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:
- Science practicals are the best way to learn science content
- Science practicals aid in the development of students’ general skills of enquiry including student curiosity
- Science practicals are engaging and motivating
- 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.
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)
December 22, 2016 at 9:03 pm
Certainly one thing to consider as a science teacher is that practical work (which of course comes in many forms) should not be assumed as the ideal or only way to teach. I think you overstate, however, how pervasive this is among teachers. I think most of us do believe that it is an integral part over the course of the curriculum. That didn’t mean that it can or should feature in every lesson, every topic.
I strongly recommend the work of Ian Abrahams, in particular his book about Practical Work. If nothing what it would help you to be familiar with some of the issues already raised in the profession.
Perhaps later posts will make the distinction, but something I find useful is to ask myself what I hope students will get out of a practical activity. This might be familiarity with a piece of equipment, or a particular technique. (This of course leads to the question whether this skill is useful for all, or just ‘future scientists’ – shades of _Beyond 2000_). It might be a demonstration of the messiness of the data, leading to discussions of errors, reproducibility, bias and so on. It might be giving the kids a clear illustration of a scientific relationship, such as I = V/R. There’s something very powerful – and memorable – about seeing that straight line appear from the numbers recorded. With half-life, students can collect data showing a real physical phenomenon, in the lab, then improve the shadow of the curve by adding the results of each group together.
More thinking about the use (and abuse!) of practical activities is always worthwhile. But my concern is that from this first section, it feels like you’re generalising from your own classroom experience without thinking of ways to build on the lessons learned by colleagues previously. You’ll find many of us sceptical about *assuming* practicals are best, or of the rushed planning we’ve all been guilty of. A badly-run practical lesson is as destructive – to both learning and morale! – as students in English reading through a scene without thought or preparation.
December 22, 2016 at 9:21 pm
Thank you for the comment. I suppose I can only speak from my experiences – in the four schools in which I have taught and the fifth that I regularly visited as part of training the orthodoxy was that the practical is the central focus of the science teacher’s activities. I do not doubt that there are schools where this is not the case – I took my lead from my experiences as well as OECD data and the SCORE report which states “Although many teachers expressed dissatisfaction with the amount of time and resources for practical work in science and reported falls in provision, the time devoted to it is still substantial, with 80% indicating they spent more than 40% of lesson time at KS3 doing practical work, though only 56% and 45% reporting that they spent more than 40% of time at KS4 and KS5 respectively”
It seems that there is a community of science teachers who find themselves broadly in agreement with what I’ve been trying to say here – but it is not a community I am (yet) a member of. I always assumed that such a community existed and I am happy that these pieces – despite coming from a novice – have allowed me some small access to that community.
I thank you for pointing me in the direction of some further reading.
I certainly agree that it is important to state the aims of any given practical work – I am writing in quite broad brushstrokes here…it isn’t my doctoral thesis!