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The future of practical work in Science

Published on 04/03/15

Practical work is the central component of science on which most of the learning is pinned. It is what sets us apart from many other subjects.
It would be unimaginable in Art, DT, Drama, PE etc not to include practical assessment, similarly to exclude orals from the assessment in languages. Experiments act to engage the students and provide active learning opportunities. The Chinese Proverb
"Tell me, I'll forget, show me I'll remember, Involve me and I'll understand"

was never more true. Practical work not only develops practical skills but is also intellectually challenging as it develops understanding and the ability to connect ideas and translate between different scales; what is being observed and what is happening on a molecular level for example.

Does Assessment Rule?

The questions are how to ensure that schools include sufficient practical work and how to assess it. Unfortunately if it is not assessed then it is highly likely that schools will become under pressure to do less; practical work is expensive, time consuming and in schools where behaviour is an issue, risky. To enable the development of thinking skills through practical work takes a lot of lesson time. Students need to design, trial, evaluate and refine their design on several occasions and in a range of different contexts. The current very content heavy syllabuses do not lend themselves to this. This causes problems in the sixth form as the students have not developed the required skills. Videos and simulations are useful but are not a replacement for the real thing.

The list of compulsory practicals suggested by Ofqual is the route they have already introduced for the reformed A levels. I don't think that this will assess the students skills to any great extent. I suspect that it will simple act as a check that a school is including (a minimum and very limited amount of) practical work in their scheme of work.

I understand the concern that much of the current practical assessment at GCSE is not fit for purpose and that assessing practical skills is fraught with difficulties. In an ideal world the best way of assessing manipulative skills, data collection and observational skills is through practical exams whereas planning, data processing and evaluative skills can be assessed through written papers. We have found the organisation and managing of practical exams is far from easy and we are a relatively small centre. It seems to me that this move to remove practical assessment is entirely driven by the inability of finding a suitable way of assessing it rather than because it doesn't need assessing.