Flip it around!

Learning Chemistry

 By Sriparna Chakrabarti


It is quite usual to think that students learn from their teachers. Is the reverse also true? The most passionate teachers would agree that teachers learn some of life’s very important lessons from their students. The best way a teacher can learn, grow and evolve both professionally and personally is through his/her interaction with the students – reflecting on their questions, preconceptions, interpretations and imaginative ideas – one should be open to the students’ thoughts and creative ideas even if for the time being they seem to be incompatible with the ideas of the subject experts. They are insights from fresh, yet unschooled minds and might lead to revolutionary ideas and open up new directions.

In this article, I would share some of my experiences of interacting with the students as a Chemistry teacher and how these have urged me to develop deeper into the subject matter and enhanced my understanding of not only the subject, but also the potential of students’ thoughts and connectedness to the world.

Interaction 1: What’s the matter?

When the sixth graders gradually got introduced to the idea of matter as ‘anything around us that has mass and occupies space’, I had seized the opportunity to understand the preconceptions of students about matter. I asked them,“What do you think matter is, can you give some examples – you may think of anything close to you or anything far away from you?”

The answers came from the students, ‘anything that exists around us’, ‘all that we see around us’, ‘everything that we can think of is matter’, ‘everything that we see and feel’ and the examples also came quite naturally – pencil, chalk, stars, planet, chair, tree, house and so on.

I wrote a list of about twenty ‘words’on the board– table, egg, love, heat, plant, shadow, friendship, rock, mirror image, human body, bacteria, soap, light, water, sound, bird, brain, mind, morning, winter. The task was set; students will work together in small groups and classify the entities in the list into two categories – matter and non-matter and this will be followed by sharing by each group, justifying their classification. This activity ended up with an enlightening discussion, the students were debating with each other on some of these concepts; they tried to explain to each other why they would not consider ‘shadow’ and ‘mirror image’ as matter, although they seem to occupy some space.A material object can form a shadow if it blocks the passage of light and a material object can form an image if it is positioned in front of the mirror but shadow and mirror-image cannot exist independently of anything made of matter.

They discussed how ‘love’ and ‘friendship’ is felt within us and through these feelings we relate ourselves to others. They also came up with the conclusion that living organisms such as human beings, birds and bacteria are made up of matter, as they are made up of cells, which in turn are made up of atoms and molecules. However, everything we feel (such as love, kindness, gratitude) need not be matter, everything we can think of around us or within us need not be matter, our imaginations and thoughts, ideas and dreams are not matter.

The discussion around brain and mind was very interesting – students reflected on their awareness of brain and mind – some of them thought both were the same, some thought mind was the result of the activities in the brain, some thought that brain being a part of the nervous system has chemicals to transmit signals through the body but mind can only house thoughts, dreams and feelings. They found classifying brain and mind into matter and non-matter quite challenging. We discussed some neurosurgeries and saw some video clips, where doctors are operating on the brain, saw some pictures of human brain which can be separated from the body, the mass is known, the shape is known – so they came up to believe that ‘brain’ can be considered as matter. However, their understanding of ‘mind’ as matter or not remained hazy for a while and I would rather have that confusion going for some time as they are in their developmental stages. These concepts of mind, consciousness and the power of the material brain, which bewildered neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers for so long and till today, sixth graders are not entitled to get everything in one go. So we had settled with two schools of thought – mind could be matter or non-matter, we would understand better as we keep thinking and collecting evidences to justify whether mind is matter or not.To wonder about the non-physical entities, to direct our attention towards the perception beyond the sense-perception is essential at the very early age – deeper understanding will be slow and will take years but to seed the thought is crucial at the tender age.

Another stimulating discussion was around ‘heat’, ‘light’and ‘sound’ where children debated, discussed and finally came up to the conclusion that these are forms of energy, they can be in the form of waves, they can travel distances and seem to fill up spaces but they themselves are not entities that have mass, hence they are not considered as matter.Students could unanimously decipher that ‘morning’ and ‘winter’ are not matter, these are some duration in the day and the year respectively, and these are indicating some time. It was heartening to listen to their perceptions of morning and winter – to some, morning was freshness, newness; to some it was end of darkness and beginning of daylight; to some others it was start of the routines of the day and beginning of another cycle. Similarly winter brought different views – some liked the cold weather and coziness of warm clothes and quilt; some complained about the dryness and chilly weather and how it is difficult to rise from bed – however they all agreed that morning and winter are durations in a cycle, depending on the position of the sun relative to the Earth and are not matter.

What did I learn?

As they were allowed to collaborate in small groups and share their ideas, they uninhibitedly came up with conclusions after justifying each other’s arguments and my role was to summarize their understanding and guide them in the right direction at times. Their views were given due importance as they were asked, ‘What do you think?’, ‘Why do you think so?’ and when they are assured that whatever they say is not right or wrong, but we will collectively shift towards the scientifically accepted conclusion with justification – they happily contributed. During this exercise students were constructing knowledge for themselves; they were engaged in an important life skill as well as scientific skill, to be able to categorize a list of entities into groups, based on some common pre-defined characteristics; collaborative learning happened through mutual participation of students and teacher. The discussion digressed at times but only got richer through integration with real life experiences. Students delved into the deeper understanding of matter, not only through examples but also through counter-examples, which was crucial in this exercise.

Interaction 2: Can we be happy after a loss?

In another instance where the eighth graders are beginning to understand the idea of how matter is made up of atoms and molecules which are jiggling around each other and are in constant motion, we began our journey to understand ‘bonding in atoms’. We had started our discussion around some questions such as, ‘Why do we need friends?’,‘How do we make friends?’ and slowly started unveiling the tendency of certain atoms to gain or lose electrons or share electrons in order to attain stable configuration and in doing so they bond with each other and stabilize each other.

The children who cannot see and touch these atoms, are made to believe that matter is made up of atoms and molecules, cannot be expected to understand the mode of bonding between atoms the way scientists do. As Chemistry has a lot to do with sharing and bonding, breaking old relationships and forming new ones, transformations from one form to the other, interaction between molecules leading to new substances with emerging properties, ‘chemical bonding’ was well received by children when I correlatedthese concepts with our human relationships and values.

  • There are certain atoms that do not like staying alone; they need a life-long friend even for their existence. Let us say, hydrogenatom will always look for another hydrogen atom and both get stabilized when they share one electron each.Hence hydrogen gas exists as a molecule of hydrogen. Students could find more atoms like that while we looked at the electron arrangement in some other atoms – such as chlorine, fluorine, oxygen, nitrogen and so on.
  • There are certain atoms such as sodium, potassium, calcium and some more that become happy and stable when they lose electrons. How can anyone be happy and feel relaxed after losing something? What would you like to lose in order to become happy? The students discuss and come up with some things that they would like to lose, such as ‘homework’ and‘test’. Then I would direct their attention towards a simple message from Swami Vivekananda, he was asked by someone, “What did you gain by prayer”? Swamiji had replied, “I did not gain anything, rather I lost – I lost anger, jealousy and arrogance”. Students were allowed to reflect on the things or emotions that they would rather lose, where they gain happiness by giving away.Some of them narrated their experiences of visiting an orphanage and how giving away their toys, books and clothes returned more happiness as they saw the smiles on the faces of the children who received them.In this way, talking about different kinds of atoms and their modes of bonding, we also learnt some human values from the properties of these atoms.

What did I gain?

At the end of this lesson, to allow more creative thinking and writing, I had asked them to write poems or stories on ‘bonding between atoms’. To my surprise and delight, some great poets and writers emerged from the class and some of them related the mechanism of bonding in atoms to human value systems. A child had mentioned through her poetry, how the atoms not only cared about stabilizing themselves through bonding, they also cared about other partners’ stability and formed a stable compound which can exist on its own. She has urged that human beings draw inspiration from this tendency of atoms and care for our environment in such a way that we end up with sustainability for both ourselves and our surroundings.

Another child had written about how noble gases such as helium, neon maintained their ‘nobility’ in the society of atoms by not interacting with other atoms as they are quite stable themselves without the need of other atoms. She praised their self-confidence and independence through her story. Adding some humour to her story, she mentioned that she has come to know through internet research that noble gas xenon has made some compounds but she wishes to keep this information confidential as she does not mean to hurt xenon’s nobility by announcing that it is no more independent.

This activity allowed for the student-imagination beyond the scope of Chemistry and they started personifying each element (each kind of atom) that they have learnt and started realizing and reflecting that each of these elements has something novel to teach us.

Message to teachers: If you want to enjoy every moment of your professional life, instead of getting burdened about completing syllabus and assessments, allow free thinking, collaboration and creativity amongst the students in your class. Engage them with a big question or a task, a picture or a video and see for yourself how they ‘flip the classroom around’ – where they drive learning and you are one of the learners. Your role will be to trigger the imagination and ideas, facilitate the discussion and summarize the learning and both you and your students will be mutual participants in learning. This can be slow initially but with regularity, this will not hinder completion of syllabus and also can bring good grades as the students achieve deeper understanding of the content and their fundamental faculties of learning get activated.

Sriparna Chakrabarti is an Educationist- based in New Delhi.

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