Friday, 26 July 2013

Categorisation: Chemistry and E & D

Teaching can be an easy route to 'labelling'; sometimes that's a bad thing; teachers who judge by name a la Katy Hopkins, by appearance, by address, by first impressions ...

The public who judge teachers/lecturers; strikers, lazy, long summer holidays, short days, easy life.

Sometimes it's good; able, positive, hard-working.

Sometimes, it's both at once and a can be used as a short cut to understanding something fundamental.

The cognitive effects of 'labelling', selecting the words we use to describe what we see aren't just geographical 'post it notes', they actually determine what we see, as we look at it.

Students/learners - what to 'label' them? What's politically correct this year ... are very good at labelling. Every tutor group or class is a mixture; sometimes potent and reactive, of the usual suspects.

Goth/Emo:Wears lots of black, has pale skin, wears lots of makeup (even if it's a boy), dyes their hair dark colors, listens to rock and metal music which talk about sad stuff, cut themselves, and cry alot.

Gangsta/Thug: Wears clothes twice their size, pulls down their pants to show their boxers, wear lots of chains around their neck, talk in ebonics, listen to rap and hip-hop, loves smoking and doing other drugs, and assumed to engage in criminal behavior.

Preppy/Plastic: Loves shopping, wears lots of pink, frequently wears short revealing clothes, listens to pop music, speaks with exaggerations on many words such as "like, oh my GOD, that is SOOOOO kewl!", is self-centered and conceited, and usually has blonde hair (which might be dyed as well).Thought to be dim.

Punk/Skater: Wears clothing such as ripped faded jeans, studded belts, band shirts, etc., has a mohawk (in which the spikes may have dyed colors), doesn't give a **** about what everyone thinks of them, wants to rebel against society, loves to skate, smokes or does other drugs, and of course, listens to punk music.
Labels are not 100% accurate; they're a stereotypical view of people, however, it is also true that labels can help classify a certain type of person and I decided to use their own prejudices to teach them some Chemistry.

One of my student groups couldn't 'get' the Periodic Table. The idea that elements were categorised by similarities, their behaviour could be predicted by their place in the table, was a stumbling block to their learning; they couldn't see it as a map to explain the world, galaxy or even universe.

So I decided to use their own social prejudices, judgements of who they could and couldn't mix with, how people would behave, their categorising of friends and acquaintances to teach them how it worked. They were used to judging people by their looks, dress, style, music choice; it was easy for them to 'place' people and predict their behaviour, just as the participants in the experiments of John Darley and Paget Gross demonstrated with images of  'Hannah'.

The Periodic Table is as diverse a place as you could wish to find. Every group has it's own unique qualities but all groups are equally important and understanding their interactions is essential in Chemistry.

When they entered the lab, instead of the 'normal' jumble of chemical symbols and Molymod, it had been turned into a party zone; benches pushed to make a kitchen (with wine and beer bottles *empty*), a dance area, a sofa area, staircase and a bathroom, each area had a big label.

We also had two sets of cards; one the groups of the table with defining characteristics and the other social groups (thanks to my daughter who was the right age to label everyone).

We talked about the kind of people who stay in the kitchen all night; loners, no girl/boyfriend, talkers, usually quiet, not reacting with anyone. Then they went through the PT groups and hit upon the Noble Gases.
Perfect; inert and gaseous.

Next we looked at the stair case or 'posing/get noticed area. This area is populated much as a beach is, pose on the rocky shore yes, get wet in water, no; reactive, eager to share and found in a variety of states. Mostly the group decided these are the girls, who pose and pout (some boys too), are overly fond of 'selfies' on FaceBook and after a few false starts, came up with Halogens.

Next came the 'Mean Girls'; girls so cool, hardly anyone could be in their group although many wanted to be. They never react in public; brittle, dangerous, very maleable and lustrous, but underneath, completely unsure of who they really are or want to be. Transition metals.

By now, this was becoming incredibly popular. Students were passing cards around and judgements even faster.

It took a lot of fast thinking to get them to consider their judging and apply it.

Alkaline metals were associated with the super intelligent kids in the college. Burning brightly, they were the stars in classes, 'soft' with a high melting point (so didn't fight) and generally not sporty so had a good density.

Alkali metals were the young girls who drank too much cheap Lambrini, easily giving away electrons and very reactive.

This was a good place to stop the chemistry and start the E and D. When was it appropriate to judge, label, categorise and when not?

How many had not approached someone, made a new friend because of how someone 'looked'? How many had ignored an open invitation to friendship because of their 'social grouping'?

An honest and open discussion followed on this with many admitting that they had chosen a path which dictated not just their friends, social life and style but also their course choices, life choices. They were 'categorised'.

Teasing out from them their course choices and expectations brought out into the open an enormous depth of inherited (parental) educational snobbery, cultural pressure to be a Doctor, Dentist, Vet., fear of being deemed 'unprofessional'.

Some were brilliantly perceptive, chose their own path and worked hard. Leaders of the future.

So much information came out of this lesson, it gave me material for a year of tutorials. Careers, motivation, culture, Equality and Diversity and respect for others, 'soft skills' at work, safety at parties, date rape drugs, sexually transmitted diseases, alcohol abuse and the consequences of 'being too reactive' and not 'reactive enough'.

It also changed the way I interviewed students for the course, the IAG focussed much more on what the student really wanted, not what they thought they wanted or what their parents wanted for them.

Dangerous? Looking back it was but sometimes to get the greatest learning, you have to take the greatest risk.

It was worth it; socially, culturally and chemically. If we learned anything that day, it was while people are mixtures of elements, we share their characteristics of covalency, ionicness, reactivity and inertness. :
  • don't treat people as individual elements, but as potential group members to build something stronger
  • that understanding the characteristics of people helps you recognise their motivation and helps you to help them
  • and potentially prevents some explosive mixtures
  • knowing the Periodic Table helps with more than just Chemistry
For a subject that many dismiss as theoretical and dry, we learned more about each other and our humanity than in any sociology lesson that day.

A human periodic table ... isn't that the classroom we teach in, the world we live in?

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