This assignment will critically analyse theextent to which practical experiments are effective in the primary school classroomand look into how they support children’s scientific development. Firstly, itis important to understand what I am referring to by the term ‘PracticalExperiments’, that being to any teaching and learning activity which at somepoint involves the students in observing or manipulating the objects andmaterials they are studying. Practicallearning experiences in science are a very important factor in the developmentof skills and the tying together of practical work and theory. Good qualitypractical work can not only engage students with the processes of scientificenquiry, but also communicate the excitement and wonder of the subject (SCORE,2017). A high-quality science education provides thefoundations for understanding the world.
Science is vital to the world’s futureprosperity, and all pupils should be taught essential aspects of the knowledge,methods, processes and uses of science, with this being achieved easily throughthe use of hands-on practical experiences. In the PrimaryNational Curriculum (DfE, 2014), Working scientifically specifies theunderstanding of the processes and methods of science, focusing on the keyfeatures of scientific enquiry, so that pupils learn to use a variety ofapproaches to answer relevant scientific questions. Pupils should seek answersto questions through collecting, analysing and presenting data, with practicalexperiments allowing all of this to happen within a sequence of lessons. Practical Experiments have a great impact onchildren’s scientific development. Although the quality of practical work inthe UK varies considerably, there is strong evidence that when well planned andeffectively implemented, science practical experiences allow students to beboth mentally and physically engaged in ways that are not possible in otherscience education experiences. (Lunetta et al.
2007, p.405). Practicalexperiments 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 ofpractical 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 tooccur, children must think about their observations from practical work in away that can help them make links to theory. This is supported by the work of Jean Piaget, who’stheory of constructivism argues that peopleproduce knowledge and form meaning based upon their experiences via the two keycomponents of accommodation and assimilation. Assimilating causes an individualto incorporate new experiences into the old experiences, allowing one todevelop new outlooks, re-think misunderstandings, and evaluate perceptions,whilst accommodation, on the other hand, is reframing the world and newexperiences into what was previously perceived, giving an updated outlook fromwhat has been proven, for example, when things do not turn out as you wouldexpect, one must accommodate and reframe the original expectations with theoutcomes. On the contrary, students sometimes do notlearn the things planned for them to learn from a practical experiment, andthere is research to support this view.
Some science teachers and researchers havequestioned the effectiveness of practical experiments in regard to children’s learning.Abrahams and Reiss (2012) statethat practicals have littleeducational value as well as a limited role in the actual learning of science that takesplace. Woolnough and Allsop (1985) express similar opinions about thecontribution of practical experiments to students’ science learning, especiallyin regard to learning a new concept or a relationship between factors. Toimprove practical experiments in order to allow a good scope of learning totake 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 forpractical science in the primary school classroom? As we move forward into anew, technological age of teaching, some teachers were questioned about thepotential of using a ‘virtual lab’ and if they thought it would be more usefuland effective than a traditional, in-school experiment. It was concluded that despitea virtual lab’s potential to improve and enhance the learning of more complicatedscientific concepts and the traditionally more dangerous experiments normallynot touched until secondary school, as well as it’s time saving capability, avirtual lab should not replace hands-on activities and direct interaction withmaterials (De Jong, et al.
2013). However,many teachers admit their overuse of simulations, which the cause of being mainlyto do with a lack of materials and equipment, and in some cases, the confidenceof the teacher in their ability to deliver an effective practical. OFSTED (2011), evidences the overallimportance and value of practical science in school, reporting that morepractical science lessons and the ability to develop further the skills ofscientific enquiry are both key factors which promote pupils’ learning,progress and engagement in schools which demonstrated substantial progress inscience. The same report noted the importance of professional development tosupport teachers in their use of practical work and other teaching strategies,as teacher confidence in the delivery of science lessons, and in particular, practicalscience lessons, can be one of the biggest barriers to the effectiveness ofpracticals which will then, in turn, effect the scientific development of thechildren in that particular classroom. A combination of a lack of resources and lowteacher confidence, often means that in many primary schools in the UK, pupils arecarrying out practical experiments at a low cognitive level.
Often from basic learningschemes, this recipe following type of activity, during which there is littleopportunity for much scientific thinking as children are too focussed on doingit right, following the steps perfectly to get ‘the right answer’ is used as away to confirm ideas which have already been taught, and as a consequence theoutcomes 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 hasbeen shown to be ineffective. There is substantial evidence to show thatthere is a significant decline in practical work in many schools in the UK. Thereasons behind the decline in practical work are extensive. Jones (2011) explainsthat teachers are concerned especially about class management and behaviour ina class in which an experiment is taking place.
Many teachers express that whenpracticals are planned, children often get very over-excited, can start todemonstrate poor behaviour and can waiver their attention away from the pointof learning. In which case, the children in question often have no idea what isgoing on in the basic experimental stages, let alone be aware enough to beginto understand the scientific theory behind the experiment (SCORE, 2008). On the other hand, it isalso considered likely that pupil behaviour will be better if the students aremotivated and enjoying their lessons. A prime example of this being for the kinaestheticlearner, who learn best by example, for which a practical approach to learning allows children to observe andunderstand what is happening (Dyslexiaand Additional Academic Language Learning, 2013), as it can often be hard to fully comprehendsomething which you have never directly seen or experienced (Dunn, 1992). In addition, practicalactivities and field work can encourage the beginnings of an independent approachto learning for pupils, allowing them to do things for themselves. Skills suchas this are often neglected where students are simply dictated to and made tolearn 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 Scienceis being squeezed out of English primary schools, with a third not providingthe recommended two hours of teaching a week. The study also suggests sciencehas become less of a priority in many schools.
In the report, one third of 260 teachers surveyed said they lackedconfidence teaching science and 53% saidscience teaching had become less of a priority over the past five yearswith 36% of the schoolsteaching science at Key Stage 2 said they were not providing the minimumrecommendation 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 thefuture generations of scientists and engineers if we are too pressured todeliver high-quality and inspiring practical science lessons at primary schoolage. Furthermore, A lack of STEM skills are already holding back economicgrowth (UKCES, 2013), and this will only get worse if we don’t inspire the nextgeneration. Pupils need innovative, fun lessons with access to the latest sciencekit and have the ability to get out of the classroom (BBC News, 2015).
Practical experiments and learningopportunities outside of the classroom can be used in cross-curricular teachingacross the school curriculum. Primary school students in one study (Scott etal. 2011) who carried out practical experiments and field based activities hadimproved writing skills, demonstrating a link between practical scienceeducation outside of the classroom and literacy. There is also a perceptionthat health and safety concerns are a major barrier to the delivery of practicalexperiments and field based activities, but the fact that students can access andparticipate in these activities with due consideration given to health andsafety demonstrates that these problems are, for the most part, managed as amatter of course by many (Dillon, 2008). It is considered that the lack ofconfidence stemming from a lack of training amongst teachers in how to managehealth and safety issues is a greater barrier to the teaching of practicalactivities than the actual health and safety concerns themselves (Boyd, 2012). Inexperiencedand newly qualified teachers are often not aware of the range of experimentalwork that they could use to support learning in each topic.
Furthermore, wherethere is a high turnover of younger teachers in a particular school, knowledgeof what equipment is available and what each piece of equipment is and how touse fully utilise it for its best benefit can be lost from year to year. Inaddition, cramped and poorly designed classrooms tend to make a lot of practicalwork difficult within a primary school. This, combined with a lack ofinvestment in good, modern equipment can discourage teachers from usingexperiments where the recommended or necessary equipment is not available ornot in good condition which in turn would limit the effectiveness of thepractical and in turn the children’s learning (Millar, 2009). With all ofthis in mind, there are recommendations for more of a focus on science, and especiallypractical methods in science in primary ITT courses (The Importance ofTeaching, 2010).
There are already obvious differences in the training tobecome a primary teacher, with a BA or B.Ed. being three years long, whilst PGCEcourses are just one year.
There is agreement that, were there more timeavailable 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 betweenthe science content in a B.Ed.
course to a PGCE course, which can also affect thequality and confidence of newly qualified teachers (Fraser and Taylor, 1999). In regard to training, although there is focuson practical science in ITT: content knowledge is largely left to the trainee teachersthemselves. Althoughqualified teachers surveyed state they had ample opportunity to teach sciencewhile on school placements, they do report that they did not have sufficientopportunity to observe high quality science teaching while training to become aprimary teacher, and were often thrown in at the deep end and asked to teachfrom the off. SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY& INCLUSION To conclude, it is evident that practical learningexperiences in science are a very important factor in the development of skillsof scientific enquiry, part of the National Curriculum (2013) and the tyingtogether of practical work and theory. The emphasis, however, is that thepractical sessions must be both well planned and effectively implemented inorder to allow students to be both mentally and physically engaged in thescience that is going on and the ability to develop further these skills (Lunettaet al. 2007).
With a significant declinein practical work in many schools in the UK due to the variety of circumstancesdiscussed above, what is the next step to inspire the future generations of scientists? Will the combinationof a lack of resources and low teacher confidence continue to cause ourchildren to be experimenting at a low cognitive level? I believe we can overcomethe discussed issues with a combination of increased training during ITT aswell as greater CPD opportunities, as well as looking into using a ‘virtual lab’.As a nation, our science teaching, especially in regard to quality practicallessons isn’t as good as it could be, and if the government were to put in toplace a strategic plan in order to improve the quality of teacher training,this in turn would help our teachers’ confidence in the classroom and allowthem to be inspired to inspire.