40 day breathing and meditation challenge

I recently completed a short course on breathing and meditation techniques. I really enjoyed the experience and so I am going to try to complete at least 20 minutes of practice for the next 40 days (and hopefully longer if it’s of benefit). My aim is to find some “calm in the chaos”.

Over the next 40 days, I will write a short reflection on my experience. I expect that to being with, they will be limited to just becoming more aware and will be relatively surface level. I hope that, as time progresses, they will become deeper and more profound. Who knows?!

I will update this post each day with my reflections, mainly for myself but also just in case anyone out there is at all interested.

Day 1: I found a nice quiet space at work and turned off the lights. Ideally, there should be some fresh air but this place had none. I’m hoping that during my holidays I will be able to find some nice places to carry out the practice outside. The practice has a clear formula to follow and I found much of my focus was on trying to follow this formula. This in itself was quite calming. During the practice, I became acutely aware of my fake tooth throbbing, which I haven’t felt for a while. Perhaps time to visit the dentist! After my third round of Ujjayi breath I started to get heart palpations! I get them relatively regularly but it is a bit annoying whilst trying to focus on breathing. I have to say, after the practice I felt quite good. I felt energised and all of my tasks (which were overwhelming at the start of the day) felt doable. I’m not sure how long that feeling will last, but it was nice for at least a little while!

Day 2: Today I completed my practice straight after getting out of bed at 6am and out on the balcony to get some fresh air. I found it quite tough this morning and did not get into a rhythm. I found it difficult to control my breath and I really didn’t enjoy it. I have no idea why, but it didn’t have the same calming effect on me that it did yesterday.

Day 3: Today, forgetting to carry out my practice before work and after work meant I was forced to do it in a public space in between commitments! There were people around and I have to say, I felt very self-conscious. It made me think about our focus on what others think of us. All I could think about whilst carrying out the practice (some of it might look weird to those that don’t know it) was what people were thinking of me as they walked by. Did these complete strangers think I was some weirdo? I know that I shouldn’t really care, but, hey, I did. Food for thought!

Conceptual understanding of epistemological issues in chemistry

As discussed in this post, epistemological components make up part of the complex cognitive processes that help students to understand threshold concepts. The epistemological components are to do with how arguments and explanations are built in a discipline.

In chemistry, this is mainly to do with the use of theoretical models (and how they differ from reality) and the use of experiments to collect data that supports these theoretical models. It is also important the students understand that new data can be used to disprove models or change and adapt them. Models are not static, and most likely never will be. Further, students should understand that models can be used to make predictions about interactions between particles and that, if the predictions prove correct, the validity of the model is further enhanced.

These conceptual understandings might help students understand the above points and at some point in the chemistry curriculum, it might be useful to scaffold students learning so that they can uncover these (by the way, these conceptual understandings need a lot of work – they are just a starting point):

  • Models can be used to conceptualise reality. Chemistry example: the atomic model is used to conceptualise atoms. 
  • Experimental information about light-matter interactions can be used to build arguments and theoretical models. Chemistry example: experimental information of light-matter interactions has led scientists to their current models of atomic structure.
  • Theoretical models can be used to predict the behaviour of unknowns. Chemistry example: Mendeleev predicting properties of missing elements in his early version of the periodic table went a long way to people accepting that this was a useful model for arranging the elements.
  • Theoretical models may change when new experimental information that contradicts the model is discovered. Chemistry examples: the development of the atomic model. Chemistry example: the Bohr model of the atom only works for Hydrogen and could not be used to predict the atomic structures of other atoms. New data led to the development of current models.

I believe that helping students uncover these conceptual understandings that link important ideas together will help them to reach a greater expertise and understanding in chemistry. What do you think?

Read this article if….you are a concept geek who just loves…well…concepts…

I recently wrote about threshold concepts in this post. As stated in the article, threshold concepts are often troublesome for learners. However, they have the potential to be so transformative in their understanding of a discipline that they are worth the pain. Indeed, once understood, they are intellectually satisfying.

Talanquer (2015) suggests that the understanding of a threshold concept requires several cognitive components:

  1. Conceptual components – what facts and knowledge are needed to understand this threshold concept? What micro-concepts are needed in order to reach conceptual understandings that support the learning of this concept? These need to be built up and learnt so that an understanding of the concept can be reached. Chemistry example: In order to understand the threshold concept of atomicity, students need to know that atoms consist of protons and neutrons in a dense nucleus and electrons in the space surrounding the nucleus.
  2. Epistemological components – this is an understanding of how arguments and explanations are built in a discipline. Chemistry example: to fully understand the threshold concept of atomicity, Talanquer argues that learners need to understand the difference between models and reality. Further, they need to “Comprehend how experimental information about light-matter interactions can be used to build arguments and theoretical models of atomic structure, and understand that these models may change based on new experimental information”. You can read more about my thoughts on this here.
  3. Ontological components – according to Talanquer, this involves learners developing proper schemas that help them to think about the nature of the entities and processes in the systems under consideration and going even further, the relationships that exist between them. Chemistry example: again from the threshold concept of atomicity, Talanquer suggests that the statement “matter consists of atoms that have internal structures that dictate their chemical and physical behavior” will look very different to a student who views the atom as a solid object with rigid internal structures they will think very versus a student who views atoms as dynamic, interacting systems. This area is a major challenge and is the focus of this post

In upcoming articles, I will attempt to explore each of these components in much more detail!

Further reading:

Threshold concepts in chemistry: The critical role of implicit schemas – Vicente Talanquer, | J. Chem. Educ. 2015, 92, 3−9: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/ed500679k

There are certain concepts in chemistry that students must understand if there are to develop an expertise in the discipline.  We can call these “threshold concepts”. These threshold concepts should be considered as a portal to further understanding and, according to Meyer and Land (2003), should be:

  • Transformative – once understood, it should cause a significant shift in the thinking of the students. Chemistry example: when students come to understand matter is composed of atoms.
  • Probably irreversible – the change in perspective is unlikely to be forgotten or can only be unlearned with significant effort (this has implications when students learn a misconception). Chemistry example: once students understand that both forward and backward reactions can occur, it is very difficult to tell them that reactions go to completion.
  • Integrative – understanding the threshold concept exposes a previously hidden interrelatedness of something. I liken this to the notion of linking two concepts to form a conceptual understanding in the concept based teaching advocated by Lynn Erickson and Lois Lanning. Chemistry example: understanding that all particles have kinetic energy helps students to link the idea of particles colliding to the energy required to break bonds.
  • Bounded (athough not always) with a conceptual space that has terminal frontiers. The concept eventually reaches a border which, when stepped across, leads into a new threshold concept or even a new discipline. Chemistry example: the threshold concept of atomicity within the discipline of chemistry is not easily applied to the discipline of history!
  • Troublesome – they are problematic and difficult for students to understand. They must challenge themselves to enter the space of uncertainty that lies between their current understanding and a higher understanding. Chemistry example: The concept of wave particle duality is incredibly troublesome for students. To conceive of a particle as a wave requires some incredibly abstract thinking, which is hard for students to achieve.

Identifying these threshold concepts is not easy, but working through the checklist below might be helpful. I will be looking to identify the threshold concepts in chemistry in an upcoming blog post, but I have made a start here, (hmmmm, would all the concepts I identified in this post pass the checklist below…?) as has my colleague, Oliver Canning, here.  In the meantime, I would love to hear some thoughts on the following questions:

  • How do you like the checklist for identifying threshold concepts? What would you change, add or take away?
  • What do you think the threshold concepts in chemistry are and why?
  • Have I misinterpreted anything or got anything wrong? I would love to know!
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Figure 1 – a potential checklist for identifying threshold concepts

Further reading

Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2003), ‘Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (1): linkages to ways of thinking and practising’, in Rust, C. (ed.), Improving Student Learning – ten years on, Oxford: OCSLD: https://www.dkit.ie/system/files/Threshold_Concepts__and_Troublesome_Knowledge_by_Professor_Ray_Land_0.pdf

 

Some of the terminology that we use in chemistry can be extremely confusing for students! One such example is when we talk about bonding.

A bond is the name given when electrostatic forces of attraction between oppositely charged particles are balanced with the kinetic energy that would cause them to move away from each other in random directions. Put more simply:

“A bond is an electrostatic force of attraction between oppositely charged particles”.

Within chemistry, this is an extremely important idea. When approaching this topic, most literature will talk about intramolecular and intermolecular bonding. Confusingly, intramolecular bonding (meaning within molecules) will include ionic bonding alongside covalent bonding (including simple molecules and giant covalent structures). However, there are no molecules in giant ionic lattices. This is a breeding ground for misconceptions!

Intermolecular bonding (meaning between molecules) works much better as we only include temporary dipoles, such as London Dispersion Forces (LDF) and permanent dipoles, including hydrogen bonding. All the bonds encompassed here are between molecules, which makes perfect sense. Phew!

Beside the problem with ionic boning residing under the term intramolecular bonding, the whole system also completely ignores the electrostatic force of attraction between electrons and protons within an atom! This is incredibly important and students often cannot link this idea with the other concepts in bonding.

I therefore propose a new way of naming bonds that hopefully overcomes these challenges. This is summed up in figure 1. Unfortunately, you will need to zoom in at this point in order to see it fully, but hopefully, you can get the idea. The key features of this diagram are:

  1. It brings to the attention of the students that all of the bonding topic is about electrostatic forces of attraction between oppositely charged particles
  2. It accounts for the fact that bonding occurs within the atom between the electrons and the protons. This might be termed intra-atomic bonding as it occurs within the structure of the atom. This has the potential to make students more aware of the fact that these can be broken in the same ways that normal bonds can be broken – by the increase in kinetic energy of the electrons.
  3. It renames intramolecular (meaning within molecules) to interatomic. This seems better suited to describing both ionic and covalent. Both ionic and covalent bonding involves the meeting of two or more atoms and then the distribution (whether uneven or even) of electrons between these atoms. Both involve the attraction of electrons in one atom with the protons in the nucleus of the other. Both are dependent on the electronegativity of the reacting atoms. Although the ionic bond is technically the electrostatic force of attraction between two oppositely charged ions, it is still brought about by the interconnection between two or more atoms.
  4. It makes it clear that hydrogen bonding is a subset of permanent dipole-dipole bonding. I think this is an important realisation for students. I think the terms for intermolecular bonding work quite well as they are.
Figure 1 – A new naming system for bonding – what do you think?

How I would teach this is a matter for another blog post! In the meantime, I would love some feedback on this taxonomy.

Firstly, you will notice the glaring omission of metallic bonding. Where might this fit in?

Secondly, in more general terms: What do you think of this new naming? Is there anything I have missed? Are any of my definitions wrong? Am I completely off the mark? How might you use it in your teaching?

As Stern, Ferraro and Mohnkern point out in “Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding: Designing Lessons and Assessments for Deep Learning”, the biggest pitfall that teachers face when introducing a new concept is that they are tempted to introduce it as a fact. This means it becomes a definition to be memorised, rather than a concept to be understood. To avoid this, teachers can intentionally design activities that allow students to form their own ideas about concepts through drawing patterns from examples and non-examples. This is a very powerful idea and I have applied it to the concept of open, closed and isolated systems in chemistry.

Open Systems

Carry out a neutralisation reaction between hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide, with a temperature probe or thermometer in the solution. When you add the solutions together, the temperature should rise. You can also get students to feel the beaker. Tell students that this is an example of an open system. Ask students to think about this example and use it write down what they think an open system is. They should come up with something like: an open system is one where energy can be exchanged with the surroundings.

So, they have one piece of the puzzle.

Now, carry out the reaction of calcium carbonate with hydrochloric acid on a mass balance. Once again, point out that this is an example of an open system. Ensure that the container that the reaction is carried out in is open. Again, place a thermometer or temperature probe in the solution. When the two substances are added together, the students should see a temperature rise (and again, can feel the container). However, this time they should also see that a gas is being produced and that they mass of the substances in the container is decreasing. Ask students to use this example to add to their musings on what an open system is (I recommend getting them to use a different coloured pen). They should come up with something along the lines of: an open system is one where energy and matter can be exchanged with the surroundings.

Closed systems

Place some liquid bromine in a gas jar (make sure this is done in a fume cupboard with the fan turned on – you’d be surprised how many people forget to turn fans on…). At this point, you could reinforce the concept of open systems and ask students why it is currently an open system. Next, add a lid on top of the gas jar. Tell students that this is now an example of a closed system. Ask students to think about this example and use it write down what they think an closed system is. They should come up with something like: a closed system is one where matter cannot be exchanged with the surroundings.  

At this point, we are not finished, since students will most likely not have brought in the idea of energy.

So, next, react some Mg with HCl in a conical flask that is attached to a gas syringe. Ask students whether this fits with their understanding of what a closed system is and why. Now, get students to feel the conical flask. It should be warm. Ask students to think about what this might mean for their understanding of what a closed system is. They should come up with something like: a closed system is one where matter cannot be exchanged with the surroundings but energy can.

Isolated Systems

For this one, we need to rely more on the non-examples, since there is only one real example of an isolated system. Tell students that the universe is an example of an isolated system, whereas all the reactions that they have just seen are non-examples. You might like to give a couple of other non-examples. Ask them to use this example and the non-examples to write down what they think an isolated system is. They should come up with something like: an isolated system is one where both matter and energy cannot be exchanged with the surroundings.

Follow up

To follow this up and consolidate their understanding, I would ask student to represent all of these systems diagrammatically on a whiteboard. They should come up with something along these lines:

So there we go, a concept based approach to help students construct their own understanding of isolated, closed and open systems in chemistry. I would love to hear your thoughts and if you have any examples of concept-based approaches to teaching in your classroom.

This time last year, I set myself the goal of being one of the most effective teachers in the school. I wanted to be one of the teachers that people would talk about when people ask them what are great examples of classroom practice.

Needless to say, I failed. I am not the most effective teacher in the school and I dare say when people talk about best classroom practice, they don’t instantly think about my classroom. In fact, there are many occasions where I feel pretty ineffective, as do most people at some point or other, no doubt. However, in my school, the goal I set was a pretty lofty one! Every single day I am humbled. Whether it be Oliver Canning with his Nature of Chemistry website, or Kirstie Parker with ChemJungle and her work on reflection. Whether it be Hannah Giddins for going out of her comfort zone during assembly, or Ellie Alchin for being ridiculously committed to Initiative for Peace. Whether it be Tricia Friedman for her endless stream of thought provoking professional development, or David Kann for his intellectual genius (check out his site here). The list could go on and on and on. It is no lie when I say that every single one of my colleagues who I have interacted with this year has wowed me in some way. So, I aimed for the moon and I fell short, but I have definitely landed among the stars (sorry for cringe).

So, I may not be the most effective teacher in the school (also, who defines what effective is?), but, in the cold light of day, this doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I am a better teacher than I was a year ago. If my grade 12s who have left this year joined my grade 11 class in the coming year, would they be able to say, “wow, he’s better than last year”? I believe they would.

This post is to highlight some of the things I have learnt this year and some of the ways I think I am a better teacher than last year.

1. My classroom seems to be a safer space. My scores in student feedback for this category were the highest they’ve ever been. For one class I scored 3.88 out of 4. For me, this is one of the most important things in teaching.

So, how did I do it? Well, I can’t quite put my finger on something in particular, but I will have a go at identifying a few things.

Firstly, I have worked extremely hard to cut sarcasm out of my teaching, which, I have to say, is very hard for a Brit who’s entire humour is based on lazy sarcasm. Now, as I am a human being, there is the occasional slip and if I do catch myself, I make a point to apologise to my students. My students assure me that in most cases (in fact, I think all) there was no need to apologise, but I believe strongly in apologising for things like this. 100% respect, 100% of the time.

Secondly, I used to think that it was most important that all your students like you, but now I think that is it most important that all of your students trust you. Trust beats everything. If students trust you, they can take both praise and constructive criticism from you. If they just like you, then criticism can feel like a personal attack. So, I have worked hard to build a trusting environment, where students can trust me to maintain a safe space for them to work and make mistakes. I suspect that the trick here is more conscious effort than anything else, but I need to analyse this further.

2. I have a more refined educational philosophy. This year, I have worked hard to refine and develop my educational philosophy. It’s still not perfect, and indeed I hope it never will be. However, it is much more integrated than it was. Through this year, I have gone from a black and white educational philosophy to a much more sophisticated model that incorporates several aspects of pedagogy and other important ideas. The details are for another blog post.

3. I have developed a greater understanding of my subject. Concept based teaching and learning has allowed me to delve deep into my subject like never before. I love it and it has given me a new found love for what I do. I am falling in love with chemistry and science all over again. I am exploring ideas in physics that I have never encountered before and thinking about how they enhance my work as a chemistry teacher. I am seeing links and explanations that were never there before. It’s extremely liberating and comforting. I can’t tell you how much more energy and excitement this helps bring to my lessons. Of course, there is still a lot to learn and one of my favourite things remains to be when a student asks me a question that makes me go…”huh…?…erm….I don’t know the answer to that…yet!”.

4. I’m a man with a plan who believes in the importance of a plan! I’ve always had a plan. I’m just not sure I have always made good plans or believed in them. This blog post has made me think more and more about my learning. I have been much more intentional with what I have been doing this year. And I need to be even more intentional in the coming year. What is the plan? Well, that’s another post entirely.

There is still a lot of work to do, and I will never be finished improving. Steven Covey wrote that “Life is a crescendo”. I couldn’t agree more.

Magpies

In  European folklore, the “thieving magpie” is renowned for stealing shiny things (interestingly, this unfortunate perception of the bird has been debunked). This is, obviously, not a good thing for people!

I sometimes feel like a magpie in my teaching and learning. I get attracted to shiny classroom ideas, tricks, books, thoughts and much more. I get hooked and then try to implement them in my classroom, or research them more and more and get lost down a rabbit hole. The problem is, there are too many shiny things out there and not enough time. I end up with a feeling that I am becoming a “jack of all trades, and master of none”. No sooner have I experimented with one shiny thing, I am moving on to the next shiny thing. It can be hard to focus on one aspect of your teaching when there are so many great ideas out there.

How do you manage this type of stress? How do you help yourself focus on one shiny thing at a time? Do you have any tips? I would love to hear them!

The equilibrium law is a tool used by chemists to help them work out how best to manipulate chemical reactions to achieve the greatest yield of the desired product.

For a reaction mixture at equilibrium at a certain temperature, the ratio of the concentration of products to reactants will remain constant. We call this ratio the equilibrium constant, Kc, and can quantify this using the following protocol:

reactants ⇋ products             Kc = [products] / [reactants]

Something that students of chemistry often struggle with is the relevance of this value. It is, therefore, useful to split the teaching and learning of Kc into two distinct but connected ideas:

  1. The determination of Kc for a particular reaction at known conditions (known temperature and pressure)
  2. The utilisation of the Kc value to select optimum conditions for a given reaction that gives the greatest yield of desired products.
Figure 1: What are two key strands in teaching the equilibrium law and its applications

The determination of Kc for a particular reaction at known conditions (known temperature and pressure)

This process can be explained in the following steps:

  1. Firstly, we need to allow a reaction the time to reach equilibrium. This involves taking sensible amounts (achieved through trial and error) of reactants or products and allowing them to react in a closed system. We can tell if a reaction has reached equilibrium if there are the macroscopic properties, such as concentration and colour, remain the same.
  2. The next step is to determine the concentration of the reactants and products in the equilibrium mixture. How this is done is beyond the scope and time of the IB course and this post. Just be comforted in the fact that it can be done (often by indirect means).
  3. These values can then be plugged into the equilibrium expression for this reaction to give a value for Kc for that reaction under the temperature and pressure conditions that it was carried out in.
  4. This value for Kc, along with the temperature and pressure, can then be recorded in a database for use by scientists in the future.

Point 3 above is where a lot of time is spent in equilibrium. This is fine, but it is just crunching numbers. The most important conceptual understandings when looking at equilibrium comes before and after this. So what does come next? Well, it’s this. How can we use Kc to determine the optimal conditions for a reaction? Look out for the next blog post to see my thoughts on this.

5 strategies for giving more timely feedback

Recently I conducted a round of student surveys. In this survey, we ask students to rate us on a scale of 1 (not great) to 4 (pretty darn good) in 8 areas, which are shown in the figure below:

 

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Figure 1 – The 8 areas in which we ask our students to rate us on a scale of 1 (not great) to 4 (pretty darn good)

In every class, one of my bottom two scores was in the category, “In this subject, I receive regular and timely feedback about what I am doing and where I need to improve”. My average across the 6 classes was a whoppingly disappointing 2.55 out or 4.00.

 

This rang alarm bells for me. High quality, timely feedback is essential for learning. Further, for feedback to have an impact, students need to be able to use it to improve. So, what might be some strategies for giving more timely feedback in the classroom so that students feel that they know what they need to do in order to improve? Five thoughts are given below. None are revolutionary or particularly innovative or clever. However, hopefully, if implemented, they might help me give students more timely and constructive feedback:

  1. Choose a high leverage question that students are currently completing in the workbooks (You don’t have to look at every question of make everything in a book! That can be daunting for students, lacks specificity and takes a lot of time). Go around and visit every single student during a lesson and ask to see their answer to this question. For students who have got this wrong, it will immediately give you a chance to address some misconceptions. For those that have got it right, there is a chance for some praise and perhaps a follow up question. This is a quick, simple process (it can take as little time as 10 minutes whilst students are working on a task!).
  2. Use whole class feedback for an assignment. There are plenty of articles on this process. For a couple of good ones, see here and also this one. I used this for an assignment recently (see here for the feedback marking grid I used). When marking work, I will take great examples and add them to a whole class feedback grid. I will also take examples of common mistakes and add them in. I will then ask students to study their work and annotate it using the whole class feedback grid. A nice follow up is to then ask them to write a blog post on three things that they will change for next time (this works particularly nicely if the assessment is on something they will look at again, for example, coursework). Whilst students are doing this, you are free to go around and answer specific questions or speak to specific students about things you saw in their work. For certain assignments, this has significantly reduced the time is takes me to get feedback to students. (p.s. Thanks to my colleague, Gemma Dawson, @Elfdaws, for introducing me to this one.)
  3. Help student understand what feedback is! A lot of the time, students think feedback has to be written. They don’t realise that you are feeding back to them every time you ask them to answer a question or every time you walk around, glance over their shoulder and notice something they have got wrong and help them see why. If they don’t realise when they are getting feedback, then they can’t take action to improve!
  4. Build a “Lingering Questions Padlet” into your classroom routine (if you don’t know what padlet is or would like to see some other cool ways to use it, see this great article from Nicki Hambleton). This is something that I have been using to great effect. In the student feedback survey, most students love it. I will ask students to add at least one or two questions that they have onto the padlet (how you generate these questions can vary). I will then ask them to go through and do three things. First, I will ask them to add a “me too” comment on any question that they would have asked as well. Then I ask them to ‘like’ any question that that would like to see answered. Thirdly, I ask them to try and answer each other’s questions. After this process, I will order the questions according to the number of likes and go through three questions (I use to go through them all, but for some students, this is tedious). I will then turn these questions green to indicate that they have been covered. For the other questions, I will offer students to come to the front and go through them with me, letting other students get on with work. The benefit here is that students feel heard as they ask their questions and get feedback. They feel safe as they see other people have questions too and indeed, they see that other people have the same questions as them. Further, seeing their question liked gives them the confidence to ask more and more questions.
  5. Complete weekly or biweekly quizzes. Again, this is not revolutionary, but it helps students get quick and timely feedback. How might this work? My vision at IB is to create a set of weekly quizzes (an idea taken from my Head of Science, Andrew Ware) of past paper multiple choice questions. Each quiz will probably have a maximum of 5 questions. The aim here is not to assess lots of content. Instead, its to allow students to address misconceptions a little bit at a time. Having fewer questions also allows you to focus in on poorly answered questions much more easily, and thus give more specific feedback. Further, having just 5 questions makes it less daunting. Another idea might be to have a weekly hinge question. Students could answer through a google form, and then you could speak to individual students that got the wrong idea or ask those students to come to the front for a quick workshop. Simple, quick and effective.

This list is not exhaustive and each has their flaws. I am looking to try them out with intentionality to see how they work. I would love to hear your thoughts here! What are some effective strategies you have found for feedback that are both timely and allow students to improve?