Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Education, Education, Education (and repeat)

So a lot of Chemistry-related blogs recently picked up on this Washington Post piece, "Why are you forcing my son to take chemistry". Other blogs have covered the ground very well, but one comment made by Chemjobber, really struck a cord with me.

Won't someone speak up for the joys of memorization? Very first, I assume that Mr. Bernstein is deeply mistaken about general chemistry being all memorization. Second, does anyone actually teach chemistry by memorization? Third, I've always felt that remembering something was the byproduct of actual understanding of the concept. People don't like memorizing things that are "useless..." - Chemjobber
Well, I realise CJ is based in the USA, but when it comes to a high school/sixth form education in the UK, memorization is king. When I took A-level chemistry not too long ago, memorisation was probably what I spent the most time revising.

For example, we had to learn the colours of transition metal complexes. So take any transition metal, with water, ammonia or hydroxide ligands, and a few years ago, I'd be able to tell you exactly what colour complex you'd get. In the exams, you'd be asked, "What colour is [Ni(OH2)6]2+ ?", and if you didn't know, too bad, that's a mark lost. I knew a girl who took it upon herself to simply paint her fingernails the right colours, she got the marks, I didn't (Not that I'm bitter...). And whilst she might have gone into the exam with funky coloured nails, no invigilator was ever going to suspect that it was the answer to an exam question.

Another example is the shapes of molecules, rather than learning the very simple Valence Shell Electron Pair Repulsion Theory (or VSEPR - for any non-chemists, it's honestly easier to understand than to say) I had to know that BCl3 was trigonal planar, and ammonia was trigonal pyramidal "because it is" - what use is that to anyone?

It's a trend throughout high school education, the phrase 'jumping through hoops' is often used, and it sums the situation up brilliantly. The exam boards publish a specification with a very precise list of things you need to know, you go away and learn them, and you get a good grade. At no point in the process is your understanding truly tested. I walked away with an A grade in A-level chemistry, but knowing a list of facts, and few translatable skills.


  1. First, thanks for reading my blog -- I am honored. It's interesting to know that memorization is emphasized in the UK. Certainly, it happens in the US, as well, but it is my perception that good teachers try to avoid memorization and to emphasize understanding.

    1. I think one of the key problems with the UK syllabus was the quantity that teachers had to cover. I remember frequently being told that my teacher would have liked to have fitted in an extra practical session here and there, or spent longer on a certain topic, but simply didn't have the time if he wanted to cover everything required for the exam. With a bit more time, I'm sure he (and many others) would have gone into extra detail to increase our understanding, but the schedule was too tight.

      Whether the solution to this was more classes in a week, or a shorter syllabus, I don't know.

      Thanks for reading!