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Practical Science in the classroom is essential

9 Oct, 2013

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

Practical science in schoolsAll 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.

Practical science in the classroon

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

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 Oct, 2013 7:06 am

    I agree wholeheartedly that practical work is a vital and often under-valued element of the science curriculum.

    However, the argument that we need to bolster practical skills because universities and employers want their new recruits to be more accomplished in the lab is, I believe, flawed. If practical skills are only needed by future scientists, then perhaps those children who definitely don’t want to be scientists could be permitted to skip their practicals?

    In my view, practical science is an important means of supporting and extending the learning of all students in a class. Also, practical work is often enjoyable and helps keep students interested & motivated. Hence practical work is an important part of the curriculum for all students.

    Therefore I agree with John about the importance of finding robust ways for practical skills to be assessed.

  2. Richard Needham permalink
    10 Oct, 2013 7:54 am

    Further consensus on the types, purposes and range of practical work for each key stage would be helpful. If this leads to greater coherence and progression for students, then we should be clearer about what we are trying to assess and how to assess it.
    There should be further opportunities to influence the revision of GCSE criteria, KS4 PoS and A level in the coming months. Embedding appropriate practical work in these documents is just as important as getting ‘content’ right.

  3. drbausman permalink
    10 Oct, 2013 11:29 am

    Reblogged this on Dr. B. A. Usman's Blog.

  4. 28 Nov, 2013 1:47 pm

    Hello John et al

    A few years ago I started writing practical assessments for A Level, for one of the awarding bodies in England. It’s been an eye-opener. Such tasks are difficult to write, not least because of the limited time they have to be completed in and the cost of the resources needed for whole, often large, groups of students to work individually and simultaneously on the same task.

    There are also restrictions on the types of assessment that can be undertaken, simply because of the difficulty of marking them (for instance, you can’t expect teachers to check every one of potentially thousands of individual calculations that their students may have performed).

    There is recent evidence that these tasks absorb a significant proportion of schools’ science budgets, possibly leading to a reduction in the amount of other, more meaningful, practical work. There’s also statistical and other evidence of teachers ‘coaching’ their students excessively.

    Couple this with the ease with which students share details of the tasks via social media, and I think the value of these assessment tasks has to be questioned. My fear is that if we remove them entirely, many schools will be tempted to reduce the amount of practical science they do, such is their focus on exam performance.

    My preference would be for students to undertake extended individual projects, akin to the Nuffield projects of old. They were tricky for the inexperienced teacher to manage, I’ll grant, and such projects weren’t very good at discriminating between individual students’ performances — students were often so enthusiastic about their projects, many of them did very well. There was less scope for cheating however, and they gave students a far better understanding of science than isolated, artificial practical assessment tasks can do. But the key thing about them was that they turned kids on to science and enthused and motivated them. We’ve perhaps forgotten that this is a vital function of science education — it’s not just about passing exams.

  5. Colin Johnson permalink
    29 Nov, 2013 10:49 am

    Study science without observing, measuring, experimenting and drawing conclusions? Would you study music without touching an instrument, history without consulting any documents, geology without leaving the classroom, another language without holding a conversation – or even painting (whether fine art or interior decoration) without lifting a paintbrush?

    Education is for life … and Life is a practical subject.

  6. Olly permalink
    24 Dec, 2013 12:17 pm

    Thank you for an interesting and thought-provoking article.

    I have been teaching GCSE physics in both the classroom and on a one-to-one level for over 12 years. During that time I have seen a gradual shift of practical assessment to a more written form – for example in the GCSE ‘CAU’ units. Yes, there is still a practical element to these tests (thank goodness). However, all too often it seems that students are spoon fed the ‘ideal way to answer this question’, which is encouraged by the fact that the questions are pretty much the same from test to test!

    A few months back I watched a great lecture (from Ted.com) illustrating the importance of developing hands-on practical science skills. The question posed was, “using only ONE piece of wire, one battery and one torch filament bulb, how would you make the bulb light?” The lecturer explained that the students who knew the answer to this invariably had hands-on experience of experimenting with electric circuit components and wires (‘playing with ideas’). I’d suggest that kind of thinking and experience is invaluable to employers.

    Of course, the challenge for exam boards is to create effective practical assessment but within a clear structured framework. Salters Advanced Science is a good start for the A-level syllabus, and I look forward to something similar being adopted for GCSE science in the years to come.

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