Imagine being at the start of this journey, where you've got to come up with that structure from nothing.
We also teach the story of how the periodic table came into being, and we learn about Mendeleev and others who contributed to its development. I say to the children: "From the moment that you walk into the lab you have a structure there on the wall. These elements are grouped together in this way and that’s your starting point. Now imagine being at the start of this journey, where you’ve got to come up with that structure from nothing."
That journey of discovery is one that the students can take for themselves. Even though the periodic table has been created already, they get to almost rebuild it themselves as they go through and learn about the groupings – first separating into metals and non-metals, then the different groups, then the orbitals and the different blocks.
The way we teach it, you’re unwrapping the periodic table layer by layer. It starts off as a thing that contains everything and then you realise there are different layers to it and you gradually delve deeper. It’s similar to when you teach the atom – you start off with particles, then atoms, then electron shells and so on.
I think it’s important when teaching the periodic table not to lose the wonder of it. Even though we don’t have to start from scratch as Mendeleev and his contemporaries did, we can still appreciate what a wonderful amazing structure it is. Even if you’re not telling the story of the octaves and of Mendeleev, it’s good to keep that story in the back of your mind.
The periodic table really is the language of chemists. Chemistry, as a subject, can feel quite tricky to students, because we have to knit together three conceptual levels: the sub-microscopic, the macroscopic and the symbolic. The key is to understand that the symbols aren't just another hurdle we have to jump through, they're something that can help us represent complex ideas. And that’s really amazing.