What are we really learning from practical work?

As we study science, a lot of our time and resources are devoted to implementing an engaging practical scheme of work. Are we really making the most educational use of this time, these resources and the opportunities that we have? 

Teachers all over the world use experiments and demonstrations to engage students in the concept being taught. But does this actually improve student learning? Two recent videos have got me thinking about this issue, and before you read on you should watch them both.

The first is from UK science teacher & communicator Alom Shaha (@alomshaha), half the brains behind the sciencedemo.org website. The video was produced for the Nuffield Foundation’s new Practical Work for Learning resource. He refers to a number of research papers in the video, and is also one of the leaders of the #SciTeachJC (science teachers journal club) twitter discussion group.

Do you recognise those labs and how do you use them? Do the labs we do really help us teach the concepts we intend them to, and how can we rethink (or at least evaluate) our use of labs.

The second video is from US Chemistry teacher Tom Stelling (@ChemistTom), on his “vRant” about students asking to “blow something up” and the dangers of ‘wow’ demos as distraction rather than education.

Note: this post rambles a bit from here on. If you want to know more, please read on. Otherwise, all the good bits were in Alom & Tom’s videos. 


Some context

I think practical work is fun. It turns students on, generates questions and gives us the opportunity in a noisy classroom to check in with all the students. But it is time and resource intensive. In my own context here in Japan, where we do not have a lab technician and materials can be difficult or expensive to access, I have to be more mindful of the labs I choose. In a week of Biology, Chemistry and Physics classes I could have an extra 2-3 hours of prep and break-down if we do labs. I need to think carefully about the learning outcomes of the tasks – are they really worth all that time? Am I implementing them as effectively as I can so that students really learn what I intend them to learn from this experience?

In past schools with technicians, it was easy to be less thoughtful as someone else did all this extra work. In Indonesia I was lucky to work with a couple of very enthusiastic lab techs, who helped me develop tasks that were low-cost, locally-sourced and easy to prepare. This really suited our low-tech, low-budget lab! My (limited) experience in the UK was that the technicians were supremely efficient – and this might have been a problem to for the developing teacher. I could ask for “unit 1 lesson 3, 28 kids”, and a trolley would appear with all the bits. The technicians were so good at their jobs and the systems so efficient that I didn’t have to think. Instead, I focused on how to get through the lab and maintain discipline. If we all left happy (and I got everyhing back at the end), I felt like something had been learned.

What are we doing well?

In IB Diploma (IBDP) sciences (ages 16-19), we have a requirement to cover 40 hours of practical work in standard level and 60 hours in higher level. Ten of these are a collaborative inter-disciplinary project. Teachers keep track of this in their 4/PSOW. 24% of a student’s final grade comes from the lab reports submitted and graded internally, then moderated externally. The works submitted for the Design criterion need to be student-designed. Throughout the course we are supposed to be infusing ICT in the practical scheme of work: spreadsheets, graphing, datalogging, modeling, databases. There are many opportunities in the course to think about Theory of Knowledge how we know what we know – and questioning should be a key element of the pedagogy. There are no prescribed labs, as in AP, though this looks likely to change for Chemistry and Physics.

Guess what we're doing.

A recent copper-on-nails lab as an intro to moles. How could it be enhanced for greater learning impact?

In the Middle Years Programme sciences (ages 11-16), half of the assessment criteria are devoted to the scientific method. We are free from the prescribed syllabus that limits other science courses, as the programme is a curriculum framework. Student inquiry is key in the curriculum, though inquiry itself takes many forms – from structured inquiries to more open-ended investigations. If we are working on the Inquiry criterion, students are responsible for designing and implementing the investigation, either with the freedom to select variables, materials and increments within a guided topic (e.g. elastic bands, bouncy balls and energy), or with even more freedom of design.

In my personal practice I tend to be very reflective – never happy with this year’s version – as well as very connected online to new ideas. To me curriculum is fluid and instruction evolves, and so reading all these stimuli is intellectually and professionally exciting. I think the focus on the scientific method leads naturally into modeling instruction – a process which more closely aligns with Alom’s suggestions towards the end of his video. We can use practical work to build and test models, the focus of our thinking is on the why, the prediction, the designing and evaluating of methods. It is something I need to implement more effectively, and will be thinking about it more carefully as I plan for next year.

What can we do better?

Over the last couple of years I have tried to put questioning and modeling in a position of greater prominence in my classes, especially in Chemistry and Physics. I can build on this and here are some strategies I want to develop further or try out:

  • Evaluate the learning outcomes of every lab before we do it. What’s the point? Does my plan for implementation really address this? How will I know if this lab or demo really helped students learn?
  • Focus on the ‘predict’ before a lab. Use demonstrations of phenomena, sure, but have students make predictions (quantitative where possible) before setting them loose on testing their methods.
  • Keep using the camera-phone for photos and home-made concept cartoons. It is super-easy now with GoogleDocs to take a photo of a student’s lab or work and send it to the class presentation, to be used as a plenary discussion.
  • Focus on feedback and formative assessment through the labs. Make sure that what we do connects to the assessment criteria and/or the concept learning objective. Assess this. Give feedback.
  • Use the ‘wow’ labs with caution, as Tom says above. Focus on questioning and concepts, so that students remember the [explosion] AND what caused it.
  • Keep up with the modeling instruction resources (and blogs of Gary Abud and Frank Noschese) and #SciTeachJC discussion archives.
  • Next year, as we prepare for the MYP: Next Chapter, look carefully at the concept-based learning approach and new assessment criteria, and look for ways in which this can better align with standards-based grading, so that evidence of student understanding in labs is even more apparent.
  • Keep Hattie’s Learning Impacts in mind at all times: “Know thy impact.” Aim to make the purpose, the teaching, visible to students and their learning visible to me. A good lab will make this easy. A poor lab will be a fun, though messy and time-consuming, distraction.

EDIT (June 8): As well as Alom Shaha’s and Jonathan Sanderson’s ScienceDemo.org blog, there is the Practical Work for Learning resource from the Nuffield Foundation. This outlines three approaches that might work for you: Argumentation, Model-based inquiry and Science in the Workplace. It is a very rich resource, and I will be keeping track of it over the coming academic year.


A footnote about change

I recognise that change isn’t easy for many teachers. I am fortunate to be, to the greater extent, in control of what (and definitely how) I teach*. Others are – or may feel – restricted by forces and syllabus beyond their control. I recognise that there is a gap between research and practice, and that it is not teachers’ fault – nor is it the researchers’ fault – it just is. I love that the internet hosts a global prep room of science teachers trying new things and sharing their learning. We should be the bridge across the gap. I like the idea that teachers should be researchers too, though I fear it is not realistic for most teachers.

I don’t need to worry about discipline, funding or political arguments about standards. Our students are brilliant and will try anything out. I have strong tech resources, an excellent department and a position of curriculum leadership that allows me to be in touch with the whole school. I appreciate all of these deeply, and highly respect the work of science teachers all over world dealing with much more challenging situations. The biggest heroes in education to me are not the Ken Robinsons of the world (eduvangelists), but the teachers who aim for better in their own settings, especially when the odds are against them.

I feel that it is my responsibility as a privileged teacher to give back, which is why this site and the resources here are shared publicly. I would strongly encourage all other teachers in a similar situation to do the same. Those of us with the means and opportunity to make change should try it out, and share our work with others; the time we spend on this is time that someone who wants to make change may not have, and our efforts might help make science teaching better for more than just our own students.

*Update: it’s a good job there are some limits. Seth Godin talks about creativity being at the edge of the box. At the edge of what is already being done, we have a foot in ‘reality’, a better place to influence change than way outside (and perhaps out of touch/ reach). 

Update 8 June: Thanks Jonathan Sanderson for the blog mention. It’s great to see this as an international discussion between science teachers.

About Stephen

International Educator: China via Japan, Indonesia & the UK. Director of Innovation in Learning & Teaching. Science educator. Twitterist (@sjtylr), dad and bloggerer. MA International Education & current EdD student. Experienced Director of Learning & MYP Coordinator. Interested in curriculum, pedagogy, purposeful EdTech and global competence. Find out more: http://sjtylr.net/about. Science site: http://i-biology.net.

Posted on June 6, 2013, in #edtech #scitech, #Inquiry, Assessment, Chemistry, IBDP Biology, MYP, Physics, Professional Development, Teaching & Pedagogy. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. There are ways to improve the impact of demos, by making students make predictions about what will happen — see here for some info: http://academiccomputing.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/science-education-research/

  1. Pingback: Assessment of practical work

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