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The Periodic Table of Thinking

This week is the infamous periodic table of something assignment. I ask my students to select a group of items like candies or soft drinks and ask my students to group them into a table that has a trend that tracks from left to right in a horizontal row and from top to bottom in vertical columns. This is difficult enough but I add that they must have some sort of numeric values that would serve as an atomic number and another that would represent an atomic mass.

The students first select an item that interests them. Here in the Midwest I have everything from tractors to make up. The second phase is where the students change their topic as they find that their original selection is too limiting or too difficult to find trend related values for on the web. That first realization is packed with thinking skills. That means that the students are, well, thinking!

We often focus our energy on the end product and miss the fact that educational value is in the journey and not just the destination. For that reason I am loading the conversational energy and feedback into the middle of the lesson. My interactions with the students will be heavier as they grapple with what is a trend and how the values might increase or decrease as they attempt to organize their items into a periodic table. At the end of this process these students will have flexed their intellectual muscles and developed a greater appreciation and understanding of the value of the periodic table of the elements.

This, to make sure the science comes through needs to be followed with an activity that allows the students to explore the grouping of the elements on the periodic table. A couple of my favorites:

The whole world of science includes some classification. Biologists classify all plants and animals. In physics they classify lots of forces based on numeric values and geology has rocks and minerals. However, the highest form of this classification is to group them into some sort of chart that can be used in the field to make predictions. What appears to be easy is actually very complex. I tell my students that if the color commentators in the football broadcast booth had a periodic table of football players they could look at the chart and predict certain statistics based on where the player was on the chart. This prediction by location makes the periodic table an exceptionally valuable tool in chemistry. Now, I know that some teachers like to have students memorize some of the elements and their values. This takes up valuable class time and the students will memorize these values through use. For that reason, I do not require memorization of the elements, symbols, masses or atomic numbers. I do have the first 12 elements on a clock face in the front of my room so the kids can associate the number 1 with hydrogen and the number 12 with magnesium. This clock face actually teaches the first 12 symbols better than direct instruction…and it takes no additional class time. You could put anything on the clock face that needs to be associated with numeric values (the Mohs scale of hardness or the Fujita scale of tornado intensity and let your clock do a little teaching.

For more resources on the periodic table I suggest these two sites:

A photographic table is available at this site:

My all time favorite blends art and science into a visually stunning table:

For teaching kids some complex thinking skills the periodic table is one of the best tools. The tables that the students create decorate my room for months after the assignment and create a bit of ownership of the room decoration. Who would guess that a periodic table of hog feed could help teach chemistry?

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