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Hands-on practical work in science: does it really matter?

By Steve Castle posted 12-10-2021 11:55

GUEST BLOG...Dr Jasper Green, Her Majesty's Inspector and Ofsted's Subject Lead for Science, writes about why hands-on practical work matters by considering its purpose in relation to the curriculum...   
COVID-19 has, and continues to have, a significant impact on the amount of hands-on practical work carried out in schools.   
But does it really matter that less practical work is taking place? After all, research shows that learning from practical activities can be remarkably difficult. 
The answer to this question is a definitive yes! Practical work does matter, as is clearly outlined in the national curriculum. However, it is important to unpack some of the reasons why. This is because, without careful thought, interesting and engaging practical activities can become the tail that wags the science curriculum dog. 
In our recently published science research review, we outlined why practical work matters by considering its purpose in relation to the curriculum. In this blog, we will look at two different ways that practical activities can function when learning science. That is, a practical activity can either help pupils to learn a concept or instead can form a goal of the curriculum in its own right. 
Practical work as a vehicle 
Pupils may carry out practical work in order to learn something else. For example, pupils may add sugar to water to learn about the concept of solubility. Or they may carry out a scientific enquiry to learn about the concept of measurement. 
In these examples, it is the concepts of solubility and measurement, and not the practical procedures, that are the curricular goals. It therefore might be appropriate for the practical activity to be swapped for a different pedagogy, for example an animation, without negatively impacting pupils’ science education. 
Practical work as the destination  
When practical work forms a goal of the curriculum, we can consider at least three types. These are knowledge of:
(i) how to carry out a specific procedure e.g. filtration of a mixture. 
(ii) how to carry out a specific type of scientific enquiry to answer a scientific question e.g. how to classify buttercups. 
(iii) the objects and phenomena being studied e.g. metals feel cold and are shiny. 
In the examples above, the practical activities themselves are the curriculum. It is these practicals, and their underpinning concepts, that teachers want pupils to learn. It is therefore essential that pupils carry out these practical activities and interact with the objects of study.  
Vehicles or destinations – why does it matter? 
Why though does this distinction matter? After all, pupils are completing practicals irrespective of whether the activity serves as the destination or as a vehicle for learning something else.  
By being clear about the purpose of a practical activity in relation to what pupils are learning, it is possible to:
- identify which practical activities are essential (i.e. destinations) from those that are not (i.e. vehicles). By doing so, the curriculum identifies the minimum entitlement for all pupils in a school. 
- plan the best way to teach the content. Importantly, this won’t always involve pupils just completing hands-on activities. For example, if pupils are learning how to filter a mixture, they may initially learn the names of different pieces of apparatus using a worksheet.
- design the most appropriate assessment. This will check that pupils have learned and remembered what the curriculum intended. 
Planning for successful practical work 
Whether practical work is used as a pedagogy or forms the main goal of teaching, pupils will need to carry out complex procedures while also thinking about scientific concepts. This is not easy. To help, the curriculum can break down complex procedures and concepts into smaller components so that they can be taught, practised and learned before pupils need to use them all together. In the example above, pupils may learn about solubility, the names of equipment and how to fold filter paper before they use all these components together to filter a mixture. In this way, the experienced complexity of a practical task is reduced, giving pupils more capacity to think about and remember the thing that really matters – the scientific content. 
And so, it is the design of the school science curriculum that has a key role to play in determining the effectiveness of practical work in science education. 
As part of our education recovery packages, we've got CPD, resource collections and much more on practical skills in primary and secondary.

Join the discussion here.


17-10-2021 08:52

The CPD opportunities offered here are great, but surely as part of an Education Recovery package they could be freely offered (Or at least heavily discounted)? I have staff who would benefit enormously from the high quality courses offered by STEM, but sadly not the budget :(

13-10-2021 09:33

Hi All.
We in the Coventry And Warwickshire Schools Liaison Community provide several activity kits for schools to utilise free of charge.
Please see for the link to the list.
Keep safe
Kind regards

13-10-2021 09:19

Important principles for sure in Computing. For instance, using an in-class network of Raspberry Pi computers is both a practical illustration of networking protocols and an important curriculum point in itself - operating systems, input and output devices, etc.

13-10-2021 09:04

A useful thing for STEM Ambassadors like myself to appreciate.

13-10-2021 08:22

The support/CPD that helps teachers deliver good practical work, cheaply is urgently needed, as costs cutting is already impacting these lessons.

13-10-2021 07:19

Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.
philosopher Confucius