Leaving Cert Chemistry – Example of Context

In a previous post, I had a ramble about how the LC chemistry curriculum needs reform. This post aims to put a bit more meat on the bones. There is a lot of material available for teaching chemistry in context, but a recent paper* on the topic is worth considering, as it discusses the implementation of a context-based module in a school setting, particularly focussing on teachers’ experiences.


The paper describes the curricular reform undertaken in Israel, where “since  early 1950s, Israeli chemistry teachers focused on students’ memorization of scientific facts and algorithms that could support them while solving textbook exercises and problems”. Ten modules with a context-based approach were developed designed for the final two years of school chemistry. The module under investigation in this research study was the “Taste of Chemistry” module, dealing with food, nutrition, health and social aspects, along with higher order thinking skills, and was delivered for 30 hours over two months. An underlying philosophy of this approach is that “achieving scientific literacy for all students, not only those who will eventually embark on a career in the sciences, has become a central goal for education“. In describing the approach, the authors state that:

The module focuses on teaching concepts, processes, and different thinking skills along with context-based chemistry topics, such as lipids, carbohydrates and proteins. The students are exposed to the chemical aspect of food and nutrition, and each topic is designed to promote the three main thinking skills embedded in the module:

(1) information analysis and bidirectional transfer between tables and graphs;

(2) molecular representations which include understanding and transfer between various molecular models;

(3) understanding concepts and processes at four chemistry understanding levels [macroscopic, microscopic, symbolic, process].

Example of content

An example of lipids is presented below. If you are not a chemist, its important to realise that the chemistry goals here are similar to what would be desirable from a traditional curriculum – but the rationale for this method is that (a) it presents the information in a contextualised manner (with the benefits of that approach) and (b) additional higher order thinking skills and relevance to informed citizenship can be incorporated at no added cost – the approach throws this in for free.

The goals are that students will “understand the relations between molecular structure of fatty acids (symbolic) and the substance properties (microscopic)” and “understand the importance of fatty acids and lipids to our diet and increasing our awareness to the existence of fats in common foods”. The first goal is a chemical one, the second is a nutritional/health/social one.

The thinking skills associated with these goals are that students will be able to analyze “graphs and tables with information on fatty acids and triglycerides”, transfer between multiple representations of molecular models and transfer between chemistry understanding levels. A case study on chocolate is provided as a means of putting this in practice.

Finally, the activities associated with the lipids topic are investigation of the double bond in fatty acids using plastic and computer models, and investigating free fatty acids in olive oil by inquiry based experiment. This is coupled with a web-guided activity on cholesterol.

Findings of implementation

Eight teachers were engaged in the research study. The advantages of the approach, according to them, was that it gave them the opportunity for professional development (learning new topics, improving knowledge) and that it increased interest and motivation (enjoyed talking with students about how chemistry relates to everyday life). The difficulties were that teachers felt insecure about their background knowledge (summer program was beneficial), unaware about how to facilitate classroom discussions (although the comments indicated that this related to content awareness and was otherwise enjoyable) and that the students were used to symbolic and mathematical representations and found the larger amount of text in the context-based approach was difficult. They also commented on the teaching of thinking skills (analyzing information, molecular representations and chemistry understanding levels).

Implications and Recommendations

This method required continuous support in terms of professional development of teachers, to inform the content and pedagogical aspects of implementing this method. The figure below is used to illustrate the stages of professional development. Another difficulty outlined was that since it was the first run, there wasn’t a template of exam to consider, which made it difficult to prepare. However, even though this was the case, the score achived in this module (91%) was much higher than those in traditional other modules (molecular bonding and structure – 77%, carbon compounds – 79%).

Teachers also provided their own tips for taking this approach, including awareness of the multi-disciplinary nature of the approach, broadening knowledge base from a variety of sources to help with discussions, be ready to assist with skills students “should” know from other elements of their teaching – e.g. graphing – in integrative elements, use small group activities to allow students discuss concepts and use models as much as possible.


*S Avargil, O Herscovitz and YJ Dori, Teaching Thinking Skills in Context-Based Learning: Teachers’ Challenges and Assessment Knowledge, J. Sci. Educ. Technol., 2011, DOI: 10.1007/s10956-011-9302-7