Wisdom in Practical Chemistry: A response to Simon Blackburn's TES article 'A word to the wi
About a month ago I read Simon Blackburn's excellent article on the difference between 'knowledge' and 'wisdom', and the implications of this distinction for educators, 'A word to the wise'. In Chemistry we very rarely suggest that students are wise, but we are happy with the idea that a wise chemist may complete a practical in a certain way, or intuitively know that the results of a certain experiment are unreliable, or not useful. Blackburn argues, rightly in my opinion, that "Wisdom [...] does not come at the expense of knowledge but rides on its back." The wise chemist has a lot of knowledge at her disposal which is what enables her to act with wisdom. But what are the skills that a chemist needs to have to be accorded the label 'wise'? And can we teach these skills to students?
I have come up with a list of six skills which I tentatively believe are essential for achieving practical wisdom. This list has been inspired by Blackburn's examples, as well as some personal reflection. Furthermore, I also suggest that a chemist must combine all of these skills together in order to be considered 'wise'.
The 'Wheel of Wisdom' in practical Chemistry.
Knowledge of the principles, and understanding of the principles are required to be able to perform the experiment. This knowledge might be how to carry out the practical techniques, which steps go in which order, how each piece of apparatus works, what will happen in the chemical reaction, etc. The understanding can be of the practical or the theory of the reaction taking place. The wise chemist must understand the theory behind the reaction, why this reacts with this in such and such conditions. But they must also understand why a particular piece of apparatus is better than another for performing a change. Without knowledge and understanding of the underlying principles, a chemist cannot carry out a practical; they are unable to perform the steps and they cannot plan a practical on their own.
A wise chemists knows instinctively what to do if something goes wrong. They can adapt the method, know how to account for spillages of any of the chemicals they are using, what to do if something catches fire, but also what do do if the reaction does not proceed as expected. For safety concerns they respond instinctively, without active thought, because they have practised the procedures many times over and they know and understand the underlying chemistry. If an expected reactions does not take place, a wise chemist can suggest modifications to the method in order to raise the chance of a successful reaction.
When designing an investigation, a wise chemist will ask the right questions: they have deep expertise which means that they know which sorts of questions will lead to interesting investigations and which will not give any interesting data. They can work out which knowledge is useful in the context of the investigation. Wise chemists are able to filter out the unnecessary knowledge they have to focus on the important questions rather than worrying about peripheral issues which are irrelevant to the context.
Judging the validity of data is a crucial skill for expert scientists. A wise chemist can rapidly judge whether or not the evidence is sufficient to support the claim. To them this judging is instinctive, because it is founded on years of knowledge and understanding. Judging without knowledge and understanding is merely prejudice. They are able to evaluate different kinds of data and compare and contrast them in terms of reliability, accuracy and relevance. They can 'question' the data and evaluate it in its context.
"So what are the pedagogical implications of all this?" asks Blackburn. For him, wisdom is about 'touch' or judgement, and "in the complex business of living, acquiring a “touch” requires practice and exposure, growth and experience". This means that if we are to encourage practical wisdom in our students, we need to expose them to a wide range of experiences in practical chemistry, and give them opportunities to grow. Simply completing each practical once does not do this, they need to complete a technique in different contexts, with different amounts of support to allow for this growth.
Blackburn suggests that wise judgement "is best practised in conversation and dialogue": the Socratic method. All teachers know the benefits of high quality student-talk in lessons, but making sufficient time for this is essential for students to develop this kind of judgement.
"The Socratic discipline of philosophical discussion teaches people the civilised lesson that their first thoughts are not always their best, and that reflection often brings improvement. It teaches them that shouting loud is no substitute for thinking hard. It teaches them to think and to listen."
This means that experiments need to be discussed and evaluated. Students need to be given an opportunity to go beyond their knowledge and understanding and get a feel for the scientific method. Over time, as a scientist becomes an expert, this becomes instinctive, but this takes time and constant dialogue with students. Firstly, we need to push back against the curriculum and ask more "how" and "why" questions on practical matters, making space for the development of wisdom. Student could be asked to list everything they know about titrations and then asked to select the relevant pieces of knowledge before they start planning, or debate whether or not a set of data is reliable or useful for the progress of scientific knowledge. Secondly, we need to talk to them when they are doing experiments and ask them how the practical is informative, or what they could do to make it more accurate, or hat they would do if something went wrong. Finally, we should give space for students to set their own investigative questions, not just choosing between investigating either the relationship between surface area or concentration and rate: this is not teaching students to ask better questions.
Of course none of these things are possible if students do not have sufficient knowledge and understanding to access the discussion or the skills to carry out the practical work. Black burn is clear however, that wisdom is not a substitute for knowledge, "What we can do, however, is to cultivate judgement alongside the cultivation of knowledge."