'Thinking' And 'Doing' Science Practicals

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A-level Chemistry By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Chemistry » A-level Chemistry
Last updated: 27/10/2017
Tags: a level chemistry, gcse biology, gcse chemistry tutor, gcse physics, gcse science tutor

‘Science is about exciting techniques, method, investigation and experimentation. It’s about taking your knowledge and testing it in the real world. It’s about spotting flaws, problems and anomalies, trying to understand where they came from. It’s about being open-minded, self-critical and imaginative’.

This quote, has been taken from a recent OCR advert to promote their A Level Science Practical Endorsement. It is interesting because it describes science in terms that these days most of us can easily sign up to. OCR are 'Positive About Practical' and, as teachers, tutors, and students, so generally are we.

Most schools today strongly support the view that practical work is an essential element in teaching and learning. In the UK and many other countries, practical work sits at the heart of school science. Parents favour it, many adults remember it with fondness and humour, and students regularly request it. Explosions, repulsive pongs, and damp squibs pervade our experiences of the school laboratory.

Beyond this, educationalists and policy makers accept that high quality practical work promotes student engagement and develops the skills, knowledge, and conceptual understanding necessary for exam success, scientific careers and, arguably, for life in modern society.

So, science is important and about much more than just theory. Practical work is vital to the sciences.

But science is also about theory. And practical science that separates observations and techniques from scientific ideas and theoretical concepts probably won’t lead to good science education.

Lots of very successful practical work is taking place in school labs across the UK. Students enjoy and are inspired by this, and it delivers a full scientific learning experience for many children. But teaching practical science is very hard in many classrooms. Long-standing concerns about practical work have stimulated initiatives like 'Practical Work for Learning' to ensure that teaching science through practicals is effective, and consistently helps students learn science rather than simply experience it.

As Steve Jones, CLEAPSS Director, recently put it, there is a need to periodically "reconnect with the real reasons for doing practical work with pupils." In his view, shared by teachers, the intention of practical work is not to amuse students and fill time. It is not just to teach techniques and scientific method. It is to provide cognitive challenge, to deepen students' understanding of scientific ideas and to promote scientific thought. It is when these aims are present and well balanced in delivery that I believe practical science is at its most successful.

This means that 'doing' practicals is just not enough. If we want students to understand theoretical or conceptual scientific frameworks as an aim of science lessons, we know that more 'thinking' behind the 'doing' is needed. The same is true if we want practical science to help students develop a deeper, stronger, more aspirational confidence and ability in science subjects, which surely, we do.

This position is coherently argued in Ian Abrahams most recent book with Michael Reiss, Enhancing Learning with Effective Practical Science 11-16. (London: Bloomsbury, 2017). And this is one area of science education where tutoring can make a really big difference.

Science tutors can and should be consistently supporting school curricula, and one way they can do this very effectively is by providing the extra reflective and discursive space many students need to gain the greatest benefits from practical science lessons.

UK teachers today have plenty of options when considering why and how to deliver practical science lessons. Recent research conducted in a large secondary academy school suggests that many teachers are highly committed to great practical science teaching. They believe that knowledge and understanding of science is the most important potential gain from practical lessons, with scientific enquiry running a close second. But looking across schools, across class sizes and timetables and science curricula, problems do exist, and the outcomes of practical science teaching can be uncertain.

You are unlikely to catch your chemistry tutor conducting an electrolysis experiment in your tutor session. But away from the pressures and distractions of the classroom, greater explanation and contextualisation of practical activities by tutors can help turn minds on. Tutors can use the relaxed surroundings and rapport they have with their students to really get to grips with what they are gaining from practical science and where some extra work is needed. We can explore and then improve their grasp of the all-important 'what's and 'why's and 'what if's of practical activities: to help ensure that these do, as teachers intend, inspire and stretch and promote scientific thought and ability.

As tutors we may have short term goals agreed with our students, but we are always working to provide the challenge and one-to-one attention that helps them achieve confidence, enjoyment, and mastery in their subjects. These are skills and characteristics that will take them far further than the next set of exams.

By tracking and extending the practical science taught in schools, I believe we can in many cases significantly enhance the understanding of scientific ideas, techniques, and concepts necessary to develop a deeper capability in science learning. If being a successful scientist is about being open-minded, self-critical, and imaginative, science tutors are also well placed to help students reach this goal.

Dr Gail Beuschel A-level Chemistry Tutor (Newport)

About The Author

A qualified science teacher and PhD, I specialise in private tuition across sciences to GCSE and Chemistry at A Level. I work with students in South Wales, Gloucestershire, Bristol and the Southwest - helping them to enjoy and succeed in science.

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