Of Canal Blockages, Supermoon, and Risk Management

Thanks to Ivanacoi at https://pixabay.com/photos/domino-hand-stop-corruption-665547/.

The recent week-long jam and disruption in Suez Canal waters showed us how intricately global trade is connected and the engineers responsible were able to clear the blockage without significantly unloading the mega-ship, partly thanks to a celestial event called the supermoon, where the latter was closest to Earth at that point of time, thus augmenting the gravitational pull on our planet leading to higher tides. This tidal effect in turn created a strong buoyant force and hence the salvaging of the giant vessel. The said disruption taught us an interesting lesson in risk management. As container ships, crisscrossing the ocean and canal waters, increase in size, they pose a significant danger both to the crew onboard and communities residing in the nearby areas. Piloting these ships with surgical precision, particularly in narrow stretches of water isn’t an easy affair. Even a small mechanical failure could result in similar incidents in the future. The focus should then be on imposing navigational restrictions based on the size of vessels and strengthening the communication and coordination channels between the shipping crew, port authorities, and meteorological stations.

Although K-12 schools aren’t major victims of weather-related events in this part of the world, most institutions have decent health and safety plans to mitigate risks emanating from the environment as well as human actors. Regular natural disaster and lockdown drills instil a sense of reassurance among school communities, although the current public health situation made it difficult to carry out these practice drills on a regularly basis. The risks in schools come in a variety of dimensions, ranging from slippery floors in the corridors, particularly during these times of increased attention to health and hygiene, and chemical hazards in the science laboratories to freak accidents in the playgrounds and collateral damage during school trips abroad. So, how do we think ahead to make strategic investments to maintain normalcy? If schools were to liaise with their chief risk officers, what will be the latter’s role in imparting a safe education and put the required defences in place to respond to unexpected threats? In my two decades of overseas teaching experience in the private sector, I haven’t personally encountered a school that went bust due to liability, although I did read about such incidents in the media.

An important goal of a sound risk management policy will be to enhance safety literacy in schools, where all stakeholders are part of the loop (a phone-chain/ texting service) and they have the tools to quickly access the information without a serious time lapse. Updates on school websites and social media pages also provide alternative routes to verify the facts relating to emergency situations and actions taken by schools, thereby minimising anxiety among students, parents and faculty. Students could be formatively evaluated on their awareness of emergency response by involving them in hands-on activities. For instance, IB chemistry students have to carry out a formal risk assessment before they begin to work on their 10-hour Individual Investigation, where they have to consult accredited sources to identify the dangers relating to the use of a chemical or disposal of experimental waste. Accordingly, they design a methodology that doesn’t pose a significant risk to their personal safety or the environment. From an instructor standpoint, I do not approve my students working with concentrated acids and toxic metal salts made from, say barium, chromium, lead etc., which could trigger a severe allergic reaction or even long-term carcinogenicity. When learners do their due diligence, they could apply some of this acquired safety knowledge to make intelligent choices in their day-to-day living (avoiding drinking tap water running through lead pipes designed in a pre-World War 2 era building). I still remember how an elementary school girl from the U.K. saved scores of people by alerting them to seek higher ground during the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, all thanks to the foresight earned from a geography lesson she attended a few weeks before she went on a holiday to the ‘Land of Smiles’ with her parents.

Not all risks emanate from external sources. Those that fall in the curricular and psychological realm will require appropriate attention and creative strategies to earn students’ trust. In any given classroom, there will probably be a handful of students who struggle with low self-esteem, and as a result, they don’t take full advantage of the opportunities available both inside and outside the classroom. Helping these students realise their strength requires employing a positive academic framework and language and recognising their struggles with empathy and optimism. The need to highlight the role of diligence in accomplishing major tasks and celebrating their successes should instil a sense of belonging in learners. Dr. Ken Shore, a psychologist with the New Jersey Public Schools believes that peer learning network in schools can be leveraged where struggling students could be paired with easygoing classmates whom they find approachable and doing so should lessen some of the curricular anxieties among the former. He also suggests that educators should praise students creatively by focusing on specific aspects of their work or behavior, rather than generic applause.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is another group of learners that has an inordinate amount of energy and their challenge lies in channeling it correctly for their personal advantage. Having a flexible approach to their seating plan and understanding their needs and behaviour, rather than finding fault with the individual will be paramount. For example, the Individual Investigation is a steep learning curve for students transitioning into final high school years in the IB Diploma program. Each one of them are expected to manage a variety of tasks and control a set of variables to produce experimental results that make sense. For some, it could be genuinely frustrating when the experiment doesn’t proceed as per their plan. It could be due to weaker strength of the raw materials, lower operational temperature, or improper mixing of the ingredients, but pausing for a moment and reflecting on the procedure should help them figure out where the source of error lies. They also should be encouraged to develop structured protocols that could be used to build a solid routine and reinforce their understanding. I encourage my students to maintain a reflective journal, where they not only record their successes, but make note of the errors and troubleshooting strategies they used to overcome these roadblocks. This strategy also enables them to build an original narrative when they communicate their scientific work to external examiners, thus enhancing the integrity of their assignment.

The strength of any risk management system can be measured by the clarity of guidelines and the speed at which they are disseminated in moments of crisis and reviewing them periodically by taking a variety of stakeholders into confidence and offering them the required tools and training so that they know what they are doing when a calamity strikes.


Jones, Rory, and Amira El-Fekki. “How a Supermoon Helped Free the Giant Container Ship From the Suez Canal.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 29 Mar. 2021, http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-a-supermoon-helped-free-the-giant-container-ship-from-the-suez-canal-11617040923. 

Shore, Ken. “The Student With Low Self-Esteem.” | Education World, http://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/shore/shore059.shtml. 

‘Learning About’ vs. ‘Figuring it Out’

Thanks to Rohan Makhecha at https://unsplash.com/photos/jw3GOzxiSkw.

“I know, and you don’t know, and I’m here to communicate it to you and explain it to you.”

– Jonathan Osborne, Professor of Science Education, Stanford University

Once a month, I get the rare honor to review science education manuscripts vis-a-vis their alignment to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). These are typically written by grades 6-12 science educators from the United States. I view this as a tremendous professional development opportunity that allows me to reflect on the teaching of science concepts from a fresh perspective, thus refining my own instructional practice, and hence the personal realisation that an accurate scientific manuscript can act as a mentor, too. One area where I agree with majority of these educators is the approach to imparting knowledge and skills without diluting student enthusiasm and engagement. Again, the essence of this post is not to debate teacher-centred vs. student-centred methodologies, but about using a range of strategies to enable students to clear their misconceptions, gain ample background knowledge, and provide conditions for them to work through concepts. They could do so by building and tinkering with models, testing them using trial and error, and explaining complex scientific phenomena using concept-rich and data-driven arguments.

As a teenager, I wasn’t very fond of simply rearranging formulas to solve problems. I have always wanted to know why the variables were set in a certain way, and just longed for understanding the conceptual relationships. Chemistry provided me that route in high school, and I was able to prove theories with my investigation results with fairly reasonable experimental errors. I think not everyone has a similar experience with natural sciences. So, what makes a science curriculum engaging, rigorous, and most of all, enjoyable? Can walking into a science classroom be at least half as exciting as that of entering the proverbial curricular candy store, a.k.a., a natural history museum? That will depend on one’s curricular framework and the type of science teaching methods one employs. To see a shift in instructional practices, there is also a need to reevaluate how we train science educators in teachers’ colleges and during professional development sessions in schools.

If we’re to take full advantage of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which were developed in the United States based on standards in ten different countries, understanding and teaching of the crosscutting concepts (CCCs) accurately will be pivotal. The seven overarching themes that cut across disciplines include a. patterns; b. cause and effect; c. scale, proportion, and quantity; d. systems and system models; e. energy and matter; f. structure and function; and g. stability and change. With one’s current science teaching expertise and deeper understanding of scientific phenomena (with or without NGSS teaching experience), one can create a robust pedagogical plan to translate theory into integrated and meaningful learning experiences. CCCs are lenses learners will use to examine scientific events, write quantitative hypotheses, and use real-time data to answer the following three fundamental questions in science irrespective of students’ background and school profile, which is why experts consider the NGSS framework a trailblazing equalizer:

  1. Patterns – What exists? The works of nature aren’t purely random and they are much more than mere repetitions. The stripes on a zebra aren’t the same as those on an Indian palm squirrel. In a similar vein, a sand dune isn’t as symmetrical and complex as that of a large snowflake and even among the latter, just like fingerprints, no two large snowflakes are alike. Picture this as the opening scene for a science lesson: ask students to apply their prior knowledge and understanding of math and science to list all factors that might affect the design, shape, and stability of an intricate object, say a snowflake. If you’re a high school instructor, provoke them to apply the theory of permutations and combinations to estimate the number of ways a complex snowflake could be made, and they will be surprised to learn how staggeringly large this number is. A computer algorithm, say written in ‘Python,’ would be more appropriate than a conventional calculator to get an accurate picture. Who would have thought that the phenomenon of ‘blizzard / snowstorm’ could be used to teach scale, proportion, and quantity, thereby promoting algorithmic and computational thinking among youngsters. An analogous real-time experiment students could use to explain this theme is by growing pure salt crystals in a variety of physical conditions in the laboratory and examine them for differences in their shape and symmetry.
  2. Cause and Effect – Why does it happen? What is common to the working of a seesaw (not the digital portfolio app, but the teeterboard you find in a school playground), a sealed bottle of Coca-Cola and arterial blood-flow? Well, they all involve a state of equilibrium. A probing question students could explore is the similarities and differences in these equilibria and why they function in a certain way? For example, why does the drink become less fizzy when the bottle cap is opened, or could you reestablish the equilibrium by putting the cap on the bottle or adding masses to either side of a seesaw? Or even, why is it fatal if one accidentally cuts the major artery of an animal? Learners should be asked to track the underlying energy changes and their impact on the structure and function of these systems. As students write balanced formula equations to represent chemical and physical transformations, they should be explicitly taught how mass and energy are conserved in these bodies. Having said that, every system has its limitations and this gives students a tremendous opportunity to understand how chemical reactions or biological cycles can’t go on perpetually. Asking learners to make sense of expiry dates on food and beverages will enable them to develop an accurate understanding of how these products affect the quality of human life. Enquiring if consuming a can of expired sweet soda can actually be fatal should force them to think granularly about chemical and physical interactions.
  3. Systems and System ModelsHow do we know? Building models to minimize the complexity of the natural world and pondering on its workings should encourage learners to discern the strengths and limitations of a system. These models will also allow them to understand how the above-mentioned themes of patterns, cause and effect, energy and matter etc. are at interplay to support the survival of these systems. One could also incorporate current events to decipher the complexity of systems on a national scale. For instance, the citizens of Iceland are presently on high alert for earthquakes and imminent volcanic activity and a dedicated team of seismologists and geophysicists are on round-the-clock duty to monitor this impending natural disaster (small eruptions are already happening as I write this blog). Asking learners how this 800-year-old volcano in Iceland suddenly became unstable and what factors led to its current state of instability should demonstrate inherent flaws in systems. They could also research to understand how changes in such gigantic natural bodies can affect not their own stability, but that of an entire nation and others sharing borders with it. So, how does a middle schooler in a resource-poor school in the developing world model an active volcano, which she never saw, and is giving sleepless nights to its people? The chemistry educator in me thinks that one can build a humbler and scaled-down version using flour for the volcanic body and a concoction of baking soda, vinegar, and red food coloring to mimic the lava, although hydrogen peroxide, and a warm water suspension of yeast (and yes, the red food coloring) will be aesthetically more pleasing. Learners could also build similar models of living systems to understand the processes of ageing, stability, and degeneration.
An argument-based formative assessment I designed for my sophomores recently as they explored the periodic properties of elements in distance learning.

The beauty of the NGSS framework lies in educators weaving a rich tapestry of lessons, where they not only integrate science and engineering themes seamlessly, but evaluate learners for their deeper comprehension of scientific principles and design skills on an ongoing basis. Using alternative assessment forms based on scientific argumentation should let us gain honest insights into learners’ misconceptions. And the evidence lies in the extent to which they could go to construct evidence-based assertions using a cocktail of crosscutting concepts and at the same time, possess hands-on skills to model their very explanations. Then, we’d confidently say that we did raise the bar for science education to produce the next generation of Sahins and Türecis and call it a good day for equitable and rigorous learning of science and engineering.


Cottrell, Christopher. “Chemical Accident Injures 39 People in Germany.” CNN, Cable News Network, 17 Jan. 2012, edition.cnn.com/2012/01/17/world/europe/germany-chemical-accident/index.html. 

Fick, S. J., Nordine, J., & McElhaney, K. W. (Eds.). (2019). Proceedings of the Summit for Examining the Potential for Crosscutting Concepts to Support Three-Dimensional Learning. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia. Retrieved from http://curry.virginia.edu/CCC-Summit.

Osborne, Jonathan. “Assessments of Argumentation in Science: Beyond Multiple Choice.” Home | Assessments of Argumentation in Science – Stanford University, scientificargumentation.stanford.edu/. 

Modesty – an accelerator or a decelerator of success?

Thanks to Priscilla Du Preez at https://unsplash.com/photos/NQTphr4Pr60

The word ‘success’ has broad connotations. For some, it is meeting personal expectations and leading a low-stress life where they don’t have to worry about their next meal or paycheck, whereas for others, it might mean achieving fame or building enormous wealth. For a senior high school or college student, success is gaining admittance into her first-choice program of study/college or securing an internship that can put him on the path to gainful employment in order to live a debt-free life.

We live in a world where being in spotlights, be at work or in personal life, gives us the much-needed boost to work with increased enthusiasm on our chosen trajectories. It matters equally to people at the base of the career mountain as well as those at the pinnacle. Why so? The former requires the recognition to grab opportunities that can put them steadfastly on the progression ladder to achieve both material and emotional satisfaction, whereas for the latter, taking credit for a job well done allows them to showcase their competence, leadership, and the degree of empathy they have for those under their care.

The level of modesty one demonstrates depends on a variety of factors, the two key things in my opinion being one’s culture and grooming. Being a South Asian, I was told not to flaunt my triumphs loudly as that will generate a false sense of pride and put me on a path of complacency or even professional doom. On the other hand, if you ask people from a different culture the same question, they may not have any inhibitions to take credit for their contributions. If modesty is a virtue, to what extent should one leverage it in a market-driven economy for one’s personal benefit?

A former supervisor of mine always found the time and made it a point to congratulate all educators in her jurisdiction on their hard work that brought great results both inside and outside the classroom. She also never shied away from taking credit when she did an excellent job at negotiating with a prospective employee or the governing board. If there was a framework that could promote a healthy dose of self-promotion rooted in assertion without excessively stepping on other’s toes, my two Euro cents will be on personal investment, vocalizing one’s accomplishments, and collectively celebrating a meaningful work.

Many of us do pro bono work by our own measure, but one could also be picky in choosing projects that will enable us to learn new skills and propel us into unique networks to augment our own professional competencies. These newly acquired capabilities might in turn come in handy to initiate novel projects that can be impactful both to the entrepreneur and the society at large. When the ‘new you’ is three-fold more efficient than your older version, the market will not refuse to recognise your self-worth or self-dignity. Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO of Netflix, in his recent book, ‘No Rules Rules‘ defends how he has open conversations about his employees’ talents and doesn’t hesitate to pay top bracket compensation proportionate to their market value, a key factor in maintaining talent density and a critical ingredient to drive innovation at his firm.

How do we tell others about our new-found professional successes without drawing their unwanted ire or relationship-ruining envy? Having honest conversations with colleagues about how one is staying on top of things in one’s field of work and exploiting opportunities both for their personal benefit and the organisation’s well-being should provide a rational context that others can relate to. For instance, if an educator learned and implemented a new method of inquiry in science, (s)he should be given a platform to spread the curricular gospel.

Many organizations publish updates to inform their stakeholders about progress made on several fronts. However, not all of them accommodate and appreciate the folks behind these developments. Celebrating individual contributions collectively should instil a sense of pride and belonging in these people who go above and beyond to meet or exceed their clientele’s needs. For instance, janitors have been the unsung heroes who have been toiling twice as hard to maintain sterile environments, which is one of the reasons we could all hug our loved ones safely after a day of hard work. Recognising them with a special incentive or doing a feature should motivate them to go about their jobs with renewed vigor.

If professionals have to advance in their career, reflecting their accomplishments off authentic scenarios and gracefully accepting compliments for a job well done should increase their confidence and put them on the radar of further growth and development. Whether the negotiation revolves around compensation or an investment into a new project, one could project one’s self-worth using both data and anecdotal evidence and all this could be done with great humility by placing one’s accomplishments in a broader context and speaking from a position of strength and purpose.


The prompt for this blog post came from the conversation between Fidelis Nthenge, Head of the IB World Schools department and James Dalziel, James MacDonald, and Richard Henry, Heads of NIST, Bangkok, International School of Brussels, and GEMS World Academy, Singapore, respectively.

Hastings, Reed, and Erin Meyer. No Rules Rules. Random House USA, 2020. 

“We Must Flip School Leadership” Where’s Your Head At Podcast, education2morrow.com/podcast/.

Performing the Digital Epoché

Thanks to Linus Sandvide at https://unsplash.com/photos/5DIFvVwe6wk

Epoché, a Greek term, translates to the shielding of assumptions and biases to explain a phenomenon by its inherent merit or from the perspective of a participant. The current situation can’t be overcome by indifference, but expects us to seek solutions on an ongoing basis. When one has to cater to a variety of learners, from vocal to quiet, in a virtual environment, educators should evaluate outcomes from the team’s vantage point. Are the silent ones making enough progress so that they don’t fall behind? What does it take to promote the autonomy of all learners? As teachers explore remote learning deeper, new issues and challenges arise and making quick decisions keeping the needs of the entire class in mind should be the first order of business. The job of educators in a digital classroom is more akin to those supporting marathon runners – you simply don’t say or do anything discouraging, but provide the right dose of nourishment and positive vibes to game the tasks at hand. Here are some thoughts on riding this bumpy wave before we sail into more cheerful waters of full-on in-person learning and playing:

A. Thou shall be engaged: As both students and educators are working on their own turf, the entire learning operation has become flat. One simply can’t sit in front of a computer and command 100% attention from students. A methodical approach that starts with students participating in a poll to update their mentor about their wellbeing, or even engage in brief trivial banter, should be followed through a slow transition to the main activity. Some educators that I know of consider ‘live teaching’ as the gold standard, while others prefer short screencast lessons to provide learners with authentic and engaging experiences. In both formats, motivating all students and achieving one or two well-defined goals in a 30- or 40-minute interval will be meaningful to all parties. A brief evaluative activity at the end of the lesson to check for student comprehension should remind them about accountability. Using creative initiatives and activities, such as teacher-led demonstrations, team-based academic games, free time to share things closer to their heart should break some of the monotony and encourage learners to log into their classes punctually. Doing so will also determine their long-term progress without incurring major learning losses when they transition to higher grades later in the following school year. A 2020 research report from the RAND Corporation suggests that “teachers should meet students where they are, but should not dilute the rigour of the learning tasks.” The RAND team also recommends that teachers focus more on the ‘art of lesson delivery’ than excessively tweaking adapted resources.

B. Thou shall (not) control: This could be the trickiest of all the aspects of virtual learning. Replicating conventional practices in a digital classroom will not hold much water. Instead, the focus should be on understanding what kind of learning excites students and what overwhelms them. It’s not about teachers’ proficiency in technology, though a baseline expectation will iron out some of the wrinkles in this new format of pedagogy, but it’s more about seeing through the invisible cloak of non-verbal cues and making educated guesses based on learners’ written and verbal responses during the course of this journey. For every step taken towards the implementation of a new idea or strategy, we need to take two steps back and ask ourselves if we had to repeat the same the next day, what will we do differently? If I had to take an analogy from my home base, digital learning is akin to savoring an old school ‘thali‘ where the goal should be to enjoy the depths of all flavors – bitter, sweet, acidic, basic, and neutral. Who knows which of these concoctions will inspire us to cook up the next inspiring lesson?

C. “Thou shall not bear false witness:” Integrity is a non-negotiable trait and lion of all human values. To distance learners from unethical practices, one needs to understand what makes one cross the wire in the first place? Is it poor learning habits, an unblemished academic record to impress university admissions committees, or sheer test anxiety, or a lack of serious consequences? Understanding these reasons behind the strained assessment tensions can enable educators to design realistic tasks. Formal interviews, where students are expected to solve a problem or part of it in a virtual environment, teach a concept to peers, writing an original method for an experiment, student-designed higher-level questions in the post-comprehension period are some alternatives to formal testing. Another formative concept check I have been frequently using to keep all my students alert and gauge their learning is to ask all of them to type their answers in ‘Zoom’ chat followed by cold calling them to press ‘Enter’ and share their responses privately with me.

D. Thou shall maintain harmony: These past 12 months showed us the importance of demarcating boundaries between business and personal affairs. Spending an inordinate amount of energy on things that one has little control over is futile, and such battles will only increase frustration, hence tiring an already fatigued body and mind. Instead, channeling the same enthusiasm to pursue personal goals, or creating a blueprint and working religiously, inch by inch, to achieve long-term prosperity and professional freedom, should be rewarding both for the individual and the community. Wellness experts believe that there is no difference between physical and mental well-being, and exhort us to rather focus not on the volume, but on the quality of relationships. In a period when human to human interactions are at their lowest ebb, exploring creative entertainment options, other than Netflix, should provide some respite after a long day of labor. Putting oneself formally in someone else’s shoes before making generalizations and picturing the sheer number of variables involved in the decision-making process should erase some of the negativity resulting from miscommunication and misunderstanding with peers or supervisors. Gestures as simple as listening keenly to a loved one’s concerns and following it up by asking the right questions or empathising with a colleague experiencing a stressful situation, sharing a life experience with a newbie in need of help, or even exploring a different dimension of one’s personality, all should take some weight off our chests. And by the time we exit this long unwinding path, we might probably internalise what our elders meant when they prodded us on exercising patience in adversity.


Wang, Elaine Lin et al. “Teachers’ Perceptions of What Makes Instructional Materials Engaging, Appropriately Challenging, and Usable.” RAND Corporation, 14 Jan. 2021, http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA134-2.html. 

Practices over Dichotomies


The knowledge vs. skills debate is not new to education. The former refers to the sum of familiarities and understanding of concepts and ideas, whereas the latter focuses on exploiting the former to achieve a desired outcome or purpose. On January 10, 2021, a group of parliamentarians, university vice-chancellors, entrepreneurs, and education thought leaders petitioned the U.K. government, via the Sunday Times, urging a radical reform of their secondary education. Among the lead petitioners is MP and former skills minister, Robert Halfon, who strongly argues for the mission-critical need to re-engineer the current model, where GCSEs should be replaced by an academic and vocational baccalaureate at 18, similar to the French Baccalaureate, colloquially knows as ‘la bac.’ Their collective advocacy is for a broader and balanced education that provides a good mix of academic and vocational components so that pedagogy keeps up with the economic, social, and technological changes in society. This discourse, as intriguing as it might sound, isn’t novel and similar scholarly debates have been going on for years or even decades in other parts of the world.

The focus at hand is not to look at this subject through an ‘either /or’ lens, but ask ourselves what we want for our youngsters after they graduate high school or college. Is it about personal attitudes and attributes, such as good decision-making, problem-solving, social skills, or being upright citizens with tremendous character and deep values? Or is it more on the practical side of things related to gainful employment, creating wealth and increasing one’s stature on the global stage. One simply can’t deny the complementarity of the two. Some scholars argue about striking the right balance between knowledge and skills, which means as students gain knowledge, they should have parallel opportunities, through internships, practicums, to apply their understanding of the subject matter to master a craft, trade, or the basics of a future profession.

The landscape of education being as vast as an ocean, and the MOOCs, the Khan Academies, and Udemies of the world just a click away, what is more critical is developing a deeper awareness about one’s learning paths, which in educational parlance is often referred to as meta-learning. For instance, if I could index my journey towards becoming an ‘independent user’ of a foreign language, say German (far from it currently, though), by gradually learning the 2400 vocabulary terms, understand the heuristics, and become fairly proficient at formal reading and listening, I could revisit this index map to learn Dutch. One could apply the same technique to learn to play an instrument. Meta-learning algorithms are also at the heart of superior performance of artificial intelligence (AI) systems. If meta-learning has to have an impact on learners, approaches to teaching and learning should pivot from instructions obvious to students to reminders that lie dormant in their minds or alien to them. Adam Boxer, Head of Science at a private school in the U.K., encourages his students to question themselves if they have fully met the expectations of a task after its completion. A more passive approach will be just asking students to read the instructions carefully, although there is nothing wrong with the latter. Activating these creative pathways to think and reflect and transitioning from the generics to specific metrics of a discipline will be key to levelling the learning field, both from a knowledge and skills perspective. If schools have to review their pedagogical motto, turning the page from ‘education for all’ to ‘reflection for all,’ or even ‘meta-learning for all’ should bring the attention back to what truly matters in learning.

If nations and schools could fix infrastructure and logistics, increase access to quality educators and resources, how do we streamline the content and make learners’ time at school worthwhile? When external examination boards expect teachers to cover 10 units worth content in a school year spanning 200 days, would it be rather rewarding to focus on a limited, yet genuinely relevant set of lessons where learners could explore the content at greater depth and pursue projects and build materials to test how far their learned theories stretch? Eric Mazur, a professor of physics at Harvard University, whom I have had the pleasure of knowing through a professional network, says his students did quite well on textbook-problems, but were puzzled when they encountered simple word problems that demanded an understanding of concepts behind the formulas and equations. He now focuses more on active learning through peer interactions and encouraging students to work on meaningful projects and creating products at the end of each fixed term of teaching so that they could see first-hand the value in their learning and hours spent in the classroom. You can’t ask for a better return on investment or satisfaction.

At the end of the day or year, we need to ask ourselves if we are sending the transformed versions of our students into the working world who can not only flourish in it, but add value without succumbing to professional pressures. If airline pilots have to complete two proficiency checks every year, where they have to show complete fluency of flight manuals, emergency procedures as well as an operational expertise in a simulator replicating seasonal variations in weather, to retain their flying licenses, they can’t polish skills without refilling their knowledge tank. The same applies to educators, surgeons, and a plethora of other professions. My money is on doing a thorough auditing of our educational strategies, both from a content and practice perspective than debating a false dichotomy. Here are three practices that might pave the way to preserving a culture focused on academic learning and maintaining quality control.

a. Curricular Review: Robert Marzano in his seminal work on ‘guaranteed and viable curriculum’ outlines the need for protecting and providing teachers’ with adequate time to prepare, instruct and assess as well as designing a realistic instructional calendar where relevant content is taught to mastery levels. This will mean eliminating redundancies and having clear intervention strategies for learners not meeting the targeted indicators of mastery. This will also require foregoing undesirable clerical work and opting for only a ‘popular’ set of non-academic activities based on students’ interests and resource availability. Also, carrying out an annual pedagogical audit to evaluate the coherence between the goals targeted and outcomes achieved should equip educators with reflective tools to enhance their efficiency.

b. Teachers’ qualifications, experience, and attitudes: A 30-year longitudinal peer-reviewed study conducted by Se Woong Lee and Eun Jung Lee at the Universities of Missouri and Arizona, respectively concluded that students taught, particularly math and science, by multiple highly qualified teachers with in-depth subject matter expertise and experience are more likely to attain higher level education degrees. If teachers’ qualifications play such a significant role, the vetting processes of these folks should be equally rigorous and hiring them will require both a strategic and creative approach as well as a fairly generous commitment of resources. The decision-making process can be improved by asking deeper questions about how they will introduce an ambiguous concept or react to a specific curricular challenge from a gifted student, or even how they seek professional development to both broaden and deepen their knowledge and skills repertoire. An invested educator will not simply opt for the next easy ‘YouTube’ video or simulation, but customise resources to meet student needs with significant original input.

c. Curating ideas and techniques: Schools adapt a range of strategies and interventions to meet the needs of all learners in a given year, where some are effective, others aren’t. Creating a database of workable ideas and a broad spectrum of tools related to task development and overcoming barriers to both academic and behavioural improvements of learners could be curated on a learning management system. As educators, both old and new, undergo orientation before the start of the new school year, they should be reminded and exposed to these systems to streamline their professional outlook as well as fruitfully coordinate among themselves. Obviously, not all variables can be factored in when it comes to a field as complex as student learning. When schools can’t monitor or track disruptors they can’t foresee, they need to reach out to sister schools or like-minded groups to borrow and implement adaptive systems that can systemically enhance learning.


Thanks to First Officer and soon-to-be Captain (my former student), Harit Phromphol for sharing his professional insights about aircraft piloting with me.

Lee, Se Woong, and Eunjung Alice Lee. “Teacher Qualification Matters: The Association between Cumulative Teacher Qualification and Students’ Educational Attainment.” International Journal of Educational Development, Pergamon, 25 June 2020, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0738059320303771. 

Marzano, Robert J. What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action. Hawker Brownlow Education, 2003. 

Sian Griffiths, Education Editor. “The Future of Education: School’s Outmoded and It’s Time to Rewrite the Rules.” News Review | The Sunday Times, The Sunday Times, 9 Jan. 2021, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-future-of-education-schools-outmoded-and-its-time-to-rewrite-the-rules-n5g0zgdqd.

Walberg, Herbert J.|Paik. “Effective Educational Practices. Educational Practices Series–3.” ERIC, International Academy of Education, Palais Des Academies, 1, Rue Ducale, 1000 Brussels, Belgium., 30 Nov. 1999, eric.ed.gov/?id=ED443788. 

Learning from a Distance, again

Students and educators transitioned into 2021 with a sense of déjà vu reminding us all that it’s not over until it’s over. As both groups move into their second consecutive phase of distance learning (or even third for some) with increased confidence, what factors will provide win-win situations for all? Here are four strategies that could be used to take a shot at productivity.

a. Learning Format: Synchronous and asynchronous learning are two formats typically employed by educators to engage students in distance learning. Doug Lemov, author of ‘Teach Like a Champion,’ argues a middle path, semi-synchronous learning, could be more efficient to promote productivity. Teachers could start a lesson with a question or short video to test students’ misconceptions followed by scaffolded explanations relating to the concept. They could then work in 15-minute slots to complete independent and team-based tasks. However, the teacher can act as a referee to promote accountability by moderating discussions and asking questions to check their understanding throughout the lesson. On the other hand, not all learners are comfortable sharing their web cameras, but they should capture their written work for their teacher’s feedback or use the chat function to answer questions.

b. Minimising Distractions: Students can be asked to work in a comfortable setting far from digital distractions, but teachers could create lessons that may not always require sophisticated digital tools. For instance, share a picture and ask learners to explain, on paper, the concept behind the image or phenomenon. Another strategy is to encourage them to create short booklets of recent concepts and core skills they have learned in the past semester. Students can also be paired to verbally demonstrate their understanding and application of the taught content. The idea is not to ban technology, but employ the most appropriate and minimal tools relevant to student learning in a given context.

c. Assessment for Learning: I use a variety diagnostic and formative assessments to evaluate my learners’ misconceptions and understanding. If the goal of an assessment is to enhance learning, these evaluative tasks need to be adapted according to the targeted outcomes in question. Designing meaningful instruments so that learners must show greater creativity in their answers and demonstrate deeper conceptual application and synthesis is crucial. To promote integrity, students could teach a part of the lesson online and answer follow-up questions or solve a problem impromptu, or even analyse a case on camera in a limited timeframe.

d. Leveraging Feedback: The quality of feedback depends on both the content and the language of communication. If a learner struggles with calculations, the prescription should be to identify the missing links or steps of problem-solving that will lead to mastery. For example, asking students to create a two-column table where the first one identifies an incomplete response and the second column shows an exemplary response, thus enabling learners to clearly see the information lacking in the former. Assigning relevant homework based on common mistakes and providing multiple opportunities to evaluate similar content should pave the path towards mastery. Alternatively, students could work on a collaborative activity prior to an assessment where they could comment about things that surprised them about a particular concept or curricular relationship, or even how they play out in the real world.


Lemov, Doug. Teaching in the Online Classroom: Surviving and Thriving in the New Normal . Jossey-Bass, 2020. 

Fortitude, Performance, and Well-Being

Thanks to Ingo Stiller at https://unsplash.com/photos/5vCQdgU2CLI.

“Mountains exist to challenge humans, and humans exist to accept the honor of that challenge.” – Paulo Coelho

I have always had considerable sympathy for goalkeepers in football (soccer) and in a way, just like educators, they are pretty much on their own. A lot rests on the former whether a team wins or loses, be it a league match or World Cup final, although a strong defence could take some weight off their shoulders. Of all the players I watched in my adult life, I find Manuel Neuer, the German goalkeeper and captain of the 120-year-old premier football club, Bayern Munich, impactful and inspirational. In one of his post-match interviews, he succinctly puts it, “As captain you’re always required to spot shifts early and react to them – not just during negative periods, but also when things are going well.  It’s particularly important after wins to draw attention to things which are a danger for the team.” One could argue that academics are a different ballgame as opposed to sport, but both require a certain degree of consistency and focus to meaningfully engage with the task at hand.

In a few weeks’ time, if the current public health situation doesn’t escalate, senior high school students might be taking their mock examinations in many parts of the world. The juniors, on the other hand, will be doing the necessary groundwork for their coursework. Some of them will also be attending virtual interviews to finalise their places at their first-choice universities. What all these groups have in common is that regardless of the outcome of these processes, they will need to develop a game plan to strategically avoid traps and reach their own expectations with a strong mindset.

Although 21st century employment is designed around teamwork, the current academic training still requires students to demonstrate their prowess individually. Learners need an active and reflexive approach to reading and problem-solving. Understanding the individual course content statements and arranging it in ways to make information stick, examining curricular work using checklists, and broadening the scope of the review to cover a larger sample of questions are some creative ways to enhance efficiencies. Similarly, shifting the balance from acquisition of knowledge to its repeated application in varied contexts to derive meaning in an independent capacity is another core skill they will need to thrive in tertiary education, or at work. Of all the people, I asked a former student how he successfully adjusted to the rigorous academic schedule of his engineering school, and he shared a refreshing insight. Every time he completes a problem set, he rearranges the variables and visualises alternate scenarios. He then developed strategies to deal with these agency challenges. This is in line with the ‘decomposition’ stage of computational thinking where one needs to understand the big ideas by breaking them down to their supporting parts and extrapolate the resulting understandings to new scenarios.

The psychological well-being of learners is also dependent on the contributions made by their social support systems (Pretorius & Diedericks, 1994). Research suggests that having a structured environment at home and college-going siblings sharing academic and administrative insights have a positive impact on learners’ achievement. Peer tutors, study groups, and academic advisors are other resources where students could review their work using a different set of eyes and receive feedback for further improvement. Being judgemental is a human trait and there is no escaping it. However, what one could control is not blurting out these judgments in a blink of an eye without fully understanding the story in the background or making references to past mistakes. Learners will need realistic reassurances that are backed by trust and unconditional support to overcome temporary difficulties.

When Chester Bennington, founding member of the hard rock band, Grey Daze (a.k.a., Waterface), who later became the lead vocalist of Linkin Park, was asked how he is going to keep his voice singing his lungs out at both local and global events, he replied saying he trained his throat, so he doesn’t stress it. Learners need intense workouts in short intervals of time, punctuated by appropriate spacing and interleaving, where they can channel all their energies to gain a 360-degree understanding of concepts and ideas. As long as universities screen students based on their grades and performance on entrance exams and interviews, they need to show some evidence of reasonable achievement. Teachers’ are equally accountable to produce good exam results year after year, irrespective of academic variations. This paradigm could lead to friction and learners could be overwhelmed by a heavy load of academic tasks resulting in high levels of stress and frustration. How could they manage these pressures in a healthy manner without looking for unsound options? The Institute for Disaster Mental Health recommends that you list the structure of your worries and then assess the likelihood that these threats will seriously affect you. Learners don’t have to discuss their worries all the time with their support groups, but finding a peer or parent to spend quality time, or discussing a hobby, or even playing board games might offer some soothing comfort. The emotional investments we make into our connections and being intentional about using them on a daily basis might as well be our true vaccine.


COVID-19: Managing Stress in This Anxious Time. newpaltz.edu/media/idmh/covid-19/. 

Masley, Ed. “’Raw Talent from Day One’: How Chester Bennington Found His Voice as a Phoenix Teen.” The Arizona Republic, Arizona Republic, 12 July 2020.

“Neuer Interview: That Can Only Be Done with Sensitivity.” FC Bayern Munich, 4 Feb. 2020, fcbayern.com/en/news/2020/02/manuel-neuer-interview-51. 

Rahim, Mohamed Zubair. “Investigating the Relationship between Fortitude and Academic Achievement.” Https://Core.ac.uk/, Dec. 2007, core.ac.uk/download/pdf/58913487.pdf. 

Should Curriculum be Motivating?

Thanks to Sabrina Wendl at https://unsplash.com/photos/h2NlwNkA2h8.

I recently stumbled upon an interview with Amelia Peterson, a founding member of The London Interdisciplinary School (LIS), on the IB Community Blog. LIS offers a multifaceted undergraduate curriculum rooted in ‘Problems’ and ‘Methods.’ Dr. Peterson asserts that all students at LIS start their education with identifying a problem, be it childhood obesity, malaria, knife crime, or palm oil supply chains. They work collectively as well as individually to solve these complex real-world issues by learning basic theories and building models from a variety of disciplines ranging from data science and ethnography to creative writing and visual design. They would then move onto paid internships at established companies, government agencies, and startups to further hone their contemporary skills (Peterson, 2020). The premise of LIS approach is to design curricula that shifts students’ motivation from writing perfect responses to test questions to learning new things without a huge emphasis on assessment and seeking novel intellectual challenges. Well, their USP is different from a conventional liberal arts education in the sense that the former provides significant breadth and exposure to students where they work on over a dozen problems in three years by collaborating with experts and professionals to grapple with the ground realities of academic theories. They also have a flexible admissions policy for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. If we were to reimagine curricula in K-12 schools, what role do student motivation and self-determination play? How do we train young minds in order to develop systems thinking and society-ready skills?

The first step will be to overcome the narrow siloed approaches to writing course outlines. The broad goals of a high school chemistry curriculum are neither the structure of an atom nor subject-specific practical skills. Although these are important, the overarching goals should be to develop nuanced thinking and fluency in crosscutting concepts that are transferable across disciplines, say identifying trends, establishing and explaining correlations using software, building systems and system models to simulate complex natural phenomena etc. Many of these are already done in schools in individual subjects sparsely, but learners need to be exposed repeatedly to these techniques to achieve mastery so that they could apply them correctly to solve complex problems. Exposure and repetition of basic facts and processes during early learning will be key to developing semantic memories, which will in turn be critical to developing deeper understanding and enhancing creativity (Paulin et al., 2020). In plain English, schools don’t ‘kill’ creativity and you can’t innovate with weak foundational knowledge and poor conceptual understanding. For example, a good measure of any high school diploma would be to ask if the graduates are able to apply their statistical knowledge and understandings to seamlessly manage information by verifying its validity and reliability.

John Keller developed the ARCS (Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction) model of instructional design in 1983 and the methodology places a greater emphasis on motivation. I find this approach still relevant today if we could tweak it to meet the current generational and societal needs as discussed below:

a. Attention: One of my Grade 11 IB students, who was a part of the pre-IB chemistry cohort I taught last year, recently inquired whether I will be using case studies to teach HL chemistry content as I did in his previous grades. He found the case analysis approach motivating and stimulating as he enjoyed finding creative and empathetic solutions that might come in handy in a real-world scenario. Imagine each science lesson in schools starts with a discrepant event or a question that creates a disequilibrium in learners minds and the expectation will be to learn the required theories and skills to explain this event. For example, an engaging lesson in energy might be one where students are asked to explain, using a data-driven argument, why 100% ethanol is not used as a fuel in automobiles. To answer this, they will be expected to understand the physics of the internal combustion engine, chemistry of fuel combustion, and the mathematics of mileage. The basic questions in curriculum maps and and the abstract terminology that are permanently understood should make learners produce perceptual phenomena and real events.

b. Relevance: This could be one of the most challenging aspects of curriculum from both the teacher and learner perspective. How do we tell students what they learn matters? Without bringing their yet-to-be-decided career goals into the picture, a narrative focused on self-awareness should be the way forward. How well do they understand themselves and their surroundings? An example of stimulating students’ interest in the second law of thermodynamics will be to ask: why is it that when we wake up, day in and day out, the entropy of human body doesn’t increase? Why don’t our organs and organelles transform into different shapes? Another strategy to promote relevance would be to provide options to prove students’ accomplishments, allowing them to reflect on their conceptual changes or design learning strategies to positively influence students’ efficiency.

c. Confidence: This may be the closest to my heart. The sign of any effective teaching is that students raise their heads and walk out of the classroom, as if they had just conquered the highest mountain in the area. It’s not an easy task if we factor in the attitudes and attributes of diverse learners in schools. Develop a small group of specific learning goals and highlight key learning strategies, and then specify the time frame in which all learners are expected to undertake a series of intermediate challenges. This should set the clock ticking. Praising tactics and assigning compliments under real conditions where they can independently respond to challenges with great autonomy will be another practical way to guide their thinking and work. Once learners show proficiency in a limited set of strategies, exposing them to integrated problems followed by multi-layer challenges should gradually peel off their curricular inhibitions and anxieties.

d. Satisfaction: Educators try their best to let learners experience success early on in their course. After all, a happy soul is willing to learn more. Recently, an acquaintance suggested that I give chocolate to students who are not very enthusiastic about their work. Of course, he was joking, but the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University recommends providing opportunities for students to test their newly learned skills in realistic settings as soon as possible. For instance, if they learned about the working of a dry cell battery in class, they should be investigating the similarities and differences between their laptop and cell phone batteries. Asking them to comment on their efficiency vis-a-vis their recharging time should broaden their scientific horizon about energy transformation. Also, as students transition to complex tasks, the magnitude and frequency of scaffolding should fade away gradually as they gain proficiency. One strategy I use in my chemistry lessons is that I encourage the early finishers to share their problem-solving approaches and related struggles before they arrived at the finish line. The basic principle is to emphasize the role of effort and the hidden dimensions of human vulnerability, and to obscure the IQ factor in the work equation.

In conclusion, the goals of any curriculum should be to augment the efforts of learners in achieving the required competencies, focus on integrated and interdisciplinary problem-solving, and reflect the needs and aspirations of the very learners it serves with a strong undercurrent of positive reinforcement at every step of the way as no civilization can flourish on a foundation of threats and ultimatums.


Mcdaniel, Rhett. “Motivating Students.” Vanderbilt University, Vanderbilt University, 14 Nov. 2020, cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/motivating-students/. 

Paulin, Tamara, et al. “The Effect of Semantic Memory Degeneration on Creative Thinking: A Voxel-Based Morphometry Analysis.” NeuroImage, Academic Press, 20 June 2020, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811920305590. 

“Redefining What a University Education Looks like: Q&A with Amelia Peterson.” News from around the IB Community, IBO, 14 Nov. 2020, blogs.ibo.org/blog/2020/11/06/redefining-what-a-university-education-looks-like-qa-with-amelia-peterson/?utm_content=bufferf592a. 

Teacher Explanations and Student Confidence

Thanks to Jon Tyson at https://unsplash.com/photos/RUsczRV6ifY.

Good teaching is the most important lever schools have to improve outcomes for disadvantaged pupils.”  – Education Endowment Foundation Guide to Pupil Premium

November 7, 2020 marks my 20th year of foray into international teaching when I quit my maiden job as a young chemist and took a plunge into the world of education at a mid-sized international school in South-East Asia, where I taught GCE Ordinary-Level chemistry and middle school general science (Delayed paperwork and related bureaucracy were the root cause of the late start of the school year). I felt it is appropriate to reflect on the evolution of my explanations to learners during this two-decade journey.

a. Pre-Instructional Conceptions: Diagnostic evaluation of students’ knowledge, understanding, and skills is part and parcel of educators’ toolkit, and they employ a variety of strategies, from paper-based concept-check to more efficient digital strategies. However, the breadth and depth of questions used will be critical to capturing the 30,000-foot picture of students’ preconceived notions. For instance, if you ask middle schoolers what happens when you heat pure magnesium ribbon, some would say it would get hotter as they base their perspective of ‘change’ on their observations of everyday events (say, heating a frying pan made out of an alloy), whereas the intended conceptual change is deeper as in transformation of matter at the submicroscopic level to form magnesium oxide. They also believe that the resulting magnesium oxide is waste, just like the ash obtained from burning paper, which should be simply discarded in the bin, but from a scientific dimension, you could pass an electric current through the liquid ‘ash’ to regain the pure magnesium metal. Using macroscopic models of phenomena and scaffolding the individual stages of change through demonstrations and/or simulations, and repeated exposure to these strategies should enable the desired conceptual change in learners (Treagust et al, 2000). An appropriate reflection where students are asked to explicitly describe the relationships between their everyday conceptions of change, and their curricular experiences in school laboratories or outdoor learning spaces should augment the accuracy of their mental models. The potential of science curricula could be maximised when teaching and learning strategies encourage learners to interpret change from a scientific perspective, not common sense. 

b. Analogies and Metaphors: According to ‘Writer’s Digest,’ an analogy is a comparison of two things to explain an idea or a concept and unlike a metaphor, it is an argument, not a figure of speech. For an early elementary student who may not have enough academic vocabulary to verbalize the particle model in a solid, an unused box of ‘Ferrero Rocher‘ chocolates might come in handy to visualize and make a concrete connection. However, asking learners to differentiate between the arrangement of chocolates and atoms in a solid could avoid the distortion of their mental models. For a Grade 12 student, s/he needs to internalise what a crystalline lattice is, its historic origins in geometry, and its relationship to macroscopic structures in chemistry and physics. Although a simulation model can accomplish this work, meaningful analogies may not always be necessary to influence their conceptual development. On the other hand, a metaphor is a word or phrase that takes on the meaning of something else. The classic Schrodinger box is a glorified metaphor for an atom that is often used to correctly interpret quantum theory. There are many studies on the effectiveness of analogies and metaphors in K-12 education. To maintain the integrity of conceptual understanding and avoid misconceptions, it is critical to explicitly specify the components of an analogy and its limitations (Brown & Salter, 2010). Owing to the sheer evolutionary nature of science, change in instructional strategies, and sophistication of concept development in higher education, one needs to do due diligence to use good analogies.

c. Teachers’ Assumptions: Early on, I used to over-estimate my learners’ breadth and depth of chemical knowledge and understanding and introduced complex explanations and problems a tad early. Today, I realise why robust background knowledge is important to not only make connections between concepts, but understand the relationships between academic events and real-world science. As an ongoing learner of a foreign language, I have experienced first-hand how deceiving vocabulary could be. For example, the word, ‘malleable’ often denotes flexibility and versatility, but the same term in chemistry involves the use of a hammer/machine to transform a piece of metal into a gift-wrapping foil. Correspondingly, words have several meanings in the academic context. The word ‘precipitation’ refers to the formation of an insoluble product in a chemical reaction, whereas the same learner encounters precipitation as air saturated by water vapor which falls back to the ground as hail or rainfall in geography or environmental science class. The former is caused by a chemical change, whereas the latter is a physical process. However, educators have a responsibility to highlight the commonality between the two processes – the separation of a substance from a suspension. In order to cultivate precise scientific imagination, learners need to understand these similarities and differences in academic vocabulary. Abstract concepts need concrete events or phenomena to anchor student engagement and examples from everyday living and environmental systems promote accessibility and inclusive learning.

Rigorous science instruction allows for multiple pathways to address learners’ pre-instructional conceptions, clear distinction between real-world analogies and academic concepts, and value-added curricular examples that will bring them closer to their surroundings to provide an engaging and immersive learning experience.


Brewer, Robert Lee. “Analogy vs. Metaphor vs. Simile (Grammar Rules).” Writer’s Digest, 4 Nov. 2019, http://www.writersdigest.com/write-better-fiction/analogy-vs-metaphor-vs-simile-grammar-rules. 

Brown, Simon, and Susan Salter. “Analogies in Science and Science Teaching.” Https://Journals.physiology.org/doi/pdf/10.1152/advan.00022.2010, 26 Sept. 2010.

Treagust, David, et al. “Sources of Students Difficulties in Learning Chemistry.” ResearchGate, Jan. 2000, http://www.researchgate.net/publication/285747197_Sources_of_students_difficulties_in_learning_Chemistry. 

Wizadry, Witchcraft, and Chemistry


The holiday season beginning in October is more of a treat than a trick for science teachers in general, and chemistry educators in particular. Engaging the community with demonstrations and hands-on stations is a fun way to infuse enthusiasm and excitement into fundamental science concepts. With a slight dose of creativity, chemistry could be made accessible to even the least interested. Here are a few ideas worth trying:

a. Candymonium: Well, the word doesn’t really exist, but asking learners to carry out a paper chromatography to compare the solubilities of different dyes in candy/food colorings in carbon-based solvents will provide students with a unique perspective on mixture separation. Students in higher grades could play Sherlock by separating a mixture of amino acids in fingerprints and bring the separation to life with ninhydrin spray.

b. ‘The Devil’s Milkshake’: With a few pellets of calcium metal added to water in a graduated cylinder, one could create pretty orange-red flame characteristic of calcium. A multitude of concepts, ranging from atomic structure, emission spectra, and chemical properties of elements could be taught using this single demonstration. Even an extension activity asking learners to explain the connection between acid rain and this so called ‘milkshake’ will push to them to think harder about crosscutting concepts.

c. Orange Clock : This is a personal favourite of mine and it’s so convenient that one could try this from the comfort of a living room. In a transparent glass filled with orange juice, and appropriate amounts of hydrogen peroxide, tincture of iodine, and starch solution, you can verify the amount of Vitamin C in your favourite brand of squash. High quality lessons in stoichiometry and redox chemistry could be delivered via this orange juice clock even in a distance learning program.

d. It’s all about Pumpkins: If one wants to take chemistry lessons to the next level, this could be it. Grounding green pumpkin seeds with a pestle and mortar in a dark room and mixing with nail polish remover followed by shining UV light produces a brilliant orange-red light. Protochlorophyllide, the molecule responsible for this festive illumination, is a precursor to chlorophyll and a variety of interdisciplinary lessons can happen around this phenomenon. With some controlled manipulations and varying strength of organic solvents, IB students could even plan a rigorous exploration for their extended essay or internal assessment.

There you have it. Chemistry isn’t as scary as folks imagine and hope your lessons shed some bright light on learners’ pre-instructional conceptions.


Brandl, Helmut. Chemistry in Pictures, 6 Apr. 2016, cen.chempics.org/post/142318888173/pumpkin-spiced-fluorescence-inside-a-pumpkin.