Inquiry learning of chemistry in 19th century girls schools

Consider the following scenario:

Young children are delighted to be so regarded, to be told that they are to act as a band of young detectives. For example, in studying the rusting of iron, they at once fall in with the idea that a crime, as it were, is committed when the valuable strong iron is changed into useless, brittle rust; with the greatest interest they set about finding out whether it is a case of murder or suicide, as it were−whether something outside the iron is concerned in the change or whether it changes of its own accord

The British chemist Henry Edward Armstrong pioneered the use of what is now called guided inquiry in the late nineteenth century. His story is recounted in articles by Rayner-Canham & Rayner-Canham (2011, 2014). Armstrong was a chemistry lecturer a St Barts and was frustrated at the emphasis of examinations on memorization and definitions. Over the decade from 1870, he developed the means for students to explore chemical concepts in the laboratory. Armstrong wrote of his approach:

For the ideal school of the future I picture the teacher no longer giving lessons but quietly moving about among the pupils, all earnestly at work and deeply interested, aiding each to accomplish the allotted task, as far as possible alone

His approach was called the heuristic approach, and it was structured such that it was carefully guided (In contrast with what we might call discovery learning today). While Armstrong himself was antagonistic against women in science, he promoted his method with girl’s schools science teachers from private schools. (Science in most girls schools didn’t feature until the 1950s.) One such teacher, Grace Heath from North London Collegiate for Girls, wrote to Nature in 1892:

…pupils themselves are put into the position of discoverers, they know why they are at work, what it is they want to discover, and as one experiment after another adds a new link to the chain of evidence which is solving their problem

This school had a laboratory with room for 24 girls at a time. Elsewhere St Swithun’s chemistry laboratory was built after girls left a flask of chlorine open deliberately during a tour by the administrative council in an aim to highlight the lack of facilities. We can learn lots from the past…

As the twentieth century progressed, a debate about the role of science education for girls and opposition from Sir William Ramsey and others to the heuristic method led to the rise of the lecture with demonstration method.

Extract from Henry Edward Armstrong's book
Extract from Henry Edward Armstrong’s book: The teaching of scientific method (1903)
  • Geoff Rayner-Canham and Marelene Rayner-Canham, The Heuristic Method, Precursor of Guided Inquiry: Henry Armstrong and British Girls’ Schools, 1890−1920J. Chem. Educ., 2015, 92, 463−466.
  • Marelene Rayner-Canham and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham, Chemistry in English academic girls’ schools, 1880-1930Bull. Hist. Chem., 2011, 36(2), 68-74.
  • Armstong’s book is available on the Internet Archive:

Related Posts:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *