Keith S Taber reviews research on how teachers and students view 'practicals'

Practical Work in Secondary Science: A Minds-On Approach
Ian Abrahams
London: Continuum 2011 | Pp160 | £22.99 (PB) | ISBN 978 184 706 504 9
Reviewed by Keith S Taber

book cover

Ian Abrahams has written a book about how teachers and pupils perceive science 'practicals' that should be required reading for all science teachers. His research undermines common rationales for the high level of practical work that have been typical in UK secondary science for some decades.

Common arguments for doing practical work are that it motivates pupils, and that learners are more likely to remember the science when they have carried out practical work themselves. However, Abrahams shows that class practical work commonly falls down on both counts.

Teachers are well aware that many of the pupils who are not especially keen on science prefer lessons with practical work than 'theory' work - and sometimes voice this view energetically. However, Abrahams shows that often this is a case of not wanting to do science at all, and simply tolerating practical work better than having to sit, listen and write. The high levels of practical work do not encourage these pupils to continue to study science once they have the choice - they simply make them less bored, and sometimes more easily managed, in the meantime. Arguably, there are often alternative types of learning activity that could achieve just as much (in terms of learning, engagement and order) with less costly resources or risks.

Abrahams also shows that although pupils will claim that they remember science better when they do practical work, there is limited evidence to support this. He found that most pupils, even when they remembered doing practicals, could only recall the haziest of details about the work, and often had little recollection of what ideas the practicals were meant to help them engage with. None of this is a reason to abandon practical work, but the teacher who reads this book might well decide it could be more judiciously used.

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