The Wellcome Trust recently published a large scale survey into science practicals at schools in the UK. There is a lot that I found objectionable in the report (which looks like it has a solid methodology though I am no expert) and in the statements of their head of education. Most of my objections are based on the thinking I have already expressed on this blog.
Teacher professionalism is important, except when it isn’t
The first is the issue of teacher professionalism. In the foreword, Dr Hilary Leevers says that:
“It is crucial that teachers’ professionalism and skills are both celebrated and developed.”
I would certainly agree with that. And yet Dr Leevers, who is the Wellcome’s head of education, has never been a teacher (at least according to her bio). Further to that, there are no teaching bodies consulted in the production of this report. Statements to the TES issue ultimatums to schools saying that they “should” do x and y. This hardly shows a great deal of respect to teacher professionalism. Maybe instead of telling schools what to do this could have been an opportunity to open a dialogue with science teachers and ask them why they do or do not choose to do a practical.
Teacher views are not represented in this report nor (to my knowledge) were consulted in its writing. The idea that students’ self-reporting should be treated with such weight is, in my opinion, bananas. I know of no research which correlates student opinions of how many practicals they do with the historical reality. It probably isn’t particularly difficult to do, you just take the students’ opinions and then raid their teachers’ planners. All I know is that one of my Year 9 students complained to me just this week that we don’t do enough practicals. I pointed out to him that in five of our last ten lessons (we have one a week) we had done practical work (an unusually high ratio for me).
Practicals as procedures
The report notes that many students don’t understand the purpose of the practicals they are doing and cite the Abrahams and Millar paper as proof that this is a Bad Thing. I have my issues with that paper and, as I have written before I think the only way for students to understand the practical is by spending more time on content and less time doing practicals. It is a physical impossibility to do both at the same time without massive amounts of preparation.
One practical lesson a fortnight
“Half reported doing practical work at least fortnightly and we recommend this as an absolute minimum”
Based on what?
Plan your own experiment!
“Single science students were less likely to have done more advanced practical work such as designing and carrying out their own experiment (62%, compared with 83% of triple science students).”
This is no surprise. Single scientists tend to have the least in depth scientific knowledge, a pre-requisite for designing your own experiment. It’s also no bad thing that students aren’t doing this. I made it through three years of a degree in chemistry from UCL and never once planned my own experiment. It’s the classic fallacy of assuming that novices act in the same way as experts.
Boys and girls
Throughout the report, there are clear differences in the responses between male and female students. For example, males place physics as their third favourite of seven subjects where females placed it as seventh out of seven. There are many other examples including:
“Males were more likely than females to be interested in studying maths, physics or computer science. Females on the other hand were more likely to be interested in biology, psychology or health related subjects such as medicine / dentistry.”
This also is not particularly surprising. But, for me, these splits are probably the most important parts of the report. Yet they are not mentioned in the press release or in the conversation with the TES; both of which are missed opportunities in my opinion.
I’m not a great fan of the way this report has been presented. No doubt there is some rich and important information in it, but as science teachers we really need the ability to turn around and say “actually, I don’t want to do a practical. It shouldn’t be expected, it shouldn’t be imperative and until someone actually proves that practicals work, and that there is a specific way to get them to work, let me get on and teach!”