Science practicals - the experiment worked

Science practicals - the experiment worked

Tim Oates CBE explores the positive outcome of experimenting with how we assess practical work in science.

Qualifications such as A level and GCSE are under constant pressure to include more things. Science qualifications in England are no exception – the last three decades has seen radical changes in requirement, from ‘data management handling’ to ‘understanding scientific method’. Each addition has a rationale in itself, but the accumulated impact has been to create highly complex and overlapping assessment objectives – all and each to be distributed across the various components making up modular exams (2000-2014) and then linear exams, with all science programmes including practical activities. One response to this greater complexity is increasing the understanding of what each part of science education itself is for- an increase in clarity and precision about the purpose of each element of assessment and of learning programmes. This clarity helps pupils and teachers in the classroom, and enables the development of dependable qualifications.

Practical work in Science is a case in point.

During the post-2010 reform processes for GCSE and A levels in England, research on the perceived purpose of practical work produced strongly divergent and conflicting responses from teachers, pupils and the users of the qualifications...particularly Higher Education. The immediate majority response was that ‘...practical work gives pupils access to real science...’. But any analysis of scientific enquiry shows that ‘real science’ - long, arduous, obscure, repetitive, full of false starts, errors and dead ends - differs fundamentally in process, aim, and timeframe. A forty-minute or eighty-minute timetable slot in school gives time for activities which cannot adequately replicate the realities of ‘real science’. Practical science in schools differs fundamentally at a deeper level: the activities are being used to illustrate underlying mechanisms, acquire elementary skills and understanding of handling equipment and materials, develop and refine observation and recording skills, and understand the need for following protocols, including accuracy. Rather than some romantic notion of ‘real science’ and ‘making little scientists’, school science at its core seems legitimately to be focussed on the rapid acquisition of counter-intuitive ideas and understanding of deeper structures and mechanisms driving the surface appearance of material reality. Robin Millar’s penetrating research and comment on this cuts to the heart of some of the confusions and misconceptions (Millar R 2004 The role of practical work in the teaching and learning of science National Academy of Sciences Washington DC). In penetrating discussions with Higher Education during qualifications reform of 2013-14, the precise needs of HE were articulated clearly: they said ‘...we want an assurance that we are selecting students who can handle materials and equipment safely, not be a danger to themselves and others whilst working, and work collaboratively and individually with focus and precision...’

These last comments pose a considerable challenge to General Qualifications such as A Level and GCSE – they are more redolent of the idea of ‘mastery’ and ‘assurance of competence’ which we find in vocational qualifications. Added to this is the challenge of consistency and ‘right to succeed’ which is present in practical assessment which contributes to grades in A Level or GCSE. Practical work is by its very nature somewhat unpredictable and challenging. Pupils often learn by failure – learning that precise measurement is vital, that cleanliness and precision in sequences of action are essential, and begin to understand that tiny lapses in action can compromise entire activities and observations. Meanwhile, high stakes assessment requires comparability of activities (over time, in options within subjects) and activities need to be predictable and clear. This dramatically restricts what can be done – particularly so that assessment tasks can be completed across all schools with an equal chance of success. This adds a further complication – the practical assessment tasks may by necessity be rather different to the practical activities and demonstrations which rightfully occur in a rich learning programme. The reactions of teaching staff and pupils to ‘Controlled Assessment’ (introduced into qualifications taken in England in 2009) picked up on this in a negative manner, with teachers and pupils alike citing the boring and constrained nature of the assessment tasks (see Abrahams and Reiss)

To break out of misconceptions and unproductive debates, greater clarity is needed about practical work in learning science and practical work in assessing science. The idea of ‘getting access to real science’ simply fails to represent the subtlety of the way in which practical work can consolidate conceptual learning (which can then be assessed in an examination), motivate pupils, stimulate development of observation skills, develop appreciation of accuracy in measurement, develop safe working practices and so on. Not least, pupils need careful support to link practical work to scientific understanding. In addition, practical work for pupils is essentially amateur in nature – they are acquiring fundamental knowledge through practicals, not taking well-developed fundamental knowledge to practical work, in the manner of a professional scientist.

In the round, this gives examination bodies a very challenging path to tread. Successful science qualifications are those which themselves are highly evidence-based – are heavily embedded in the research on the nature of learning in science, both in respect of purpose and practice.

Tim Oates CBE
Group Director, Assessment Research and Development, Cambridge Assessment

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Practical work: Its effectiveness in primary and secondary schools in England. / Abrahams, Ian Zoller; Reiss, Michael.In: Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Vol. 49, No. 8, 10.2012, p. 1035-1055.

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