Are your practical lessons effective?

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

…from teacher Nicole Hinton’s blog.

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 is why we agree on so much – including, for example, how ludicrous it is to present ‘exciting’ and ‘educational’ as somehow mutually exclusive.

10 thoughts on “Are your practical lessons effective?”

  1. Firstly, I don’t think that the film is dull. Yes, it isn’t full of flash bangs, but I think it lays out the principles underlying the Nuffield project (and the earlier Getting Practical programme ) very well.

    As a physics teacher I have spent hours asking students to wire up electrical circuits, and spending almost the whole of the lesson responding to cries of ‘Miss, my circuit won’t work’. Now, if I want students to develop their circuit construction ability that’s fine. But as Alom says, if I want them to develop an understanding of the theory then it’s an ineffective use of mine, and the students’, time.

    When I have run training sessions looking at the effective use of practical work, the point isn’t to introduce exciting and fabulous new demonstrations, but to help teachers think critically about HOW they use their current practicals. It might not be exciting, but ultimately it could have more effect on their classroom practice and their pupils learning.

  2. The honesty of this post caught my eye and it chimed with one of my biggest frustrations, dull or ineffective educational videos. First of all let me say that I don’t work in eduction so I am definitely not qualified to comment on the challenges of teaching in a classroom context. But in a wider sense our work is all about helping people to understand sometimes complex scientific and technological developments. In my experience, attempting to explain anything is fairly futile unless your audience is interested in the first place. I had no interest in science at school whatsoever, I just couldn’t see how it was relevant to me. Now my work involves engaging with science in some form everyday and I can’t get enough of it. In our own small way we endeavour to make all the materials we produce as ‘exciting’ as possible. We were recently asked to make a video on industrial biotechnology and its potential application in material innovation – we created the story of an ugly potato who’s world is turned upside when she’s rejected at the chip factory but is ultimately reborn as a beautiful bioplastic flag. The story had a great response from deeply technical experts through to people who didn’t even know bioplastic existed. I like to think that educating people can always be fun or at the very least engaging. I look forward to hearing more from your debate.

    The Ugly Potato:

  3. I sometimes wonder if science is the best subject area to teach the scientific method with…

    That might sound wierd, but my impression is that, pre A-level, it is very hard to come up with a practical which isn’t either dull or predictable by someone who has read a couple of usbourne books (or their modern equivalent).

    At school I was very bad a practicals and uninterested by them, and now am making a large proportion of my living building things. Though it might just be that I was a wierd kid and or my teachers weren’t very inspired.

    In some ways maths investigations, because there is no kit to set up, or empirical explorations of something technological because they are an infinite number of them and relatively easy to make relevant in some way, plus this skill is useful throughout life and work, from making christmas cards to space rockets.

    Certainly with current school structures, I don’t think this is really applicable, though I guess it is done with various types of clubs already..

    1. Dave

      1. My reply to the article is below and I wrote it before seeing yours. It is curious that you too had bad experience at school and yet are now earning your living in this field. Could there be an pattern here?

      2. Is that your comment on the BBC about middle lane hogging? Well said.

      All the best


      1. My impression was that a large proportion of people who went on to do physics didn’t get on with practicals at school, and mostly didn’t get on with them at uni (though this might have been the bizzarely intense physics practicals at Cambridge).

        I think my problem was partly lack of application, but mostly attempting to use initiative and thinking around the problem, and attempting to optimise the process, rather than just following the instructions. Thinking takes longer than just doing – which is largely why mass production works so well, so I always ran out of time.

        I hadn’t come across the do it quick, then do it properly principle, bt it makes total sense, and if there was time to do this in a praactical it would have done me a lot of good.


  4. This a rambling reply, but has not been influenced by alcohol, and does get to the point eventually.

    1. Assuming the referees accept my corrections, in a few days I hope to be the author of a new paper describing the world’s most accurate measurement of temperature – ever. In all of history. The work is an experimental tour de force involving microwaves, acoustics, dimensional measurements, precision weighing, fancy maths, computer simulation and astonishing engineering. In short, I am a competent experimental physicist.

    2. Surely, you might think, my talent showed at school? No. I was good at physics exams, but practicals filled me with fear. There was never enough time: I didn’t know what any of the bits were: I was bewildered by anything electrical: so I relied on my partner.

    3. Surely then, I flourished at University? No. Once again there was never enough time and experiments were often left unresolved (I can remember some of them still!) It all felt unsatisfactory. And one of the reasons that chose an experimental project for my PhD was the thought that “surely three years is long enough to get >one< experiment 'right'". It was almost true.

    So what could have been different at school? What would I recommend now? If I had to pick one thing it would be respect for the 'Golden Rule' of experimental physics:

    Do it quick. Then, do it right.

    It is during this return to something after having understood 'what went wrong' that learning takes place. If only the first phase is experienced then the competent are encouraged and the incompetent further discouraged. So maybe a class structure where people do something once, report results, and then people get to copy the way others have done something – perhaps this is a way to embody the golden rule. Or perhaps a practical first and then a demo afterwards collating things that all the class have learned?

    But Alom and Jonathan are both too hard on themselves. It is a difficult area and just by asking questions they are doing everyone a favour. Thanks.

  5. I applaud the video and the scheme it forms part of.

    Practical work in schools was traditionally done to teach techniques that students could go on to use in the workplace. The ‘learning’ was how to follow procedures and carry out generic scientific tasks such as accurate measurement.

    The legacy of this is seen in worksheets that read like a recepie. (Take two flasks. Add 50ml of water to each. Dissolve 5g of salt etc)

    It is also seen in the comments here. Passionate young science students who went on to do great things in their science careers report being bored and intimidated by this approach.

    Well done Nuffield, Jonathan and Alom for asking *why* we are doing practical work today, *what is the objective* of any practical lesson, and challenging others to ask the same questions.

    Let’s get science practical teaching out of the 1950’s (before the current Eduation Minister takes us back there).

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