Learning chemistry without school

Arun Elassery

Our three children (Aditi age 17, Srikant age 13 and Dinkar age 10) have not been going to school and have been studying at home since 2006. They use the NCERT textbooks appropriate to their age, which they study mostly on their own, as they move up the classes. It has been a great adventure and Aditi has just completed her 12th board exams through the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS). The subjects she took were biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and English. This article talks about how Aditi studied high school chemistry without going to school.

How does one study at home?
The idea of children studying on their own and getting through school may appear strange so before getting into learning chemistry, listed below are some points about our version of learning at home.

  • Academic learning is not the most important thing our children do. Activities like music, dance, art, reading, cooking, etc., are considered equally if not more important.
  • Learning is assumed to be driven from within so the children study at their own pace and on their own.
  • The resources that are used include the standard NCERT/NIOS textbooks and the wealth of material that is now available on the Internet.
  • The time spent studying is less than what school-going children spend.

Isn’t high school chemistry very difficult to study on your own?
The NIOS senior secondary chemistry syllabus (which is similar to the CBSE syllabus) is frighteningly large. There are three books with a total of some 800 A4 sized pages full of complicated looking images and words. Flipping randomly through the books I chose three impressive sounding headings to illustrate what we are dealing with.

  • Henderson-Hasselbalch Equation
  • Freundlich Adsorption Isotherm
  • Haloalkenes and Haloarenes

Plodding through this material, making sense of it, and remembering it long enough to give the most important examination in a child’s life seems quite barbaric. (Maths and physics and biology have equally heavy books). I think it miraculous that hundreds of thousands of children go through this burdensome content and come out on the other side of the exams intact. Yes, whether with a teacher or on your own, it does look very difficult.

So can Aditi now tell us in her own words how she went about her chemistry study?
I asked her to write it down for me and this is what she had to say:

“I read through my NIOS textbooks in the beginning to get an idea of all the things I would have to learn. The NIOS syllabus had three textbooks but I also had the 11th and 12th standard NCERT books that I sometimes used for reference. I found that while the second NIOS book dealt with organic chemistry and largely involved the memorization of reactions and chemical equations, the first book had a lot of abstract concepts that I hadn’t come across before, which I found very difficult to understand just by reading the textbook. For example, I was completely confused when it came to atomic orbitals or electronic configurations.”

I turned to the Internet for help and the videos and lectures I watched were really useful and helped me make sense of what I read in my textbook.

What I watched and how it helped
Khan Academy (the chemistry and organic chemistry playlists) – helped me understand how electronic configurations worked and the process of naming organic compounds.

MIT video lectures in chemistry – (http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/chemistry/5-111-principles-of-chemical-science-fall-2008/video-lectures/) – helped me understand the photoelectric effect, orbitals, and chemical bonding.

Crashcourse (http://www.youtube.com/user/crashcourse)
Scishow (http://www.youtube.com/user/scishow) and
Periodicvideos (http://www.youtube.com/user/periodicvideos) – did not directly talk about stuff I had in the textbooks but were useful and fun to watch nonetheless.

I spent a lot of time on the Internet watching these videos and started working on the textbook problems seriously only 2 months before the exam. I also left the memorization of equations and compounds till the last minute.

That was Aditi talking about her chemistry preparation. Let me just add that she was the one who discovered and explored all the Internet resources she needed and figured out how to navigate through her syllabus most effectively.

Was NIOS a good option for Aditi?
When you register for NIOS you are assigned to a school that has the lab facilities and teachers to help you with your studies. These classes are held on the weekends so as to not clash with the functioning of the regular school. NIOS also designs its material to help self-learning. This is what the chairman of NIOS has to say in the foreword of the chemistry textbook:

“The study materials developed by NIOS are self-learning materials. You are supposed to read and work on your own. Unlike a textbook, you do not need a teacher to tell you what to do. With our good wishes, start studying, do what you are told to do, attempt all activities, answer the intext questions, check your answers from the answers given, learn each topic well and be a successful self-learner.”

In our experience, the NIOS system has fitted in really well with the way we wanted to do academics.

Can we now sum up the main ideas in this article?

  • It is possible to learn high school chemistry on your own. In fact, NIOS structures its content on this very assumption.
  • There has been an explosion of teaching material on the Internet and the best teachers are now available free to the world.
  • If the resources are made available, children can find their own way through them to ensure effective learning.

If you have any questions or comments please write to the author at arunelassery@hotmail.com. An experiment he did to teach all of 12th standard chemistry in a week’s time is chronicled at http://arunelassery.blogspot.in/2012/02/perspectives-on-teaching-learning-and.html.

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