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An authentic voice

4 July 2011

I went this week to give evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology about practical science in the auspicious surroundings of the Thatcher Room in Portcullis House. We paused to muse on the legacy of that Education Secretary. ASE was invited to give evidence as we submitted a response to the Committee’s consultation on practical science on behalf of the Outdoor Science Working Group, although the questions were about practical science in general. It was clear from the questioning that the MPs on the committee had been very much influenced by the submissions from young people. These give authentic, while not necessarily representative views of practical work in schools. They were salutary, from the point of view of an organisation that has been active in practical science for over a hundred years. Children reported liking practical but not really understanding why they were doing it – and naturally, the members of the committee wanted to know our response to the comments.

ASE has submitted numerous responses to consultations in the past months. The response to the practical enquiry contained some useful survey data. On giving evidence, I pointed out that a survey of ASE members, who have enhanced access to safety publications, may skew the responses such that our members are more likely to have a healthy attitude to risk management and planning for safety. It was important to do this, as the bodies to which we make submissions can seize on numerical data and treat it with too much respect. Likewise the quotes and direct responses from individual children and teachers can be taken as more representative than they actually are.

We can make appropriate use of this, of course. Not to over-egg a case, of course, but to highlight a situation which we are pretty sure to be prevalent via other means. This website is doing very well at providing survey data, from members and non-members, and the comments that come back are very welcome. A membership organisation ought to be able to express the opinions of its members and there is great value in the authentic voice. We just need to be sure that the views are as authentic as they seem.


Wynne Harlen

Mon. 01/08/11

It is really important to have such first hand reports - or even second-hand one that keep members in touch not only with the activities of ASE staff but with national events such as HOC inquiries. As I was recently (for writing a chapter for the ASE History Book) looking through past committee papers and journals it struck me that the information that we now can have frequently through the on-line Newsletter was not available to members even a few years ago. Committees discussed such things but often they went no further than the Minutes. Sometimes they were reported in journals or EIS, which was an important function, but not very interactive. Now ASE is using new technology to keep members upto date and able to participate more in local and national debates. Thanks.

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Keith Milchem

Wed. 31/08/11

I agree with your comments regarding caution when considering what students say. I have received responses from over 5000 secondary students over a 3 year period regarding their science education. Almost to a person they wanted more practical work. This requires further analysis however as we need to understand student perceptions of what that means. At the same time there was a concerted move by those designing schools for the future to reduce the available laboratory space in schools and provide more IT accommodation. Labs are expensive to build and maintain. Practical science is expensive and when student behaviour impacts negatively it often leads to less practical (and hence less need for labs??). This becomes a spiral of decline as practical work set in understandable and engaging contexts acts as a huge motivator for students. Even those who say they "can't do science". We need investment in practical science - both in terms of laboratory spaces and the equipment which services it. I have seen modern labs housing delapidated and tatty apparatus whilst being inhabited with high tech holding students who find their lessons "quaint". The final part of the equation is confident teachers with smaller classes (sorry to revisit the technology v science class size debate!)to teach and inspire!

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Keith Ross

Mon. 05/09/11

The comment "Children reported liking practical but not really understanding why they were doing it" tells of a real problem with (secondary) school practical work, which can be too complex when carried out with 'strange equipment'. Practical work in primary schools tends to use real everyday materials and equiupment, and so is more easily understood. We need the lab space and the technical support (and smaller classes) but we need always to ask "can this be done in the kitchen, or garden, or tool-shed?" and "What is this practical experience for?" If science is to be relevant to all pupils we need to find everyday (and global) contexts for our teaching, else students will, instead, associate science with strange substances, equipment and words, carried out in special places called 'Labs' and not relevant to their everyday lives.

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