Make Your Move: Understanding Strategies for Teaching Chemistry

Remember middle-school dances? I have fond memories of the gym floor transforming into a capacitor of sorts, flanked by rows of pubescent boys and girls pressed as far apart from one another as possible. Although a few daring couples would wander out to the dance floor, generally action would happen only when a sufficiently large clique worked up the collective courage to form an awkward dancing circle. Talking to the opposite sex—aptly called “making one’s move”—was positively painful back then.

My teaching career could aptly be described as a series of moments getting incrementally less awkward.

My teaching career could aptly be described as a series of moments getting incrementally less awkward.

Eventually we all get over our fear of the opposite sex (or the same sex, if that’s your gig) for the most part and move on with our lives. For me, that process of building up a solid conversational repertoire and comfort in my own skin took years. Imagine how a teacher feels, who must use his or her conversational skills and set of “moves” to help a new crop of students learn a complex topic in the matter of a semester! It can be just as painful to watch a teacher barking at a disengaged student as it is to watch middle schoolers blow it at a dance. And yes, it can be just as awkward and gut wrenching when you’re the teacher doing the barking (or the middle-school dancer failing hard with your crush).

How do teachers decide what to say? How can we distinguish good moves from bad? What are the motives behind different types of moves? I was reminded of these questions while reading an excellent J. Chem. Educ. article last week. Warfa and co-workers studied the moves used by teachers in a POGIL classroom—where new norms for teaching and learning can make both students and teachers uneasy. They categorized teachers’ moves according to whether the move occurred in a monologic or dialogic context. Monologic discourse involves a one-way transfer of information from teacher to student, with little to no student input (think Hamlet’s “to be or not to be”). Dialogic discourse, on the other hand, involves a social dimension and sharing of ideas between teacher and student (think Socrates). Both types of discourse are important in the chemistry classroom, but figuring out the proper balance to meet the needs of students in a particular classroom environment is tricky.

All teachers have what I like to think of as “catalogues” of teaching strategies in their minds. My catalogue takes the form of a massive problem set, subdivided into different topics and skills and arranged roughly from least to most difficult. If a student comes to me and indicates that they know nothing, I start with a simple problem that proves to them that they do, in fact, know something. From there, I keep pushing until a misconception or a missing piece of knowledge becomes apparent. I fill in the missing piece of knowledge, et voilà, the student has learned something (I hope).

My entire approach to teaching is very problem centered, and although I rarely think about it, I know this focus leads to a particular type of dialogue happening again and again between students and myself. Understanding and tweaking this dialogue is important for growth as a teacher, and I think perspectives like Warfa’s are extremely useful for doing this. What patterns show up in my speech? How do I react to different situations students find themselves in? Do I employ the proper balance of monologic and dialogic techniques? The list of general “moves” outlined in the Warfa paper is a great starting point for answering these questions. The authors identify eight general types of moves, which may show up in monologic or dialogic discourse (or both!):

  • Confirming (dialogic)
  • Reorienting (dialogic)
  • Communicative (monologic/dialogic)
  • Instructional (monologic/dialogic)
  • Linking (monologic/dialogic)
  • Generative (monologic)
  • Sharing (monologic)
  • Modeling (monologic)

I have a couple of recordings of review sessions at home that I might just dust off to explore the moves I tend to make. Warfa et al.’s framework is just too good of a chance to get inside my own head!

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