Teaching As Research - Journal of Chemical Education (ACS


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Chemical Education Today

Editorial

Teaching as Research The scientific method is notoriously difficult to define, and so is scientific research. We might say that science involves being aware of what others have already done, forming hypotheses, making observations or carrying out experiments, generalizing the results to form scientific laws, creating models or theories that can explain the laws, and subjecting such work to the possibility of falsification by publishing it for others to see. But someone else is likely to say, “That’s not what I do when I’m doing science!” and suggest that the definition is incomplete and misleading. Trying to come up with a brief, complete, and general description is extremely difficult, because the process of doing scientific research does not work the same way for everyone and is not amenable to specific description or definition. Unfortunately people often define research narrowly and then suggest that unless something fits their specific definition it is not research. For example, research might be required to be based on a clear hypothesis that could be tested by well-designed experiments whose results would be reported in journals peer-reviewed by those knowledgeable in the field. If the research I did as a graduate student had had to meet that criterion, I would never have obtained the Ph.D. My mentor and I approached with open minds the synthesis of compounds and performance of physical measurements to find out how a particular system behaved. I had no preconceived notion of what the results would be, and we were testing no specific hypothesis. Eventually we were able to make some generalizations that we could test, but much of what I did was exploratory. When we wrote up the results for publication, of course, the process of obtaining them looked a lot more rational than it actually had been. But it would be unfair to characterize only the rationally designed part of the work as research. When research is too narrowly defined, it becomes too easy to think that research can only be done by expert researchers, as opposed to practitioners who are steeped in experience with specific systems. If this were true we would have to discount many serendipitous discoveries as not worthy of being called research. Was Count Rumford, for example, not doing research when, as supervisor of a factory making cannons, he observed that boring a hole in brass heated the surroundings tremendously? He followed this up with a series of planned experiments to show that the quantity of heating was proportional to the quantity of mechanical work, thereby transforming his observations into part of a scientific study based on his familiarity with boring cannons. He championed and publicized the idea of heat as motion, inducing other scientists to do related experiments. Sir Humphry Davy, for example, showed that ice could be melted by rubbing two pieces together, even though the temperature remained at 0 oC (1). The Rumford story illustrates another aspect of research. It is not sufficient to become immersed in a subject and develop experience and intuition about it. It is also necessary to recognize that, on the basis of experience and intuition,

questions can be asked that can be All of us can do answered by careful observations or experiments and new, more sucaction research, cessful strategies can be developed as a result of reflection about the meaning of the observations and should be doing it, experiments. After several rounds and ought to of refinement, these strategies can be transferred to other people to communicate our use in situations similar to the ones in which they were developed. The findings… process described here is action research—a kind of research that all of us can apply to our teaching. (An example chemistry action-research project is described in (2).) Doing action research does not necessarily require expert evaluators, although their expertise can often be helpful. It need not involve large numbers of students, statistical analysis of data, or rigorously controlled experimentation, although it may suggest that these should be used in order to obtain more definitive results. Teaching can be research if a teacher applies the methods of research to the practice of teaching. Most teachers have enough familiarity with science and its methods to be able to apply them to refining and improving teaching, that is, to doing action research. Observing students working in the learning environments we provide, interviewing students about their experiences in our courses, devising other methods for finding out how well students are learning and how they react to what we do to help them, and intelligently studying and reflecting on the data so obtained are powerful tools that enable us to improve what we do and transfer such improvements to other teachers and other institutions. I have touched on this idea before (3), but it is sufficiently powerful to justify revisiting. All of us can do action research, should be doing it, and ought to communicate our findings through this Journal, other journals, and conferences such as the upcoming BCCE (p 557). All of us should support expansion of action research into as many classrooms and laboratories as possible, and our definition of research ought to include it. Teaching as research is both a powerful tool and a rewarding approach to our everyday work as educators. Let’s support it strongly and do as much of it as we can.

Literature Cited 1. Ihde, Aaron J. The Development of Modern Chemistry, Dover: New York, 1984; p 395. 2. Towns, Marcy Hamby; Kreke, Kelley; Fields, Amanda. An Action Research Project: Student Perspectives on Small-Group Learning in Chemistry J. Chem. Educ. 2000, 77, 111. 3. Moore, J. W. J. Chem. Educ. 1997, 74, 741; 1999, 76, 149.

JChemEd.chem.wisc.edu • Vol. 79 No. 5 May 2002 • Journal of Chemical Education

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