What is Practical Work?

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What is Practical Work?

Practical work is viewed by the vast majority of science teachers, as an essential and integral part of science education. In fact, many regard it as an indispensable aspect of being a 'science teacher' (Donnolly 1998 from review Practical work effectiveness in primary/sec schools Abraham). Practical work can encompass numerous components, that can be divided into two main groups as described in Woodley E, (2009), as follows:

1) Core activities: Included in these are 'hands-on' activities such as different investigations, laboratory techniques and procedures, as well as fieldwork. These kinds of activities can help improve the development of students' practical laboratory skills, as well as helping them to comprehend key scientific concepts and phenomena.

2) Directly related activities: They are closely connected to the aforementioned core activities, and include practical demonstrations performed by the teacher, planning and designing scientific investigations and analysis of data.

In addition, some argue that other activities such as use of computer simulations, modelling, use of surveys, presentations, group discussion and role plays can also constitute what's meant by the term practical activity (SCORE, 2008). However, others would disagree, and believe these activities would not come under the practical activity 'umbrella', and rather that they must be used complementarily alongside other practical activities, rather than be a substitute for them (Woodley, E).

Millar described a practical activity as 'Any science teaching and learning activity which at some point involves the students, working individually or in small groups, in observing or manipulating objects to build up understanding'. (Millar (2009)). It really is described within the National Strategies as: 'Any activity that allows pupils to have direct, often hands-on, connection with the phenomena these are studying'. (The National Strategies (2008)).

In fact the next quotation from SCORE underpins what many believe about the value of practical work in science: 'Science without practical is like swimming without water'. (SCORE, 2008).

Therefore, regardless of how practical work is defined, or what activities are believed to constitute it, it could be seen as a central part of how science should be taught in schools

What Is The Goal Of Practical Work?

The main purposes of practical work are to activate students, aiding them to develop many important skills. In fact, practical work can support learning in a variety of ways ranging from 'Personal learning and thinking skills' to 'How science works' (E Woodley) -See Figure 1. The overriding principle, however is 'to make links between the concrete and abstract worlds'. (Reflecting on practical work). From reading the literature, it is clear that different reasons and rationales to carry out practical work in science can be classified into three main areas (see below), as discussed in (Practical Work in School Science: Which Way Now? Jerry Wellington):

Arguments For And Against The Use Of Practical Work In Science:

1). Cognitive arguments: It is thought that practical activities can relate to knowledge and understanding (the cognitive domain) by helping to strengthen students' conceptual understanding of science by enabling these to visualise and make sense of different scientific laws and theories, often supporting learnt theory work.

2). Affective domains: This pertains to the enjoyment and motivational aspects of practical work. Practical work is often used to generate interest and enthusiasm among students, and is also considered to aid students in remembering things; 'making things stick'. Actually, reports show that in conditions of how students rate the enjoyability of school science activities, the three best were: 'going on a science trip (85%), taking a look at videos (75%) and performing a science experiment (71%), supporting the view that practical work is indeed highly motivational (Dillion J).

3). Skills argument: The past of the three main rationales for practical work is the fact that it can help develop many transferable skills, as illustrated in Figure 1 above.

However, characterising the true value and reason for practical work is a very difficult task and divides judgment across the science education profession. Actually there are extensive arguments and counter arguments for and against practical work in science.

Counter responses to the cognitive argument are the proven fact that practical work can often confuse rather than improve students' understanding (especially if the practical does not go to plan). Furthermore Scott and Leach propose that practical work is not a good method of teach theory, suggesting that theories comprise abstract ideas which can't be demonstrated physically: ' In the context of the school laboratory it is clear that students cannot develop a knowledge through their own observations, as the theoretical entities of science are not there to be seen'. (Taken from Wellington book- Leach and Scott 1995:48)

Arguments against the affective argument are the notion that many students are simply just switched off at the idea and prospect of doing practicals. There is also evidence indicating that boys enjoy practical work way more than girls, and therefore girls can frequently be less enthusiastic and motivated in comparison to boys doing the same practical task. (Wellington).

Counter arguments to the proposal that practical work can form many transferable skills also exist. Included in these are the argument that group work within practical science often will not improve key skills such as communication and interaction, as widely believed, but when studied more closely, often brings about more forceful students' dominating the duty, resulting in insufficient enjoyment and engagement for some and the demotion of some students to simple medial tasks, such as drawing out tables or recording results with no real participation in the practical activity themselves. (Wellington).

Many other science education professionals make a claim of the 'overselling' of the science education in conditions of concept that science practical work can develop many transferable skills. The idea that these skills can add value to students and aid them on their chosen career paths have been discredited by some. In fact, Ausubel in the 1960's argued that any practical task that can provide rise to the use of skills necessary for many disciplines, is merely not specific enough to address the particular scientific investigation being addressed: 'Grand strategies of discovery do not seem to be transferable across disciplines. . it hardly seems plausible a strategy of inquiry, which must necessarily be broad enough to be applicable to a wide range of disciplines and problems, can ever have sufficient particular relevance to be helpful in the perfect solution is of the specific problem at hand'. (wellington, Ausubel 1964:298).

Hence, there is much debate regarding the use of practical work within the teaching and learning of science in schools. The main element question here really is to do with cognition and how exactly we acquire knowledge. i. e. : Just how do we understand the world and make sense of it inside our heads? (Miller R, 2004). One significant answer to this originated from Jean Piaget, who is credited as the pioneer of the constructivist theory of knowing. He argued that people construct ever more complicated and advanced representations of the world. This is through modifying our existing understandings (or schemas; a structured cluster of concepts) through our actions on the world around us. If Piaget is correct, then the use of practical work in observing and intervening on earth must be vital for our understanding of science (R Miller 2004).

The Effectiveness Of Practical Work In Science

As discussed above, many science teachers and other science education professionals assume that practical work in the education of science in schools is essential for helping students learn and remember things more clearly. However, as also noted there are arguments suggesting that practical work is in fact not all that effective at obtaining these aims. A prominent quotation from Osborne (1998) questions the effectiveness of practical work in the learning of science, saying that practical work: ' has only a limited role to try out in learning science which a lot of it is of little educational value' (p. 156. from Miller 2004 review).

Much of the conclusions of research into the effectiveness of practical work remain somewhat ambiguous. Research completed in the 1980's by Hewson and Hewson (1983), in which

In addition, others have argued that how practical work is practised is usually the reason behind its ineffectiveness, and perhaps, therefore the type of practical work used, and just how it is used should be analysed, rather than simply saying that all practical work is ineffective. Hence if we are thinking about looking at the effectiveness of practical work in science, the precise practical work used, or planning to be used need to be meticulously planned and thought out. A key consideration here is actually what is meant by the word 'effectiveness'.

A Framework For Judging The Potency Of Practical Work

Theobald in the 1960's argued that scientific theory must always be taught first and is required in order to visualise: 'Experience will not give concepts meaning, if anything concepts give experience meaning' (J Wellington).

Originally published Nov 09, 2018, updated Feb 19, 2021

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