I remember exactly how I was taught the periodic table of elements in primary school. We were to learn the first twenty elements of the table in two weeks, and it was evaluated on a test. On top of that, we had to understand how it was organized, and some other details that we were tested on. I remember exactly how I felt when I was forced to memorize that information: frustrated, overwhelmed, and bitter. I remember that very clearly. However, even though I went on to take Chemistry up to grade twelve, I can only remember the first five elements of the periodic table on a good day, which is better than most of my friends, who were also taught in the same way.
Obviously, this is not a very successful technique. Not only was the memorization extremely dull and boring, but what made it worse is that, at the back of my mind, I kept asking myself, “What’s the point of this?” Usually when I demanded these sort of questions (“Why do I have to take gym class three times a week?”, or “Why do they make us talk French all the time, and punish us if we talk English?”), I usually understand the motives later on in life, and I end up being grateful. Not in this case, however. There is absolutely nothing rewarding or positive about forcing seventh grade students to sit there and memorize the elements of the periodic table, when they’re almost guaranteed to forget them a week after the test anyway.
Well, now that we know the incorrect way of teaching the periodic table of elements, what’s the correct way? In my opinion, the teacher should sit down, look at the curriculum, and really figure out what’s important. What sort of knowledge are they going to need to build on for next year’s Chemistry class? What is my overall goal in teaching this class? To make sure they can successfully recite all of the elements in order, or to instil in these children a sense of excitement and wonder at the fascinating world of science? Hopefully, your goal resembles the second option, in which case I would suggest teaching the elements in a practical way.
Let your students do a fun, exciting experiment. Don’t just stand in front of the class and let them watch. Get them involved! If the class is too big to let them all do the experiment individually, get some volunteers to help out. Once the experiment is done, explain how it worked. What elements were present? Which of their properties made it so that the experiment was successful? For most young students, this is extremely interesting, especially if you can tie it to daily scenarios. For example, “What we just saw is Helium, the stuff that makes your voice get all squeaky.” Once students can begin to see how Chemistry affects so many different aspects of their lives, they’ll soon be pointing out these things themselves, and become directly involved in the learning experience. Suddenly, there’s actually a point to learning all of this, and your job teaching them will become much easier, because now they actually care.
Another idea is to get them to do a project in which they pick just ONE of the elements and describe various facts about it. You could also have the students prepare a multimedia project in the form of a PowerPoint presentation or a video. Suggest that they show an interesting experiment to the class in which their element is used (they’ll have to let you know ahead of time what they’re planning, of course, to make sure that it’s safe and doable). I remember when I did a project about Gold, and I still remember to this day exactly what that project looked like, how I set it up, and everything I learned. It’s about the only element whose information I can still recall, after six years of advanced Chemistry, and of scoring in the high 80’s each year. Says something about that method, doesn’t it?
If you find that your class really isn’t retaining anything, or they just don’t get it, ask why. Either have a group discussion, or meet the students one on one and get some suggestions. Don’t get upset if they bluntly state that your teaching style is boring; instead, thank them for being honest and decide whether or not you can change some things. If students see the changes being implemented, they’ll be grateful, and more willing to make an effort and try to learn.
Above all else, don’t limit the class to simply taking notes, reading from the textbook, memorizing ultimately useless information, and then setting a test. This is guaranteed to make even the most curious of students uninterested in the subject, and once they lose their passion and natural curiosity, it’s very difficult to gain it back. Don’t be the teacher who made them lose it in the first place. Instead, be the educator they can fondly look back on and say, “Yeah, great teacher really got me interested in Chemistry.”