What’s the point of practical work?


The other week there was a lot of chat about the government cutting requirements for A-level science practical work. There were lots of individuals and organisations criticising the decision (and, dare I say it, a few who were jumping on an easy news bandwagon). It is a great shame if science, the way in which we find out how our world works, becomes limited to a series of facts to learn by rote, but is practical work always the solution?

I was struck by some really interesting tweets from Alom Shaha, who unlike many of those commenting, is a teacher. He was more measured in his approach, pointing out that practical work can sometimes be an easy option to keep children occupied and give the teacher a break. In that case surely the practical work is just a waste of time.

I took part in a great deal of practical work in my education and know that there were times (e.g. when we were connecting up battery packs to see how many bulbs we could blow before our teacher caught us) when practical work became playtime. However, there are other times when practical work was mind-blowing; I still remember an amazing university practical where we recorded the nerve signals of a locust. We found the ganglion that processed visual information and were able to ‘see’ it seeing us. It was phenomenal.

Now I am the one who is lecturing and supervising student projects. I am fairly new to this and I don’t do too much of it, but it is something that I want to do well. I want to do the best for my students. And of course I worry that I am not up to it. I hope that I will improve at it and provide the students with what they deserve.

I also have concerns about how we are teaching and why we are doing it this way (not at my university, but across the sector). A couple of years ago, as part of work for The Physiological Society, I was involved in a higher education teaching workshop on feedback and feedforward. There is one discussion from that day that often pops back into my head. It was on the aims of different people in the sector – as educators we may have different aims from our students. Of course we want them to get good marks, but we want them to get marks to show that they understand and love the subject, not as an aim in itself. There was a concern on the workshop that too often (and quite understandably), students often have a shorter term objective – getting a good mark.

This is where I wonder if we are doing some practicals correctly. What is the point of doing research projects? Is it just to get a mark at the end or is it to learn how science works and to gain experience of real research? If it is the former then we can trot out the same old projects and not worry. However, if we really want to challenge students and demonstrate what science is really about, do we not have to ensure that we give them a real taste of what research is? Let parts of the project fail and be redesigned? Take on a question that hasn’t really been asked before?

Knowing the facts in your field is vitally important in science, but so too is being able to use that knowledge – being able to devise questions and work out how to test and analyse them. If we treat all university level practical work as simply a demonstration, do we not remove part of our students’ science education? If they have to chase marks and practical project work is treated as just some type of examination, which has a ‘right’ result and a ‘wrong’ result, does that not remove something from the essence of science?

I don’t claim to have answers and I certainly don’t claim to know the field of science education particularly well. I know that there are innovators and I am sure that there are courses that have amazing projects, but I hope that students coming out of the courses that I am involved with know what scientific research is all about, rather than leaving with just a bunch of facts. I am honestly not sure off all of them do.



Some thoughts on ‘I’m a Scientist’.

For the last two weeks I have been taking part in I’m a Scientist: Get me out of here. Now, I know that I am a few years late to the party on this and there has already been plenty written and several awards, but here are my thoughts on the experience.

Firstly, it’s bloomin’ brilliant! As many other people have said before me, it is a fantastic experience. It is great to chat to kids and answer the questions that they really want to ask. Whether this was a question about what my work taught us about the evolution of intelligence or what I do in my spare time, it was great to engage with a group of people who wanted to engage with us. I loved the fact that what we did was break down the term ‘scientist’ and make it real for them. Hopefully they could see that we’re not all in a lab coat, cackling to ourselves as we divide our time up between curing cancer and splitting atoms.

Secondly, I have learned so much. Being asked questions and having to justify my own research (and, to some extent, my life in general) to people with huge curiosity is great. It helped to clarify my own thoughts and it forced me to think about how I think. It has also inspired me to work out how I can do some new projects. For this I am really grateful. The effect, as with any good public engagement project, has certainly not just been one-way.

Thirdly, competition is sometimes a neat driver. I often approach human behaviour wearing the hat of someone who works on its evolution, so for me it is fascinating to see the effect of certain conditions. Humans are very cooperative (when compared to other species), but a heathy dose of competition does us some good sometimes. The fact that there was a gentle competitive element to the event meant that I was definitely spurred on to go the extra mile. The fact that there were four other scientists who were all phenomenally good, also answering questions meant that I was always thinking that I had to be good enough to match them. It is not sufficient to say “I don’t know” to an enquiring mind, I needed to do more (although sometimes that had to be explaining that this wasn’t my area of science and that physics usually boggles my mind as well!).

Fourthly, community is great. As much as I got competitive and wanted to win, I felt a great feeling of camaraderie with my fellow scientists and with the kids that were involved. It was great to see the same names popping up in the chats and asking questions, and it was a real shame when we got to the second week and scientists started ‘disappearing’.

And finally: we really need to think about how evolution is taught and discussed. I worry that there are so many basic misconceptions about how evolution works. Now, many of the school groups that I was talking to were of a younger age group for the event – years 7 and 8 (11-13 year olds), but the issues here were issues that I have seen popping up time and time again. It worries me that there were so many questions such as ‘if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?’. It worries me that this elegant theory that underpins the whole of biology is allowed to be so thoroughly misunderstood. And it worries me because I fear that people are being encouraged to have some sort of blind faith in evolution.

Let me be clear, this is not a criticism of those asking the questions.┬áThere are many people who would say that they think that evolution by natural selection is the explanation for the diversity of species on Earth, but when it gets to the nuts-and-bolts, they don’t know the answers. Unfortunately, I think that many of them are too afraid to ask questions about evolutionary theory for fear of being thought stupid. That, somehow, it is better to be ignorant but supporting, than question the mechanisms of evolutionary theory.

Who is to blame for that? Well, us – those of us who study and research evolutionary questions. I fear that shouting at fundamentalist religious fanatics has become such a pastime for certain proponents of evolution, that a dialogue with our friends is viewed as some poor and useless substitute. Cults of personality and metaphors of war have been allowed to distract people from constructive dialogue. We don’t need to batten down the hatches or march into battle, we need to chat and we need to listen.

I know that the points in this post are not new, they have been said elsewhere many times; but I wanted to add my voice to those many people by thanking all at Gallomanor for devising and running I’m a Scientist. It really has been a blast and it has certainly got me thinking.