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ACS Award For Achievement In Research For The Teaching & Learning Of Chemistry

Recipients are honored for contributions of major significance to chemistry

by Corinne A. Marasco
January 26, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 4

Credit: Courtesy of Alexander Johnstone
Credit: Courtesy of Alexander Johnstone

Sponsored by Pearson Education

For 40 years, Alexander H. Johnstone has dedicated himself to discovering how to enhance the teaching and understanding of chemistry in the classroom. From the beginning, his research has been characterized by a scientific approach, with conclusions and subsequent models based on quantitative data.

"He had the vision and inspiration to bring together the findings of rigorous psychological research with his own empirical findings to develop a practical model of learning," says Norman Reid, a professor of science education and Johnstone's colleague and successor at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland. "He has set an international standard of research and scholarship in chemical education. Many students owe their interest in chemistry to him."

After receiving a B.Sc. in chemistry from the University of Edinburgh in 1953, Johnstone decided to earn a teaching qualification to enhance his job options. The program involved a one-year study of educational theory and practice along with educational psychology, which did not seem relevant to him when he began teaching chemistry in an Edinburgh high school in 1962. There, he became heavily involved in curriculum revision for schools in Scotland. Johnstone wrote the texts, planned the laboratory work, traveled the country training teachers in the new material, and became the principal examiner for the Scottish chemistry examinations.

After 13 years of high school teaching, Johnstone had the opportunity to go back to the University of Glasgow and research the new curriculum's effectiveness. He found that although the overall innovations had been beneficial, parts of the curriculum were giving students much difficulty, leading them to give up on chemistry. Further study revealed that the same topics were difficult for students to learn, regardless of demographic factors such as age, gender, and nationality.

Over the years, Johnstone's research revealed that some scientific concepts were presented before students were ready to learn them, leading to information overload. His most fundamental contribution, according to Reid, has been understanding the underlying nature of students' learning difficulties by developing and refining an empirically based model that has successfully predicted ways to enhance the learning and understanding of chemistry.

"We have had much success in designing learning experiences by understanding how students learn and tailoring the presentations accordingly," Johnstone says. "Preparing the student for a piece of learning is as important as the content itself. This has required approaches that allow students to build concepts by revisiting topics and adding complexity in a systematic way." He notes that Scotland is the only Western country that has not experienced a significant decline in secondary school or university chemistry enrollment.

Johnstone earned a Ph.D. in chemical education from the University of Glasgow in 1972. He taught inorganic chemistry while continuing his research in chemical education. In 1974, he became the director of the science education research group; in 1989, the group formally became the Centre for Science Education, which Johnstone directed until his retirement in 1998. During his tenure, he supervised the work of more than 80 researchers at the master's, Ph.D., and postdoctoral levels. More than 200 publications have resulted from the center's work.

In further recognition of his work, the university president invited Johnstone in 1994 to set up a teaching and learning service to help teachers across the university, in all disciplines, develop their teaching skills. He has received many honors for his work, including the Brasted Memorial Award from the ACS Division of Chemical Education in 1996. Although officially retired, he still actively serves on the editorial boards of several journals.

Johnstone will present the award address before the Division of Chemical Education.


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