“Are we doing a practical today sir?”

Said every student ever. No doubt many of my colleagues will have been asked the same question many times before. Funnily, no student ever asks “are we going to be learning about how the thermal decomposition of limestone is used to manufacture glass and concrete today?”

A general approach to engagement

The subject of engagement is fraught with difficulties. Different people mean different things when they use the term, such that definitional needs are paramount here. In my experience, it has meant:

  1. Long term intellectual appreciation of a subject
  2. Short term attention in a lesson or on a task

However, whichever definition of engagement we use engagement is, in Coe’s pithy phrase “not a proxy for learning.” Just because a student appears to be utterly absorbed in the classroom activities surrounding them does not mean they are learning.

Taking that as a given, there is a further debate about the relationship between engagement and learning. Some propose that students need to be motivated to succeed in a subject before they can learn anything. Others argue that once students know a lot about a subject, they tend to be more engaged. In a blog I recently discovered Paul Kirschner discusses the evidence involved.

One of the best pieces I have read about the relationship between engagement and learning is Carl Hendrick’s post summarising the work of Graham Nuthall in The Hidden Lives of Learners (2007). Essentially the argument boils down to:

“Our research shows that students can be busiest and most involved with material they already know. In most of the classrooms we have studied, each student already knows about 40-50% of what the teacher is teaching.”

This makes sense. We tend to enjoy things we are comfortable with, and not enjoy things that we find difficult or taxing. So students love poster lessons – because they don’t really have to do much thinking during it. Humanity loves watching television – because we don’t have to do much thinking during it. Of course, teachers can – and should! – design tasks with a level of desirable difficulty. But at root, students who are busy and engaged are not necessarily learning anything.

Engagement in science practicals

To my mind, a science practical is the perfect opportunity for students to be busy, but not learning anything. As pointed out in the previous blogs, actually learning specific science content from a science practical is close to impossible. And yet students can follow the recipe with ease and seem utterly engrossed in the act of changing variables and collecting data.

There are those who would argue that it is the teacher’s responsibility to ensure that the students have a “brains-on” approach to their practical work to which I would probably respond, as per  part 2, that this is close to impossible to achieve.

Ian Abrahams has written an article about the motivational impact of science practical work. Unfortunately I don’t have access to it and I can’t find a PDF version of it anywhere. In the abstract he writes that “whilst practical work generates short‐term engagement, it is relatively ineffective in generating motivation to study science post compulsion or longer‐term personal interest in the subject, although it is often claimed to do so. This suggests that those involved with science education need to develop a more realistic understanding of the limitations of practical work in the affective domain.” This does not surprise me in the slightest and Alom Shaha makes related points here (1).

To illustrate the point with an anecdotal example: when I start the GCSE topic of precipitates I always do a basic demonstration involving potassium iodide and lead nitrate. When you mix these two clear solutions together, the product is a vibrant yellow solid suspended in the solution around it – a precipitate. The students always respond in the same way with this demo (and many others). The second the yellow colour appears as though by magic, the students are awed and I get hit by a barrage of questions about how it works, what it is etc. It’s nowhere near the most spectacular chemistry demo, but it is still pretty cool if you’ve never seen it before.

And yet, I could count on the fingers of one hand the students that went on from seeing that practical to be actually excited about the next part of the lesson which involves students learning about precipitates, which ions form precipitates, how to separate precipitates and how to construct equations with suitable state symbols. The spark doesn’t really linger.

But I suppose this is true universally. We all find things that fascinate us but then we find ourselves reaching a certain point where we just lose interest. Planet Earth 2 and other documentaries would be a great example. We all become utterly absorbed in the vignettes of the animals as they go about their daily activities, but how many of us go on to read an article about extreme population divergence and conservation implications for the rare endangered Atlantic Forest sloth, Bradypus torquatus (Pilosa: Bradypodidae)? Probably not many.

We all have our point at which we lose interest. And even the most creative teachers will find that not all students are interested in everything all the time. I don’t think that’s the end of the world. My job is to do right by my students – and that means teaching them science and getting them their grades. If I can inspire them to have a love for and lifelong fascination with science and the natural world around them then all the better. But if I can’t then so be it.

Introduction: are we wasting our time? – part 1

The Cognitive Science of Practical Science – part 2

Thinking Scientifically – part 3

Do Science Practicals Boost Engagement? – part 4

Mary the Super Scientists – part 5

Teaching Practical Skills: If You Aren’t A Science Teacher, Leave Me Alone – part 6

Conclusion – part 7

(1) Many thanks to those in the comments and Joe on twitter for pointing me in the direction of the Abrahams piece which you can find here. It makes a lot of interesting points, especially about different types of interest/engagement which I think I need to spend more time thinking about. His main finding though is that even though students state they enjoy practicals, that tends to be in a relative sense i.e. they prefer it to any other kind of science lesson. I think this is completely in concordance with the argument I have tried to make above.