A recent article in The Age (bit.ly/3mSG6Zz) on the proposed changes to the VCE Chemistry Study Design has sparked some heated debates within the science education community. While the new Study Design has proposed a streamlined approach and reframing of the theme, as it were, the article focused on the removal of content relating to atomic structure and the periodic table itself as an assessable item. Here we offer our perspectives on this controversy as educators with both secondary and tertiary experience.
The periodic table has long been one of the most identifiable features of chemistry as a physical science. Few science classrooms are without some form of the periodic table displayed on a wall and every chemistry textbook contains one. For good reason, too. Since the wide acceptance of Dmitri Mendeleev’s proposed scaffolding in the late 1800s, the periodic table has become an integral tool in chemistry education from secondary (and even primary) school to career chemists, both theoretical and practical. While at first glance the usefulness of the periodic table might appear to be simply as an organised list of elements for memorisation, the depth of information held within is expansive: from details of atomic structure to periodic trends in properties and behaviour. Importantly, this serves a purpose from the outset of introducing chemistry as a discipline in secondary school through to high-level chemistry subtleties at the end of a graduate degree.
Reflecting on our own use of the periodic table in tertiary education across three Australian universities, we typically include it as one of the first features covered in first-year chemistry courses. Indeed, we often dedicate an entire week to periodicity and its consequences on every aspect of life. We try to instil an appreciation of its usefulness, that it is not something that exists just to be memorised and regurgitated verbatim – it is a valuable tool for helping students understand many chemistry concepts. This approach also provides a familiar visual representation for easing the student transition into university studies, and allows us as educators to establish the baseline understanding of the approach to learning we expect, irrespective of individual courses and program pathways. As students move into more advanced topics, the periodic table acts as a constant reference point for them to ground topics such as bonding, chemical and physical properties, stability and reactivity.
The proposal to shift the periodic table to non-assessed, assumed knowledge is an interesting one – and its success will depend on how the periodic table continues to be integrated into the secondary Chemistry syllabus. What we know from cognitive load theory is that novice learners, those who do not have specific knowledge about a topic, learn better with direct instruction; for example, through worked examples. Using the periodic table as a tool in solving chemistry problems is essential, and thus almost all scaffolded problem-solving activities for novice chemistry students will need to include steps that apply the information garnered from interpreting the periodic table. Using the periodic table to obtain information is therefore a sub-goal within broader learning outcomes, such as identifying the molecular mass of a compound, predicting bond type or determining molecule polarity. This means that knowledge of the periodic table and how it is used will need to be explicitly taught in earlier year levels and indirectly assessed in the context of these wider learning outcomes.
A potential danger of redesignating the periodic table from a specific assessment item to assumed knowledge is that a large portion of our student cohorts conflate what is assessed with what they need to know, therefore potentially attributing decreased importance to concepts designated as assumed knowledge. It is therefore imperative that VCE Chemistry teachers are supported to develop appropriately scaffolded activities that incorporate the skills associated with using the periodic table as part of more complex problem-solving. Another pitfall, related to supporting VCE Chemistry teachers with this new study design, is the prevalence of out-of-field teachers within Australian schools. Depending on their experience and the support they receive, these teachers may not have the pedagogical content knowledge to continuously draw links between assessable VCE concepts and key assumed knowledge such as the periodic table.
However, these challenges really belong to a bigger discussion on how we view assessment in general. Do we need to assess all content at a granular level? Or are we satisfied with having key content, such as the periodic table, assessed implicitly through more complex problems? The purpose of assessment is arguably twofold: as an opportunity to evaluate where a student is located on their learning journey to help the student reflect on their progress; and as a means to summatively evidence learning outcomes. If assessments are framed as opportunities for a student to demonstrate their knowledge and skills, then, yes, using the periodic table is a skill that should be assessed. If the intention is to simply obtain a numerical measure of a student’s understanding, then, no, it is not essential that the use of the periodic table be evidenced as an isolated item because this can be demonstrated through the context of broader learning outcomes.
The proposed new study design has some strengths. First, reducing the volume of material in the Chemistry curriculum should be seen as positive – Chemistry curricula Australia-wide have suffered from attempts to include more contemporary material, while maintaining the historical content (although valid concerns exist when contrasting the Australian curriculum to its equivalent in the UK). Second, the proposed changes as a whole allow for a streamlined and more modern reflection of chemistry and how it fits within society’s current global challenges. Finally, part of the proposed changes aligns with a systems thinking philosophy, an important change that combats the siloing of chemistry concepts and embraces chemistry as a whole and its interdisciplinarity with other fields. Hopefully, all of this will excite and motivate both students and VCE teachers to the wonders of studying chemistry. Thinking of our own practice, we would like to see a topic such as organic molecule nomenclature receiving similar treatment – food for thought for the chemistry community!