The Council for Science and Technology (CST) says that without practical lessons, science in schools is “like studying literature without reading books”. I’m not sure that’s true. I suspect, if I had to, I could teach my students “science” without ever giving them a single practical lesson, provided I was allowed to use demonstrations and videos. As long as I was allowed to show my student the phenomena I’m trying to get them to understand, I think I could teach a meaningful science course and that they could go on to become scientists if that’s what they wanted to do. Sure, it wouldn’t be the most complete or satisfying way of teaching science, but it would be better than no science education at all and, dare I say it, it might even be better than some approaches to science teaching which include lots of practical work. The CST’s analogy is inaccurate – practical work is not as central to the teaching of science as reading books is to the teaching of literature, just ask any GCSE student who has managed to pass their science exams by simply reading the textbook.
I’ve written about practical work before and even made a short film about it, so I won’t re-hash those arguments here except to say that it’s not unreasonable to assume that “doing” science (it’s debatable that this is what really happens in practical science lessons) might be a pretty good way of learning science. However, we should be aware that this is, as leading education researcher Jonathan Osborne puts it, a “dangerous assumption”. According to Osborne, the role of science education is:
To construct in the young student a deep understanding of a body of existing knowledge. In doing so, it needs to show why this knowledge is valued; that it was hard won; and that science is a creative process – that it offers you the opportunity to free yourself from the shackles of received wisdom by creating your own knowledge. However, that is not the same as the doing of science and there is a clear line in the sand that needs to be drawn between the two activities. (E-NARST News, July 2007, from conference speech)
As good science teachers we should be wary of people who over-emphasise the importance or benefits of practical work in science teaching and we should look to the research and evidence on how to improve our practice to get the most effective learning for our students. Science is about ideas. We should make sure our ideas about science education are as sound as the ones we attempt to teach.
We appear to have been quiet here primarily because we’ve been busy. It’s one of those weird zen tricks, and it looks like this:
Yes, we’ve been filming again. Aficionados of the Physics Demonstration Films will recognise Alom’s lab at Camden School for Girls, and it was good to be back there after a couple of years. However, you may also notice the lab glassware. A beaker, in a physics film?
We filmed some chemistry too. And not all of it was with Alom. Though Laura did wear a purple shirt to fit the house style.
Oh, and if you wonder how much effort goes into these films – we slave over the scripts, but the first time we’re all in the same room with the props and the camera is when we’re set to shoot them, so this happens:
So, yes: science demo films, coming soon to a website near you. Yay! Oh, and: Biologists, don’t despair! We’re featuring squishy things too (rather than merely things that blow up or don’t work, obviously), we just haven’t shot those films yet. We’ve another surprise to reveal before then.
I think chemists have it tough when it comes to demos. Tougher than physicists, but in an odd way tougher than biologists too. Sure, there are precious few well-known biology demos (a subject for future posts, I’m sure), but chemistry is… hmm.
Look, I did a year of degree-level chemistry. I loved IR spectrometers. The only proper research paper to which I contributed was in computational chemistry. But I never really “got” chemistry. I never found that the practical work I did gave me confidence in the models I’d been taught, in part because of the bizarre ‘atomic model of the week’ strategy of late-80s A-levels. You know, the one where you’d just got comfortable with one particular version of How The World Works, only to have it pulled out from under your feet and replaced with something even more implausible. I found my eventual introduction to quantum mechanics a blessed relief, but then I’m weird.
My point is: I love chemistry demonstrations as theatre, but I’m squarely in the camp of not being able to remember any of the chemistry involved. What I think of as a ‘good’ physics demo reinforces or challenges my understanding of the principle behind it, but I rarely find the same sense of satisfaction in chemistry demos.
Is that because I’m a physicist; because chemistry demos are often used inappropriately; or because chemistry is somehow different?
Answers on the back of a £50 note to the usual address. Oh, and do check out the post at iBiology.
Alom and I made this film for the Nuffield Foundation’s new Practical Work for Learning website, which they’ve recently launched and are building up into a sizeable resource. The film tries to point up some of the pitfalls of practical work in the classroom context, and suggest approaches for improvement.
My problem with the film – and I write this as its director – is that I think it’s dull. Which I believe reduces its effectiveness, ironically. So it’s something of a relief to read comments like this:
Watching this video has definitely made me think and reflect on my own practice and I am looking forward to exploring the readings and resources on the Nuffield Foundation website
Alom and I come at practical work from opposite directions, almost at opposite ends of the ‘exciting’/’educational’ spectrum. One of the things we hope to hash out on ScienceDemo.org is why we agree on so much – including, for example, how ludicrous it is to present ‘exciting’ and ‘educational’ as somehow mutually exclusive.