What’s that all about?
Did the Physics teacher mafia threaten to break a few legs? Can we blame the geek hacker community?
Maybe it was all about sensationalism and a misguided web editor tainted by her or his own personal
Returning to the substance of the article- how valuable are school science practicals?
Hattie, Petty et al are clear about the value of engagement- and there’s no denying that students are
engaged by practical work. It’s fun and exciting, you get your hands dirty and there’s plenty of yuck,
smoke and electricity depending on the discipline! Great for promoting interest in science.
Learning though is a different matter. Time for anecdote rather than evidence: As a previous Head of
Biology, Head of Science and Head of Sixth Form I’ve observed too many PGCE student and qualified
teacher lessons where the students were simply occupied, busy doing ‘sciencey’ stuff rather than
learning how to properly handle scientific equipment, understand a scientific procedure, test a
hypothesis or collect robust data. The students were just busy- and when asked about the purpose of
the activity, what they were looking for or how their results would support or contradict a theory they
merely looked at me with a mystified look on their faces as though I was speaking double-Dutch.
I’m deliberately not stating how often this was the case- but it was too often for me to state with
confidence that practical work is of great importance in science. If practical work always led to inductive
or deductive learning then I would be more positive- but too often it really just leads to students being
Coming back to Hattie’s principles of visible learning, applied by good science teachers without
necessarily being aware of them, practicals are of value if:
There are clear aims specified about the goal of the practical activity.
Student’s are made aware about how the practical activity should be undertaken successfully.
The practical activity is more than simply keeping the students ‘busy’- they are able to articulate
why they are undertaking it- whether it is to test a hypothesis based on a scientific principle,
whether it is trying to evidence a potential relationship between variables that is under debate,
whether it is to illustrate a procedure (and its detail and pitfalls that an exam board has deemed
to be essential) or whether it is to generate data and observations for further analysis linked to
any or all of the above.
Too often in my experience these elements have however, been lacking- students have just been kept
busy for a lesson. There has been little or no analysis of findings, and precious little feedback on the
degree to which the procedural process was followed successfully or the scientific quality of the
methodology. If you are lucky there is an attempt to find a conclusion backed by the collected evidence
that is then linked to the scientific paradigm being investigated, but rarely is there class debate on the
quality of the data that have been collected and the importance of reliability and the amount of
confidence that can be afforded to the results.
Obviously you, dear reader aren’t in that category. Your approach to science teaching ensures that
practicals are engaging, led with explicit goals, and are pursued with a rich attention to the above
factors. You are a teacher who, through hard work and planning, achieves effect sizes with your
learners well above the hinge point of d=0.4. You are making a difference to the life chances of the
young people in your care- and making fab scientists to boot.
I applaud you.
Before I explore the substance of the claim, let’s quickly deal with a bit of journalistic
Physics teachers are regular guys (and girls). Hey I taught physics for many years- mainly
because as a Head of Science no-one else would or could. Anyway I loved it- and my last
GCSE class got 100% A*-C so it worked.
The Guardian article has two headlines. On the main linking page it is:
But on the article page itself it’s changed to:
Use the word pedagogy in conversation?
If so, click here
So... examine the evidence
So... adopt evidence-based methods
So... enhance learning
Invaluable investigative or illustrative experiences- but let’s just keep ‘em busy
Very interesting post on the Guardian website on the value of science practical sessions. A lively response
was elicited too from cardigan-wearing Guardian readers (hey- I’m one too).
The essence of the post- the majority of science practicals are a waste of time-
resulting in little learning, with kids happily busy doing stuff rather than learning
nice, sciencey stuff that will help them with exams. Hmm.... they might be right you