Harry Smith

Lessons from a Chemistry Teacher I've forgotten

How to move towards unknown problems, the true nature of intelligence and the shared power of collaborative teaching.

My first day of sixth form had been awkward and uncomfortable. Like most young men in the prime of their puberty my social skills were as appalling as my hygiene. It had been one clumsy greeting after another and my social faux pas were accumulating. The last lesson had arrived, chemistry. At last it felt as if some of my trepidation was beginning to ease. This, at least, was familiar. Test tubes and acids and bases oh my!

“Are you a towards person or an away person?”

What?

Seems that familiarity wasn’t hanging around too long after all.

“Are you a towards person or an away person?” she asked us. Confused already and the bunsen burners weren’t even lit. A sense of dread began to pool in my lower abdomen. I recalled hours of wishy washy teaching from secondary school. Before long we’d be drawing figure eights on boards to ‘wake up both halves of the brain’. I was judge, jury, and executioner all from this one question. I passed sentence and closed myself off to her.

“Do you move towards or away? Not only in chemistry but in life?”

That confirmed my fears.

I hoped she would confine the philosophical charade to this first lesson. It would be part of the initial icebreaker between student and teacher. A soft start before the real intellectualism began. This new teacher kept it up not only for the second, third, or fourth lesson but all of them. It carried on in fact, until the end of the first term. We seemed to flirt around the syllabus. Only touching equations and symbols when we had lost any sense of being a ‘chemistry’ lesson. The lessons meandered without direction. They followed her own intellectual curiosity over any sense of subject.

And there, always, was that question.

“Are you a towards person or an away person?”

At the end of the first term I was dreading parents evening. I had always done well at school, and was not used to the feeling. I knew my skill in chemistry had not improved. I had disappointed myself. I tried not to blame the teacher for my failings. Yet I couldn’t escape the feeling that we were on two different frequencies, unable to communicate with each other.

Her explanation of my faults was concise and brilliant. I had excelled at secondary school because of an unusual good memory. That same skill in memory would get me an A grade at college, but would falter at university. Many ‘gifted’ students have failed to learn real thinking skill, as the answer was always at hand from memory. At university this would not be possible. She saw it as her job to teach us how to think.

I knew the statement to be true. It had caused a ripple of memories, where I could recall the ways in which I had used memory to succeed before. I remembered realising during my GCSE’s that I could memorise the answers. It felt like cheating!

The clarity of the insight was surprising, and I had not expected it from her. I questioned my initial sentencing of her. I thought back to that first lesson. Her opening question had been shocking to me, as I had never considered the art of learning as a subject. I had discounted a term worth of lessons as waffle without listening to a single one of them.

After the break I returned to chemistry with curiosity. I determined that I would not close myself down, but try to understand her. Even if it was a bit wooly round the edges. As the other students streamed in, I could see that I was not the only one who’s attitude had changed. My respect was growing. What had seemed haphazard now took the shape of a masterplan. That first term had been no accident.

Now she asked us, “Are you moving towards the problem? or away?”.

We had been moving away, and now we were moving towards it.

Our attitude towards the unknown is the first challenge on the path to understanding. Our over-reliance on our memory during early schooling had trained us to recoil from knowledge that we did not immediately recall. In a way, memorising was cheating. We were not curious. We never tried to work out the answers. “We haven’t been taught that” is the war cry of students everywhere.

However, you could open yourself to the unknown. You could choose to move towards a problem rather than away from it. It is the first choice when confronting the problem. Your attitude towards your ability to solve the problem goes a long way to determining if you will solve it. It is the top of the funnel that enables effective learning and improvement. It transforms “We haven’t been taught that” to “What do I recognise? and what can I figure out?”

Like a coach, she had been retraining our response to the unknown. She kicked us into the deep end of the proverbial intellectual pool and told us help wasn’t coming. The choice was always ours. You could drown. Or you could start figuring it out.

Your attitude towards your ability to solve the problem goes a long way to determining if you will solve it.

With a beach head made into the unknown, the lessons became fruitful, if somewhat wooly still. The lessons careered through topics. As soon as the initial premise established itself, we abandoned it. When a tangent appeared we followed it without hesitation. Each topic chaining into two, three, four ideas for exploration. Each node of thought chaining into another node of thought building a dazzling construction of abstractions. It was interesting, exciting even at times. Never in our school experiences had we been shepard through such vast bodies of work.

We were intellectual nomads moving between citadels of thought. Changing and growing as we went. Our teacher served to ward us away from the thickets and provide context to our thinking. Chemistry was so much more than what went into the exam. It was philosophy, politics, economics, history, literature, art.

Though in the back of all our minds was the exam. That dreaded, despised, invariant, monstrous, difficult, waste of a thing. It pulled us back from our exploration. It allowed us only to travel so far from the beaten path. No matter how exciting our discussion, or how rich our exploration, or how insightful our understanding, the exam made it useless to us. We abandoned our exploration as we tried to cram in the required teaching. I had a sense that these two disparate halves, our exploration of ideas and our need to pass an exam, would need unification.

One day, she presented to us an unknown chemical equation. It was unlike anything we had studied.

Instead of working on it on our own, she asked us to call out anything we did know about the problem. She wrote each idea on the board, and drew lines between them. They sketched out the contours of the problem. We were intellectual cartographers. Each idea filled in another section of the coast line that was our ignorance. Before long you could see how by drawing connection between what we did know it gave form to the unknown. The nothingness now had a face, even if it was only a sketch.

With the sketch in place, we returned to solving the problem. We realised that bar a few important facts for calculation we knew much more than we thought. Our conceptual understanding was sound. Our expeditions had been more fruitful than we thought.

Intelligence is often seen as the collection of a great many facts. Eggheads and boffins who do well at the Thursday pub quiz. But, it was clear that it was the concepts and the links between them that formed the basis of true intelligence. Each line connecting separate ideas represented a chance for insight. Discovering a link on your own lead to a much deeper understanding. Intelligence was not remembering things, it was connecting them.

No matter how exciting our discussion, or how rich our exploration, or how insightful our understanding, the exam made it useless to us.

In an inversion of usual expectation, students with right answers were rarely asked to demonstrate for the class. It was those that had made errors that trooped up to the front to explain themselves. Far from being adversarial or embarrassing, this was for the benefit of every student.

Being wrong was no failure at all. Every discarded wrong answer was discarding excellent teaching material. Where better to dig for insight into what was confusing than the wrong answers of the students in the class. Students shared mistakes more often than they were unique. A wrong answer could only have come from an imprecise explanation. An imprecise explanation leads to unclear thinking. By sharing the mistakes, it allowed us to work together towards a better explanation.

Our mentorship of each other would prove to the most powerful of all the techniques our teacher used. Beginner’s that have learned a new concept are most apt to explain it to their peers. Teachers who learned it years ago may have a refined mental model of it, but have forgotten what it feels like to be new. At the end of the year she shared data that proved it. High performing students raised the grades of students around them, even when moved seats in the classroom.

Learning in school is competitive rather than collaborative. Group projects are a weak attempt at a remedy. This is where one excellent student makes five others look middling at the benefit of everyone but the students. In this chemistry classroom we forgot about tests, grades, university places, who was top of what and where and who. We were student and teacher both. A union that bonded us intellectually, with our ‘teacher’ our shepard. It is an experience that I have long sought again, and found echoes of others who know the magic of it.

I have long forgotten the names of those students, the teacher, the location of the classroom or the topics we studied. I haven’t thought of acids or bases, salts and solutions, titration and neutralisation in years. Looking back, I didn’t learn chemistry at all. I learned what it meant to be curious. How to chase down your ideas. To share in the excitement of learning together. I learned not to memorise topics but to understand them and share that understanding. I have found opportunity to apply these teachings more often than I have found use for chemistry.

I learned that a talented teacher doesn’t educate you, but changes you.

But only if you let them.

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