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[The views here are my own, and do not represent the policy of any organisation with which I am or have been associated.]

A recent issue of Education in Chemistry (the Journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry) has an article in its EndPoint series querying ‘Why are a lot of intelligent people turned off from studying Chemistry?’. Two reasons suggested were that Chemistry is too abstract in its use of the particle model, and that Chemistry needs to be ‘imbued with real life [and make] more use of contexts in teaching’.

I have no doubt that for some students this is true. But not for all; there are other factors at work, and I have a problem with those mentioned above.

The article says, quite rightly, that ‘chemists have a fascination with the molecular world’. Such enthusiasts can find it quite difficult to accept that quite a large number of people simply do not have this fascination. The reasons, I believe, are that such people are quite happy with their view of the way that the world works, and that learning science (unlike many other academic pursuits) is a replacement activity.

A remarkable television documentary a few years ago showed that some graduate engineering students from MIT had no idea at all where the non-aqueous mass of a piece of wood comes from. Virtually all thought that it comes from the soil, some expressing incredulity that it could come from a gas in the air. This had caused them no difficulty in their courses or indeed in their lives – and they showed a marked reluctance to to change their views of photosynthesis to the ‘accepted’ one. They were happy with their world view. The teacher wishing to address this has to replace the view held, however hazily, with that which is believed by most of the practising scientists in the field. It hardly needs saying that most people, of whatever age, change their minds only with a deal of difficulty. In contradistinction, few who begin to learn a foreign language and gain access to its literature will have had much of an existing view of it. Little replacement activity or mind-changing is involved, and so the teaching task is much easier.

Is the unpopularity of chemistry really a consequence of teachers’ obsessions with abstractions and equations, and a lack of relevance? Maybe it is for some; but years ago, when chemistry was presumably more popular, we taught equations and a good deal of mathematics and lots of abstraction, and not much that was applied. I have never been able to resolve this apparent contradiction.

There are many reasons why clever people move away from sciences. They cannot easily be creative until they have served a pretty long apprenticeship; they may perceive less opportunity for argument and discussion in a subject where so much in syllabuses is presented as ‘right’; and they find a good deal of the GCSE and A level approach patronising. This is particularly true in chemistry at the moment, a subject which is a quantitative physical science but for which the mathematical requirements at A level are laughable.

I got into a spot of trouble a couple of years ago concerning a line I took at an examiners’ feedback meeting. My first book contains some stuff that isn’t in ‘the syllabus’. The reason is simple; the material is absolutely necessary for the proper understanding of the material that is. Syllabuses tell you what’s in the exam, not what to teach. I used an analogy. When Constable painted ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’, a picture now in the Tate Gallery, he set the cathedral in its landscape. Otherwise the power and the significance of the building is lost. For me, the cathedral is the syllabus; the landscape must not be ignored. Part of this will of course be the applicable side of chemistry; lots will not.

This caused some of my audience to get very excited indeed. I have derived some satisfaction from the fact that some of them still are. Chemists face a challenge in making their science attractive. There isn’t a single solution. The teacher, as with anyone else in the acting profession, has to respond to the particular audience. I do not believe that current educational theories and ‘shopping-list’ syllabuses are helpful in enabling this flexibility.



Barker, V., ‘From Rabelais to Reactions’: Educ in Chem 35, (4), 112; July 1998.

The Tate Gallery collection is shown on their Website.

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