- by

How do you remember science lessons at school? Mine were mostly fun – how about yours?

If you are passionate about science, you may have been worried about an article published by the BBC recently highlighted a potential danger in schools – science lessons are being too theoretical and practical skills are being lost.


The Council for Science and Technology warned that exam pressures are squeezing out laboratory experiments, saying that without them, science lessons will become little more than “studying literature without reading books.”

I think I’m going to have to agree on this one…

I remember, back at school, there were few things more interesting in my lesson timetable than a science lesson with a practical element to it.  Acids and alkalis, the pipettes and the Bunsen burners… Those were a few of the joys of the lab.   Of course, you had to keep safe in those lessons, but it was immensely enjoyable.

Sadly, I do remember there being not enough of these lessons, especially when I studied for AS Chemistry, but also Physics to some degree too.   Chemistry lessons in years 7-9 did at times have a nice practical element to it. Maybe it was the school’s plan to get kids inspired and interested in chemistry (or increase numbers at A Level…)

At GCSE I did begin to note more and more exercises from books and gap filling.  By the time I got to AS Level, the practical work was nearly non-existent – practical lessons were nothing more than a token piece to prepare you for when you had to do one under controlled conditions as part of your course.  That I did find slightly depressing – you can talk about different ideas and theories but it was limited to a textbook and a pre-prepared workbook.

Physics had far less practical work to it.  Obviously, you were able to do circuits and electricity at a younger age but at GCSE and A Level it was almost non-existent.  This I can to some degree understand; physics is perhaps the most maths-based discipline of the sciences and that clearly showed.  Rules of motion were dealt with pretty well, but I can see why there wasn’t so much hands-on experience (science teachers: it’s probably safer to look at quantum mechanics in a theory-type manner!)

I never really did much biology at school though we did get demonstrations. Probably not the most enthralling thing in the world but then again schools are so obsessed with child safety that the idea of letting kids loose with plants and animal samples is probably too much for some head teachers to bear!

So what’s the big fuss about?  Well, I think the report has a point to it.  Science never grabbed me at school, especially in the later years.  The theory doesn’t entertain kids anywhere near as much as the practical.

Put it this way: give a classroom full of schoolchildren the option of some exercises out of a textbook or let them experiment with what you are learning.  I guarantee you, the burners and fume cupboards will be out and used. It’s a far more interesting way of demonstrating what is going on in science and I think the more practical work that is done, the better.

The Department of Education has responded to claims that focussing on exams and grades is “pushing inspiring practical work back into the margins” by saying this:

By scrapping modules and January assessments, our reforms will end the constant treadmill of exams leave more time for experiments and practicals in science.”

Sounds encouraging, doesn’t it?  That said, I’m not sure students and teachers are too thrilled with the reforms anyway.

The practical lessons will have to be spectacular.  Make a bang, if you will.



4 Responses to “Should we be worried about science lessons?”

  1. Matthew Barnes

    I couldn’t disagree more, frankly. I have been tutoring in GCSE, A-level and IB biology for the past 24 years and I would not personally allow any pupil anywhere near a laboratory until degree level or possibly even higher.

    It seems to be a peculiarly British obsession putting our youth into laboratories to perform wearisome and pointless ‘practicals’ at an age when they are largely incapable of understanding experimental design or making a great deal of sense out of what they are doing. Furthermore, if the experiment goes ‘wrong’ (ie does not conform to the stereotypical results that have been documented by countless generations of equally mystified youths) it is dismissed as an ‘aberration’, thus further perpetuating the great scientific tradition of shooing embarrassing results under the carpet rather than asking what possible alternative explanations there could be. Hardly an auspicious start to a career in science! I gather that most of our continental brethren (very sensibly) stick to what pre-18 years olds should be doing, which is grinding in the theory essential to a good grasp of experimental design. Chalk and talk is the way to go at this age – not faffing around with out-of-date and repetitive duplications of age-old procedures.

    But what of fun I hear you say? What of the thrill of discovering science for yourself via things that go bang? Just so much received British ‘wisdom’ and cant in my opinion…if I ask any of my students what they think of ‘practicals’ they will wrinkle their noses and say, almost universally, ‘pointless and time-wasting’. It’s great for teachers, of course – anything to avoid actually doing any teaching it would seem, and those rose-tinted retrospective spectacles that tell us that our finest hours at school were spent in a laboratory are, I am afraid, just that – pure rose tint. We do not train our airline pilots, policemen, surgeons or other highly-skilled professionals on the basis that unless what they are learning is ‘fun’ they will somehow become lesser and shrivelled human beings – so why do we make this unquestioned and patronising assumption about our schoolchildren? A person who regards learning as a fine endeavour throughout life will do so irrespective of what school does to them, and a reluctant academic is unlikely to be spurred into transformation into a nascent scientist by watching potassium whizz around on water.

    I am deeply sceptical of the whole Nuffield-style ‘learning by discovery’/problem-based learning philosophy of which ‘practicals’ are seen as part and parcel of ‘education’ in this country. The problem with dabbling at bits and pieces in this fashion is that there are massive gaps that occur in knowledge of the subject matter that can only be filled by good solid blackboard instruction at the pre-university stage.

    The other major problem with ‘practicals’ is that they consume vast amounts of ‘teaching’ time and resources. I can teach an entire A-level biology specification in 60 to 90 hours flat. My school-based colleagues seem to take over 240 hours on it (and often still don’t finish the specification) much of which is spent faffing around with pipe-cleaners and plasticine on the dubious basis that it is somehow ‘hands on’…activities that are frankly regarded with horror and scepticism by the people who come to me to ‘fill the gaps’.

    ‘Practicals’ also exclude a lot of candidates from the examination system as private candidates and home-schooled pupils have huge problems doing practicals. Among other boards I teach Edexcel, and it highly amused me to find that Edexcel has recently started to offer an ‘Edexcel International A-level’ that follows exactly the same specification as the ‘Edexcel GCE A-level’ that is offered to home candidates – except that there is no wearisome and pointless ‘practicalcoursework’ paper at either AS or A2. Instead the candidate can take a ‘written theory’ paper which is easy enough to prepare for in this day and age of being able to look at apparatus and experiments in books and on the web rather than having to actually crank up the bunsen burner and waste hours of your young life. Needless to say the ‘Edexcel International A-level’ cannot be taken in the UK – it is specifically for overseas candidates wishing to acquire a ‘British’ qualification but who propose to have no truck with pointless ‘experiments’. Let’s have the guts to smash a few pointless icons here. If less time is devoted to messing around with test tubes in British schools then it’s a step in the right direction, frankly!

    Reply (0) (0)
    • mjhansford

      Matthew – thank you for your comment on this.

      I’m afraid that I cannot disagree with you more.

      What I found in my time at school was that practical lessons were indeed informative and helpful to my learning. The notion that results were shooed under the carpet, from my experience, is also incorrect. We questioned mistakes and errors: “why did you get this answer, why is this not what you were expecting?” Ultimately this lead to a great sense of learning, even if at time we got things wrong.
      The idea that we should stick purely to textbooks, chalk and copying out exercises from books is I’m afraid misguided and inherently damaging. Damaging to the future of sciences in schools. You cannot get schoolkids interested in a particular area of science by making them copy from books and answering questions. I have been there in recent years and seen what happens when you sit there and make children copy from books and just spend their life answering questions. It’s almost depressing to watch as you get to see so many people wasting away in these lessons because they just aren’t interested. Contrast that to when my school ran days to get kids interested in science. There was a science club that ran every week and did all sorts of interesting experiments to show this, that and the other. The children were fascinated, they actually took an active interest in what they saw.
      And then of course, they are back to the classroom. Back to the textbooks and the lack of imagination. Any interest they got by going to that club was lost. Such a shame.
      Indeed, I cannot dispute that your students may find the practicals pointless, I think that is personal choice. However, by your own admission you would give students no choice as to what happens in their lessons anyhow, so I feel we can look past personal choice.

      You are correct in that we do not train airline pilots and police with the idea that it is fun. We also do not train them by sitting them down in a classroom with textbooks and a teacher lecturing them. We send our police out to do something practical. Our airline pilots put in countless hours in simulators so that they know what to do. Perhaps by your logic it is better to give the airline pilot the flight manual and leave them to it.

      I think you have a very bleak view of teaching and education. It appears that you want students doing nothing other than reading and answering questions. The human mind can only be inspired truly by what it sees and experiences. If we take that away from children, where’s the inspiration?
      Taking us back to the dark ages of education just reinforces the sad notion that schools are little more than exam factories, churning out yet more students who have learned nothing more than what to think.

      Reply (0) (0)
  2. Alex S

    “I have been tutoring in GCSE, A-level and IB biology for the past 24 years and I would not personally allow any pupil anywhere near a laboratory until degree level or possibly even higher.”

    What a load of old tosh.

    Matthew Barnes; I enjoyed Science and wanted to study it at degree level at Cambridge because of the enthusiasm of my teachers to make it an exciting, practical real subject, founded on empirical observation. I am now so passionate about this point, I have become a teacher. I am semi-disgusted by your view that “I can teach an entire A-level biology specification in 60 to 90 hours flat.”

    What is the point in learning and education? I got my joie de vivre from my practicals, and they are teach students about what to do when things go wrong. Uncertainty and confidence in results is the core to what makes scientific ideas permissable amongst the community, and understanding this correctly with first-hand experience is the only way to “get” science.

    Look at this great example from the Nuffield foundation website:

    Yet when Chadwick measured the nuclear charges of copper, silver and platinum, by alpha scattering in 1920, relatively rough measurements showed Rutherford’s atomic model was correct. Chadwick showed that the nuclear charge (in electron units) is just equal to the ‘atomic number’, the number of the element in the periodic table, a series arranged in order of atomic masses. Those answers were suspected from the general pattern of theory and had to be whole numbers since a complete atom (of nucleus plus outside electrons) is neutral. Much more precise measurements were neither needed, nor at the time, possible. Even before that, the first hint of atomic number measurements came in 1906, from Barkla’s attempt to measure the number of electrons in a carbon atom by scattering X-rays. His measurements suggested a number of about 6 electrons per atom, in fact somewhere between 5 and 7, yet this rough estimate enabled the founding of atomic theory to proceed.

    That for me is amazing, and that example of a rough and ready measurement, enough to win a Nobel Prize, is what Science is about!

    Reply (0) (0)
  3. Matthew Barnes

    I have to confess that the concept of ‘semi-disgusted’ did not feature either in my lectures at Oxford or at any of the other universities I attended subsequently. Here are some questions for you to consider.

    1. A recent OECD report placed the United Kingdom 22nd out of 24 in terms of the educational attainment of its youth and indeed pointed-out that it was the only country in which the educational attainment of much older people apeared to be greater than that of its youth. Why do you think this is? Could it be that the attempts, since the 60s, to make learning ‘interesting’ have actually backfired spectacularly and resulted in a mass dumbing-down of educational aspiration?

    2. A recent Daily Telegraph report pointed-out that the number of people working as tutors in the UK is now about three times more than the number of people working as formal school teachers. Why do you think this is? Could it be that most teachers simply don’t ‘get it’ that the primary concern of parents is that their children should ascend the greasy pole of academia as painlessly as possible and not waste huge amounts of time on pointless rubbish such as ‘practicals’?

    3. To the best of my knowledge, apart from those few doing IB (and A-levels) few, if any, continental countries (most of which presumably rank above the UK in the table discussed above) allow their secondary school students to spend very much time at all in the laboratory. Why do you think this is? Could it be that, unlike the UK, they can see that this time is better spent learning the basics properly?

    4. When Edexcel designed its ‘International A-level’ for candidates at overseas centres they eliminated the ‘coursework’ requirement completely in favour of a more efficient system of written papers? Why do you think this is? Could it be that they were simply unable to ‘sell’ this examination to more sensible overseas candidates if the dead-weight of ‘practicals’ were hanging onto its tails? (Shades of the IGCSE not being available to UK state schools it would seem…what is sauce for the stone-age British goose does not seem to be sauce for the more forward-thinking overseas gander)

    5. The original tenet of this blog was that the current government and the schools under its direction appear to be cutting-back on laboratory time for school-level students. Why do you think this is? Could it be that the government, seeing all of the above, have realised that educational efforts at school would be better directed elsewhere?

    6. Most UK universities (including my own) are now having to run ‘remedial’ courses in the basics and/or are pushing to extend first degree courses to four years rather than the traditional three. Why do you think this is? Could it be that much of the secondary school system of this country is failing its pupils spectacularly?

    The tide is now (happily) turning back again to the idea that educating our youth in the basics at school is more important than ‘enthusing’ or entertaining them. Lord Nuffield was a self-taught man whose skills in the worlds of engineering and business of the time were undoubted. But his well-meant, but ultimately self-defeating, efforts to make science ‘interesting’ by ‘learning by discovery’ have failed several generations of pupils now and must not be allowed to do so any longer. If you ask the average pupil nowadays where they go for their education it is to the web – a ten second demonstration on You-Tube will ‘enthuse’ and educate the average school-level pupil far more quickly and efficiently than faffing around with some cockamamey bits of tubing at vast time and expense in a laboratory. The renewed vogue for Physics at A-level owes far more to Brian Cox on the TV than it does to any number of ‘learning by discovery’ practicals at school. Such things are fer better left for universities, who have the time and resources to explore the nuances but rely, increasingly forlornly, on the schools to inculcate the basics.

    You can be as ‘disgusted’ (or semi-so) as you wish, but be aware that your antedilivian inability to think-out-of-the-box on this issue is condemning vast numbers of young people to an inferior education – as their voting with their feet and going to tutors such as myself to get the job done efficiently testifies only too clearly.

    Reply (2) (0)

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)