The Place of the History of Chemistry in the Teaching and Learning of Chemistry

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This book chapter was originally published as:

de Berg, K. C. (2014). The place of the history of chemistry in the teaching and learning of chemistry. In M. R. Matthews (Ed.), International Handbook of Research in History, Philosophy and Science Teaching (pp. 317-341). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

ISBN: 9789400776531



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To those of us who are sold on history it may seem non-controversial to suggest that the learning and teaching of chemistry should give cognisance to the historical development of the subject. However, this suggestion is proving controversial amongst some in the chemistry profession. For example, in the October 2010 edition of Chemistry in Australia Rami Ibo takes issue with the emphasis on the history of science in the HSC chemistry curriculum (Year 12) in New South Wales. He studied chemistry, physics and biology for his HSC in NSW and concluded that, because the primary focus of these three sciences was History of Science, “There was hardly any content that challenged our minds, and calculations barely involved plugging in numbers into an equation…..We were required to recall Antoine Lavoisier’s experiments that led to the theories of acids and bases… while my friends in Lebanon were studying ideal gas laws, chemical kinetics, acids and bases, organic chemistry, soaps and detergents, medicinal chemistry and new materials” (Ibo 2010). What does the literature have to say in response to such arguments? Does the presence of the history of chemistry in a curriculum necessarily reduce important content and problem solving skills?

A study of the literature suggests at least three reasons for persisting with aspects of the history of chemistry in the learning and teaching of chemistry.

1. The fact that student conceptions sometimes recapitulate early ideas found in the history of chemistry is seen as offering teachers a means of a deeper understanding of student ideas with the potential for more positive learning outcomes.

2. Conceptual clarity is more easily achieved within an historical context. Often conceptual usefulness is pursued at the expense of conceptual depth (de Berg 2008a).

3. The history of chemistry directly gives us some idea of the epistemological status of chemistry within science and knowledge in general and therefore gives a student access to aspects of the Nature of Science.

This review chapter also examines different ways the history of chemistry has been incorporated into chemistry curricula and looks at the purported advantages, disadvantages, and limitations of such attempts. Some directions for future research in this area are included in the chapter.


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