Why do we bother with practical lessons, asks a science technician

When we learn science in school, we do practical work. It’s seen as a valuable part of the process, supplementing the theoretical work, and bringing the subject to life. In the UK we do a lot of it compared to other countries, and many educators would argue that we still don’t do enough. Ask any adult what they remember about their science lessons at school and practical work will feature strongly in their memories.

Students in a practical lesson

Source: © PCH-Vector/Getty Image

Practicals should be a time to encourage and inspire students to go further with chemistry

However, we need to ask the question: what do students actually gain from practical lessons? From my observations, many students see practicals as playtime and switch off from learning. Others focus on the practical work and do not connect it with theory. It’s difficult to teach using practicals – the same material has to be introduced or reinforced in theory lessons. Practicals can even hinder learning – time is short and there’s a lot of curriculum to get through. In addition, experimental results are not as clear-cut as we would like them to be, leading to confusion.

Science teachers doing practicals need to do extra planning compared to their colleagues. Did your training give you the confidence that you could prepare a practical lesson properly (risk assessment, classroom management, where to look for help, the role of technicians)? In my experience this is an area that requires improvement.

We teach students how to do practical work as an end in itself, not as a means of gaining marks in an exam.

There is also cost to consider; you need all the resources that the English department has, for instance, plus chemicals, glassware and other equipment. You need extra staff. When money is tight it’s very tempting to senior leadership to cut the science budget – we can easily get by with one fewer technician, can’t we?

Despite all the issues I’ve mentioned, I’m not trying to make myself redundant just yet. I firmly believe there is a role for practical work in school chemistry. Frequently it is the practical element that inspires a student to go on to further study or a career in chemistry. However, to make it more effective we need to change what we are doing.

Taking a different approach

One alternative approach is to make more use of demonstrations and videos. Demos require fewer resources (and precious technician time) than class sets, and you don’t need to worry about students endangering themselves. YouTube has thousands of excellent and free videos. Both of these options are quicker than whole class practicals, and you will often have time to repeat if necessary. When it comes to quantitative work, instead of spending a lesson failing to collect data you can present your students with a pristine set of data, and instead focus on getting them to plot the graph properly. If we are to continue with our current attitude to practical work, we may be better off getting teachers to do it rather than students.

However, here’s a more ambitious proposal: we change how we think about practical work. We teach students how to do practical work as an end in itself, not as a means of gaining marks in an exam. The aim is to encourage and inspire them to go further with chemistry, and for those that don’t, we are still giving them skills that are useful in everyday life. We emphasise safe practice (eg wearing safety glasses) and make sure they know the risks associated with their experiments. We teach them to handle glassware and equipment properly and confidently. We teach them to treat potentially dangerous substances with respect – measure them out carefully, clear up spills immediately and re-cap bottles. We encourage them to follow instructions to the letter, to pay attention to their experiments, and to record their observations and data accurately. By emphasising the process rather than the result we can discuss experiments that don’t give the correct results wihtout confusing students.

This isn’t the final word – there’s lots I haven’t discussed (eg the sort of practicals that fit the bill, and the effect on examinations). But I hope it starts a debate on the future of practical work in school chemistry.