Two recent stories about science in schools caught my eye.
Firstly, the national performance of England’s children in the TIMMS tests, which compare the scientific knowledge of teenagers internationally, has declined. We now stand at 14th out of 64 down from 5th in 2007. Ouch.
Secondly, I came across a survey examining how much practical work secondary science students complete. What struck me was the astonishingly low incidence of practical work reported in most schools even before coronavirus. The survey found that only 37% of Year 10 and Year 11 (Fourth and Fifth Year) students did practical work at least once per fortnight. Correlation is not causation but I can’t help wondering if there is a connection between the two findings.
As a ‘teaching Head’ who diligently prepares lessons in GCSE Physics incorporating a practical activity or a demonstration 3 or 4 times a fortnight, I am not impressed. Practical work in science is an essential part of learning the subject. The distinguishing feature of the natural sciences is their capacity to test new theories against experiment. This mode of enquiry should be embedded in science education not just to illustrate the nature of the scientific project but also because the interplay between theory and experiment breeds understanding and because the skills required to perform experiments properly are valuable in themselves.
In a post-truth society, scientific method has become even more important. If someone possesses a sincere and passionate conviction that they are unaffected by gravity and shouts loudly and confidently on social media about their views it will make little difference to the outcome of a fall. Science stands as a quiet reminder of the existence of some universal truths and the standard of scientific proof is still a gold standard. The instinctive scepticism towards new notions and the desire to check claims, inculcated by learning science, is surely something that all students leaving school should possess even if they never read a science book for the rest of their lives.
Science cannot be well-taught and well-learned without practical work. Experiments motivate new topics; demonstrations or discoveries cause students to ask questions, to spot patterns in results or to try to identify the key features from what they have experienced. Experiments test theories and deepen students’ understanding of abstract models through concrete examples. Experiments set old ideas within new contexts, requiring fresh exploration and preventing science from being seen as a subject in which all the answers were worked out long ago and can be found within the pages of a textbook. The international students who join the SGS Sixth Form often tell me that part of the attraction of high-quality UK education is the ability to carry out practical work themselves. In their earlier education in other countries all experiments are carried out by the teacher with the students reduced to observing. Simulating experiments on a computer has become increasingly popular as a safe and cheap alternative to practical work. This has its place, certainly in these Covid times, but using simulation alone creates a strange, closed virtual reality within which a theory is substantiated by producing the ‘right answer’ without reference to nature.
Of course, it is not always easy to undertake practical work. Limited facilities and a lack of often expensive equipment can limit opportunities: at SGS small classes and ample provision allow easy practical exploration. Sometimes teachers lack the experience and the confidence to safely implement practical lessons. Using subject specialist teachers at SGS, who have much experience of the possible hazards and knowledge of the ‘folk lore’ needed to ensure that experiments are a success, helps with this. Notoriously, experimental work does not always produce the expected result although a skilled teacher can use this as a springboard into discussing the inaccuracies in the procedure or the limits of theoretical models. Sadly, the science curriculum itself can limit practical opportunities. The GCSE and A level syllabuses have no place for the assessment of practical skills in reaching a final grade. Practical abilities must still be developed through completing a required list of experiments but the reward is an easily earned practical endorsement of the examination grade. An examination board promise that questions testing a student’s experimental skills will be included within the written papers offers me only a limited reassurance.
Finally, the skills developed through practical work have value in other areas of life. To be an accomplished experimentalist is to be patient, to be good at planning and at managing time. It is to have acquired an impressive level of physical dexterity and to be capable of reflecting in a critical way on a procedure in order to look for improvements or assess the likely scale of error.
Given the emphasis placed by the Government on the so-called STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) it seems strange that practical work in science has become a rare endeavour in many schools. At SGS we will continue to cherish it.