Who Can Teach Chemistry?

With a spiral curriculum, high school school science education becomes integrated. As a result, teaching science in high schools may no longer require subject expertise. The question is whether a biology major can teach chemistry. Can a chemistry major in college teach biology in high school? Can a physics major teach chemistry in high school? The answer is no.

A biology major in college perhaps is required to take General Chemistry, but such exposure is usually inadequate. The more advanced courses in the different branches of chemistry allows for a student to appreciate and delve deeper into concepts learned in introductory courses. Without a deeper experience in chemistry, a teacher cannot have the flexibility to tailor instruction to the needs, interests and background of the students. A limited exposure to chemistry means a limited number of options to teach its concepts. Unfortunately, a limited exposure often means a limited understanding of chemistry as well.

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A recent study in the United Kingdom reveals that science majors in general are not really qualified to teach chemistry. A major in chemistry is required to master even the basic concepts in chemistry that are to be taught in high school:


Aspects of chemistry content knowledge held by 265 UK-based pre-service teachers (PSTs) were probed using 28 diagnostic questions in five chemistry concept areas, Particle theory and changes of state, Mass conservation (taught to 11–14-year-olds), and Chemical bonding, Mole calculations and Combustion reactions (taught to 14–16-year-olds). Data were collected over six years from academically able science graduates starting a full-time, university-based teacher education programme of one academic year duration. PSTs in three sub-cohorts (‘chemists', ‘physicists' and ‘biologists' on the basis of their undergraduate degrees) demonstrated similar levels of content knowledge (CK) for Particle theory and changes of state and Mass conservation. Biologists demonstrated statistically significantly weaker understanding than chemists and physicists in Chemical bonding, Mole calculations and Combustion reactions. Forty-four ‘triads' each comprising one chemist, physicist and biologist, matched by academic and personal backgrounds, showed that chemists outperformed biologists and physicists in Chemical bonding and Combustion reactions. The findings suggest that non-chemists' CK is insufficient for teaching these chemistry concepts in high schools, despite their possession of ‘good' Bachelor of Science degrees. These data have implications for science teacher education, including how best to prepare science graduates from diverse backgrounds for teaching specialist science subjects to 11–16-year-olds.
So, perhaps, it is time to rethink how science is taught in high school. We should stop faking it.

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