Practicals and experiments have been a mainstay of science education for many years. Their use has become an orthopraxy – the “correct” way for science to be taught. But why do we do them? What is the orthodoxy – or “thing that we believe” – which dictates their prevalence?

To start answering that question, I did a quick review of some of the books that I was told to buy during my PGCE year (bibliography below) as well as some and other bits and pieces to try and identify some of the beliefs which influence running science practicals. The list below is in no way exhaustive but I think it is a good place to start:

  1. Science practicals are the best way to learn science content
  2. Science practicals aid in the development of students’ general skills of enquiry including student curiosity
  3. Science practicals are engaging and motivating
  4. Science practicals are necessary to prepare students for scientific work at a higher level (e.g. at university)

To see these played out you could look at Rosalind Driver’s seminal work on students’ scientific misconceptions. In her introduction she discusses the use of an investigation into rusty nails to learn a concept of “chemical changes.” Judith Thomas in Teaching Science says that “[Practical work] is seen as an enjoyable and effective form of learning.” She further argues that practical work involves “process skills” of observation and hypothesis amongst others. She goes so far as to make the claim that “the important part of science is what remains after the facts have been forgotten.”

In further support of the above, Ofsted’s 2013 review into science education in the UK states from the outset that “The best science teachers, seen as part of this survey, set out to ‘first maintain curiosity’ in their pupils” and that the “best schools…made sure that pupils mastered the investigative and practical skills that underpin the development of scientific knowledge and could discover for themselves the relevance and usefulness of those ideas.”

Last year, following the DfE’s announcement that assessed courseworks involving practical activities would be scrapped from science courses, the scientific community were outraged, with Nicole Morgan from the Royal Society of Chemistry stating that “The science education community is united in a view that reform of GCSEs and A-levels is necessary. However, we would like to see courses and exams that recognise that practical work is at the heart of chemistry, physics and biology – not an add-on.”

But all that glitters is not gold.

Since reading the Learning About Learning report I have not trusted my teacher education textbooks. Since reading Seven Myths About Education I have not trusted Ofsted subject reports. And having now carried out probably hundreds of class practicals, I have begun to doubt for myself their efficacy in meeting the points raised above.

What actually inspired me to write this piece was an Earth-shattering line in the OECD’s most recent analysis of Pisa data, an analysis focused on global science education. Greg Ashman has written extensively about their findings on “inquiry based” learning and his work is well worth a read. But the line that really interested me was:

“Activities related to experiments and laboratory work show the strongest negative relationship with science performance”

The report caveats their own conclusion and urges caution with it. I also know that a lot of people (mostly those who disagree with the OECD’s findings) have warned of errors in the data and its interpretation. But still – it should certainly give us pause for thought.

As a science teacher, I feel especially beholden to the need for good evidence to inform my practice. In my next posts, I will start going through the reasons outlined above and attempt to question them in light of scholarly evidence. I haven’t yet finalised my view on whether or not we are wasting our time and I don’t know if I ever will. But, even if no one else in the world reads any of this, I think the questions are still worth asking – even if they might ruffle some feathers.


Bibliography:

Rosalind Driver, Ann Squires, Peter Rushworth and Valerie Wood-Robinson, Making sense of Secondary Science: research into children’s ideas, 1999

Tony Liversidge, Matt Cochrane, Bernie Kerfoot, Judith Thomas, Teaching Science, Sage South Asia Edition

Keith Ross, Liz Lakin and Peter Callaghan, Teaching Secondary Science, 2000 (I actually have Keith Ross’s personal copy of this book with his notes in it for the next edition. Don’t know how that happened but it’s pretty cool)

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