Friday, 6 February 2015

We can't Consider Practical Work Issues in Isolation

I once saw Tim Oates speak about assessment in school science. I didn't understand much of that lecture, but I could tell that practical assessment as part of the grading for GCSEs and A-levels was about to vanish.

This is not what I want to talk about, however. One thing that he did say was that in an ideal world we would build the curriculum and then workout how to assess it. This was not happening at the moment as arbitrary restrictions like the percentage of a course that can be internally assessed and moderated are dictating the assessment.

This idea keeps coming back to me.

What would really good science teaching that includes practical work look like? If we start from there then maybe we can get an assessment system that works for us?

Firstly I think that we do need to ensure students have a wide variety of different practical experiences using the widest possible variety of equipment. I say this a lot, but we need to ensure that the taught curriculum provides genuine opportunity for this. The reason I don't do much practical at the moment is that there isn't much point in doing it with the topics I teach. What topics can students study where their engagement with practical equipment will help their understanding of concepts?

Secondly I think we need to ensure students have the opportunity to investigate a scientific hypothesis in such a way that they have to manipulate and evaluate genuine data.

I really hate the controlled assessment in OCR gateway, but I also really like them at the same time. What I hate is that students are not allowed to redraft. I am not allowed to discuss and draw out ideas about the data. I can't use it to help students learn or carefully consider the implications and issues around what they have done. What I hate is that they are so time consuming and high pressure. It takes half a term to complete and the curriculum simply doesn't allow time for that. What I like is the imaginative contexts they give and that some experiments give very different results per group. I like that there is a degree of freedom for the students and that in part comes because I am not allowed to guide them directly. I can only give generic, non-specific advice.

This second part is going to be really missing from the new courses at both key stage 4 and 5.

How do we build an assessment system that allows for both types of practical work?

I don't think we can at the moment. With high stakes testing, ofsted 'outstanding' to aim for and budget cuts, the type of chaotic lessons that would be involved in allowing students to do their own investigations, the curriculum time that would be necessary for it (detracting from drilling for tests - now dressed up as 'deliberate practice') and the cost of having good technicians and plenty of working equipment means that only very few schools would be able to really enter into the spirit of practical and investigative work. In which case it becomes a burden and practical work is contrived to suit the local circumstances and we need to consider that too. Particularly with science teachers are in short demand.

For me the new proposals mean I get rid of a large bureaucratic burden that is controlled assessment.

I can only conclude that the whole system needs a shake up and looking at practical work in isolation is simply not enough.

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