Practical experiments in school science lessons and science field trips - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Supplementary evidence from Greg Jones (Sch Sci 47)

1.  Risk assessments are an essential part of science experiments but they should not be "set in stone" but amended in the light of changing circumstances. They are analogous with security at Portcullis House, Westminster, which has changed significantly over the years in response to the threats to our society from terrorism. In the light of new knowledge, new procedures have been put in place to minimise the risks to all and, as with risk assessments, are reviewed regularly.

2.  There are too many examples of risk assessments for certain experiments available. What would improve the situation is that a generic one should be drawn up for each experiment, sent to every exam board to be incorporated with their appropriate syllabus and then adapted by each institution for their particular laboratory circumstances.

3.  These generic risk assessments could be drawn up by practicing scientists within such bodies as the Association for Science Education, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Institute of Chemistry, the Institute of Biology and the Institute of Education. These risk assessments should then be sent to the exam boards for them to incorporate with their science syllabi before being sent to schools and colleges for their adaptation.

4.  The effect of having such generic risk assessments, for all the experiments that will be covered by exam syllabi, would be to stop science teachers "re-inventing the wheel" and to have a base level of compliance for assessing experimental risks.

5.  The use of Information Technology (IT) equipment within science lessons is as a tool which supports the teaching and learning. They can be used for a variety of activities; from dataloggers and visual measuring devices to interactive whiteboards and experiment simulators.

6.  Using IT within science can also encourage the development of important research skills, which are an essential part of scientific investigations at both GCSE and A Level, but it should never replace or detract from the carrying out of actual practical scientific experiments.

7.  The amount of money that school/college Science Departments have to spend on IT or are allocated as part of the overall IT budget within the institution is extremely variable. Consequently, the amount of IT used within science lessons is also variable.

8.  In spite of this, the minimum requirements of IT and its use within science lessons is laid down by exam board syllabi but I feel that amount of IT needs to be increased still further if schools/colleges are to prepare students adequately for studying a University science course.

9.  During school/college refurbishment programmes, often the question that is asked is "what kind of science lab provision is needed in the future?" Too often the answer from Head teachers is that "Science can be carried out in a normal classroom." New school buildings, especially under PFI/new build academies, have tended to cut corners on science lab specs to keep costs down.

10.  This kind of attitude further erodes the possibilities of carrying out practical scientific experiments/investigations by students in an appropriate setting and leads to more theory work, and consequently less practical work, in science lessons.

11.  Science teachers are good role models for students as they illustrate the skills that are needed in a particular workplace. Practical skill is just one of the main tools that teachers have in their "toolbag" but the size and complexity of that skill has diminished over time due to the constraints of exam syllabi and the perceived need to "teach to the exam".

12.  The consequence now is that students who become teaches are less confident in doing practical work in science lessons, so less practical work is done. This downward spiral can only be reversed by increasing the amount of practical work that needs to be done and as a result teacher confidence in doing practicals/experiments will increase accordingly. The change to Initial Teacher Education (ITE) requirements in 2007 meant an increase in the amount of time spent on teaching practice, with a consequent reduction in the time spent with the ITE provider. This has certainly lessened opportunities for trainee teachers to practice their skills. If not much practical work is going on at their placement schools, trainees may have hardly any chance to become confident in taking practical classes themselves.

13.  Fun for both teachers and students needs to be put back into science, particularly at Key Stages 4 and 5. Teachers and students can have fun together by doing more experiments, improving their practical/experimental skills and increasing their ability to learn more science through practical investigations.

14.  Time is needed to develop any skills and practical ones need as much, if not more, as most others. But that time can only come from "freeing up" the science curriculum, by reviewing and reducing the content of all science exam syllabi and by making them more modern, interesting and practically based.

15.  Field trips are beneficial to both students and teachers alike as they improve working relationships, encourage teamwork, promote problem solving, consolidate teaching and learning as well as create fun and interest.

16.  For students, field trips often result in a better attitude to work, to the subject and to the teachers involved as well as an increased maturity for some individual students - all of which are beneficial for making them better scientists.

17.  All teacher training courses, whether carried out through Universities or through schools/colleges, need to be revised to free up time for student teachers/Newly Qualified Teachers to practice their experimental skills on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

18.  Education is always changing and science curricula are no different. It would be better to change and then have no more change for a number of years in order that the result of that change can be consolidated and built upon. Teachers are not averse to change but "change for change's sake" and "changes every year" do not engender teachers to change.

Greg Jones

28 June 2011

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Prepared 14 September 2011