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#ASEchat 108 Challenges of practical work in science teaching

#ASEchat Summary 108

The challenges and benefits of practical work in science teaching 

Monday 8th July 2013, 8pm

with @alomshaha, summary by @viciascience 


This complex topic raised much passionate debate. On the one hand, practical work in science teaching is seen as a ‘good thing’, fulfilling pupil and parent expectations on what science is about, providing motivation and engagement in learning and showing young people what it means to be a scientist. On the other hand there was a significant body of opinion pointing out the difficulty in finding evidence that practical work contributes to learning in science. There was a clear sense that practical work needs to be defended against pressures from outside the science teaching community. How it should be defended was the subject of heated debate.

Throughout the chat there was some forthright debate between those whose own experiences guided their opinions, and those who were strongly influenced by the findings of educational research. Without ‘taking sides’ in this I suggest that the following blog may be helpful, ( and that this particular debate needs to be continued, perhaps outside ASEChat. 

Below I provide a flavor of some of the points made, links to external sources (mainly research papers but also video links), some interesting opinions and suggestions, and then finally I have listed some aspects of the discussion that needed fuller treatment and may benefit from their own ASEChat session in future. I have provided references if you wish to read the context of the various comments from the archive. 

The challenges facing practical work

  • Much is a waste of time as it is not helping learning (Bio Joe 19.02)
  • Difficult to elicit learning (Mr D Cheng 19.07)
  • It reinforces the misconception of the ‘scientific method’ (Peter Slade 19.44)
  • Poorly defined by teachers with unclear justifications (Vicia Science 19.05)
  • Costs are not understood by non scientists, under funded (Ian McDaid 19.02)
  • It is not a cost effective use of time, with much content to be covered (Gill Physics 19.43)
  • How to share expertise with trainee teachers (ljrn42 19.09) 

The benefits of practical work

  • Link theory to real life (cleverfiend 19.09)
  • Develop skills in practical scientists of the future (ljrn42 19.07)
  • Practical skills vital for university (alex brovvn 19.18)
  • Cognitive conflict can lead to greater understanding (Anthard 19.22)
  • Unexpected results lead to deeper thinking (Bio Joe 19.26)
  • Measurement and analysis (headguruteacher 19.28)
  • Making observations to test ideas about the natural world (Tom Hartley 19.30)
  • Motivating (Doctor A Cook 19.23) 

Links to sources

Thanks mainly to Damian for this full list of references: 

Survey of almost 1500 students  54% said practical work backed up theory just sometimes

Selected opinions

  • It is not practical work at fault but the teaching (hrogerson 19.46)
  • Like any other activity, if carefully chosen, well planned and organized, it is effective  (Arakwai 19.10)
  • Separate practical work from free form exploration (aifesteves 19.17)
  • Distinguish practical work from experimentation (mrgpg 19.29) 

Suggestions for teaching

  • Use POE activities to trigger more discussion (Mary UYSEG 19.24)
  • Refer to Getting Practical materials (90 Maz 19.27)
  • Use of ’thinking graph’ (damianainscough 19.40) 

Topics for further debate

The following major points were raised but need a fuller treatment, perhaps in future ASEChat sessions:

  • Learning to be a scientist
  • A STEM curriculum
  • Practical assessment
  • Different types of practical work
  • How practical work is used in other countries including the baccalaureate  (alex brovvn 19.34)
  • Computer modeling and its importance in science (mwnm 19.42)