Practical Science in the classroom is essential
In this guest post, Sir John Holman, advisor on education to the Wellcome Trust and the Gatsby Foundation, makes the case for practical science in the classroom.
A practical necessity
All over the world, hands-on practical work is seen as a vital part of school science – just as speaking and discussion is a vital part of learning languages. An essential feature of modern schools in developed countries is a laboratory facility equipped so all pupils can learn from practice as well as theory.
Practical science is motivating and awakens pupils’ curiosity, but that is not the only reason it is important. Experiments help pupils understand theory by experiencing at first hand phenomena such as magnetism, acidity and cell division. It gives them skills and abilities such as precise measurement and careful observation that employers and universities value and can build on.
The Gatsby Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, two foundations with strong interests in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, believe that practical work should lie at the heart of science teaching. Gatsby is carrying out a programme of research to improve the quality of school practical work. This research has found, for example, that over 70% of STEM employers are recruiting school leavers to positions requiring practical skills.
But, 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. The Gatsby research found that 57% of university science staff surveyed believed that practical skills of new undergraduates had declined in the past five years. Even allowing for the innate pessimism of academics, this is a large proportion – nearly twice the proportion who felt that scientific knowledge had declined. Many said that they assume that undergraduates will come in with little or no practical skill, and need to be trained accordingly. Employers too worry that practical skills have declined.
Pointing the finger at assessment
So where are things going wrong? The research suggests that much of the problem can be traced to English schools’ obsession with assessment and the pressure to produce the highest grades possible. Not only is this pushing practical work to the margins as teachers prepare for written examinations; there are also problems with the practical assessments themselves. Under the present arrangements for GCSE, science teachers carry out ‘controlled assessment’ of pupils’ practical work. Teachers tell us that these are time-consuming and bureaucratic, and the quest for marks makes them focus on training pupils to do as well as possible in these assessments to the exclusion of the kind of exploratory practical work that inspires interest and curiosity.
As the English government sets out its plans to reform assessment at GCSE, the tide is turning against teachers carrying out assessment. There is a mistrust of all forms of teacher assessment and teachers themselves have told us about the pressure they feel under to give pupils the highest possible grades. In this climate, exam boards are looking at the option of assessing practical knowledge and skills indirectly, through written questions about practical situations. But these have obvious limitations: while they can assess knowledge of, say, how to wire up an electrical circuit, they cannot assess the technical skill of reading an ammeter with precision, preparing and viewing a microscope slide, or carrying out an accurate titration. We must continually ask if we are assessing what is most appropriate; knowing how to tie your shoelaces is not particularly useful unless you can actually tie the knot.
In the long term, we need a system that is able to trust in teachers’ assessments; there are numerous successful examples worldwide of where teachers assess practical skills in science, such as in China, New Zealand, Singapore and Finland. In a perfect world, pupils would carry out open-ended project work and be assessed on aspects of their performance in it – as is done in the Salters Advanced science courses in the UK, for example, and in New Zealand’s National Certificate of Educational Achievement. This kind of open-ended practical work can stimulate lasting curiosity, and also develops resilience and independence, qualities which employers greatly value. But realistically, the logistical arrangements needed for this kind of work are a major barrier, even for small groups of A level students, let alone large sets of GCSE pupils.
In the medium term, there may well be a place for written assessments of practical scientific knowledge, which test pupils’ ability to plan an investigation and their knowledge of specific techniques. But teachers are sceptical about the use of written questions to assess practical skills, finding that it is possible to train pupils to answer the questions without having done any practical work themselves. So written examinations must be coupled with some form of direct assessment, and here we might learn something from the kind of approaches that are used in China’s unified examination, where pupils carry out a practical test under carefully controlled conditions.
Qualifications need to have value. Having GCSE Physics or A level Chemistry should assure employers and universities that the holder has competence in technical and investigative skills as well as theoretical knowledge and understanding. That is why, as England revises the arrangements for GCSE and A level, policymakers need to ask themselves whether the proposed assessment arrangements really do measure the full range of practical skills. Most important of all: these arrangements need to have a light enough touch to leave schools scope for carrying out science practical work that will open pupils’ eyes to the extraordinary, surprising and intriguing behaviour of the natural world.
Sir John Holman, University of York
Adviser on education to the Wellcome Trust and the Gatsby Foundation