A combination of curriculum pressure and over-assessment is strait-jacketing science teachers and limiting the amount of time spent on vital classroom practicals, according to a survey…96% of the 1,339 science teachers and technicians surveyed said they were in some way hindered from undertaking science practical work.
How, well, scientific this poll was we are not told, and as a poll it only tells us what people think, not whether practicals are actually getting harder to do or less common. But still, let’s suppose it’s true. Does it matter? Practicals are widely seen as an important part of science education. But what good they really do?
One answer is that practicals teach you experimental skills that you’ll need if you want to do research. That would be good if it were true, but it’s not. I went to a good school and we had many practicals, but as far as I can remember not one of them was useful to me when studying science at university or as a researcher. In physics we did stuff with springs and pendulums. None of the physicists I know have touched one since school. In biology, I looked at plenty of yeast down a microscope, and counted a bunch of shells on a beach, but not once did I run a Western blot or do some PCR, basic techniques that almost all biologists actually use in real life.
Maybe practicals serve to “help students to develop skills such as observation“, as 82% of the polled science teachers think? If so, they are not very good at it: what usually happened at my school anyway was that most people’s experiments wouldn’t work for whatever reason, so instead of observing and recording the actual results, people looked up what the answer was meant to be and fudged their data to fit. Even when everything did work this didn’t teach us to observe, because we already knew what to expect, so it simply confirmed that we’d done it right.
Perhaps they’re there to help us “develop an understanding of scientific enquiry” (80%)? I hope not, because doing real science is almost exactly the opposite of doing a practical. You don’t get told what to do, you have to decide what to do in order to answer a question; you don’t get told what methods to use; you don’t know what the answer should be; and you don’t know that your experiment will even work, because no-one has done it before.
In my experience practicals succeed at doing one thing: they make science lessons less boring. They’re essentially entertainment. This is not a criticism – anything that keeps kids interested in science is a good thing, and a well-run practical is a lot more interesting than a textbook will ever be. So they’re important. But we shouldn’t pretend that practicals actually show people how to do science.
For that matter, though, neither does anything else: university practicals (“labs”) don’t either, although they’re more likely to involve useful experimental techniques. Doing science is a skilled activity, like swimming: you can’t be taught it in the abstract. A good teacher might help by holding your hand and making sure you don’t sink, but ultimately you learn by diving in and actually doing it.