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.




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