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Teaching to a Higher Standard

Bob's Philosophical Perspectives Program - Part I


1. The chemistry program at Wilton High School is different from chemistry courses I have seen. To what do you attribute the differences?

The driving force behind the Wilton High School Chemistry program is a strong belief in the value of a liberal arts education for all students. We wanted a chemistry program that was rigorous in its application of scientific principles and yet interesting to a student body with diverse interests. We believed that it was possible to create a scholarly chemistry program that would appeal to the general population, math-phobias and all, without chemistry losing its essential scientific rigor.

Our program is focused on research. Students perform experiments and have to deal with surprising regularities in the evidence. This focus is more time-consuming than the traditional lecture approach. The norm is students arguing with students with the teacher looking perplexed and answering questions with questions.

2. It sounds like your class atmosphere is not the usual. How would you describe it?

Perhaps more than any of the above, the class atmosphere is distinctive. The teacher sets the course in motion and then steps into the class as an equal, participating in the conversations, but rarely leading them. Students are not judged although their work certainly is. We like to think that the chemistry lab is a place free of arbitrary rules, where students are free to focus on scholarship. Since lecturing is rare, there is a wide range of acceptable student behavior. In mostly every class, there are several visitors from other classes spending their free time in the open lab. The atmosphere is both frenzied and relaxed. It is student friendly.

3. How do students respond to the absence of definitive answers?

The first quarter of the year is usually tremendously stressful for roughly 20% of the students. Students who have past learned that they can stay up all night and memorize the material are likely to experience extreme frustration at the absence of things to memorize. Often, in science class, children learn that they have little to contribute beyond imitation because the subject matter is too complex. Science gains the status of a religion for them. They recite the tenets of this religion and are rewarded with good grades. Our program does not respect the security of this system. It does however respect the contributions of every student. After the first quarter there seems to be a genuine and general affection for the way the course is run.

In order for this to occur, students need to develop a trust in the teacher and they need to develop some active study skills. Much of the advice given throughout the Web site that I created for the course is aimed at developing that trust. It is also interesting to note that, unlike the chemistry programs reported in the newspapers, Wilton High School Chemistry seems to be preferred by girls. For example, our Advanced Placement Chemistry course always has many more girls than boys.

4. I was surprised when you mentioned liberal arts and art relating to chemistry. How do you explain the relationship?

Chemists need to be creative in the same ways that artists do, although they are greatly confined, and appropriately so, by the scientific method. Chemistry should fit snugly into the curriculum between literature and social studies. Unfortunately, the mention of liberal arts and chemistry conjures up pictures of watered down programs in which the nature of science becomes lost in a hodge-podge of pseudo-science and propagandizing.

5. It sounds like you are in the business of debunking them. Do you discuss topics like creationism and the possibility of life on other planets?

Actually, I'd prefer to attack much of what we call proper science education. Most of what people learn in science class is stuff that they cannot figure out for themselves. The examples I would use--electron configurations, quantum mechanics, molecular orbital theory, and any subject that the student is told to believe in without hard evidence and the need for critical thinking.

It seems to be the norm in science classes that students do not think critically. Students are asked to believe in the teacher and to believe in the textbook. But scientists are trained to mistrust authority. Once our science students are expected to recite ideas in the absence of evidence, one of our last defenses against quackery is gone. Science becomes the justification for believing what one is told. Then I would respond, it does not belong in the high school curriculum.

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