Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Practical Work in Science Lessons

In this blog post I wanted to give myself an opportunity to consider practical work and think through the current state of my own practice. I am aware that I am probably better than I think I am at doing all the things that as science teachers we set ourselves to do. However, in that difficult juggling act of teaching I strive to reflect on all areas.

As part of my work in thinking about the key stage 3 curriculum I wrote myself a list of the techniques that I would expect students to be able to do at the end of key stage 3.

I am also reminded of a discussion about the separating salt from rock salt lesson, trying to persuade colleagues that if students get nothing else from the lesson they should be learning about how to draw scientific diagrams. There is no other lesson I can think of that uses quite the range of equipment in Year 7.

I understand from reading I have done and CPD sessions I have attended that it is desirable to have specific objectives when teaching practical skills as well as the objectives you would have when teaching knowledge. So I would like make sure we have an idea of the expectations of what students should be able to do with equipment, and not just general statements like 'fair testing' and 'name variables'.

I cannot be the only teacher who has no trouble when students are asked to use a stop watch. I have taken to repeating 'do not stop the stop watch' over and over during practical explanations, as a result of struggling with Year 9 groups. And I am now finding myself explaining how to read a stop watch after Year 10 and 11 students wrote down things like 00:15.34 as a recording for time. "That's what the stop watch says". Indeed, but what does it mean?

Don't get me started on setting up clamp stands!

Although I am probably only frustrated by one group within a class and only frustrated in a small proportion of lessons it is still enough to get me to think about the issue.

I have worked in a school that had competency booklets. What a blinking nightmare. How can I assess the work of 24 students there are then at the end of the lesson without specifically designing a 15 minute plenary that doesn't require my support while I go round and sign these booklets off with a comment, date and my name? It isn't all the practical in reality. Plus these competences were generic and designed around the parts of an investigation and therefore more subjective.

On top of that we had no scheme of work (quite usual in this school) and therefore matching a skill to a lesson was my choice and not mapped out. Perhaps if I didn't have so much thinking to do in the lesson planning... No one checked, no one talked about them, so I forgot about it.

I think in the 6 years since then technology makes it more practical for students to compile their own evidence of technical ability. And perhaps this could be assessed outside of a formal qualification framework?

I think it is important that students do learn to use the equipment properly and recognise limitations and appropriateness during key stage 3. I want my students to learn science from their practical work and I don't think this will be easy if they are grappling with the uses of the equipment too.

So, isn't what I say obvious? Well, yes. So why can't some of my Year 11 students adequately write down a time from a stop watch?

I think partly because the curriculum taught does not encourage the development and consolidation of practical techniques. One lesson on lighting a Bunsen does not make you an expert on heating for the rest of your school career. And partly because we are already doing too much in one lesson. A lesson on voltage is about making observations and drawing conclusions, interpreting diagrams, creating circuits, drawing circuits, using symbols and having a grasp of what voltage is, as well as using a voltmeter. Sometimes that voltmeter is actually a multimeter - how complicated.

What do I need to do?

Slow down and remember that teaching some of it well is better in the long run than teaching all of it badly.
Focus on the technique students are learning. Use starters and other short activities to establish basics like looking at scales before starting practical work.
Create video tutorials for using equipment to help introduce ideas in a clear way.
Question students during lessons about the techniques they are using, why it is or isn't effective as if that matters.
Encourage the reflection by students on their practical work by including it as part of lessons and takeaway homework tasks.
In the long term consider blogging as a method of keeping practical diaries.
But first I must get to grips with the new curriculum so that I can see the key places for development, consolidating and extending use of techniques.

I do think that practical work is important, not necessarily to help with learning or understanding of abstract scientific concepts, but because students should not take things as face value. It is through experimenting that scientific discoveries are made or confirmed, and students should experience that as authentically as possible.

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