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Foster A Learning Environment

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
January 12, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 2

I really enjoyed the holiday season. Not only did it give me the opportunity to spend more time with family and friends and cook and eat lovely food, it also meant I could dedicate a bit more time than usual to one of my favorite activities: reading. Top of my list was an article I had bookmarked from the New York Times. Titled “Colleges Reinvent Classes to Keep More Students in Science,” it talks about alternative teaching methods in science and highlights the work that chemistry teacher Catherine Uvarov has been doing to transform the way chemistry is taught at the University of California, Davis.

Her method is all about engaging with the students and encouraging participation. Rather than lecturing from a podium, she asks students to think like scientists and tackle and solve problems collaboratively during class. The consequence of this is that students are attentive and involved and do not show up unprepared, all of which fosters motivation and improves results. In my view, this confirms what many of us have known for many years: that a student-centered approach that provokes, inspires, and motivates is far more likely to produce a better crop of scientists. The best learning environment is one of collaboration and continuous improvement, constantly challenging one’s own understanding.

Unfortunately, in the article, there are a couple of quotes from a colleague of Uvarov’s at UC Davis that are both worrying and disappointing about the current state of teaching at some universities: “What drives advancement at universities is publishing research and winning grants,” and as a consequence, “teaching isn’t a very high priority.”

How can this be? We have a situation with clear conflicting priorities, that is, a university acting as a research institution versus as a comprehensive educational institution. The balance is tipped toward the former, which is affecting the quality of education at the highest level. I do appreciate that there are financial and other implications and that by focusing on and supporting research we are investing in the future of science and scientific endeavor. However, I also think that by focusing on individuals and making teaching a priority we are investing in the future of society.

For some interesting views on education, I would like to recommend a couple of TED Talks by Ken Robinson. He is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity and innovation in education. His talk “How schools kill creativity” is the most watched TED Talk of all time. His arguments are supportive of Uvarov’s methodology, drawing clear lines between education, learning, and teaching versus lecturing. In his view, teaching is a creative profession and not a delivery system. Great teachers should provoke, stimulate, and mentor, and the role of the teacher is to facilitate learning. Education is about learning. If there is no learning, there’s no education.

He also says that the current culture of education goes against basic human attributes such as diversity, creativity, and curiosity. Human beings are different and diverse, but education is geared toward conformity, measurement, and standardization. We are natural learners, but mistakes are too often stigmatized in education, so by the time children have grown into adults they are afraid of making errors. Thus, testing can hamper curiosity and should not be the dominant culture. It should be diagnostic, supporting learning, not obstructing it.

Robinson also argues that education does not foster innovation and that children are educated out of their extraordinary capacity for innovation. Creativity is as important as literacy and should be accorded the same status. I enjoyed the story he tells about a little girl who had not been paying attention in class and would like to leave you with that. The little girl was, as was usual, distracted, making a drawing. The teacher asks her: “What are you drawing?” Her answer: “I’m making a drawing of God.” The teacher: “But nobody knows what God looks like.” The little girl: “They will in a minute!”

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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