I have a pet hate. In truth I have quite a few pet hates but this one is a biggy. I hate it, I really hate it, when people who aren’t teachers tell us what we need to teach, and how we should teach it. It just drives me bananas. It doesn’t matter whether the person is an actor, business leader or Nobel Prize winner. Just leave me alone, yeah?

So when the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) urge that we aren’t producing school leaders with “business and customer awareness” I couldn’t really care less.  When the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence tell us we should be teaching children how to brush their teeth, the I-care-about-this switch in my brain remains resolutely “off.” When the Royal Society of Chemistry or the Wellcome Trust (1) tell me I need to do more science practicals so that students leave school with practical skills –  I have the same attitude.

But this is the thing – it’s not that the content of what they are saying is worthless. I went into education because I care about the kids. And if they aren’t learning how to brush their teeth at home then you’re damn right I’m going to teach them how to do it. The same thing applies with the CBI; if large numbers of students are leaving school unable to read, write or count then, to an extent, that’s on us.

We also have a philosophical/political reason to listen to these groups. As teachers in the public sector in a democratic country it is our duty to act in schools in the way that Society expects us to. So if Society is saying something then we should be listening (2).

So it isn’t the content of the debate that frustrates me. It’s the form of the debate. This might be my natural persecution complex speaking, but it seems to me that the people seeking to influence education have a strength of conviction that borders on the arrogant. I think people assume that there is no reason why teachers shouldn’t be able to teach x or y. Education is easy, it is just about talking to some kids and getting them to learn – it’s grunt labour with long holidays. So we feel comfortable telling schools you need to do this that or the other, because ultimately, how hard can it be?

Every man and his dog feels comfortable giving their opinion about schools. But this only springs from an utter lack of insight into how schools are actually run. Into how the actions of the teacher vary depending on what it is that is being taught. Into how more and more is constantly added into our teaching obligations without the necessary training or resource allocation. It’s exceptionally arrogant, as a non-teacher, to say with any kind of certainty “schools must be doing the thing that I want them to be doing!” -an arrogance that smacks of the Dunning-Kruger effect or SMBC’s Mount Stupid.


To an extent, there is also a certain abdication of responsibility from Society here. There is an assumption that “people need x, someone needs to provide x, that someone should be the School System.” But why us? Why is it always us? It is Society’s job to provide x. Sure, a lot of the time schools, as an instrument of Society, will be the ones doing that work. But it doesn’t always have to be us that get dumped on. And if you are going to dump on us, do it with a dose of humility and understanding.

It is not my job to keep the CBI, The Wellcome Trust or the Royal Society of Chemistry happy.

The debate has to start from that point. Do I want my students to have the practical skills necessary for success in University? Of course. But that’s because I’m interested and invested in the students, not because I want to keep the Universities happy. I care about my students, their well-being and their eventual success and I will do everything I can to give them their best chance. Sometimes that will mean keeping the CBI, The Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society of Chemistry happy. Sometimes, but not always.

Practical skills

Once all the above is said and done – do I need to teach students practical skills?

I chose to focus here on the language that we have to use when having the debate about teaching practical skills (like how to use a thermometer or balance). Once that is a given I don’t think anyone would say that students can learn how to use a balance without ever actually using a balance. So if I want them to have that ability then I need to do a practical.

Obviously this then raises the question of “what about the kids who are never going to see a pipette dropper again once they’ve left school?” I don’t have a great answer to that. Even though all knowledge is valuable, it comes with an opportunity cost. The time I spend inculcating knowledge of pipette droppers is time I am not spending consolidating knowledge of the conservation of matter or evolution or any other “Big Idea.”

So that’s one thing that needs to be thought about (and I don’t have a ready answer). Another hang-up would be to avoid thinking that seeing as I have taught them about measurement and accuracy in this practical, they will then have a greater general skill of measurement and accuracy in their day to day life. As I wrote in part 3, I don’t buy that.

But if you’ve thought about those things, and you and your department conclude that we do need to teach students how to use a balance or clamp stand or Bunsen burner, then there is no other way to do it – bring out the practical! Not because anyone told you to, but because it is the right thing for your students.

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) Thanks to Helen Rogerson on Twitter for pointing out that I am probably reading the Wellcome Trust’s position here uncharitably. I remember at the time feeling the strong impression that there was wall-to-wall condemnation of the new proposals but I have probably misinterpreted the Wellcome here. See here for a post from their blog on the topic which contains some things I agree with and other things not so much and are suitable to this post: “despite all the investment in laboratories and equipment, UK employers and universities are not happy with the practical scientific skills that pupils bring from school” and “In a perfect world, pupils would carry out open-ended project work and be assessed on aspects of their performance in it…This kind of open-ended practical work can stimulate lasting curiosity, and also develops resilience and independence, qualities which employers greatly value.” As Helen pointed out, their concern that new courses had not been tested properly is something we can all agree to and was characteristic of our last government. See her post on the topic here.

(2) Though of course how that becomes practice is a different question. Society’s power must be directed through the proper channels.