18 October 2012

Chemistry and curricula

Making the rounds on the science blogosphere this week is a Washington Post op-ed from a father who is wondering why his 15 year old son has to take chemistry. Cue reaction from professional scientists and allies that chemistry is important and that it’s hard to predict what a 15 year old will do as an adult (see external links).

There may be a bigger, more subtle issue here: the standardization of a curriculum. There are a couple of issues that arise from standard curricula.

First is a lack of flexibility. Why should a student take a chemistry class at the age of 15? Why can’t he take it at 16? 18? In university? It is not as though there is a sensitive period of one school year where if you do not learn a topic, your brain shuts off and becomes unable to absorb that information.

Sir Ken Robinson has noted repeatedly that we lump students together by their age, as though the most important feature about people was their “date of manufacture.”

Second is the difficulty in justifying decisions to those not in the immediate loop. For instance, when I teach general biology, I teach the Krebs cycle. This is a notoriously hard subject to teach. I know it comes into play in other classes, but one reason why I teach it is because “everyone else does.” There is a standard set of topics in introductory biology across North American universities, and the Krebs cycle in it. But I could not tell you why it’s taught in first year biology instead of second or third year biology (say). Presumably there is a reason, but it is obscure to me. If I were to try to explain how that bit of information became part of the standard curriculum versus something else, I would probably give an unsatisfactory account.

Now imagine the frustration, not of a kid, but of a parent who is trying to understand the curriculum her child is doing asking why it’s taught, and not being able to get a clear answer from an instructor. The instructor doesn’t necessarily set the curriculum, and may not be able to give a clear answer. That has to be unsatisfactory to someone trying to understand.

Let’s be honest about the degree to which “We’ve always done it that way” guides the behaviour of institutions, including educational ones. Latin was taught in schools for a long time.

External links

Educational #Chemophobia by See Ar Oh at Just Like Cooking

Why make students take chemistry? by Scicurious at Neurotic Phsyiology

On the apparent horrors of requiring high school students to take chemistry by Janet Stemwedel at Doing Good Science

Chemistry to replace corporal punishment, say school district at The JAYFK

Photo by Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

1 comment:

AK said...

I can tell you why I think it's appropriate for first-year biology: because the Krebs cycle lies near the center of a vast network of metabolic reactions. I couldn't find a good representation of the full network (in a quick Google search), but here is one involving amino acid metabolism, and here is one for a good-sized subset of common reactions (unlabeled).