Gerri St. Clair, Chemistry Teacher, Sullivan South High School, Kingsport, TN

Modeling Instruction has changed the way I teach chemistry

I have taught Chemistry at Sullivan South High School for 20+ years and nothing has changed my style of teaching more than attending the Modeling Chemistry workshops for 10 days each in June 2012 and June 2013 at East Tennessee State University.  Modeling Instruction for teachers began in Physics in 1995 at Arizona State University and was expanded to Chemistry in 2005.  A Modeling Biology course is currently under construction.  Thousands of teachers across the nation have been trained in the modeling approach since its inception.  Modeling instruction is a very student-centered approach to teaching and I firmly believe that it is the best way to teach chemistry.  Also, it closely parallels the Common Core key points of reading, writing, speaking, listening, language, and media and technology by providing rigor with a greater depth of understanding chemistry.  The activities and exams focus on students being able to explain their thinking and to illustrate their thought process with diagrams instead of traditional fill in the blank and multiple choice questions.

Modeling Instruction introduces chemistry by using particle models that increase in complexity as the students progress through the course.  The course is divided into units that answer essential questions about how particles are arranged, how they transfer and store energy, how we count and measure them, and what internal structure they possess.   Each unit begins with an investigative lab that is used as a springboard for discussion and expansion of the particle model of matter.   Other lab activities occur within the unit as the particle model needs modification.    This approach makes chemistry more concrete rather than abstract and there are three outstanding observations that convinced me that this approach is far better than the traditional way of teaching chemistry.

The first observation that I noticed when I implemented Modeling Instruction last year was that my students were actually having in-depth discussions about how the particles were behaving under the given conditions and how they should be represented on their whiteboards.  The level of interest in what we are discussing in class has greatly increased and students seem to really enjoy working productively in groups.  Each group must present their whiteboard to the class and be able to answer questions about their particle diagrams.  The comments that I hear are “Do we get to whiteboard today?” and “I love whiteboarding.” Also, I have frequently heard,” Is class already over?  Wow, time flew by.”   I am also pleased to see that most groups take great pains to make their whiteboards colorful and well-illustrated.  Groups are changed with every unit so that students don’t get accustomed to the same people and the same role within the group.

Secondly, I have noticed how much my second year students remember from last year.  Usually, they can remember hearing the vocabulary, but their recall of concepts is sketchy.  The Modeling approach relies on the particle diagrams so much that students can predict how matter should behave by drawing a diagram.  My main prompt to help them figure out why matter behaves as it does is to remind them to either visualize or draw a particle diagram.  Just recently, we were talking about gases and most remembered how to predict gas behavior and how to work out a gas law problem a year later from when they were taught the gas laws.   We do not memorize formulas.  They learn how to use what they saw in lab and apply it to particle models.
Lastly, a comment made in my post-evaluation conference with one of my assistant principals fully convinced me that Modeling Instruction is superior to traditional instruction.  After the assistant principal listened to class discourse and witnessed whiteboard discussions of particle diagrams, he commented that the class was surely full of honor students.
On the contrary, only 4 of the 25 students were enrolled in honors classes.  Depth of understanding was evident in their discussion.

Modeling Instruction has been a little bit of a bumpy road to travel and has its challenges.  Students are accustomed to “regurgitating” information and they have to be taught how to explain why a scientific phenomenon occurs.  Students are not used to dealing with the depth of understanding that is required by the course.  I truly believe that after a few years of Common Core I will have students that are used to working problems, explaining their work, and diagramming their thought process.  Are the challenges worth it? Absolutely.  In the past, students could work problems, but they couldn’t explain why the answer made sense.  Now, I feel that students are more challenged and that they leave with a greater understanding of chemistry.  I am a convert!

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