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Practical Work

A recent story about the paucity of practical work in science lessons in schools caught my eye this week.  What struck me was not so much the point of the article, that pupils in poorer areas do less practical science than their peers in richer areas, but the astonishingly low incidence of practical work reported in most schools. 

The survey found that even in the wealthiest areas only 54% of students did practical work at least once per month.  To put it another way, even in the better schools nearly half of students do practical work less than once per month!  Worse still 20% of the pupils questioned felt that when they did practical work they were merely following instructions without any understanding of the science involved!

As a ‘teaching Head’ who diligently prepares lessons in Year 9 Physics, usually succeeding in incorporating a practical activity in every weekly lesson, I am not impressed. Practical work in science is an essential part of learning the subject.  The distinguishing feature of the natural sciences is their capacity to test new theories against experiment.  This mode of enquiry should be embedded in science education not just to illustrate the nature of the scientific project but also because the interplay between theory and experiment breeds understanding and because the skills required to perform experiments properly are valuable in themselves. 

In a post-truth society, scientific method has become even more important. If someone possesses a sincere and passionate conviction that they are unaffected by gravity and shouts a lot about their views it will make little difference to the outcome of a fall.  Science stands as a quiet reminder of the existence of universal truth and the standard of scientific proof is still the gold standard to which other disciplines such as economics aspire.  The instinctive scepticism towards new notions and the desire to check claims, inculcated by learning science, is surely something that all students leaving school should possess even if they never read a science book for the rest of their lives.

Science cannot be well-taught and well-learned without practical work. Experiments motivate new topics; demonstrations or discoveries cause students to ask questions, to spot patterns in results or to try to identify the key features from what they have experienced.  Experiments test theories and deepen students’ understanding of abstract models through concrete examples.  Experiments set old ideas within new contexts, requiring fresh exploration and preventing science from being seen as a subject in which all the answers were worked out long ago and can be found within the pages of a textbook. 

The international students who join the Birkdale Sixth Form often tell me that part of the attraction of high-quality UK education is the ability to carry out practical work themselves. In their earlier education in other countries all experiments are carried out by the teacher with the students reduced to observing. 

Simulating experiments on a computer has become increasingly popular as a safe and cheap alternative to practical work. This has its place but using simulation alone creates a strange, closed virtual reality within which a theory is substantiated by producing the ‘right answer’ without reference to nature.

Of course it is not always easy to undertake practical work. Limited facilities and a lack of often expensive equipment can limit opportunities: at Birkdale small classes and ample provision allow easy practical exploration.  Sometimes teachers lack the experience and the confidence to safely implement practical lessons.  Using subject specialist teachers at Birkdale, who have much experience of the possible hazards and knowledge of the ‘folk lore’ needed to ensure that experiments are a success, helps with this.  Notoriously, experimental work does not always produce the expected result although a skilled teacher can use this as a springboard into discussing the inaccuracies in the procedure or the limits of theoretical models.  Sadly, the science curriculum itself can limit practical opportunities.  The new GCSE and A level syllabuses have no place for the assessment of practical skills in reaching a final grade.  Practical abilities must still be developed through completing a required list of experiments but the reward is an easily earned practical endorsement of the examination grade.  An examination board promise that questions testing a student’s experimental skills will be included within the written papers offers me only a limited reassurance.  Any reduction in the importance of practical skills in examinations will result in less emphasis being placed on practical work in lessons: more precious teaching time will be devoted to theory in order to secure the highest grades. 

Finally, the skills developed through practical work have value in other areas of life. To be an accomplished experimentalist is to be patient, to be good at planning and at managing time, to have acquired an impressive level of physical dexterity, to be capable of reflecting in a critical, and sometimes self-critical, way on a procedure in order to look for improvements or assess the likely scale of error. 

Given the emphasis placed by the Government on the so-called STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) it seems strange that practical work in science has become a rare endeavour in many schools. At Birkdale we are currently looking at refurbishing our science facilities to further promote the importance of practical work.  This is not an area that I shall be neglecting as Head Master.

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