Why Aren’t We Listening To The Evidence On Practical Science?

We’ve all seen the headlines on school science practicals – they’re too boring, or too predictable, or just not happening often enough.

But when new research comes along, with evidence of what good practical science looks like, it seems we’re not listening.

Part of the debate about practical science rests on the fact that we don’t even agree on the basics: what makes a good practical lesson? What are practical lessons supposed to achieve? How can schools improve the quality of their practical science?

In 2015, Ofqual removed practical exams from science GCSEs and A levels. Instead, practical skills and knowledge are tested through written exams. Students are supposed to do some practicals – but if they perform poorly, it doesn’t affect their grade.

The goal was to give teachers the freedom to do more interesting, open-ended experiments with their students – not just follow recipes at the lab bench. But many people disagreed with these changes, including the Education Secretary at the time, Nicky Morgan, who said it would harm the next generation of scientists, and the Wellcome Trust who said the reformed A levels won’t reflect students’ abilities. The professional bodies complained that many of the existing practical exams for A level had already been interesting, open-ended investigations, exactly the kind of experiments that the changes were supposed to favour – and they had just been scrapped.

There is a risk that teachers use their new freedom to cut the number of practicals they offer students. Most teachers believe that for A levels, the changes have been positive – but not all do.

So, what is new?

The Gatsby Foundation’s new report, Good Practical Science, draws together research from around the world on good quality practical science at school. The report authors visited teachers and education experts in 19 schools in Australia, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Singapore and the USA – all countries which perform very highly on the PISA rankings that compare countries’ education systems.

Sir John Holman, who led the report, and his colleagues identified ten benchmarks for good practical work. The benchmarks are pragmatic and workable. They include things like ‘teachers know the purpose of any practical activity’ and ‘each lab has enough equipment for students to work in small groups’. Yet, a sample of 10% of the UK’s schools found that none of them achieved more than seven out of ten of the benchmarks. A third of UK schools didn’t achieve a single benchmark.

You might think these benchmarks are just for science teachers – that groups of science teachers and technicians need to get together and work through the benchmarks, one by one. But most of the Good Practical Science report’s recommendations are aimed at people who aren’t teachers, including government, Ofqual, Ofsted, teaching unions, teacher trainers, science professional bodies, funders, and others.

To achieve the benchmarks, science departments need support from this wider group – and that means those of us who work to support schools need to consider how we contribute to these recommendations.

Teachers face tough decisions every day: shall I do a practical or a revision class? Shall we arrange a trip to a local science centre or university, or will that disrupt the teaching timetable too much? We can’t just keep adding more and more tasks to teachers’ already hefty workloads.

At the British Science Association, we are committed to helping schools achieve these benchmarks. Benchmark Eight is ‘investigative projects: students should have opportunities to do open-ended and extended investigative projects’. For over thirty years, the British Science Association and partner organisations have provided the CREST Awards scheme, which supports five to 19-year-olds to do their own open-ended, investigative projects in science, technology, engineering or maths. We recently launched a new digital platform that enables all teachers, right across the UK, to sign up for a free CREST account. This year sees our biggest-ever programme of grants for schools, to enable them to do engaging, investigative science activities with their students and local communities.

But CREST Awards alone won’t help schools achieve the ten benchmarks. We all need to work together to support our schools to achieve these benchmarks. UK schools score well on their labs, technicians and equipment compared to schools in other countries What we lack is a joint commitment to achieving these benchmarks. Thanks to the work done by John Holman and the Gatsby Foundation, we finally have the evidence we have been waiting for – and so it is down to us to grasp the opportunity to make the UK’s practical school science world-class.

Find out more about the CREST Awards here: http://www.crestawards.org/

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