Using the Modeling Approach in Chemistry: Nurturing a Growth Mindset Through Discovery Learning

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“Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don’t have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don’t have great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.”
― James C. Collins

I love this quote because I believe it embodies much of the approach a person must embrace in order to have a growth mindset. Too often, people are content to be good or just good enough. My high school wrestling coach used to chastise us constantly for being “content to be mediocre”. That has really stuck with me throughout my life. I never want to be mediocre or even “good”. I want to be great. To be great, I must first become good. To become good, I must work hard, fail as I push my limits, learn from my mistakes, and see my failures not as indictments on my abilities, but rather necessary experiences to push my growth.

To facilitate a strong trajectory of growth, I also embrace the concept of “failing forward”. There is no such thing as a perfect teacher and any teacher that believes they are perfect doesn’t have a growth mindset. For me personally, I have come to realize that to really grow as a teacher, I must be willing to step outside my comfort zone, be vulnerable, and make mistakes. This is the only way I will really improve and get better. If not, I will continue to stagnate, others will surpass me in the long run, and it will be too late.

Therefore, I embrace failure as a natural and necessary outcome along the journey to success. With each failure, I try to view it as a learning opportunity, make adjustments, and then try (and likely fail again). Eventually, my persistence will pay off. If I live my whole life this way, I will end up in a much better place than those who consistently played it safe and rested on their past successes instead of sought out ways to continually grow and get better.

As an example of this, last fall, our chemistry team has adopted the American Modeling Teachers Association (AMTA) modeling curriculum. This curriculum deviates from the learning philosophies typically associated with a more traditional chemistry curriculum. Traditional chemistry instruction often prioritizes knowledge of facts and ideas distributed as ideas for students. It also focuses a great deal on packaging skills as rules or procedures the students are told to learn by the instructor. This type of instruction assumes that students will understand the underlying structure and meaning of chemistry without making the implicit explicit.

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Such an experience creates a learning environment where students are heavily dependent on the teacher for new learning. Students are not often provided opportunities to wrestle with and form their own understanding, nor are they forced to confront their own misconceptions. They may systematically miss the point of the learning, develop alternative learning modalities that do not align with that of an actual chemist, and most importantly, do not improve their problem solving skills by watching the teacher solve problems.

I provide this context because I believe our current curriculum has really developed the growth mindset in our students to a much greater extent than before we implemented our curriculum. In our prior model, our brighter students were able to construct simple algorithms to achieve at high levels, but never really had to grapple with the content and confront and truly identify their own learning. They didn’t have to defend this learning and were not prompted to go beyond what was on the test.

This is not unusual. Traditionally, classroom learning is more teacher-centered, passive, textbook-based, and dependent on teacher lectures and demonstrations. In such an environment, students are never really pushed to connect the various learning standards to understand why the learning was important or relevant. They often simply comply by taking the notes, doing the labs take the tests, and moving on with their lives. I taught many years under just such a model. I lectured, worked out problems, answered some questions, and then the class was over. Often, I didn’t have a clear understanding of where my students were at or what they truly understood from the lesson.

Through implementing the modeling curriculum, I have made many changes to my teaching style and expected learning outcomes for our students. Most of all, I have transitioned from being a “sage on the stage” to becoming a “guide on the side.” I now take a more constructivist approach, expecting my students to work cooperatively, actively engage in the learning process, assume a central role in the learning process, and demonstrate their level of learning in class all day every day.

To accomplish this, my students are now expected to construct and use scientific models, or basic units of knowledge, to describe, explain, and predict what will happen throughout various scenarios. These models are not easy to construct, as they incorporate data and observations at the macroscopic level, representations at the sub-macroscopic level, and symbolic representations of particle behavior they are unable to directly observe.

Ultimately, they understand how the behavior of particles shapes the entirety of everything happening in chemistry. This helps my students see science as a way of viewing the world rather than simply a collection of facts, making the learning of science more explicit and coherent and meaningful for all students. As an aside, such models also figure prominently in the Next Generation Science Standards.

To this end, my students have learned to examine matter from the outside in instead of from the inside out. They have learned to trust in the process of thinking like a scientist as opposed to simply accepting content in a textbook or delivered as “fact” by a teacher. To build such an understanding, my students have had to experience frequent minor failures, setbacks, and disappointments, just as an actual scientist would when learning more about the natural world. Even if they don’t all go on to pursue a career in the sciences, I believe this experience of learning how to learn and learning how they learn is really invaluable for any career and in life in general.

Through modeling, my students make frequent mistakes, but have embraced that such mistakes are necessary in order to learn and get better. My role as a teacher has shifted to being more of a facilitator of learning by asking questions, pushing thinking, being diagnostic, and responsive throughout my lessons based upon where each student is. On a daily basis, I have also had to help build and nurture a culture of mutual respect and shared accountability with and among my students to ensure the sustainability of such learning

Clearly, this approach is in stark contrast to how I taught chemistry my first six years, where I acted as more as the keeper of content that my students temporarily learned, regurgitated, and often forgot shortly thereafter. Much like my students, I have had to make mistakes to grow and become a better teacher.

With modeling, my students are expected to learn cooperatively through daily white boarding of conceptual and mathematical problems, small group and whole-class discussions, whiteboard presentations, and lab activities. Because we have mostly shifted the cognitive load onto our students to demonstrate their level of learning daily, they are forced to make constant, adjustments to minor failures in their learning understanding instead of large sweeping adjustments after taking their summative assessments. I know and they know what their level of understanding is, what they need to practice more every day.

In my opinion, that is really the point of having a growth mindset. It’s not as much about bouncing back from catastrophic setbacks as it is an ongoing practice of living ones life and the small, continuous choices we make along to way to get better. These small choices become our habits and our habits become our identity and our reality. If we change the habits, we change the outcome.

This process of learning science is something that I am very passionate about. Over the last 2 years, I have really transitioned a great deal in my philosophy of teaching. I’ve come to realize that just because I taught it doesn’t necessarily mean they learned it. I would often lecture through countless PowerPoint slides, droning on about this or that and the learning was a very passive process for my students. I didn’t truly know where each student was in their level of learning because I was operating on the assumption that students were getting it because they were paying attention, asking occasional questions, etc.

What I have come to realize is that by simply telling kids what to learn, I was simply creating compliant students, but not committed students. The highly motivated students developed algorithms for learning, but only at the surface level. Much of this learning was not retained because the cognitive load was mostly on me as a teacher. Through shifting the cognitive load to my students, I now every single day where all of my students are at in their level of understanding.

I rarely lecture anymore. Instead I facilitate a process of learning and discovery, which is much more challenging. When we whiteboard, students work cooperatively on challenging problems, develop strategies together, present their learning to the class, and are unable to hide or opt out of learning. They are “minds-on” for the entire class. They know what they know and what they need more practice on. They ask better, more targeted questions. As a teacher, I circulate through the room more, interact with my students more, and develop more positive relationships with my students.

In my mind, this is what effective instruction is. Students are at the center of the learning process, are engaged, are communicating with one another, and are sharing ideas with one another. The teacher takes a more peripheral role by asking better, more targeted questions and providing more individualized feedback, respecting that each student’s level of understanding and learning needs is unique and evolving. This has led to much better outcomes for our students and a stronger performance and passion for chemistry among my students.

~Brad Hurst

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