Following school closures, social distancing requirements and the need to sanitise more regularly, practical science and the associated skills have suffered. In some cases, schools have not provided students with any hands-on practical, resorting instead to demonstrations or remote/recorded practical activity.
As schools enter the new academic year, curriculum and subject leaders need to consider and adjust their science provision so that it facilitates the development and progression of practical skills as part of their recovery planning. It is important, as part of Ofsted’s Education Inspection Framework, that schools are adjusting their curriculum to ensure that it prioritises gaps, misconceptions and insecure knowledge, particularly where these might present difficulties in curriculum progression.
At a time when some teachers who are new to the profession may not have had much experience in teaching practical skills and more experienced teachers who may have not delivered practical lessons as regularly as in the past, it is a good time to reflect on the purpose and effectiveness of practical science in the curriculum.
Practical science is a hugely important aspect of science education and whether you are a teacher of primary, secondary or post-16 students, the purpose is fundamentally the same. It introduces students to scientific ideas and theories and demonstrates how scientists work. It can engage students to follow science further. Probably most importantly, it provides students with the skills and attitudes that will be valuable in learning science and other subjects, and which will be useful in their everyday lives.
The Gatsby Good Practical Science report published in 2017 provides a framework for ensuring practical science is delivered effectively. Many of the recommendations are reflective of good science provision, such as having expert teachers with confidence and subject knowledge and planning lessons where the teacher is clear on the outcomes they expect from the lesson and its activities.
Other areas are much more specific to practical science. Evidence from the Gatsby Good Practical Science report, the EEF’s Improving Secondary Science report and elsewhere all identify five purposes of practical work which apply to all phases of education:
- to teach the principles of scientific inquiry;
- to improve understanding of theory through practical experience;
- to teach specific practical skills such as measurement or observation, that may be useful in future study or employment;
- to motivate and engage students;
- to develop higher-level skills and attributes such as communication, teamwork and perseverance.
The 10 Gatsby Practical Benchmarks (most of which apply to primary provision) are a good starting point in evaluating the effectiveness of your provision.
How can we help?
As well as our education recovery webpage which lists some courses and resources that are useful for practical science, we have a suite of CPD to support you to develop confidence and effectiveness in delivering practical lessons. These include:
- NEW RX041 How to embed open-ended investigative practical work into the science curriculum
- NEW RX047 The art of science demos; How to get the best from practical demonstrations
Face to Face CPD
- RP200 Strengthening practical work in biology
- RP201 Strengthening practical work in physics
- RP202 Strengthening practical work in chemistry
- NEW RP358 Maximising learning in practical science
Intensive residential CPD
- NY030 Embedding working scientifically in the primary classroom
- NY009 Teaching primary science outdoors
- NY316 Effective GCSE Practical work: Biology
- NY317 Effective GCSE Practical work: Chemistry
- NY318 Effective GCSE Practical work: Physics
- NY312 Effective A level Practical work: Biology
- NY313 Effective A level Practical work: Chemistry
- NY314 Effective A level Practical work: Physics
We also have a wide range of resources to support teachers with practical activities.
Developing the practical skills of your students is an important part of the delivery of your science curriculum. Over the coming months, we will be providing some tools and strategies to support effective practical science and to support some of the curriculum adaptations that may be required to meet the needs of students in practical work. For now, we leave you with some top tips to consider:
Do students know why they are doing practical work? Do you know?
- Make sure you are clear on the outcomes that you will be assessed from the practical to know whether you have been successful!
- Are you considering the tasks in terms of the cognitive load on students to ensure that there is a focus on the learning?
- Ensure that students’ cognitive demand is centred around your learning outcomes for the activity, not setting up the experiment!
- Do a re-cap of the important prior knowledge at the start of the practical
- Don’t overcomplicate or bore students with lots of pre-practical teacher-led input. Give students what they need and get them started.
- Have you planned the practical in terms of logistics?
- Make sure students know how and where to collect/clear equipment – keep this as simple as possible.
- Make sure that there is enough time to complete the practical.
- If needed, simplify the practical (e.g. pre-measure quantities of chemicals etc) so that the outcomes of the practical can be met (including making mistakes and learning from them along the way)
Are group sizes correct?
Make sure that the group size enables all students to be busy during the activity – this can be through defined roles. This will make sure students remain motivated and focussed and will encourage good behaviour.
Have you built-in time for the "thinking" and "discussing" stages, as well as the "doing"?
By referring to the initial context and prior knowledge at the start (and again if needed) students are supported to make sense of their data and provide meaning to what they have done.
Know the risks but do make sure that the risk is not the primary reason for not doing a practical
Consider ways that a practical might be simplified to reduce the risk (e.g. using microscale experiments to reduce exposure to chemicals, pre-cutting specimens to avoid using scalpels etc.)
- Abrahams, I. and Reiss, M. J. (2016) Enhancing learning with effective practical science 11–16, London: Bloomsbury.
- EEF (2017) Improving Secondary Science. (pages 28-31 Practical science pillar). Available at https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/Sc...
- Holman, J. (2017) Good Practical Science. London: Gatsby Foundation. Available at https://www.stem.org.uk/good-practical-science
- Millar, R. & Abrahams, I. (2009) Practical work: Making it more effective. School Science Review 91 (334) : 59-64. Available at http://www.gettingpractical.org.uk/documents/RobinSSR.pdf
- Ofsted (2021) Research review series: science. (Practical work section) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/research-review-series-scienc...
At the time of writing, we are awaiting the outcome of the Ofqual consultation due to be released in early September.