So it happens that my kid is in 8th grade and is studying chemistry for the first time in earnest. As luck would have it, the kid’s teacher is of Haitian extraction and is on some kind of leave of absence either due to illness or possibly because 3 family members perished in the quake. I don’t know. This fellow seems to be a good teacher.

His replacement, however, is not very good. In fact, his replacement is … awful.

For the first time, I had a serious discussion with a principal about a teacher’s performance. The principal is apparently aware of the substitutes classroom foibles and sins of omission. The principal’s own son is a student in that class and so he has a personal interest in the matter.

So, after some time with the kid at the whiteboard in our basement last night, it dawned on me that I had completely forgotten how utterly strange atomic theory and the chemical phenomena that derive from it really are. It is all quite abstract and maybe even a little weird.

The curriculum gives some emphasis to understanding the concept of pH. Alright. But this requires some ideas about logarithms and exponents. Then there is the matter of chemical equilibrium. While kids are wrestling with the math, you are also trying to tell them that only a very small number of water molecules actually come apart into ions. But the kids need to be comfortable with the notion of ions and charge.

But, what makes hydrogen ion different from hydroxide ion, really?  And why does hydroxide ion have the negative charge? How is it that acids corrode iron to form H2, but hydroxide does not? What does it mean to be an acid? What does it mean to be a base?

You can try to use structural models of sulfuric acid rather than line formulae like H2SO4 to appeal to the idea that these are little things with attachments that do things. One could argue that it is a bit more concrete that way- little structures with parts that are detachable. But as soon as you start drawing structures, you run into a rats nest of intermeshed concepts relating to bonds and lone pairs. Then there is the bloody octet rule, covalency, and orbitals!!!

For crying out loud!! How does anybody learn this stuff?? The learner has to absorb 20 abstract concepts almost simultaneously to begin to “get” chemistry.  Even worse, if a chemist/parent teaches the kid about a concept, almost certainly it will not mesh with curriculum, leading to confusion and tears for the teacher and the student.

I taught orgo to college sophomores, but evidently 8th grade chemistry eludes me. I’m just too dense to grasp the level of abstraction they will accept. Oh!  To have an hour with Piaget!

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