Teacher beliefs and constraints in implementing a context-based approach in chemistry
This article is an edited version of an article of the same title which originally appeared in Teaching Science Autumn 2007, and which is also available online on the website of the
Further information on Senior Years' Chemistry in Queensland is available from the Queensland Studies Authority website's P–12 syllabuses & support guide, Years 11 and 12 section, under Chemistry (2007).
Over the last forty years chemistry has usually been taught in a didactic way. The focus has been on covering the curriculum, through well-structured problems, mechanical and algorithmic laboratory work and the rote learning of a necessary body of knowledge. This approach has often failed to engage the interest of students, who tend to see the subject as irrelevant to their lives.
This problem is addressed by a new approach to teaching the subject, known as context-based chemistry, which connects the concepts studied with contexts which are relevant to students.
As Beasley and
This context-based approach to the teaching of chemistry has been manifested in such programs as ChemCom in the
The definition of ‘context’ adopted by the new
This article reports on a study evaluating the success of the pilot syllabus. For the study the author interviewed 11 teachers and one university lecturer. The lecturer was on the board of
Concepts and contexts in chemistry teaching
Analysis of responses revealed differing views about the relationship between concepts and contexts in a context-based course. Six teachers expressed the view that in an ideal context-based unit the context needs to be presented first, followed by the development of concepts. However, another teacher expressed the view that starting with the context is not suitable for students who have difficulties making links between different learning situations. Three further teachers did not consider the order to be important, but called instead for a mingling of concept- and context-based approaches, or an ‘ebb and flow’ between them.
Some teachers talked of how the implementation of a context-based approach has required a move away from traditional didactic teaching methods, rote learning and routine algorithmic tasks. The challenge posed by such a change is highlighted by one teacher:
I have only learned a little bit about changing pedagogy by going through a painful process … trying to implement this has been for me a painful process … of learning and making mistakes and trying to keep a class trusting you that you know what you are doing ... and especially in the early days it was really challenging.
Perceived impact on students
Eight of the 11 teachers expressed the view that context-based teaching makes chemistry more relevant to the students’ lives, and that it is thus more engaging for students. The interview data therefore suggests that the current
The findings are also consistent with research on the context-based Physics syllabus implemented in
The need for further dialogue with parents, students and teachers
Teachers implementing the new approach often encountered resistance to it from parents, students and other teachers, demonstrating the need for further explanation of and discussion about the reform.
Four teachers described difficulties in convincing students that the teaching approach was beneficial and would help them understand the concepts. One teacher said, ‘I have two or three students that are exam-based students and they don’t like it … they like to take exams … they like to memorise the information and regurgitate it’. Another commented:
They get to Year 11 to me and they’re not used to getting questions asked of them … they’re not used to being asked what they think and they’re not used to being asked to do an activity without too much guidance and to just have a problem and think it through….they get frustrated….some kids hate it.
Three of the interviewees discussed the reluctance of a colleague to embrace a context-based approach. As one teacher said:
A lot of teachers don’t even feel comfortable about telling the stories that are necessary to put the science into context … Some teachers have really limited views … don’t see what is possible … don’t have the energy to change … they have been teaching it this way from the book, they know what they are doing … they don’t necessarily want to think beyond that.
In contrast, one teacher expressed the positive pedagogical change the context-based approach has had on the science staff:
We did some action research which got teachers involved in changing their teaching and thinking about what it meant and discussing it … now they are more comfortable with it … rather than thinking … I’ve got to tell kids things … they don’t think like that anymore.
Three of the interviewees discussed the difficulties in changing the approach when parents had traditional ideas about chemistry teaching. One of them commented that it ‘is difficult in a traditional school to change the approach because of parental expectation’. Another remarked: ‘If the kids are uncomfortable and stressed and the kids are not getting the “A” then it’s the fault of the school and the course and anything new is scary.’
On the other hand, one teacher expressed the view that the parental support has influenced the choices of younger siblings and increased the awareness of chemistry in the school community.
We have a wine education evening and parents come in and they judge the wine ... it’s really engaged not only the students but also the parents and so now you have brothers and sisters coming through and so it’s had a really good impact from that.
The results of this study offer significant support for the value of a context-based approach to chemistry in the senior secondary years. However, the results also indicate that further explanation of the context-based approach is appropriate for students, teachers and parents.
Implementing a new teaching approach is not an easy task and requires a committed and innovative teacher who is prepared to enact their beliefs despite constraints to implementation.
References for the abridged article
Beasley, W &
Gutwill-Wise, J 2001, 'The impact of active and context-based learning in introductory chemistry courses: An early evaluation of the modular approach', Journal of Chemical Education, 77(5), 684–690.
Hart, C, Fry, M & Vignouli, V 2002, 'What does it mean to teach physics "in context"? A second case study', Australian Science Teachers Journal, 48(3), 6–13.
Key, ME 1998, Student perceptions of chemical industry: influences of course syllabi, teachers, first hand experience, Unpublished DPhil thesis, University of York, York, UK.
Ramsden, JM 1992, 'If it's enjoyable, is it science?', School Science Review, 73(265), 65–71.
––, JM 1997, 'How does a context-based approach influence understanding of key chemical ideas at 16+?', International Journal of Science Education, 19(6), 697–710.
Sutman, F & Bruce, M 1992, 'Chemistry in the community – ChemCom: A five-year evaluation', Journal of Chemical Education, 69(7), 564–567.
Key Learning AreasScience
Senior secondary education