A POISONED STUDENT AND A CHEMISTRY LECTURER
In 2001, everybody was shocked, 20 students were poisoned in the organic chemistry laboratory. They went to a clinic at the university, and then the doctor said that the pupils of their eyes could not respond to the light. Some lecturers were blaming the students who did not work carefully, but on the other hand, the students were blaming the facilities that were less safe and also the methods in organic chemistry which used very dangerous substances. Some people from the university’s newspapers interviewed the students, the lecturer, and the laboratory staff, but they were blaming each other. One week later, the case was closed. The students were getting better but there was no change in the facilities and methods in the organic laboratory. I was one of the poisoned students, the one who became a chemistry lecturer in that university 4 years later, and the one who was disappointed with that accident. The one who hopes it will never happen again in her life as a chemistry lecturer.
Four years later, I entered the analytical chemistry laboratory, which is next to the organic chemistry lab. As a new lecturer, I had responsibility to teach the analytical chemistry practicum. I love chemistry but I did not realize that chemistry would be dangerous for me. Chemistry is very close to my life. I studied in the senior analyst chemistry high school that trained the students to become chemistry analysts. I studied only chemistry and worked in the laboratory everyday. In the university, I studied chemistry education for four years. Then, I taught chemistry in high school for two years before I became a chemistry lecturer. I really know how to be a student who had to study chemistry everyday, to be a teacher who had to teach chemistry that most students did not like, to be a chemistry lecturer who has to educate my students as good chemistry teachers.
My journey from a poisoned student to a chemistry lecturer enthused me to reflect on three of the cognitive interests of Habermas as described by Grundy (1987, p.10) which are technical, practical and emancipatory. I have a tendency to be a liberator in the emancipatory interest who likes to transform and evaluate the conditions (Stablein & Nord, 1985, p.18). At present, I tend to solve problems that I face in teaching and learning process by applying action research methods, such as reflection and actions. Furthermore, as a communicator in the practical interest, I am interested in building learning processes as meaningful activities for my students (Grundy, 1987, p.9). However, I cannot make many changes in systems, rules and facilities, for example: education system, curriculum content and objectives. Therefore, in this condition I became a reproducer in the technical interest who always used all of the instruments to facilitate my teaching and neglected my subject as “worth knowing” (Henderson & Kesson, 2004). In this narrative, I would like to illustrate my journey as a reproducer in the technical interest and a communicator in the practical interest and a liberator in the emancipatory interest. The narrative guides me to think reflectively and critically as an educator.
Where am I?
a. In pursuit of the technical interest
As a new lecturer, who had a bad experience in the laboratory, I had expectations that my students will not have the same experience. In the university, my lecturers taught me the theory of laboratory safety and management and the dangers of chemical substances but it often did not apply in practice. Therefore, I wanted to apply the theory to practice to avoid the accident that happened to me. According to Kyriacou (1997) (as cited in Mulholland, 2003, p. 880), it is difficult for a beginning educator not only to apply theory to practice but also to develop a new perspective. Furthermore, Mackler (2005, p.2) claims, “a false assumption that there is theory-pure, untainted and rationally perfect-and there is life-messy, unpredictable, and in need of repair.” However, that false assumption has to be overturned. Educators have to use their creativeness to shape the wonderful theory into practice. Even though, in my experience as a new lecturer, difficulties in relating theory and practice influenced me to use the technical interest in all my teaching:
My lecturer comes to my laboratory and she told me, “Uwie to teach practicum of analytical chemistry, you have to use this practicum book. There are the practicum objectives and the procedures. Your students have to finish all of the experiments within one semester. Don’t forget for the assessment, you have to use this card.” I just see the book, the same book that I used when I was a student. The same procedures that caused students poisoned. I also looked at the card. The same card, (with 20% of pre test, 30% of experiments report, and 50% of final examination), which did not evaluate students’ affective and psychomotor ability. It is practicum, not theoretical in the classroom. I not only have to evaluate my students’ cognitive but also their psychomotor aspect of doing experiments in laboratory. However, at that time I did not have any opportunity to change the methods. I did it for a couple weeks, the same books, procedures, and assessments.
One day, we had a practicum on determination of iron in water, my student asked me “Why do we add 25 mL of acid sulphate solution, (he showed me the practicum book), is it right?”. A simple question but it caused me to think, “Acid sulphate uses for avoiding hydrolysis and creates reaction environment, if we add 10 mL, the reaction remains continue. So, why should we add 25mL?” I looked at the practicum book, “Why do I never think about the quantities?” I realized that the quantity of the solutions that they had to use was more than necessary. At that time, I neither did nor knew what I should do. The book was already published. If I wanted to change it, I had to do experiments to prove my ideas in experimental methods were precise.
I now use that story as my critical reflection on the technical interest. I did not mind about my students’ understanding for I just required them to finish the experiments. They had to do the experiments using exactly the same procedures and quantities as stated in the practicum book. According to Grundy (1987, p.12), the technical interest focuses on controlling students and academic achievement. In addition, I tended to finish the experiments and used the “wonderful uncontestable assessment” card without an apprehension of my students’ understanding. I just stayed in the laboratory and observed my students’ experiments. I manipulated and controlled the teaching environment (Stable & Nord, 1985, p.15) through systematic experimental procedures and assessments. I never asked their understanding of the concepts because of the many experiments to finish in a limited time. The focus was finishing too many experiments within a short time. I did not realize that my target of finishing those chemistry experiments predisposed me to teach chemistry with meaningless experiences. I neglected the value of the educational process and the way of my students’ understanding (Henderson, 2004, p.50) to give them the worth value of knowledge.
I do not like to be a reproducer but sometimes I have to. For example, I cannot change the curriculum content and objectives. The results were more important than the process. Therefore, I was likely to focus on a “product oriented curriculum” (Taylor & Williams, 1992, p.5). At the first time, I thought that I had to finish covering the curriculum content because it was the requirement as a lecturer. Furthermore, the common perception is that the indicator of “a good university” is the percentage of students who have the highest score of GPA (Grade Point Average). Furthermore, most of the employers in Indonesia use GPA to select and recruit new employees. Therefore, because of this, some lecturers only focus on improving students’ academic outcomes not on the teaching and learning process. However, I do not want to be trapped with this kind of mentality. I believe that I can make changes in my role as a lecturer who teaches students to become good chemistry teachers, not just giving them good credentials that improve their employment opportunities.
b. In pursuit of the practical interest
I realized that my mistake was only serving the technical interest in my teaching. My students had meaningless experience doing laboratory activity for they just uncritically followed prescribed procedures. They did not understand the concepts because I did not shape chemistry as a meaningful subject. I want my students to believe what I believe, that is, chemistry is chemistry, one truth, and one perception. My journey as a reproducer influenced me to learn about its effects on my students’ understanding. Therefore, afterward I jumped up into a practical interest. In my classroom, I tried to solve problem and change strategy to create meaningful learning situation (Grundy, 1987, p.13) and communicate the concepts of chemistry using varied strategies, so that it will make an interesting topic for my students. I attempted to interpret the meaning of interaction in the learning process (Stablein & Nord, 1985, p.16). Creating a poesis which is “soulful, expressive aspect creation rather than mere skill or technique” (Henderson, 2004, p.50). There were the metacognitive strategies that I applied to create the meaningful learning process for my student:
Another day, I tried to evaluate my students’ understanding of concepts. It is common to research about misconceptions and students’ understanding in chemistry, because it is a real problem in teaching and learning chemistry. I remember the time when I asked my student about the function of some chemical substances in qualitative analysis of copper.
Me : Why should we add Sodium Hydroxide to that copper solution?”
Student: “To identify copper which results in Copper Hydroxide with blue precipitation?
Me : “Can we change it with other base?”
Student : “No”
Me : “Why?”
Student : “Maybe we can change Sodium Hydroxide with all bases”
Me : “Why?”
Student : “Because all bases have hydroxide to precipitate Copper”
Me :”So, Can I use Ammonium Hydroxide?”
Student : “Yes, because it has hydroxide”
Me :“No, It can not, Ammonium Hydroxide with copper results in an unstable precipitation, It will be diluted and change to a complex solution”
Student : “I forget, I do not know”
I was shocked that my students did not understand what they did in the laboratory. They were similar to a “machine” that only added the chemical substances without understanding those functions. I tried to ask more students and they often could not answer the questions that related to experimental concepts. In analytical chemistry practicum, most of them did not understand the reason for adding the substances; they would only read the procedures then perform them. Most of them did not like chemistry because of the requirement of analytical thinking to understand the concepts. It was a big problem because most chemistry concepts need analytical thinking. How can they teach chemistry if they do not like chemistry? Furthermore, I also found the same cases when I taught my students at high school, they did not understand why they had to use certain formula to solve problems in chemistry. They only remember the formula but they did not understand the concepts.
I remember the strategy that my teacher at senior high school used. My teacher always asked me the questions if I want to do experiments in the laboratory. Indeed, I could not enter the laboratory if I could not answer my teachers’ questions. I had to go out from laboratory and find the answers. I could not enter the laboratory until I found those answers. The questions were used to examine students’ understanding. This strategy encouraged me to prepare myself before I came to the laboratory. Therefore, I got used to finding out the concept of the experiments. It was 6 years ago but I still remember all the experimental concepts.
I tried to apply this strategy to my students. I asked the question before they did the experiments in laboratory. As a result, they had better understanding. It will also encourage them to ask other questions, they will become more curious to understand the concepts. It is an important indicator for me as an educator since I want to encourage my students as learners. I can not give all the knowledge, but if they are good learners they will be motivated to learn everything. Later, I knew the strategy that my teacher used was metacognitive skills. The strategy is to encourage people to think about their own thinking.
In chemistry, studies of students’ understanding state the solutions through giving meaningful learning experiences (Treagust, Chittleborough, & Mamiala, 2004; Rickey & Stacy, 2000). Metacognition gives meaningful learning for students because “metacognition involves among other things taking responsibility for one’s own learning process” (Anderson & Nashon, 2006, p.299). Therefore, metacognitive skills are important to understanding the ideas and give significant impact on problem solving in chemistry (Rickey, & Stacy, 2000, p.195). To satisfy my practical interest, these metacognitive strategies help me to shape meaningful learning process and students’ understanding.
c. In pursuit of the emancipatory interest
Becoming a liberator with an emancipatory interest is difficult for me as a new lecturer. At that moment, I thought that I am not empowered to do the improvements since my fellow chemistry lecturers are my former lecturers and showing respect to your mentors is expected. According to Habermas, emancipation is “independence from all that is outside the individual (Grundy, 1987, p.13). It concerns “human autonomy and responsibility” (Stablen & Nord, 1985, p.16). However, I started my experience with this interest by critical thinking. Should I apply all of the prescribed experimental procedures? Do I have to use these assessments? Could I improve and create the changes?
According to Grundy (1987), as cited in Taylor and Williams (1992, p.6), “emancipatory requires the development of a critical conscious.” It is concerned with “praxis-action that is informed by reflection with the aim to emancipate” (Kincheloe, 1991, as cited in Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2000, p.29). In my teaching, I tend to apply action research process in the classroom. In terms of action research (McNiff, 1997):
Action research is a term, which refers to a practical way of looking at your own work to check that it is as you would like it to be. Because action research is done by you, the practitioner, it is often referred to as practitioner based research; and because it involves you thinking about and reflecting on your work, it can also be called a form of self-reflective practice.
“A form of action research operating in an emancipatory mode” (Taylor & Williams, 1992, p.7), educator as a researcher is more effective to improve the environment. Therefore, I am more like a liberator who tends to criticize and change the conditions and who uses reflective thinking to improve it. According to Bain, Ballantyne, Mills, and Lester (2002, p.10), “reflection is an intrinsically good and desirable aspect of professional development.” These were my experiences in doing some reflective thinking and making improvements in my laboratory activities:
I remember my bad experience in organic laboratory 4 years ago. If we had used a small quantity, that accident might not have happened. The toxic gas that I inhaled can be the result of the excess quantity of dangerous chemical substances. Although I realized that, there was also a safety issue. A week later, when my students did the experiment, I also tried to do the experiment but I used the least quantity of chemical substances. Sometimes, the reactions did not take place and I gave up. I only had two semesters to finish my experiments. I proved my methods by using the methods for students in another group who also did analytical chemistry practicum. Some of my methods worked but others failed. The weakness is the apparatus; we do not have small-scale laboratory equipment. Therefore, sometimes, it was difficult to analyze the small amount of product of reactions using large volume equipment. At the end, before I went to Australia, I already changed to some new methods.
Furthermore, the other problem that I found in analytical chemistry practicum was safety. Analytical chemistry laboratory was not appropriate for 30 students. It was too crowded. Sometimes, it was very difficult for me to observe all of my students’ activities. It was also difficult for me to inhale the fresh air. In addition, most of chemical substances used in analytical chemistry laboratory are dangerous. Therefore, it was very important for me to be concern about students’ safety. One day, one of my students did not use the gas mask. So, I asked him “Why are you not using the gas mask?” He said, “I forgot to bring it.” I strongly advised him “You should have one, either borrow it from your friends or go out of this laboratory.” It was just too difficult religiously for me to discipline my students in the laboratory. However, I had to educate my students to observe safety measures, since they will become chemistry teachers who are responsible for their students’ safety in the laboratory. I would remember then my accident. I did not want it happening with my students.
I was also concerned with the waste from my laboratory within safety and environmental issues. My students used to throw the waste directly to the washbasin. It was too dangerous because the concentrated solution will have negative effects on the environment. I decided to apply the new rule. They had to dilute it first before throwing it to the washbasin. The other strategy that I used was using sand. I put the container with sand inside it. My students had to throw the waste there. It was better than throwing them into the washbasin that was connected to the water channel. In addition, I thought about the recycle process of using chemical solution, such as silver nitrate that is used as a titrant. That solution can be recycled as a silver precipitation. However, at that time, it was very difficult for me for rechecking the experimental methods and recycling at the same time.
Furthermore, for both safety and environmental issues, I tried to minimize the interaction between my students and the dangerous chemical substances. I substituted some dangerous solution with others. For example, to determine concentration of Iodium, we can use Arsenic Oxide, but it is very toxic. Therefore, I changed it to Iron. Sometimes, if I could not change the substances, I chose another method which would not use the dangerous chemical. I had many ideas to change, but my knowledge about those reactions was very limited. Thus, experiences like this taught me that using small quantities of chemicals, small-scale equipment, reducing the waste, and recycling are the concepts of “green chemistry”.
My critical reflections taught me that I could make the improvements. Compared to a teacher, a lecturer has more power to change the methods or material as long as the objectives are achieved. For example, I changed the procedures of analytical chemistry practicum by green chemistry approaches. I applied small quantity of chemical substances, substitution of dangerous chemical substances, and recycling the waste. Those are elements of a green chemistry approach, which are reducing the quantity of dangerous chemical substances (Lancaster, 2002, p.5). It is also important to increase students’ awareness of environmental problems by involving green chemistry approach in the curriculum.
I realized that the changes will affect the practicum, but I am still concerned about students’ skill to work in the laboratory. The advantages of applying green chemistry are safety and sustainability in resource utilization in chemistry education. Furthermore, I gave the empowerment to my students to have creativity to change the methods. “Students’ empowerment through emancipating them from ideologies and discriminatory practices” is the aim of critical pedagogy (Woods, 1996, p. 127). They think critically about the chemistry concepts beyond the laboratory activities. They will discuss with me if the procedures have the same concepts, I will allow them to do it.
Related to assessment, I try applying different approaches of assessment as long as those can measure students’ competencies and learning processes. I evaluate their competencies on cognitive, affective, and psychomotor aspects. Different from other lecturers, I have my own assessment card. I also already evaluated my assessment form through action research. Through my assessment, I can ask them the questions before they enter the laboratory or give them the complex sample to evaluate their competencies on solving the problems. The final examination was a performance-based assessment where they had to work in the laboratory to analyse a sample. Therefore, I can easily evaluate their competencies on those three aspects.
Finally, my self-reflection on the three interests is an interesting journey for me. For I not only realize better who am I but also realize that I already have made changes, which motivated me to invent other innovations. Meaningful learning, learning process are more important for me. However, at the moment, I cannot make many major changes to systems, rules and facilities, for example: standard of national examination, education system, and curriculum content and objectives. Nevertheless, sometime in the future, I envision myself as a decision maker in education. Many changes that I want to make in my country, such as learning process, teacher competences, assessments, and I will not anymore ignore the students’ achievement. I hope those three interests will help me to develop my professional practice.
I Want to…..
I want to be a bird, which can fly in the beautiful sky, have the freedom to go and do everything, but the bird still can find the way home
I want to be an ant, which can cooperate with their community in wonderful ways. Helping each other, showing the way to find food with formic acid, but the ant still can find the way home
I want to be a bee, which can make useful substances like honey, have a handy way to help the flowers everywhere, but the bee still can find the way home
I do not want to be a stone, just standing, doing nothing, with other life creations trampling on it, the stone being simply silent. If I have to be a stone, I want to be an artistic stone, a statue, which people are amazed about. Even though the statue cannot find the way home, but it can give happiness to others.
If you want to improve, help, and appreciate something, just do it. Motivate yourself for it. Maybe others need it more than you do, and if you do not do for it today, may be tomorrow can be too late. So, just do it.
(Inspiration from the book “A Methodology of Heart,” Ronald J. Pelias, 2004, and my friend’s email)