This and ideas, something which one can only

This assignment will critically analyse the
extent to which practical experiments are effective in the primary school classroom
and look into how they support children’s scientific development. Firstly, it
is important to understand what I am referring to by the term ‘Practical
Experiments’, that being to any teaching and learning activity which at some
point involves the students in observing or manipulating the objects and
materials they are studying.


learning experiences in science are a very important factor in the development
of skills and the tying together of practical work and theory. Good quality
practical work can not only engage students with the processes of scientific
enquiry, but also communicate the excitement and wonder of the subject (SCORE,
2017). A high-quality science education provides the
foundations for understanding the world. Science is vital to the world’s future
prosperity, and all pupils should be taught essential aspects of the knowledge,
methods, processes and uses of science, with this being achieved easily through
the use of hands-on practical experiences.  In the Primary
National Curriculum (DfE, 2014), Working scientifically specifies the
understanding of the processes and methods of science, focusing on the key
features of scientific enquiry, so that pupils learn to use a variety of
approaches to answer relevant scientific questions. Pupils should seek answers
to questions through collecting, analysing and presenting data, with practical
experiments allowing all of this to happen within a sequence of lessons.


Practical Experiments have a great impact on
children’s scientific development. Although the quality of practical work in
the UK varies considerably, there is strong evidence that when well planned and
effectively implemented, science practical experiences allow students to be
both mentally and physically engaged in ways that are not possible in other
science education experiences. (Lunetta et al. 2007, p.405). Practical
experiments help children with the learning of scientific ideas, as Millar
(2004) suggests, practicals are not discovery or construction of something new;
rather it is making what others already know, your own. Thus, the role of
practical work is to help pupils develop a link between observables and ideas,
something which one can only succeed in by having access to both, and for this to
occur, children must think about their observations from practical work in a
way that can help them make links to theory. This is supported by the work of Jean Piaget, who’s
theory of constructivism argues that people
produce knowledge and form meaning based upon their experiences via the two key
components of accommodation and assimilation. Assimilating causes an individual
to incorporate new experiences into the old experiences, allowing one to
develop new outlooks, re-think misunderstandings, and evaluate perceptions,
whilst accommodation, on the other hand, is reframing the world and new
experiences into what was previously perceived, giving an updated outlook from
what has been proven, for example, when things do not turn out as you would
expect, one must accommodate and reframe the original expectations with the


On the contrary, students sometimes do not
learn the things planned for them to learn from a practical experiment, and
there is research to support this view. Some science teachers and researchers have
questioned the effectiveness of practical experiments in regard to children’s learning.

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Abrahams and Reiss (2012) state
that practicals have little
educational value as well as a limited role in the actual learning of science that takes
place. Woolnough and Allsop (1985) express similar opinions about the
contribution of practical experiments to students’ science learning, especially
in regard to learning a new concept or a relationship between factors. To
improve practical experiments in order to allow a good scope of learning to
take place, they must be planned to make the students think as well as act.

Effective tasks, therefore, are those where students are ‘hands on’ as well as
‘minds on’ (Duckworth, 1990).


So, what does the future look like for
practical science in the primary school classroom? As we move forward into a
new, technological age of teaching, some teachers were questioned about the
potential of using a ‘virtual lab’ and if they thought it would be more useful
and effective than a traditional, in-school experiment. It was concluded that despite
a virtual lab’s potential to improve and enhance the learning of more complicated
scientific concepts and the traditionally more dangerous experiments normally
not touched until secondary school, as well as it’s time saving capability, a
virtual lab should not replace hands-on activities and direct interaction with
materials (De Jong, et al. 2013).  However,
many teachers admit their overuse of simulations, which the cause of being mainly
to do with a lack of materials and equipment, and in some cases, the confidence
of the teacher in their ability to deliver an effective practical.


OFSTED (2011), evidences the overall
importance and value of practical science in school, reporting that more
practical science lessons and the ability to develop further the skills of
scientific enquiry are both key factors which promote pupils’ learning,
progress and engagement in schools which demonstrated substantial progress in
science. The same report noted the importance of professional development to
support teachers in their use of practical work and other teaching strategies,
as teacher confidence in the delivery of science lessons, and in particular, practical
science lessons, can be one of the biggest barriers to the effectiveness of
practicals which will then, in turn, effect the scientific development of the
children in that particular classroom.


A combination of a lack of resources and low
teacher confidence, often means that in many primary schools in the UK, pupils are
carrying out practical experiments at a low cognitive level. Often from basic learning
schemes, this recipe following type of activity, during which there is little
opportunity for much scientific thinking as children are too focussed on doing
it right, following the steps perfectly to get ‘the right answer’ is used as a
way to confirm ideas which have already been taught, and as a consequence the
outcomes are generally pre-ordained (Ratcliffe,
2011). This can, therefore, be considered unproductive as well as unscientific,
as it does not promote the positive attitudes to scientific discovery. It is,
however, as stated by Millar (2004) the type of practical experiment which has
been shown to be ineffective.


There is substantial evidence to show that
there is a significant decline in practical work in many schools in the UK. The
reasons behind the decline in practical work are extensive. Jones (2011) explains
that teachers are concerned especially about class management and behaviour in
a class in which an experiment is taking place. Many teachers express that when
practicals are planned, children often get very over-excited, can start to
demonstrate poor behaviour and can waiver their attention away from the point
of learning. In which case, the children in question often have no idea what is
going on in the basic experimental stages, let alone be aware enough to begin
to understand the scientific theory behind the experiment (SCORE, 2008). On the other hand, it is
also considered likely that pupil behaviour will be better if the students are
motivated and enjoying their lessons. A prime example of this being for the kinaesthetic
learner, who learn best by example, for which a practical approach to learning allows children to observe and
understand what is happening (Dyslexia
and Additional Academic Language Learning, 2013), as it can often be hard to fully comprehend
something which you have never directly seen or experienced (Dunn, 1992).  In addition, practical
activities and field work can encourage the beginnings of an independent approach
to learning for pupils, allowing them to do things for themselves. Skills such
as this are often neglected where students are simply dictated to and made to
learn facts by heart (Kimmel, 1998).



In an already crowded curriculum fieldwork,
which appears to be costly and time consuming, the Confederation of British Industry (2015) suggests that Science
is being squeezed out of English primary schools, with a third not providing
the recommended two hours of teaching a week. The study also suggests science
has become less of a priority in many schools. In the report, one third of 260 teachers surveyed said they lacked
confidence teaching science and 53% said
science teaching had become less of a priority over the past five years
with 36% of the schools
teaching science at Key Stage 2 said they were not providing the minimum
recommendation for science education of two hours every week. Cridland
(2015) explains teachers are believing science has become less of a priority,
with too many schools struggling to teach the recommended two hours every week.

He goes on to question how, as teachers, we expect to influence and inspire the
future generations of scientists and engineers if we are too pressured to
deliver high-quality and inspiring practical science lessons at primary school
age. Furthermore, A lack of STEM skills are already holding back economic
growth (UKCES, 2013), and this will only get worse if we don’t inspire the next
generation. Pupils need innovative, fun lessons with access to the latest science
kit and have the ability to get out of the classroom (BBC News, 2015).



Practical experiments and learning
opportunities outside of the classroom can be used in cross-curricular teaching
across the school curriculum. Primary school students in one study (Scott et
al. 2011) who carried out practical experiments and field based activities had
improved writing skills, demonstrating a link between practical science
education outside of the classroom and literacy. There is also a perception
that health and safety concerns are a major barrier to the delivery of practical
experiments and field based activities, but the fact that students can access and
participate in these activities with due consideration given to health and
safety demonstrates that these problems are, for the most part, managed as a
matter of course by many (Dillon, 2008). It is considered that the lack of
confidence stemming from a lack of training amongst teachers in how to manage
health and safety issues is a greater barrier to the teaching of practical
activities than the actual health and safety concerns themselves (Boyd, 2012). Inexperienced
and newly qualified teachers are often not aware of the range of experimental
work that they could use to support learning in each topic. Furthermore, where
there is a high turnover of younger teachers in a particular school, knowledge
of what equipment is available and what each piece of equipment is and how to
use fully utilise it for its best benefit can be lost from year to year. In
addition, cramped and poorly designed classrooms tend to make a lot of practical
work difficult within a primary school. This, combined with a lack of
investment in good, modern equipment can discourage teachers from using
experiments where the recommended or necessary equipment is not available or
not in good condition which in turn would limit the effectiveness of the
practical and in turn the children’s learning (Millar, 2009).



With all of
this in mind, there are recommendations for more of a focus on science, and especially
practical methods in science in primary ITT courses (The Importance of
Teaching, 2010). There are already obvious differences in the training to
become a primary teacher, with a BA or B.Ed. being three years long, whilst PGCE
courses are just one year. There is agreement that, were there more time
available during ITT courses, it would be beneficial to dedicate more of it to science,
as it is often, when compared with maths and literacy not touched upon as much.

Given the difference in length of training, there is also great disparity between
the science content in a B.Ed. course to a PGCE course, which can also affect the
quality and confidence of newly qualified teachers (Fraser and Taylor, 1999).

 In regard to training, although there is focus
on practical science in ITT: content knowledge is largely left to the trainee teachers
themselves.  Although
qualified teachers surveyed state they had ample opportunity to teach science
while on school placements, they do report that they did not have sufficient
opportunity to observe high quality science teaching while training to become a
primary teacher, and were often thrown in at the deep end and asked to teach
from the off.





To conclude, it is evident that practical learning
experiences in science are a very important factor in the development of skills
of scientific enquiry, part of the National Curriculum (2013) and the tying
together of practical work and theory. The emphasis, however, is that the
practical sessions must be both well planned and effectively implemented in
order to allow students to be both mentally and physically engaged in the
science that is going on and the ability to develop further these skills (Lunetta
et al. 2007).  With a significant decline
in practical work in many schools in the UK due to the variety of circumstances
discussed above, what is the next step to inspire the future generations of scientists? Will the combination
of a lack of resources and low teacher confidence continue to cause our
children to be experimenting at a low cognitive level? I believe we can overcome
the discussed issues with a combination of increased training during ITT as
well as greater CPD opportunities, as well as looking into using a ‘virtual lab’.

As a nation, our science teaching, especially in regard to quality practical
lessons isn’t as good as it could be, and if the government were to put in to
place a strategic plan in order to improve the quality of teacher training,
this in turn would help our teachers’ confidence in the classroom and allow
them to be inspired to inspire.