The types of electrostatic forces of attraction in chemistry

In the “Heart of Chemistry“, I wrote about electrostatic forces being a fundamental concept in chemistry. In this post, I would like to build upon this idea.

I think it is useful to name the types of electrostatic forces of attraction that students need to be comfortable with when studying chemistry. I believe these to be:

  1. Electrostatic forces of attraction
    1. Between protons in the nucleus of an atom and electrons in orbitals (most importantly, the electrons in the highest filled energy level)
    2. Between positive ions and negative ions (otherwise known as ion-ion interactions)
    3. Between positive ions and slightly negative regions on another molecule (and vice versa). These are otherwise known as ion-dipole interactions.
    4. Between slightly positive regions and slightly negative regions of different molecules (these are known as intermolecular forces, which can be further broken down).
  2. Electrostatic forces of repulsion
    1. Between negatively charged electrons (particularly useful when looking at the higher energy attained by electrons that occupy the same orbital).

And that’s it! A nice quick post, but I will look to build on it further soon.

The Heart of Chemistry

Most chemistry syllabuses (at both 14 to 16, and 16 to 18 ages) tend to have a variation on the following topics:

  • Atomic structure
  • Bonding
  • Periodicity
  • Stoichiometry
  • Energetics
  • Kinetics
  • Equilibrium
  • Acids and Bases
  • Redox
  • Organic Chemistry

Within each of these clearly defined topics there will be benchmarks that outline very specific things that students must know. This is great for ensuring a level playing field and making sure that all students cover lots of content. However, for me, it misses a trick.

I believe there are a few fundamental concepts in chemistry that all students must know if they are ever going to be able to become cutting edge chemists.

I call these fundamental concepts the “Heart of Chemistry”, as without them, the rest of chemistry is unexplainable:

  1. The Atom
  2. Particles in the atom
  3. Electrostatic Forces of Attraction
  4. Entropy
  5. Conservation of Mass and Energy
  6. Bonding

I will now deal with each of these individually.

The Atom

At the heart of chemistry is the atom. Yet, they don’t really exist in their pure forms. Atoms are incredibly unstable, owing to their unpaired electrons. Given the chance, they will immediately react with other substances to form molecules and lattices. Students must be introduced to this idea as they learn about the atom. The atom is just a human construct that helps us to work out how different elements will interact. They are pieces of jigsaw that cannot work on their own (apart from  the noble gases, of course).  

Particles in the atom

For students to understand chemistry, they must know and understand the particles that make up atoms: protons; neutrons; and electrons.

Electrostatic Forces of Attraction

Students must understand the concept of electrostatic forces of attraction. They should understand early on that this involves an attraction between something that is negative and something that is positive. At this point, it would be good to bring in the idea that electrons are held in atoms by electrostatic forces of attraction between the said electrons and the protons in the nucleus. Electrostatic forces of attraction will then be an extremely useful concept for further studying in chemistry.


A fundamental concept that I think students need to be introduced to extremely early on is the second law of thermodynamics which states that entropy can never decrease over time for an isolated system. In the case of chemistry, we treat the universe as being the isolated system. So the universe tends towards disorder. In terms of chemistry, the entropy of the universe is the sum of the entropy of a reaction and the entropy of the surroundings, demonstrated in the diagram below. In most chemical reactions, energy is released to the surroundings, making them more disorded. This makes the atoms from the reaction become more ordered since they now have less energy and are more stable. This notion that particles in reactions tend towards stability, which releases energy to make the surroundings more disordered is extremely important. I also think it’s important that students realise that entropy can be determined experimentally.


A diagram that shows how the entropy of the universe is the sum of the entropy of a reaction and the entropy of the surroundings. If a reaction decreases in entropy but increases the entropy of the surroundings enough, then it can still increase the entropy of the universe overall. An interesting thing to look into here is the seeming paradox of entropy on life (this Wikipedia article is a good starting point if you are interested: link)


The Conservation of Mass and Energy

This is very much linked to the ideas included in entropy. In the universe, matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. The same can be said for chemical reactions. The energy and matter that goes into a reaction must ultimately come out. The only difference is its form. Atoms will rearrange. Energy will change from chemical potential to heat (or vice versa). This is crucial for students to understand.


At its heart, chemistry is about understanding bonding. This is what makes chemists tick. Without understanding bonding, the rest of chemistry doesn’t make sense and has no value. Here, we make sense of how atoms don’t exist in the real world (or at least, they exist for extremely short amounts of time). Within bonding, I believe there are some fundamental concepts that must be taught in order for students to fully grasp what is at hand. The first is that of collision theory (typically taught in kinetics). In order for substances to undergo bonding, they must first come close enough together for electrostatic interactions to occur between the protons in one atom and the electrons in another. The next concept is how the electrostatic interactions between different atoms can lead to different types of bonding. (Note: It is important for students to grasp that categorising bonding into ionic, covalent and metallic is a generalistion that is open to exceptions but makes life easier)


By understanding these concepts before launching into a course, I believe students (and teachers) will gain a deeper understanding of and develop a greater love for chemistry, rather than just ticking the syllabus boxes. Indeed, I believe that a lot of the traditional units at this level are simply applications of these concepts so that we can make quicker and easier predictions about how reactions might proceed before we test them out.

A case study: energetics

Most chemistry courses will have a unit called energetics, and lots of students struggle with it each year. I believe this is because they don’t really see the point of it. Energetics, in essence, is just a tool. Once you understand what an atom is, what bonding occurs, that energy and matter must be conserved and that the universe tends towards disorder it is easy to see that energetics is just a quick and easy way of applying these concepts in the real world to real reactions. Below is my first attempt at looking at this. It is raw and far from perfect:

Topic in a typical energetics unit Fundamental concept required Explanation
Exothermic and endothermic reactions Entropy, Conservation of mass and energy, Bonding Exothermic reactions release energy. This is because bonds are formed. When bonds are formed, unpaired electrons pair up and this process releases energy. This released energy helps increase the disorder of the surroundings and the universe. The converse is true for endothermic reactions. These are useful terms to use to make life easier.
Activation energy Electrostatic forces of attraction, Conservation of mass and energy In order for a reaction to occur, the bonds in the initial reactants must be broken. Bond breaking is endothermic and requires energy. You are breaking electrostatic forces of attraction and this requires energy.
Enthalpy Entropy, Conservation of mass and energy, Bonding Enthalpy is a measure of energy per mole. If you understand that bonds are electrostatic forces of attraction, you can understand that energy must be required to break them. The energy required to break a mole of bonds is a form of enthalpy.
Enthalpy cycles Entropy, Conservation of mass and energy, Bonding These include techniques like Hess’s Law and Born-Haber cycles. If you understand that energy must taken in and given out during a chemical reaction and that overall, energy must be conserved in the universe, you can understand that mathematics can be used to work out the enthalpy changes that occur in a reaction.


How might this look over a typical chemistry course?


At this early stage, for simplicity, I will look at when these fundamental concepts might be useful over the course of a typical chemistry course with traditional units. An outline is given below. I have starred what I believe to be the most important fundamental concepts for each unit. I may be wrong, and of course, all concepts are important pretty much all the time. But humans cannot think of everything at once, so it is important to prioritise! (Note: As I made this diagram, I also got thinking that bonding could be removed as a unit and be covered in the fundamental concept of electrostatic forces of attraction. It could be replaced by a unit titled something like “molecules, lattices and giant molecular structures”.)


When might these fundamental concepts reoccur throughout a typical chemstry course?


I would love to hear some thoughts on this. To what extent do you agree with this post and why? Are there any concepts that I have completely misunderstood? What might be something fundamental that I am missing? How might we organise and name units better? Any other thoughts?  

Do people struggle to approach conflict?

Today’s post is a joint effort by Uzay Ashton (@UzayAshton, blog) and Louie Barnett (@louiebarnett123)

In today’s Tech Mentor meeting at UWCSEA, we were asked: “Do our students/peers know how to approach conflict?”. We were forced to answer yes or no (no sitting on the fence, arghhh!) and could use 8-10 words to explain our answer. No pressure! Here are our responses:

Uzay Louie
No, because they’ve not learned how to negotiate it No. People struggle to approach conflict and need support to do this

As you can see, we both had similar viewpoints (phew, no conflict).

We then listened to an awesome podcast about conflict avoiders and conflict seekers, linked here. You can see our written notes about the podcast below:


Screen Shot 2017-11-29 at 16.09.31.png
Some our thoughts whilst listening to the podcast


We then had a 5 minute conversation on what we heard in the podcast. You can find the recording of this here.

This led us, ultimately, to have a few questions that we would love some help in answering!

  1. How can we help community members see that it’s ok to experience conflict?
  2. How can we help community members acquire the skills needed to approach conflict respectfully?
  3. How can we help community members recognise whether they are conflict avoiders or conflict seekers and how might we be able to give them the tools to account for the negatives of each stance?

The Guest House

This poem, shared by my colleague at work today, speaks volumes to me about self-awareness. “Every morning” we greet a new arrival at our door. We learn something new about ourselves. This can make us feel amazing. But it can also make us feel awful. It can make us feel inadequate. It can turn our lives upside down. It can violently empty us of our furniture. However, the poem suggests that we should treat this as a positive thing. It will take us to a “new delight”. Learning more about yourself can be challenging, but it is important, and will ultimately help develop a better you.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.

meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi,

translation by Coleman Barks

Socially Responsible Investing

In the coming months, I will be looking to start investing in stocks and shares in order to plan for my retirement. In doing this, I plan to invest in Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). You buy these through a company that buys a small share in several companies in a market for you. It is a great and sure-fire way to see an investment portfolio grow steadily over many years. However, I have one major issue with this: what if the companies whose shares are included in the ETF are unethical and socially irresponsible? What is their industry goes against my beliefs?

However, I have one major issue with this: what if the companies whose shares are included in the ETF are unethical and socially irresponsible? What is their industry goes against my beliefs? 

A simple example would be an ETF that follows the FTSE 100 in the UK. If I bought an ETF like this, I would be investing (however small an amount) in BAE systems, a weapons manufacturer. I don’t want any of the money I invest going to support this.

Therefore, I am looking for an ethical ETF. Now, what is ‘ethical’ will differ from person to person and this muddies the water when looking at commercial products. This is exemplified by the MSCI United Kingdom SRI Index, which excludes companies involved in: Nuclear Power, Tobacco, Alcohol, Gambling, Military Weapons, Civilian Firearms, GMOs and Adult Entertainment. When looking at these, this article (link) by PensionCraft deals with this problem nicely, in my opinion:

“You may be looking at some of those categories and thinking, why is that excluded? For example nuclear power and Genetically Modified Organisms are, in my opinion, okay if properly regulated. In the US the five million members of the National Rifle Association would question the exclusion of civilian firearms. Members of the armed forces may question the exclusion of companies that produce military weapons. This highlights the problems of a pre-canned investment package: it won’t be appropriate for everyone. If you don’t agree with it, don’t buy it! You can always buy individual stocks and bonds which are in line with your own principles.”

Although I also believe GMOs are ok if properly regulated, I think I would still be happy to buy this stock. I can always invest in a GMO company if I really want to. I am more interested in buying an ETF that rules out companies that are in industries that I really do not want to invest in. However, this does bring up an important point. Just from a brief internet search, there are many ‘socially responsible’ or ‘ethical’ ETFs out there.  Just because an ETF says it excludes certain industries doesn’t mean that everything it includes is great either! Also, what a company running an ETF determines as ethical might differ from what you believe to be ethical.

I guess what is required now is lots of research. If anyone has any tips, thoughts, or ideas, they would be greatly appreciated! Here are some questions to get you thinking:

  1. What might your ideal ethical ETF not include?
  2. To what extent is it our moral duty to invest ethically?
  3. To what extent is it our moral duty to know and understand where our money is going? (does this also link to the idea of ethical purchasing of clothes, food etc?)
  4. What socially responsible ETFs are there?


I hit a state of flow in my teaching today. For those that don’t know, flow is neatly explained in this TED talk (link).

I got lost in the lesson. Everything seemed to work. Why? The topic was interesting, and this great resource from Kurk Gesagt’s In a Nutshell series kicked it off (link). The video on What is Life? What is Death? stimulated so much debate it was unreal.

At one moment during the lesson, I looked out and what I saw amazed me. Some students were talking about AI. Some were writing blog posts on “What is life?”. Some were simply learning definitions. Some were adding to their padlets. All were engaged and moving forward with their learning.

As I go forward in my teaching, I want to make moments like these the norm. How do we do this on a regular basis…that is the question?


So what is a concept anyway?

So what is a concept anyway?

UWCSEA is working hard to utilize concept based teaching and learning (CBTL) at the school. It is an exciting journey and one that has already borne fruit for me personally. Through concept mapping units before I teach them, I have gained a greater insight into the connections between concepts that I am trying to teach. I have also had several lightbulb moments about the order in which I teach those concepts. Even better, it is useful for me as a tool or reflection. As I teach, I play around with the concept map and change the order based upon what worked and what didn’t. I then have a record of my learning for the next time I teach that content.

However, I have had several conversations with colleagues (who all seem to see the value in CBTL) about what a concept is. The general outcome is that no-one really seems to be clear. Joe Novak defines a “concept” as:

“ a perceived regularity in events or objects, or records of events or objects, designated by a label.”

The first time I saw this definition, I didn’t have a clue what it meant. I find it very cumbersome and the repeat of the terms ‘events’ and ‘objects’ makes it difficult to interpret. So, I thought I might unpack it a little bit and see what I come up with.

Unpacking the definition

There are several terms in the definition and I think it is important to be clear on what each one might mean. I will then try to turn the definition into some diagrams. I understand things best when they are laid out diagrammatically. It might also help you and it might not. Hopefully, the text will add some meaning. I will then use these diagrams to work through an example concept: the electron in chemistry.

So, firstly, what do these words mean in the definition? This is what I think:

Term What might it mean?
Label Every concept has a word that stands for it e.g. electron
Perceived Every concept is perceived to exist. We can sense it somehow.
Regularity in events/objects A concept might have several events/objects within it and no matter where that concept is applied those events/objects still stand true and are unchanged. I think this bit is important to our understanding.
Events/objects These are things that define the concept. They happen or exist.
Records of events/objects Concepts can also contain several records of events or objects (not quite sure what this one means). Maybe it has something to do with experimentation or the writing down of events/objects so that we know they happened. Then they can be used to define a concept.

So diagrammatically it might look like this:

That concept can be applied to different subjects/situations/contexts with the label, objects, events, and records of objects/events remaining constant. Those things are still true for the concept. However, it is being applied in a different context. There is some extra meaning added to the concept by the context. Diagrammatically that might be represented like this:

An example

So, what about a real life example? Take an electron. I would argue that it is a concept. Why? Because it has a label: electron. When I say that label, certain truths come to mind that are true for the electron no matter where it is. These are the objects, events, or records of objects and events. For example (disclaimer, there are certainly more things to add here and there may be debate about some of these facts, but I am keeping it simple for explanation purposes) an electron:

  • has a negative charge,
  • has a mass of 1/1840,
  • will exist at a quantized energy level.
  • has a symbol of e-

This can be represented below:

Without these things, it is not an electron. If these things change, then we have a different concept. So for example, if the relative charge is not -1 but is instead +1, we have a new concept which is the proton.

The electron could then be applied in different contexts and scenarios. For example, the electron could be in the first or second energy level. All of the universal truths about an electron still apply, but the context of it being in a different energy level has given it some slightly different meaning. The electron in the second energy level has more energy than the electron in the first energy level but it is still an electron. It still has a relative charge of -1, a relative mass of 1/1840, exists in a quantized energy level and has the symbol e-:

Now, I may have gone down a completely incorrect path here, but this explanation seems to make sense to me. I would be interested to hear some thoughts on this. Might I have it all wrong? What is your interpretation of the term concept?

If you like this model, maybe you can apply it to a concept in your own subject. I would love to hear about that too!

Photocredit: CollegeDegrees360 on Flickr: Link

Selling my classroom

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”

A recent experience got me thinking about how I might introduce my vision for learning in my classroom to my students and I believe that this idea from Simon Sinek helps immensely. In his TED talk on The Golden Circle (which you can find here), Simon discusses what he believes to be the main reason as to why some companies are astronomically more successful than others. Most companies know WHAT they do. Many will also know HOW they do it. But only a few might work out WHY they do it. Simon suggests that articulating the WHY is crucial. The diagram below gives a good overview of what he means by WHAT, HOW and WHY:

Screen Shot 2017-08-27 at 16.45.29.png
The Golden Circle by Simon Sinek (Start with Why)

I believe that this idea could be applied to education by asking the question: how we get students to buy into their learning? A crude way of putting it is that at the start of the year we are selling a product to our students, and that product is our classroom. Indeed, they have to consume whether they like it or not, but it would be much better if they are willing participants who would also buy into our vision for learning. So, what was the experience that led me towards this idea?

A Humbling Experience

Having extensively explored self-directed learning, I settled on the idea of creating a classroom where students could learn at their own pace. My thinking was then that I should share this vision with my students so that they would buy into it and understand what I was aiming for. I, therefore, designed a lesson that would help me achieve this. What students essentially received was this:

Screen Shot 2017-08-27 at 16.23.55.png

I left the lesson thinking:

 “Great, they all understand that I want to create a personalised classroom where they are able to work at their own pace and are supported by me if needed. They all realise that I’m not just going to leave them to their own devices to work through the curriculum but that through the year I will help them develop the skills and confidence that enables them to take ownership of their learning.”

It took my Head of Faculty asking to see me to share a concern a student had with this approach to make me realise that in all likelihood, this is not what could be taken away from that introductory lesson!

Looking back, it is clear that I had got a couple of things quite wrong:

  1. I got the Why completely wrong. I missed the point. I explained why we should do self-paced learning, not why I want my classroom to be the way that I want it to be. The difference is subtle but important.
  2. I introduced self-paced learning as the big idea. I now don’t think it is. I thought if students get that, then my classroom will transform. However, all they might think when you say that is “yikes, this guy is just going to leave me on my own!” Indeed, I don’t think students even need to hear the term. Self-paced learning is just one of the ways that I can achieve my Why.

So with that in mind, I have now set about trying to work out my very own Golden Circle. What is my why? How will I do it? What will I do to get it? After much deliberation, I think I have settled on a good starting point.


The WHY should be a purpose, cause or belief (see the diagram earlier in the post). My WHY is therefore an amalgamation of my own beliefs and those of UWCSEA (where I work and whose mission I believe in deeply).

“I believe that education can be a force to unite people, nations and cultures to build sustainable peace and everything I do in the classroom should help students embrace challenge and take responsibility for shaping a better world. I believe that students learn best when education is personalised and I will do my utmost to create an environment where that is the case.”


The HOW is something that makes an organisation special or different. If my classroom is an organisation, then the HOW would be the skills and qualities that students need in order to take ownership of their learning. For me, UWCSEA sums this up quite nicely in their own skills and qualities:

This and my own thoughts give me my HOW:

“How I do this is by developing the skills and qualities (see UWCSEA skills and qualities above) that learners require in order to take ownership of their learning so that their education becomes a journey of discovery, exploration and creation.


The WHAT is the product or services that an organisation sells. In my classroom, I take this to be my everyday lessons. WHAT do I do in those lessons that help my students to become self-directed learners who have ownership over their learning. Most of these things could occur in any classroom, just as any computer company can make a computer. What makes them special for me and my students is WHY I do them. So my WHAT is massive. There is so much that I will do in my classroom in order to achieve my WHY. The list is long and by no means exhaustive and requires extensive further thinking to determine how I pull everything together in day to day lessons. However, knowing what they are is a great starting point.

My WHAT includes: self-paced learning; genius hour (more info on that here); hyperdocs (see this website); the Launch cycle (check out this page); concept mapping; design challenges; maker projects; portfolios/blogs; mastery learning; mini-lessons; read-alouds; modelling thinking; collaborative work; sharing learning; and much much more.

What next?

As of yet, I am still unsure as to how to incorporate and integrate the learning tools from my WHAT into the classroom and use them effectively to engender a deeper understanding and acceptance of self-directed learning from my students. This is an on-going process and I suspect that it will be a gradual process. My hope is that this gradual process will be made easier and more effective if they know my WHY and buy into it.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Here are some questions for you to ponder:

  • How might you introduce a “grand” idea of how you would like your students to learn?
  • How do you ensure buy-in to your methods, even if they might seem completely alien to some students? 
  • How do you introduce a complete change in how you teach? Bit by bit? In one go? 

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

What is an education for? Fighting conformity in the classroom

A classroom of conformity – oh the shame!

If you haven’t watched the short film “Alike”, then I fully recommend it. I stumbled across it a comment from Sonya (@terSonya, on Patricia Friedman’s blog (already showing the importance of blogging on professional development) and it really struck a chord with me. There are so many messages running through this wonderful short film and I imagine it could be interpreted in many different ways, which is the beauty of art. For me, it sent tingles down my spine and at around 3:58 sent a small tear running down my face. In my interpretation, the message is that humans are born creative and come to school with energy, enthusiasm and a desire to make things and discover. However, at key points in their journey, we (adults) create and enforce systems and reactions that stifle this creativity. What does this do? It turns these wonderful bundles of creativity into worker bees who conform to what we expect of them, rife for the factory line. What should we be doing instead? Cultivating the creativity that is in all human beings so that we help educate individuals who are full of energy and zest for solving the world’s biggest problems (as well as the not so big…).

This video reignited a dormant belief I have that creativity is so important in the classroom. This is timely for me. We follow the IB and IGCSE curricula and there is, of course, a need to finish the course content. Therefore, an excuse has always been, “There’s no time to be creative. There’s no time to explore other content. There’s no time to do those projects. There’s no time to slow down. We have to finish the course!” This has led me down a path of simply delivering the content of the syllabus to my students so that I could sleep at night thinking, “Well at least I taught all the stuff.” Hmmmm, conscience clear, but had the students really learnt all the ‘stuff’ and had they enjoyed learning it. I’m sure that some (maybe most) had not.

In a previous blog post (see here), I wrote about my belief in developing primary greatness in my students. Stephen Covey sees this as making a contribution with your life, as opposed to secondary greatness which is the pursuit of wealth and fame. In the classroom, I equate primary greatness with a love of learning (and the subject I’m teaching) and secondary greatness with grades. Now, there is nothing wrong with wanting to get good grades. It is often a necessity for many in order to move into the next phase of their lives. However, for this to be your main driver means that you are missing out on a lot of what life has to offer.

For the most part, I believe my students are mainly interested in secondary greatness. They want the grades and they are under enormous pressure (often by accident) from themselves, parents and teachers. I have been guilty of applying this pressure. It came to a head for me when a student broke down in tears as we were discussing an action plan. She felt under so much pressure to get high grades that she was losing the love of learning. This was a moment for me when the fog cleared. I had to take back my classroom. Part of the reason I think that my classroom has become a hotbed of secondary greatness is because of the programme-centred nature of my classroom.  

It is important to note that I still recognise the importance of getting students from A –>B. They have a course that they need to finish and will sit an exam at the end of their time with me. They need to be able to give a good account of themselves in an exam! However, what I wish to do is allow students to self-pace how they get from A –>B and build in opportunities for them to go off on tangents of discovery and creativity along the way.

So, it is time to realign my classroom to become a more student-centred place that is more student centred, fosters primary greatness and helps develop the creativity that all students have. I am then pretty confident that secondary greatness (grades) will follow suit.

How I do this is a matter for another blog post. For now, let me return to “Alike”. Once I have my tools for making sure my classroom values creativity vs conformity, I need to express my rationale to my students. It is hard for students when we give them back the classroom. They can feel insecure and like they are not being taught anything. Therefore they need to be carefully supported through this process. Part of doing this is introducing the “why?” properly to them. This is where “Alike” comes in. I think, after watching this, students will begin to see the why.

I have my ideas on some tools and method I could use to help me foster primary greatness, student centred learning and creativity in the classroom, but would love to hear your thoughts. What might be some of the best ways to achieve this?

What sort of educator am I?

What sort of educator am I?

During the course of this academic year, when the pressure was on to mark assessments and finish IAs, I found myself questioning my role as an educator. I had become so programme-centred. Was I inspiring my students, or were we just ticking boxes? A holiday came along which allowed me the time to read and reflect. This reflection led me to think: “It’s time to make my lessons more self-directed”. I’ve grown weary of the lesson by lesson, let’s get through the content format.

I have attempted to engage with self-directed learning in my IB Chemistry class and I will write more about that in a future blog post. This post, however, is more about the road that starting this journey has led me down.

My goal for self-directed learning was clear: I wanted to give students more ownership of their learning. I wanted them to be able to control their pace. My implementation was successful in that sense. I organised the syllabus into checkpoints with resources and tasks that students could complete at their own pace. I even incorporated mastery learning (mastery learning is neatly described here) in the form of short formative assessments for groups of checkpoints, allowing students to peer assess, learn from their mistakes, and then try another formative test. The students liked it. They felt ownership over how fast they completed the syllabus. They could spend more time on concepts that they struggled with and less with those that they felt comfortable with. It felt great. Here it was, self-directed learning. Hmmmmm…not really.

Through cognitive coaching (note: cognitive coaching is some of the most amazing professional learning I have ever come across and you can read more about it here) sessions with a well-respected colleague, I realised that this wasn’t really self-directed learning. It wasn’t really transformational. In the cold light of day, it was simply allowing students to access a prescribed syllabus at their own pace. Sure, it has transformational elements (I like this description of transformational teaching in this blog post from Toddy Finlay at Edutopia), but it falls somewhat short.

This led me to a new fundamental question that I haven’t fully answered yet: How do students learn in my classroom? To answer this question, I have decided to work out a framework for teaching in my classroom, my world, as it were. This is organic and I will attempt to take you through my initial thoughts now.

1. Fostering primary greatness

If you read my philosophy section on my website (here), you will see that I absolutely love the idea of primary greatness from Stephen Covey. This is the notion that greatness comes from your contribution. In my chemistry classroom, I see this as a love for chemistry. I want the reason for students to come to my classroom to be that they love the subject and they want to use it to contribute to the betterment of humanity. Currently, I think I am catering towards secondary greatness. This is the notion that greatness comes from fame and fortune. In the classroom, I see this as achieving high grades. I have arranged my self-directed learning so that students can better achieve higher grades. Indeed, whenever I action plan with students, it seems to always be centred on getting to the next higher grade. Now, don’t get me wrong, I recognise that grades are important. But funnily enough, it is often the case that secondary greatness often follows primary greatness. So, maybe higher grades are a natural progression from having a learner who is aiming for primary greatness in chemistry. I feel I need to reframe these things so that they centre on primary greatness instead. Below is a schematic that helps show this. The big question is: How do I create a classroom environment that develops primary greatness first? I have my ideas, but that belongs in a whole new blog post. I’d love to hear yours.


Part of my potential framework: fostering primary greatness


2. The programme to student centred continuum

I believe that my classroom practice can lie along the continuum shown in the diagram below:


Finding the balance between programme centred and student centred teaching. It’s a continuum. 


When moving towards more self-directed learning, I was hoping to make my teaching more student-centred. However, in my current implementation, I have merely reframed the programme centred nature of the education my students receive. Granted, I have helped make the programme centred nature of my teaching more student-centred, but this is superficially student centred. The students are still ticking the boxes, rather than becoming inspired by the subject (I think). Ideally, I think my approach should lie somewhere in the middle. The content in the IB diploma programme is important and useful and students should learn it. However, they should be allowed to discover this through a lens of their choice. My initial thoughts on how to do this are varied, but can be summed up in the bullet points below:

  • Share my thoughts on this with my students (probably most important!)
  • Spend more time at the beginning of a course toward the student centred side of the continuum. The effort spent engaging students here should make delivery of programme centred content easier later on (hopefully counteracting that barb that there isn’t enough time to focus on the individual and deliver the content!).
  • Help students frame the course with respect to their interests. For example, I could ask students to begin a concept map for a unit. They might be interested in environmental sustainability. Therefore, for this unit, they should think about how the learning might be applied in the context of environmental sustainability. They should then be encouraged to explore this during the unit (there are many, many tools to help with this and again, this is for another blog post – although ePortfolios could be very useful here).
  • Spend more time discussing real-world applications.

The process continues

I am just at the beginning of forming my ideas here. My goal is to be transformational and I’m not there yet. There is also so much more I could have written here, but to do so it to create a self-absorbingly long blog post and further, stifles the creativity in the responses I can get from those that read it. I would love to hear the thoughts of the reader: How do you make your classroom a place where primary greatness is fostered? How do you create a balance between student centred and programme centred approaches? How do you make your classroom transformational?