ASE President Sir John Holman on the importance of keeping science practical

Many things will be on secondary science teachers’ and technicians’ minds as they plan the coming term. Looming large is the question of practical work: until some kind of normality returns, there will be many barriers to practical science, not least the need for social distancing and the fact that many science lessons will be timetabled outside specialist labs. Yet we know that experimentation is the essence of science, and is the reason why many young people are strongly attracted to science.

Of course, there’s no substitute for hands-on practical science carried out by students themselves. But what if that’s impossible? I’ve been impressed by recent research coming out of the Practical Assessment in School Science (PASS) project at the University of York and Kings College London. They looked at students’ scores in GCSE questions that assess knowledge and understanding of particular practical activities, and they found that experiencing a teacher demonstration of an experiment led to significantly higher scores in practically-oriented questions than reading about the experiment or watching a video.

Many teachers and technicians will recognise this finding from experience, but it’s good to have it confirmed by robust research. The York-Kings researchers believe the reason for the difference is the quality of the interaction between the teacher and students while carrying out a demonstration. The teacher is able to control the pace of the demonstration, to ask specific questions about the experiment and to give students an opportunity to test their understanding of key points about the experimental observations against the teacher’s own expert view. These expert interactions are much harder to achieve when students are reading about an experiment or watching a video.

I’m not saying that demonstrations can replace students’ own hands-on practical work altogether. There is no substitute for giving students the first-hand experience of natural phenomena, so they can develop their own scientific skills – especially when the teacher interacts with students individually as they carry out their experiments. But in the constrained world that science teachers and technicians are going to be working in this term, and probably beyond, I urge you to bear in mind the power of a well-planned demonstration with high-quality student interaction as you carry it out. I realise that even a demo many not be easy to arrange safely, especially if you are timetabled out of a lab, but the evidence is clear that it is a lot more effective in bringing about learning than simply reading or watching a video.

Sir John Holman, ASE President

Science practical work in a COVID-19 world: are teacher demonstrations, videos and textbooks effective replacements for hands-on practical activities? by Alistair Moore, Peter Fairhurst, Catarina Correia, Christine Harrison and Judith Bennett is due to be published in September’s School Science Review. It has full details of the York-Kings research, which is funded by Wellcome, the Gatsby Foundation and the Royal Society.