Thankful for Knowledge

Within the first couple of Chemistry lessons in Year 7 I dive straight into the Periodic Table with my students. We learn the definition of elements, I tell stories of the discovery of elements of how and when they were named. I like to tell students the stories about how the symbols which don’t relate to their English names came about, because stories have a privledged place in our memories, and thus ‘natrium’ and ‘kalium’ and plumbum’ are all introduced and there’s an inevitable teaching of a bit of Latin for which I make no apologies whatsoever.

Science and Celebrity_Humphry Davys Rising Star_0

Davy’s experiments with Voltaic Cells to split apart compounds into new elements

I then send students home with a list of about 25 elements that I’d like them to learn the names (including correct spellings; I’m looking at you, fluorine) and associated symbols for. They include common elements they’ll be coming across a lot, a mix of one, and two letter symbols and quite a few where the name and the symbol have no relationship in English (hello, aforementioned sodium and potassium, but also iron and copper). Then in the next lesson I give them a test. And often I’ll suprise test them again a week or two later. They tend to do pretty well, because (and I don’t know if you’ve noticed this) most Year 7s like a test, especially a low stakes one, and possibly because by this stage in the year (Chemistry always comes after Biology), they have noticed that low-stakes quizzes in my room often come with Haribo prizes. Never explicitly in advance though, that’s a terrible way to do any rewards. No, there is just a faint suggestion that Haribo may be distributed at any time in my room, often not handed out to the clever clogs who got 15/15, their smugness (and/or possibly cheating during self marking) is reward enough, but instead maybe to everyone who scored 14 or 13. After I have checked that they didn’t actually write “flourine”, in which case I remove a mark and any prize because I am a cold-hearted monster*, and it’s not like they weren’t warned.

After this test, I tell them the good news – that never again will they have to take a Chemistry test without a periodic table in front of them to check the name, correct spelling, symbol and (currently to them) mysterious numbers associated with each element. I tell them that they do not need to remember any information found within the periodic table because it will always be given to them in an exam. I tell students that asking a Chemist to do a Chemistry exam without a periodic table is like asking a snooker player to play without a cue; an entertaining party trick perhaps, but not how things are done properly. However, I also tell them that it’ll be in their interest to remember a bit and that they’ll find they pick up quite a lot of it along the way… 

So why then, if students will always have this information at their finger tips, did I ask them to commit some of it to memory? Well, for three reasons, all of which I believe are applicable to other areas of the science curriculum and beyond:

  1. General Principles.  It is important that students understand the general principles involved.  That element symbols always start with a capital letter, and if there are two letters the second letter is lower case. I want students to know that, even if they look up information from the periodic table, because I want them to know that they can’t transpose or change the upper and lowercase letters.
  2. Fluency. There are certain bits of knowledge that I want students to simply know. Elements that come up so frequently that I want them to know what their symbols are without having to look them up on the periodic table. Elemental symbols that I would like them to have committed to long term memory without having to take up specious space within their limited working memory, by having to use the periodic table to look things up when answering an exam question.
  3. Knowledge Location. By knowing some symbols students have a reference point to use to look up further knowledge.  They know that the periodic table is the go to location when they want to know the symbol from a name, or a name from a symbol. Never again do I want a student to say that they didn’t know to use the periodic table given to them in an exam. I want students to know that the periodic table can tell them the details of the elemental symbols. I want them to be able to find Iron, Copper or Zinc quickly to check the symbol. I want them to know exactly where Carbon, Nitrogen and Oxygen are to be found on the table when in KS4 and KS5 they are using the table to check atomic masses. I don’t want GCSE students faffing around wasting time searching for common elements on the table.

It’s often said that students don’t need to learn any details in the age of Google.  Why should students need to commit anything to memory when they can “just google it”. Well, they can make mistakes, obviously, but it’s impossible to google something you have no knowledge about at all, what would you search for?

Let me illustrate this point with a little story…

Fighting in the First World War was so devastating that just 53 parishes in the whole of the UK  were spared the pain of the deaths of a serviceman sent to fight. The deathtoll was so awful that in France just a single village had all its servicemen return home. Between the wars, the author Arthur Mee coined the term “Thankful Village” for those parishes that had all servicemen return home. Of those 53 parishes, 39 would go on to experience the death of service personel in the second world war, and so there are only 14  villages without war memorials. Just 14 villages in the UK managed to go through  the first half of the 20th century without sacrificing one of their number. These villages would come to be known as “Doubly Thankful”.


The location of Thankful Villages in the UK

I only learned of these terms a few of years ago when during a half-term walk in the countryside I noticed a local village to Bath (Woolley, just off the A46 to the west, as you head down from the M4) had no war memorial and instead a plaque outside the village church described the village as doubly thankful. I was telling a History teacher at school about the village earlier this year and they’d not heard of the term Thankful Village either. I couldn’t remember then how many there were in total – but it was a quick google away on my mobile. But until you know about them, how will you know what to google to find the number of  Thankful Villages, or even find out if there is a Doubly Thankful Village nearby to you?

This is the point about knowledge. You really do need a little, despite it’s dangers, to do anything. You can’t google something you know literally nothing about, where would you start?  If you know a bit, you can quickly reference the obscure details, whether that’s the chemical symbol for protactinium (Pa), the relative atomic mass of tin (118.7), or the county with the most doubly thankful villages (Lincolnshire, 3). But until you know what thankful village or relative atomic mass mean, how to do move on?

I sometimes feel that critics of a knowledge-rich curriculum believe that these dry details are drilled into kids in isolation. That they must remember the relative atomic mass of every element, huge chunks of Shakespeare or the dates of dozens of key battles in the first world war without context. But to me, that’s not how a knowledge curriculum works. These bits of information aren’t drilled in as dry components. They’re part of a rich whole of each subject which allow students to understand the general prinicples of the subjects that they are studying in greater depth. That remembering a few key facts will allow students build fluency in their subject by remembering some important information that is revisited frequently; by remembering the start and end dates of the wars, short quotations of important characters or the relative atomic mass of carbon then students can build fluency to their own answers to questions and not overload their working memory. And finally, they can know the location of knowledge, in exams, essays and life beyond school, they can know where to find the knowledge they want and need. Even if that is, what specifically they need to type into google.






*Footnote: I’m not really a monster, I am just a pedant, and pedantry wins prizes. And it wins marks in exams, which are like prizes if you think about it. What type of message does it send if we pretend that incorrect answers are actually correct?

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