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Teacher beliefs and constraints in implementing a context-based approach in chemistry

Donna King

This article is an edited version of an article of the same title which originally appeared in Teaching Science Autumn 2007, and which is also available online on the website of the Queensland University of Technology.

Further information on Senior Years' Chemistry in Queensland is available from the Queensland Studies Authority website's P–12 syllabuses & support guide, Years 11 and 12 section, under Chemistry (2007).


Over the last forty years chemistry has usually been taught in a didactic way. The focus has been on covering the curriculum, through well-structured problems, mechanical and algorithmic laboratory work and the rote learning of a necessary body of knowledge. This approach has often failed to engage the interest of students, who tend to see the subject as irrelevant to their lives.

This problem is addressed by a new approach to teaching the subject, known as context-based chemistry, which connects the concepts studied with contexts which are relevant to students.

As Beasley and Butler (2002) describe the context-based approach, the teacher introduces a context to students at the start of a unit; content is then taught on a need -to know-basis, and concepts are discussed as they arise. For example, if the context is water, then the teacher and students can investigate the water quality of a local creek, and any chemistry concepts that are learnt will enable students to understand the causes of pollution and the chemical processes required to improve the water quality.

This context-based approach to the teaching of chemistry has been manifested in such programs as ChemCom in the USA and Chemistry: The Salters Approach in the UK (University of York Science education group [UYSEG], 2000). Highly-regarded research studies on these courses have shown the value of a context-based approach (Gutwill-Wise, 2001; Key, 1998; Ramsden, 1992, 1997; Sutman & Bruce, 1992).

In Queensland a syllabus adopting a context-based approach to years 11 and 12 Chemistry has been piloted over the last five years in selected classrooms during an initial trial pilot and a subsequent extended trial pilot.

The definition of ‘context’ adopted by the new Queensland syllabus is ‘a group of learning experiences that encourages students to transfer their understanding of key concepts to situations that mirror real life’ (Queensland Studies Authority, 2004, p 11). While many teachers intermittently link chemistry concepts to real-world examples, the syllabus writers intended to make such links systematic.

The study

This article reports on a study evaluating the success of the pilot syllabus. For the study the author interviewed 11 teachers and one university lecturer. The lecturer was on the board of Queensland’s Physics Syllabus committee and contributed to the introduction of the context-based Physics syllabus in high schools in the State. He had also taught chemistry for many years in high schools in Queensland. The interviewed teachers are currently implementing the context-based approach in chemistry classrooms in their high schools in Queensland. Most of the teachers were identified by colleagues as innovative and well-known chemistry teachers currently involved in implementing the context-based approach in schools. The teachers were asked five key questions: (1) What is your interpretation of a context-based chemistry course? (2) Have you changed your pedagogical approach in teaching the new course? (3) What are some of the positive outcomes of implementation? (4) What are some of the constraints to implementation? (5) How would you change the model presented for implementation in your classroom? All interviews were transcribed for analysis. The researcher coded the responses to search for common themes.

Concepts and contexts in chemistry teaching

Analysis of responses revealed differing views about the relationship between concepts and contexts in a context-based course. Six teachers expressed the view that in an ideal context-based unit the context needs to be presented first, followed by the development of concepts. However, another teacher expressed the view that starting with the context is not suitable for students who have difficulties making links between different learning situations. Three further teachers did not consider the order to be important, but called instead for a mingling of concept- and context-based approaches, or an ‘ebb and flow’ between them.

Some teachers talked of how the implementation of a context-based approach has required a move away from traditional didactic teaching methods, rote learning and routine algorithmic tasks. The challenge posed by such a change is highlighted by one teacher:

I have only learned a little bit about changing pedagogy by going through a painful process … trying to implement this has been for me a painful process … of learning and making mistakes and trying to keep a class trusting you that you know what you are doing ... and especially in the early days it was really challenging.

Perceived impact on students

Eight of the 11 teachers expressed the view that context-based teaching makes chemistry more relevant to the students’ lives, and that it is thus more engaging for students. The interview data therefore suggests that the current Queensland implementation has been successful in this important respect.

The findings are also consistent with research on the context-based Physics syllabus implemented in Victoria, which showed similar results (Hart, Fry & Vignouli, 2002).

The need for further dialogue with parents, students and teachers

Teachers implementing the new approach often encountered resistance to it from parents, students and other teachers, demonstrating the need for further explanation of and discussion about the reform.

Four teachers described difficulties in convincing students that the teaching approach was beneficial and would help them understand the concepts. One teacher said, ‘I have two or three students that are exam-based students and they don’t like it … they like to take exams … they like to memorise the information and regurgitate it’. Another commented:

They get to Year 11 to me and they’re not used to getting questions asked of them … they’re not used to being asked what they think and they’re not used to being asked to do an activity without too much guidance and to just have a problem and think it through….they get frustrated….some kids hate it.

Three of the interviewees discussed the reluctance of a colleague to embrace a context-based approach. As one teacher said:

A lot of teachers don’t even feel comfortable about telling the stories that are necessary to put the science into context … Some teachers have really limited views … don’t see what is possible … don’t have the energy to change … they have been teaching it this way from the book, they know what they are doing … they don’t necessarily want to think beyond that.

In contrast, one teacher expressed the positive pedagogical change the context-based approach has had on the science staff:

We did some action research which got teachers involved in changing their teaching and thinking about what it meant and discussing it … now they are more comfortable with it … rather than thinking … I’ve got to tell kids things … they don’t think like that anymore.

Three of the interviewees discussed the difficulties in changing the approach when parents had traditional ideas about chemistry teaching. One of them commented that it ‘is difficult in a traditional school to change the approach because of parental expectation’. Another remarked: ‘If the kids are uncomfortable and stressed and the kids are not getting the “A” then it’s the fault of the school and the course and anything new is scary.’

On the other hand, one teacher expressed the view that the parental support has influenced the choices of younger siblings and increased the awareness of chemistry in the school community.

We have a wine education evening and parents come in and they judge the wine ... it’s really engaged not only the students but also the parents and so now you have brothers and sisters coming through and so it’s had a really good impact from that.


The results of this study offer significant support for the value of a context-based approach to chemistry in the senior secondary years. However, the results also indicate that further explanation of the context-based approach is appropriate for students, teachers and parents.

Implementing a new teaching approach is not an easy task and requires a committed and innovative teacher who is prepared to enact their beliefs despite constraints to implementation. 

References for the abridged article

Beasley, W & Butler, J 2002, ' Implementation of Context-based Science within the Freedoms Offered by Queensland Schooling', paper presented at the ASERA Conference, Townsville, Queensland, Australia.

Gutwill-Wise, J 2001, 'The impact of active and context-based learning in introductory chemistry courses: An early evaluation of the modular approach', Journal of Chemical Education, 77(5), 684–690.

Hart, C, Fry, M & Vignouli, V 2002, 'What does it mean to teach physics "in context"? A second case study', Australian Science Teachers Journal, 48(3), 6–13.

Key, ME 1998, Student perceptions of chemical industry: influences of course syllabi, teachers, first hand experience, Unpublished DPhil thesis, University of York, York, UK.

Queensland Studies Authority 2004, Chemistry: Extended Trial Pilot Syllabus, Brisbane.

Ramsden, JM 1992, 'If it's enjoyable, is it science?', School Science Review, 73(265), 65–71.

––, JM 1997, 'How does a context-based approach influence understanding of key chemical ideas at 16+?', International Journal of Science Education, 19(6), 697–710.

Sutman, F & Bruce, M 1992, 'Chemistry in the community – ChemCom: A five-year evaluation', Journal of Chemical Education, 69(7), 564–567.

University of York Science Education Group [UYSEG] 2000, Salters Advanced Chemistry, Chemical Storylines, Chemical Ideas, Activities and Assessment and Teachers' Guide, 2nd edition, UYSEG/Heinemann Educational York/ Oxford.

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Senior secondary education
Science teaching
Educational evaluation
Curriculum planning