Sutman, emeritus director of and a professor in the Center for Science Laboratory Studies, Temple University, Philadelphia, and Joseph S. Schmuckler, professor of chemical education at Temple.
Although the most recent report of the ACS Committee on Education, "Science Education Policies for Sustaining Reform," addresses significant issues, it does not adequately address the essential need to reform how chemistry is taught. Recent research on chemistry instruction indicates that teachers of chemistry, at both high school and beginning college levels, continue to lecture to students 90% of the instructional time, doing so even during time that is supposed to be allocated to hands-on laboratory experiences. Even when hands-on laboratory experiences are included, students continue to be informed ahead of time of the conclusions they are expected to obtain. Seldom is there opportunity for students to consider applications of the laboratory experiences or to address related inquiries.
Despite the varied sources of chemistry information available today, 99% of observed chemistry teachers still utilize one single source—the textbook—while complaining that students are "unable to read the text." These ineffective approaches to chemistry instruction are accentuated in that many teachers misinterpret the meanings of the terms "inquiry" and "rigor" that are commonly used to describe "reform in the approach to instruction." Inquiry is too often practiced by calling upon students to respond to questions asked by the teacher, rather than by restructuring teaching to support students learning how to ask higher-order questions. Rigor is incorrectly interpreted to mean expecting students to memorize ever-increasing bits of unrelated content and to do so at ever-lower grade levels.
"Increased rigor" should mean designing instruction so that students will have greater opportunities to practice and develop the skill of inquiry and the logical follow-up skills that lead to discovery. To overcome less effective instructional practices requires prospective teachers to observe reformed instruction modeled for them and requires involving them in appropriate professional development experiences, over time, once they enter classrooms as novices. Our research indicates that these types of experiences reform teaching, increase learning of content, and foster development of more positive attitudes toward continued study of chemistry.
To catalyze the desired "how to teach" component of instructional reform in chemistry, we propose that the American Chemical Society organize a cross-society Commission on Reforming How Instruction in Chemistry Occurs. This commission should minimally include representatives from each of the society's existing units that address educational issues, as well as representatives from the chemical industry, college/university administrators of science programs who have influence on state and federal education policy, a member of the National Science Board with a background in chemistry, a representative of the Council of Chief State School Officers, and chemical science educators who have developed the expertise related to facilitating and sustaining the desired reform. This commission's mission would be to identify specific practices that will support and sustain the reform in how to teach chemistry, as well as to identify ways of effectively distributing this information.
Following are three examples of inquiries to which the commission should respond:
- What changes in chemistry major program requirements are essential to positively influence institutions of higher education to actively address the issue of reform in how chemistry is taught, especially at beginning college levels and for in-service teachers?
- What actions should ACS take to influence appropriate revisions in the National Science Education Standards so that the standards better address the issues of "inquiry" and "rigor" in science instruction, overall?
- What are the essential support mechanisms required to better ensure that the desired "how to" component of chemistry instruction is implemented and sustained? That is, how can the excessive present complacency be overcome?
Now is an opportune time for ACS to seize a leadership role in facilitating reform in how chemistry is taught and to set a model for other professional scientific organizations to follow.
Francis X. Sutman
Joseph S. Schmuckler
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