Teaching dilemmas

Implementing Chemical Thinking in chemistry classrooms has inherent challenges faced by teachers in creating opportunities to develop and apply this way of thinking about and acting on contemporary problems in chemistry. Teaching Dilemmas emerge from the tension between teaching what we know (traditional way) and how we know (chemical thinking) in chemistry, and they describe the experiences that teachers live in their practice.

There are two levels at which we will need to work with teachers. First, professional development must build teachers’ assessment reasoning and capacity for strategizing responsive actions. At a second level, the professional development must address teachers’ concerns about changing their practice of teaching chemistry. To address the latter, discussions during many of the sessions will include questions adapted from Windschitl1 that probe concerns about four types of dilemmas that constrain changes in instructional practices: 

Conceptual dilemmas will occur as teachers confront the philosophical, psychological, and epistemological assumptions that differ between a traditional conceptualization of chemistry learning and chemical thinking. Teachers are asked to organize instruction around the Chemical Thinking Framework instead of a topic based approach.

Some Examples:
Teachers using the Chemical Thinking Framework have a difficult time correlating it to the usual topics and units normally taught in our classes.  

  • Is having students construct this knowledge viable, when atomic level particles behave so differently from macroscopic observations?  
  • As long as students are active and doing hands-on activities, they are learning.
  • My students are engaged and really want to talk about observations with peers and come up with true knowledge.
  • I know a lot of Chemistry, and therefore can design classes that allow students to observe, discuss and make decisions about the truth of matter and the changes that they undergo.
  •  I trust students to be focused and interested enough to discuss observations and data.
  •  I don’t think students know the correct way to demonstrate how they understand the abstract concepts in Chemistry.
  • If I tell students when they are wrong, they can change the way they think and come up with the right answer. 

Pedagogical dilemmas will arise as they address decisions about instructional materials and approaches and what to emphasize in learning experiences that a chemical thinking perspective demands.

Some Examples:

  • As a teacher, I’m supposed to just tell the student if they got the right answer, right?!  
  • Should I give students credit when they have learned something even if they didn’t do it my way, which is the right way?  
  • How much time in class should be allotted to discuss what each student thinks?
  •  How do I teach Chemical Thinking and how they can incorporate a data and dialogue into their knowledge?  
  • If I open up the class to discussion, what if they ask me a question that I don’t know and can’t answer?  
  • It is so stressful to allow students to do the talking and lead discussions, aren’t I the teacher?  
  • They don’t want to figure it out, they’d rather have me tell them how to do it!!

Cultural dilemmas will emerge between teachers and students as classroom roles and expectations shift with an emphasis on chemical thinking.

Some Examples:

  • You mean I’m supposed to take the time to interview my students just to figure out what they are thinking without scoring or grading them?  
  • My students depend on me to tell them what to do and how to do it.  If I don’t teach them, how are they possibly going to learn the truth?  
  • If they don’t practice what I teach them, they’ll never learn how to do it well.  
  • My students are mostly SEL, I don’t understand what they are saying and how they think during discussions, but I’m sure they’ll understand me.  
  • What if my students are taught not to disagree with others in class, but to be quiet, listen and learn?
  • Students just want to participate in demonstrations and running labs, they don’t want to participate in figuring out why things happen, they want me to tell them…it is easier for them.

Political dilemmas will be associated with resistance from various stakeholders when school and organizational norms are questioned and routines of privilege and authority are disturbed.

Some Examples:

  • My head of department observed me and said that I did not teach any meaningful skills in class, the students just talked and came up with some ideas.  
  • The school board is worried that I am not teaching the material in a way that the students will be able to pass the state standards test.  
  • The parents are upset that I have flipped the class and that students have to learn and teach on their own while I just listen.  
  • The students are upset that the other teachers are learning different things from their teachers and feel left behind.  
  • What if the students actually learn how to use Chemical Thinking and can demonstrate their knowledge to me, but fail standardized tests because they are unfamiliar with the question.

Facilitator steps

To ground the dilemmas framework of this article, I (Windschitl) suggest that the following features characterize teacher and student activity in a constructivist classroom. They are derived from the broader literature on constructivism and connect what we know about how people learn with the kinds of classroom conditions that optimize opportunities to learn in meaningful ways: 

  • Teachers elicit students’ ideas and experiences in relation to key topics, then fashion learning situations that help students elaborate on or restructure their current knowledge. 
  • Students are given frequent opportunities to engage in complex, meaningful, problem-based activities. 
  • Teachers provide students with a variety of information resources as well as the tools (technological and conceptual) necessary to mediate learning. 
  • Students work collaboratively and are given support to engage in task-oriented dialogue with one another. 
  • Teachers make their own thinking processes explicit to learners and encourage students to do the same through dialogue, writing, drawings, or other representations. 
  • Students are routinely asked to apply knowledge in diverse and authentic contexts, to explain ideas, interpret texts, predict phenomena, and construct arguments based on evidence, rather than to focus exclusively on the acquisition of predetermined “right answers.” 
  • Teachers encourage students’ reflective and autonomous thinking in conjunction with the conditions listed above. 
  • Teachers employ a variety of assessment strategies to understand how students’ ideas are evolving and to give feedback on the processes as well as the products 
  • of their thinking. 


  1. Windschitl, M. (2002) Framing constructivism in practice as the negotiation of dilemmas: An analysis of the conceptual, pedagogical, cultural, and political challenges facing teachers. Review of Educational Research , 72(2), 131-175.