In this study, I am going to be discussing how practical work enhances learning and understanding of concepts in science, also any disadvantages that are faced along the way.
Science is a way of exploring and investigating the world around us, with the aim of learning more about it and understanding it better. Practical work is a prominent and characteristic feature of science education. By 'practical work' we mean tasks in which pupils perceive or manipulate real objects or materials for themselves, individually or in small groups; or by observing teacher demonstrations.
Science is not only a way of knowing: it is also a way of doing (Wenham 2010) Children are most likely to develop an in-depth understanding of any scientific if they have experienced it at first hand, although alone it is not enough. Osborne (1998) argues that practical work ‘only has a strictly limited role to play in learning science and that much of it is of little educational value’ (p. 156).
Any particular piece of work should have its purposes made clear to pupils if they are to benefit fully from it. If not, there is a risk of pupils seeing practical work purely as a break from the more routine activities of speaking, listening and writing.
If teachers desire to develop scientific knowledge and understanding, they must aid children to interpret experiences and observations in terms of the facts, concepts and theories of science. Activity and investigation is fundamental, without first-hand experience of finding out, scientific knowledge is empty.
Throughout the 1990’s the National Curriculum for England and Wales was amended multiple times, in order to streamline the structure and lessen the content. Teachers felt the current curriculum was overloaded and time for setting a relevant scene for science work was limited by both the amount and type of content teachers had to cover. Additionally this detailed specification of items “to be taught” lost sight of the “big ideas”- the eventual aims of science education for all pupils. Therefore progression in the curriculum is unclear because each idea becomes an aim itself rather than building to a wider understanding of scientific attributes of the world around.
The National Curriculum was under further scrutiny in 2009 when Sir Jim Rose lead a review, proposing changes throughout the primary phase as well as providing suggestions for teaching approaches building each phase on earlier experiences. For the first time ever the proposed curriculum will set out what children should learn in three phases, showing explicitly how the curriculum broadens and deepens to reflect children’s different but developing abilities between the ages of five and 11. Rose thought that a well-planned curriculum recognises that children benefit from learning independently and co-operatively and loved to be challenged and engaged in practical activities.
The curriculum was changed once more under the conservative government in 2014. Significant changes were proposed, particularly with raising the standards of basic scientific concepts and a greater emphasis on practical scientific experiments and demonstrations. This was based on similar approaches taken in Alberta and Massachusetts. However scientific enquiry cannot be developed solely through investigation and so research by children using secondary sources of information is an integral part of the science curriculum. Primary science is therefore the interplay between content and enquiry; primary children engage in scientific activities and make progress in their scientific learning using their own experiences. This gives children ownership of their learning; it is not merely the teacher transferring their knowledge to the child with no active involvement of the child where investigation is appropriate it is the role of the teacher to ensure that the child has had the opportunity to make sense of what they have observed through discussion between child and child and teacher and child. Teachers use challenging questions to encourage children to speculate, predict and explore (Farmery. C).
It is clear to see that the science curriculum has been under scrutiny many times. In the old curriculum practical work (SC1) had an equal status along with biology chemistry and physics however this is now not the case and it is expected that teachers should develop practical work incorporated into the three strands of science.
In this current climate of educational reform, it is important to remember the significance of practical work within science education at primary level. Whilst the 2014 curriculum has eradicated this strand, it is important that teachers do not abandon this idea for teaching mere facts and scientific knowledge through practical experiments.
The importance of practical work in science is widely accepted and it is acknowledged that good quality practical work promotes the engagement and interest of students as well as developing a range of skills, science knowledge and conceptual understanding. Although there are examples of good practice in schools, concerns have been expressed by sections of the science community, industry and business that in general the amount of practical work has declined and, more importantly, that its quality is uneven. These concerns were specifically raised by the STEM High Level Strategy Group (HLSG) which agreed that, “there is a need to forge the work that is already in train into a focused strategy to promote high quality practical work in school science” and that SCORE should lead on a piece of work to: central concern was the need to ensure the quality of practical work in science and identified a number of key questions that needed to be addressed. (SCORE education).
Due to the fact that the national curriculum is becoming distinctively harder, concerns could be raised as to teacher subject knowledge and the delivery of high quality lessons. Down to personal experience, when looking at the new curriculum, particularly in upper key stage two, a degree of prior knowledge and understanding was needed beyond expectations meaning that revising certain aspects of primary science was required. Despite this, surely the introduction of the new curriculum would provide more opportunities for teachers to enhance their subject knowledge, ensuring that high quality lessons were delivered.
An OFSTED review (2010) highlighted that despite positive initiatives including the Primary Science Quality Mark and the publication of ‘Be safe’, there has been a lack of professional development (CPD) in primary science, taking into consideration a lack of confidence within teachers and their understanding of scientific enquiry skills and the physical sciences. Where CPD was offered, a large proportion of courses were brief and often focused on generic areas such as assessment and were often considered to be no greater than satisfactory. Although preparation to teach science is compulsory on teacher training courses, such courses are generally too short. The breadth of science is such that there is not enough time to cover everything (L. Newton 2009). The effectiveness of science in both the primary and secondary schools visited was much more likely to be outstanding when teachers and subject leaders had received science-specific training. However, most of the primary teachers had not received such training, and most of the science leaders in both phases had not received leadership training that was specific to science. (OFSTED 2013).
As well as high levels of teach subject knowledge, it is important to acknowledge the focus for schools within science education is to ensure that all pupils are fully engaged and appropriately challenged, especially in scientific practical work. In order for pupils to fully understand how science works, they need to be exposed to high-quality teaching to ensure clear progression to further understanding (Ofsted 2010). In the time given to science, teachers tend to teach scientific vocabulary and facts and avoid casual explanations and teaching for explanation Science lessons are the main source of children’s experience of casual explanation. They talk about purpose and intention, why people do things and what things are for. (L. Newton 2009).
Timetables in a significant minority of the primary and secondary schools visited did not allow enough time for teaching science through regular, enquiry-based learning. This limited pupils’ opportunities to develop the practical skills necessary for future work in science, technology or engineering. This included restricting science to irregular ‘science days’ in primary schools, (OFSTED 2013)
Teaching was good when teachers had a clear understanding of what knowledge, understanding and skills were to be developed; understood how development in scientific enquiry promotes effective learning; understood the relationship between concepts and the cognitive demand they make; and were clear about what pupils already knew, understood and could do. In the best schools visited, teachers ensured that pupils understood the ‘big ideas’ of science. They made sure that pupils mastered the investigative and practical skills that underpin the development of scientific knowledge and could discover for themselves the relevance and usefulness of those ideas. (OFSTED 2013) First-hand investigations are relevant and valuable not only because they develop knowledge, understanding and the ability to investigate competently, but also because thy help to give children a more realistic insight into how science works, its achievements and its limitations (Wenham)
Science achievement in the schools visited was highest when individual pupils were involved in fully planning, carrying out and evaluating investigations that they had, in some part, suggested themselves. (OFSTED 2013) However, one major problem when trying to develop a science education based on first-hand experience is that it is impossible for children to investigate everything in their live, so choices have to be made. (Wenham) In most of the schools visited, pupils from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 4 had limited opportunities to work independently, particularly to develop their individual manipulative skills in practical work, because teachers only required them to work in pairs or small groups. (OFSTED 2013) An important and integral part of primary education is to help children develop the ability to investigate things for themselves: to perceive problems, think up possible answers, find out whether their ideas stand up to testing and communicate their findings clearly (Wenham).
Scientific investigation and research are seen as very complex, but it is possible to see how they are rooted in, and grow out of, the common sense sort of investigations which people use in everyday life. (Wenham).Scientific investigation has an important and direct contribution to make to this process, but it also has a wider relevance in helping to develop critical awareness of science and its influence within the community (Wenham). Another is that real life situations are usually more complex than the artificially simplified world of the science laboratory. (Wenham). It makes it possible or teachers to see a clear relationship and progression between investigative, exploratory play in the early years, and increasingly through investigations of a more obviously ‘scientific; kind in which children engage as they grow older. (Wenham)
I have decided to carry out this investigation as my own learning can be identified as kinaesthetic, therefore on a personal level I find practical activities to be beneficial. Kinaesthetic (Tactile) learners love to work through a hands-on approach, specifically through touching or doing, manipulate objects, and take a more active approach to learning in general. The learning style takes place by the students carrying out physical activities, rather than listening to a teacher or watching demonstrations. This has led me to wanting to investigate further into the direct impact this has in science.
In order to highlight the importance and understand practical work, I have carried out a small scale study, involving questioning 3 teachers and 3 pupils in different year groups to find out their thoughts on how practical work enhances the learning of children. I choose a questionnaire because it allows me to directly compare my findings of each participant, formulating a conclusion relating back to the investigation, The benefits of using this research tool is that is it a low cost method of attaining data across a wide spread area (Oppenheim, 2005). This finalised questionnaire was drawn up and distributed using an opportunity sample of qualified teachers. The advantages of using this type of sample is that for those without large resources it is an straightforward way of collecting data, although the disadvantage of this is that a truly random sample could not be achieved (Searle, 1999). In addition to this, observing a practical based science lesson in upper KS2 helped me to understand the advantages and disadvantages of practical work and any challenges faced by teacher in respect to the new curriculum any misconceptions of the children and compare theory to practice.
After carrying out my own small scale study (See appendix), I have been able to critically evaluate my findings and have summarised below.
It is clear to see that from doing a small scale study I have found that from a teacher’s perspective that the new curriculum is slightly harder and teachers may have to keep referring to it, although it is quite similar in response to the topics taught. Teachers feel that children are more likely to remember experiences from science through practical work by doing, rather than reading about it or just listening. This is also supported through wider research as teachers in England feel as though the use of practical work can motivate students towards the study of science (Wellington,2005) Experiments are a fun enjoyable way for children to learn despite it taking a lot of planning and resourcing. A disadvantage towards practical work is that recording the work is usually done through video or photographic evidence and hard to record in books. The new curriculum gives teachers more opportunities for practical work and to build on previous experiences each year. Practical work caters for all learners, children learn in different ways and at different rates, and have diverse levels of attainment, interest and confidence. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (2002) reported that: In our view, practical work, including fieldwork, is a vital part of science education. It helps students to develop their understanding of science, appreciate that science is based on evidence and acquire hands-on skills that are essential if students are to progress in science.
From a child’s perspective I have found that most children like to be more ‘hands on’ and learning through experiences rather than just listening to a teacher or researching for themselves. Children can see practical work as being affective and effective in terms of their learning and enjoyment of science. When presented with learning opportunities that capture their interest they have an overpowering urge to explore the situation for themselves and share their ideas, thoughts and feelings with others.
Practical work can:
motivate pupils, by stimulating interest and enjoyment
teach laboratory skills
enhance the learning of scientific knowledge
give insight into scientific method and develop expertise in using it
develop 'scientific attitudes', such as open-mindedness and objectivity
(This list is based on Hodson, D. 1990, "A critical look at practical work in school science" School Science Review, Vol 70 (Number 256), pp 33-40.)
I observed one short series of practical based science lesson in a primary school, the topic was ‘mini beasts’. The children watched a short video on identification and classification, the teacher then gave the children some gross facts about the insects to draw in the attention of the pupils. The children had a chance to go outside into the school grounds were they had a chance to walk around explore different habitats and the insects which live among them. They marked on a map what they found and where it was living. Once back in the classroom they completed a classification database.
The aim of this study was too find out if practical work enhances the learning and understanding of concepts in science. By doing this study I have considered the impact on my findings on my teaching. Teachers must consider how they are to encourage and stimulate the children to be active in the teaching sessions. In science, first-hand experience through play offered the chance to manipulate, explore, discover, practice and apply knowledge and ideas. Exploratory play can help children gain a deeper understanding of science through first hand experiences. Teachers will need to structure some play opportunities to make the most of the potential for scientific learning. On the other hand Osborne (1998) argues that practical work ‘only has a strictly limited role to play in learning science and that much of it is of little educational value’ (p. 156)
There were some limitations to my study, all of the teachers who took the questionnaire were from the same primary school. This had a negative impact on my research, as all three of the teachers follow the school curriculum and therefore taught similar lessons, further to this 2 out of the 3 teachers were based in upper key stage 2, following the same scheme of work and planning together. This meant that the results of my findings may have been bias not giving a true reflection of my study. Furthermore, one of the participants was a recently qualified teacher, therefore has had little experience with the old curriculum. This meant that when questioning about the difference between the two curriculums, not a clear comparison could be given. I only had chance to observe one teacher which may or may not be considered outstanding in teaching science. Having three teachers from similar educational backgrounds means that there is not enough evidence to base conclusions on.
When talking to the children on the experiences they have had during their time in school so far, most of which were similar due to attending the same school and remembering past experiences from previous years. This has hindered my investigation because they have all had exposure to the same scheme of work and teaching. I have developed relationships with the children prior to this study, therefore children may have felt more comfortable in my presence rather than talking to a stranger and are more likely to answer honestly to the given questions. On the other hand, knowing the children before the study, may have altered the validity of results and they may have modified their answers and not answering truthfully as they are wanting to please me this is known as the Hawthorne effect.
Taking this into consideration, it is clear that since my study is on a small scale and has many limitations, further questions are consequently raised. Due to the fact that all participants were from the north east of England, it could be questions as to whether my findings are representative across the country. Also I have only formally observed one teacher I am unable to compare and contrast across a wider scale. Therefore a conclusion can only be made on one teacher’s experience.
Deciding to do a questionnaire enabled me to directly compare participant’s responses clearly however, as such a small scale study was carried out, using an interview approach would have been viable. Interviewing participants would have provided me with opportunities to discuss my questions in more detail gaining more qualitative research. Even though I observed a teacher deliver a science lesson I could have specifically observed the children’s reactions and responses measuring progress of scientific knowledge. This would have enabled me to analyse my findings using a more in-depth approach.
The argument that children’s learning is influenced and affected by experiences involving interaction with others, combined with the importance of first-hand experience, supports my findings from this investigation. Children are natural investigators and have a sense of inquisitiveness that can be almost insatiable.
Misconceptions are quite common and children may hold any number of them; therefore it is important that the teacher is aware of them and able to respond appropriately when they occur.
Memory and learning can be enhanced in creative and imaginative approaches to science that heighten children’s interest and enjoyment in the subject.
Many science teachers believe that student practical work leads to better learning – because we all understand and remember things better if we have done them ourselves. But anyone who has taught science knows from experience that students often do not learn from a practical activity the things we hoped they would learn – and research studies tend to support this view (Millar, in press).
Misconceptions held by children in science need first to be identified though observation and assessment of a pupils existing knowledge and understanding.
Misconceptions should not be viewed as wrong as they fit the child’s own view of the world; it is the teachers responsibility to work with this existing knowledge and understanding and to develop it.
1. In light of the new national curriculum, how confident do you feel in the teaching and delivery of primary science?
2. Do you feel that children benefit from practical investigations in science?
3. Do you think that the revised primary curriculum allows more time for children to carry out practical activities in science?
1. Which parts of science do you enjoy learning about?
2. Do you like doing science investigations in lessons?
3. Does doing practical science experiments help you to learn scientific knowledge?
1. At first, teaching upper key stage 2, I felt quite intimidated, knowing that the curriculum is harder however using schemes of work such as cornerstones helped me to understand what to teach.
2. Yes - children are more likely to remember experiences from science if they do it rather than read about it. I really enjoy teaching experiments, it just takes a lot of planning and resourcing and pressure to record in books.
3. I think that although there isn’t a particular strand, I think it is easier to achieve good scientific practical skills through the discussions we have before conducting an experiment - children have more time to explore rather than teaching a series of points.
1. It hasn't changed much just taught in a different order - more emphasis on skills than knowledge. Very confident although have to read curriculum rather than rely on memory.
2. Definitely - everyone learns better by doing rather than listening. New curriculum is all sequential - teaching skills each year that build on skills from year before etc
3. Yes because less content - only 3 big topics a year and repeated every year - plants, animals, materials then more added into key stage 2
1. I have read the new curriculum therefore I feel confident at delivering lessons.
2. Yes practical investigations are crucial to children's learning in science and work most effectively when children have learnt a common, consistent vocabulary which they can use to discuss their science investigations from a young age.
3. I don't honestly have a valid opinion on this question. I don't know enough about science teaching before the new national curriculum.
1. My favourite science lessons are all about plants.
2. I love doing investigations as part of our lessons.
3. Doing experiments definitely helps you learn more as you are actually finding out for yourself not being told or reading it.
1. I really like learning about different things we are learning about volcanos now
2. Yes because we get to do tests and see how things work
3. Yes I made a model of a volcano and I understood it more by making a model myself
1. I like learning about the environment and how plants grow
2. No I haven’t done any
3. haven’t really done one at school
1. Yes I like science. I really like learning about the elements, biology (especially how the heart works) and circuits.
2. Investigations into the work I'm doing are good because you understand the subject better.
I like them even though sometimes research takes a lot of time, sometime more than practical.
3. I love doing experiments because they hands on. It helps to see if my investigation and my thoughts of what might happen are right or wrong. I like trial and error. I think its fun because I get to do it with my friends.
...(download the rest of the essay above)