Practical Science – It’s Place in the Whole School Curriculum

Ofqual and Practical Science
I recently went on a learning walk, taking in several year 11 science classes. About half were engaged in practical work. In my subsequent discussion with our Head of Science, we got talking about the decision by Ofqual to remove practicals from GCSE science assessment. His response was that his team “would keep on doing practicals, no matter what.” At the same time he expressed a concern that there were some secondary schools where less and less time was given to practicals.

In the media, it seems that there are opposing views on the Ofqual decision. Many scientific organisations have condemned the removal of practical assessment but it also seems clear that the majority of science teachers who responded to the consultation were in favour of it. What does this tell us about the place of science within the whole school curriculum?

What’s the point of doing science?
Please comment if you think I’m wrong here (or right!), but I think most science teachers love practical science but loathe ISAs. These assessments have undergone several iterations but are now generally regarded as cumbersome, overly long, formulaic and an organisational nightmare. It’s therefore unsurprising that few science teachers are mourning their demise. But the ISA is not the only way to assess practical skills, or students’ understanding of scientific investigation.

Science teachers such as Alom Shaha (writing in the Guardian here ) point to evidence that practicals may be largely ineffective in embedding knowledge. It’s certainly true that direct instruction works, but I believe carrying out practical research is essential if pupils are to understand what science is, as well as what scientists have done.

Objectivity, Replicability, and Paradigms
One way of summarising the key features of science is it’s attempt to be objective, the importance of replicability and the building of paradigms.

We cannot teach objectivity by showing students how to answer questions, but not how to ask them, by telling them about hypotheses or models, but not how to test them. Nor is it achieved by a reliance on the word of a teacher (however expert) or a text. Furthermore, it attempting to be objective, students learn that researchers themselves are variables that need to be taken into account.

Replicability is a cornerstone of science. Any research should be reported in a manner that allows others to verify its reliability be repeating it. Students should learn to both to verify what others have done, and design and report their own investigations in a way that can be replicated.

Science is not a static body of knowledge from the past, nor is it a set of hurdles that students must overcome before they can contribute themselves. It is an ongoing search for the truth that proposes explanations, then tests them by trying to knock them down, within overarching and continually developing paradigms. To learn science is to become an active part in this process.

More questions than answers
This leaves me with some questions about the place of science, and practical science, in the curriculum.

1. What are we seeking to achieve through practical science? This should drive the curriculum, not assessment.

2. What should be the balance of teaching practical skills and an understanding of scientific research?

3. How do our aims for science fit into our school values and what we aim for students to achieve at school overall?

Perhaps in the context of these questions, the Ofqual decision, whether we agree with it or not, can be seen as an opportunity. I welcome your comments.

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