On a recent visit to another school, I peeked through the doors of a dozen shiny new labs in the shiny new science department – lots of lessons, lots of students, but nobody was doing any practical work. “We don’t do much, “ admitted my host. So why the multi-million £££ science department development? If you’re just going to concentrate on information delivery, all you need is a small, darkened room with a projector and a screen for your powerpoints…
Biological practical work in particular has a bad press. First it was my wife, a geographer, muttering that she didn’t enjoy biology at school as she just couldn’t see the point of the practical work. This was exactly the response, word for word, of students who took part in an on-line a government survey of school leavers looking at the low uptake of science at A-level/university. It was even mentioned by the new head when I talked with her about my approach to teaching.
But why? Practical work is what makes science different and special, isn’t it? It should be the showcase of the subject, the main attraction at A-level, the single most important part of studying biology.
The problem, I believe, arises in the way practical work is used in lessons. Many (most?) biology teachers start with the theory (e.g. photosynthesis) which they then try to illustrate with a practical (e.g. bubbling pondweed). But this is exactly the approach which leads to the “what’s the point?” response. If you know what is meant to happen, then why bother doing the experiment? Instead of excitement, curiosity, engagement, learning, the comment you’re most likely to hear is, “what’s meant to happen?” or “is this doing what it should be doing?” or “why isn’t it working?” or “oh look, it’s doing exactly what you said it would.”
This then leads to a vicious circle of teachers abandoning practical work (a pattern exacerbated by unfounded fears of health and safety) because it isn’t achieving any of the things you would want it to do.
Worse than just being boring and pointless, it’s also not what science does. What makes science exciting is that it operates at the boundary of the known and unknown – we stand on the shoulders of giants, to extend our vision of what we understand about the natural world. Working out the structure of DNA was exciting because we didn’t know it in advance. Indeed, the title of this page is a quote from Isaac Asimov – “the most exciting words in science are not eureka, but “that’s funny”.
I think that this is what we need to do with our practical work. The students should not know what to expect. Instead, they should be carrying out experiments/investigations that prompt exactly that response – “that’s funny…” – so that they want to know the answer. This is what my friend and colleague Bill calls “the flipped practical”.
With a bit of imagination and creativity, this can be extended to almost anything, even topics where you can’t, for whatever reason, do practical work. And this is what this blog is about – getting students to ask “why?” questions from their own observations. In my simplified model of the brain, you, as the teacher, can gently plop the answers into the receptive gaps that are formed….
See what you think. Let me know what you think!