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.