The importance of practical work in school science

Guest blog by Head of Science, Jeremy Burrows

The Council for Science and Technology has recently written to the education secretary to warn about the loss of laboratory experiments in school science.  The council, which provides strategic advice to the prime minister, says that cramming for exams is restricting the opportunities for practical learning.  This focus on grades is “pushing inspiring practical work into the margins”.

Many teachers and scientists across the country are concerned that experimental and investigative work in school science is failing to produce students with a thorough grounding in practical laboratory skills.  The current methods of assessing practical work in science based on continuous assessment and internal marking do not work. They fail in both of their main objectives: to provide a fair assessment and to encourage and promote good quality practical work in schools. They are time consuming, prescriptive and repetitive, and they undermine both the relationship between teachers and pupils and the professional integrity of teachers. They encourage ‘teaching to the test’.

Reform is therefore welcome, however not without risk. The Department for Education hopes that reforms, including the removal of the modular structure of exams ‘will give teachers space and freedom to conduct more experiments and practicals.’ Whilst there are many schools that would continue to engage in good quality practical work independently of any external requirement, it is a worry that this might not be the case in all schools and that absence of assessment, coupled with lack of resource or teacher expertise, could lead to less practical work. It risks pushing science lessons into classrooms and out of laboratories which would be a disaster.

At The Perse, we place great emphasis on the importance of experimental and investigative work and believe it is central to the learning process.  Students learn better when they experience science for themselves, not as abstract material for ‘rote learning’ but as real experiments to be designed, executed and evaluated. The old adage ‘Tell me and I shall forget, show me and I shall remember, involve me and I shall understand’ holds true. We are about to increase the amount of teaching time for our post-16 courses and have begun introducing CIE qualifications that give more opportunity to develop experimental skills (Pre-U for Chemistry and Physics and International A-level for Biology). These courses include practical exams which should improve experimental learning and eliminate common concerns about formulaic coursework.

Our strong exam results and success in competitions like ‘Top of the Bench’ and ‘Lower 6th analyst’ is underpinned by opportunities for pupils to do practical work, both in lessons and extra-curricular clubs. We start practical work at the earliest opportunity, in our Pre-Prep; it is wonderful to see a six year old pupil’s jaw drop when looking at water fleas under a microscope, seeing unexpected colour changes in a test tube and experiencing the effect of static electricity. We take older pupils to local organisations like NAPP pharmaceuticals and the Babraham Institute to experience science in the workplace.

It is crucial to broaden students’ horizons beyond examination specifications, inspiring them certainly, but also enabling them to develop the confidence to work independently and inventively, using their intuition to take intellectual risks. A sound appreciation of scientific method gained by hands-on experimentation in regular class practicals is the backbone of successful future study and a scientific career.



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