The Post-Covid Classroom: Practicals

Scientific glassware filled with different coloured liquids

The first of a series of blogs exploring aspects of teaching and learning in the future post-covid classroom, Eleonora Crovato reflects on the role of practicals and asks:

Are practicals a thing of the past?

I work in a school with excellent resources and truly knowledgeable technicians – I don’t know how I would do without them – but the one issue we have is resources. I’m sure this is a common problem to any science department in the country: resources for practicals are limited and therefore need to be used carefully.

One way to help this is to teach different topics at different times; for example, under normal circumstances in my school, one set of students would be doing biology, one set would be doing chemistry, and one set would be doing physics. This way, resources can be distributed and there’s a better chance that everyone can have a go at carrying out experiments. This is particularly useful and appealing to KS3, and especially year 7s (one of mine from last year kept asking me when we would do ‘explosions’). We have to acknowledge that a considerable aspect of learning science is about working scientifically, and this aspect of learning can be addressed by doing experiments in the classroom.

I think it’s fair to say that Covid completely turned our teaching and learning world upside down, and one of the things that has changed in our school is the way we approach practicals.

First of all, let’s look at 2020 and what we could refer to as post-lockdown 1.0.

We came back to classroom teaching in September 2020 and we chose to stop class-wide practicals altogether. The need to quarantine any equipment for 72 hours made it impossible to adequately cater for an average class of 28 students, so we decided that the only option was for teachers to carry out demos.

However, things changed even further when we became peripatetic teachers; school became organised in bubbles with each year group in a different part of the building. The science classrooms were assigned to year 11, the least numerous of our cohorts, and this put into question the opportunity to provide demos as well. Our science building layout is typical of any science school department, with gas outlets, sinks, fumes cupboard, and (generally speaking) spaces that are specifically set up for experiments. Essentially, this meant that any demo that would require a roaring flame or water supply was no longer feasible in any other classroom within the school. Videos became the go-to mean of showing how science works in practice.

However, my considerations turn to that point in time (September 2021, perhaps?) when things might go back to normal. I’ll get my own classroom back, and we will go back to, as my year 7s would say, ‘explosions’ and beyond. But will we?

There is some discussion out there regarding the use of practicals in the classroom, their usefulness, and their application at school. There is a chunk of science teachers (myself included, in all honesty) debating the need to carry out experiments in school unless strictly necessary. In the good old days of open evenings, the science department would be buzzing with all sorts of flashy experiments to entice the children (and their parents) but is this misleading?

I tell my students all the time that the vast majority of real science is a slow process which requires a lot of patience, and explosions are few and far between. But it’s not just that. Most of the practicals we carry out in school are usually done in pairs, if not in a group of three or four students, depending on the experiment. Will all students benefit equally from sharing an experiment with others? Or will it end up being a situation in which one of the students does most of the work and the others just chat or, worse, mess around with their equipment?

Behaviour management during a practical can be quite challenging despite all health and safety recommendations we might make before the lesson starts.

And finally, some experiments end up being unsuccessful or, in the words of one of my technician, ‘a lot of faff’ for very little results. If you’ve ever run an experiment which didn’t yield the desired result, you know what that feels like (my most recent failed one was, of all days, on April Fools’ Day: I’m sure you can imagine the reaction of my year 7!).

And yet it’s hard to imagine teaching science without experiments.

Just before the Easter break, I covered metals and how they react with other substances, and in demonstrating magnesium burning over a roaring flame I had, as usual, a captivated audience. Also, some science concepts are too abstract to grasp, and using experiments to demonstrate them might help in making the abstract more concrete (electricity can be notoriously tricky). Practicals are also seen as a good way to embed the knowledge we teach and make it ‘come alive’ by allowing the students to practice being independent learners and practitioners, as well as allowing to make links between topics and subjects.

Of course, some core practicals are required as part of exam preparation, but I’m wondering if Covid will make us review and revise our approach to carrying out experiments to shift the focus onto quality, rather than quantity, and those experiments that are most beneficial to develop solid scientific research foundations. For example, I’ve yet to carry out a successful waves investigation which uses a ripple tank (and by successful I mean with usable data); it’s a core practical but there are excellent wave simulations or videos that can easily replace it. Conversely, in my school we measure respiration rates (another core practical) by growing and observing lice, and it’s a really good way to support, as an example, discussion of the wider ethical implications of experimenting with living organisms.

Whatever our new normal might be, whenever that is, I feel that the post-Covid classroom could give science departments everywhere an opportunity to review and rethink what practicals we do in the classroom, but more importantly why we do them.

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