International Year of Chemistry, 2011

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Understanding chemistry

Idea by Hanne S. Finstad   |   added on Feb 26, 2011 04:32PM Suggestion Suggestion
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Teaching chemistry to children and adolescents is a great challenge. You may reveal misconceptions and work hard to overcome them, and still discover that you failed. A recent study from Canada might give you some new ideas on how to improve the effect of your chemistry lessons.

The study, published in Mind, Brain and Education, investigated students understanding of the conservation of matter. Taking place in a school in Quebec, Canada, during a 2 year period, the aim was to reveal how guided inquiry and argumentation could affect the learning outcome. That atoms neither can be created nor destroyed is something many find hard to grasp. Atoms are invisible, and our sensational experiences may suggest that matter can be both created and disappear. When for example wet clothes dry, it seems like water disappears. When ice forms on a car window during cold nights however, is seems to be created from nowhere.  At the same time, understanding conservation of matter is a prerequisite to gain a deeper understanding of chemistry. This knowledge is also important in daily matters as to understand why we should recycle paper, glass, plastics and electronics.

In this particular study, five grade 8 classes, taught by three teachers, participated. The plan was to include both guided inquiry and argumentation, but the teachers worried this would take too much time. Hence only guided inquiry components were included, and the responsible scientist Marc Schwartz was fairly convinced that this would give significant gains in students understanding (he got a surprise). These lessons varied between uncontrolled open-ended exploration and ongoing teacher intervention. The progression allowed students to build their knowledge from sensorimotor experiences, via representations to abstractions. A multiple-choice instrument was used to investigate the student’s conceptual understanding before and after the intervention. However, only a meager gain of 8% in scores was gained during these lessons. Hence, the teachers started to wonder if argumentation would be a better strategy, and two of them decided to use this method on the same topic 4 months later. The results were stunning. After the argumentation sessions, the average score increased by 38%. But was it argumentation in itself, a combination of both methods or some other unknown factor that was at work?

The following year one of the teachers was interested in investigating the strength of the argumentation method with the 3 classes she taught this year. The intervention was done just as the previous year. Again, and this time without guided inquiry, argumentation increased scores by 38%, rescuing many from failing. So how then were these lessons done? First, the students were presented to a physical setup and asked to make predictions about outcome. Thereafter, small groups of students were formed to discuss their predictions and reach a consensus. One delegate from each group was thereafter asked to continue the discussion with the rest of the students, before a whole class discussion. Here the goal was to reach a common explanation to the problem. After the physical setup was displayed and nature`s answer was revealed, students had a chance to reevaluate their answer. Finally, students were introduced to a related, but different problem and were challenged to apply their knowledge to a new situation.

As a basis for their work, the authors Marina Doucerain and Marc S. Schwartz are using a model of development and learning called Dynamic Skill theory. It has been developed over several decades by Professor Kurt W. Fischer at Harvard University and collaborators.  Instead of viewing learning as a process where one adds concepts, one atop another like building a house of bricks, dynamic skill theory views learning as a continuous dynamic process, similar to juggling, where each ball represents a relevant concept that the student must coordinated with other relevant ideas in order to establish more complex understandings about the world. This kind of coordination takes continuous practice, and performance always depends on context. If for example, you are nervous, tired or hurt, your skills may decrease. A juggler must continuously re-launch his balls, putting  ideas back into motion to demonstrate as well as improve the coordination of an abstraction (like the conservation of matter) as it appears (and reappears) in numerous and varied situations. Similarly must an adolescent, who for example have achieved an understanding of the concept conservation of matter, repeatedly be challenged in this way of thinking, to retain the skill.

This view on how knowledge is expressed, was confirmed in this particular study through interviews with 6 students that participated. The student’s conceptual understanding fluctuated through very short time frames like a documentary movie recording events in the individual’s learning trajectory. One and same student could for example say the following to explain what would happen when a sealed bottle of Coke is heated up so that the Coke evaporates:


- “Air is lighter than water”

Only a few minutes later however, she said the following:

- “If it's the same amount of particles, it's gotta be the same mass.”It is easy to see how the student`s ability to analyze this situation changed during a short time interval. When the pathways these interviews took were compared to each students test score, a correlation was found. Those with a higher test score revealed a deeper understanding of conservation of matter.

But how may the dynamic skill theory explain the results obtained with the argumentation method?

“I believe our research demonstrates how putting ideas in motion leads to a deeper understanding,” says Marc Schwartz. “Discussions make cognitive processes visible through language by revealing students “theories in action”. Inquiry as a pedagogical approach is limited if students are not allowed to socially interact in building, testing and challenging what they think they understand. The results support the claim from other scientists that teachers should focus more on argumentation and explanation.”

“But isn`t sensorimotor experiences, which you have in experimentation, according the dynamic skill theory also prerequisite for learning,” I asked a bit surprised?

“Sensorimotor is the foundation of all understanding, and experimentation is the natural process we use to test the limits of our understanding as context and experience change“ says Marc Schwarz.  “Additionally this process grows in complexity as we develop.  Maturation supports the development of more complex mental skills, with the appearance of representations in childhood and abstractions in adolescence.  These skills become tools we use throughout life as the process of experimenting (like juggling) provides ever more complex and richer understandings of our world as well as solutions to the problems we face. This process of building more satisfying solutions and understandings is inherently attractive to children and adults.”

So if you now thought you could skip laborious experiments in your science lessons, forget it. Such activities are necessary to allow students to sense and use their bodies to explore a phenomena. However, it is important that the experiment feels authentic so students can discuss or debate their findings.





  1. Analyzing learning about conservation of matter in students while adapting to the needs of a school. Mind, Brain and Education, vol, 4, number 3, p 112-124

Marina Doucerain is a Ph. D. student at Culture, Health and Personality Lab, Department of Psychology, Concordia University, Qubec, Canada

Marc S. Schwartz is a professor at South West Center for Mind, Brain & Education, University of Texas, Arlington, Texas  

Hanne S. Finstad is the founder of Forskerfabrikken (, Scientist Factory, in Norway. She is also a biochemist, with a PhD in cancer research and an Ashoka-fellow (

Topic: engaging the youth Audience: teachers, educators, tertiary education, primary schools, professional chemists., scientists
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