The Post-Covid Classroom: Investigative practical science

Investigative practical science in the curriculum

A series of blogs exploring aspects of teaching and learning in the future post-covid classroom, Karen Collins and Amanda Clegg discuss a recent study on investigative practical science in curriculum:

Investigative practical science in the curriculum

During the academic year 2019-2020 a pilot study, funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, was carried out to support ten secondary schools across England to plan and deliver CREST Awards within curriculum time.  This is in line with Benchmark 8 in the Good Practical Science Guide (Gatsby, 2017), which recommends that:

Students should have opportunities to do open-ended and extended investigative projects.’


Most practical work in UK secondary schools follows a recipe-based formulaic approach which fails to teach students how to work independently or investigatively. Requiring them to follow pre-prepared instructions and analyse data, with very few extending beyond an individual lesson. This means:

‘Students’ perceptions of practical work are that experiments occur within a few moments and have (usually) predetermined outcomes that are either right or wrong(Cramman et al., 2019)

The pilot schools found that open-ended investigative work provided students with a wider view of the scientific method, leading to a more realistic impression of how scientists work.

The pilot schools found that open-ended investigative work provided students with a wider view of the scientific method, leading to a more realistic impression of how scientists work. They had a better understanding of practical work, realising there is not necessarily a correct outcome and that methods may need to be adapted in response to preliminary work:

‘The preliminary investigation really helped to improve my work as it showed up the flaws in my original method.’ (Year 13 student)

It also helped the students become more resilient and independent:

Learning to work independently really for the first time during practical work was scary at first and enlightening at the end.’ (Year 13 student)

By embedding the work into the curriculum all students were given access to extended investigative work, this provided opportunities for students who may not normally benefit from science enrichment or after school STEM activities.


The teachers either extended pre-existing practical work, for example an A level required practical, or adapted a CREST resource to the curriculum content. This enabled the students to apply their knowledge and understanding to a new, more complex activity.

‘Using the CREST Award helped the students link lots of different skills and content together through a context rather than standalone lessons. It took approximately two more lessons than my normal route through this topic but students’ understanding, and skills improved more.’ (Science Teacher)

All the schools highlighted the importance of teaching the essential procedural knowledge and basic practical skill, e.g. how to use specific equipment, before or during the planning stage of the investigation.


The findings of the pilot were used to inform a guidance pack that explains how to embed investigative practical science into the curriculum. The purpose of the pack is to support teaching staff to enable them to embed open-ended investigative work in the curriculum. It contains the reasons why this type of practical work is important as well as how to implement it at KS3 and KS5. In addition, there are a series of case studies explaining the different approaches some of the pilot schools took. The pack can be found here: Investigative Practical Science in the Curriculum (

Read more from this series blog:


Cramman, H., Kind, V., Lyth, A., Gray, H., Younger, K., Gemar, A., Eerola, P., Coe, R., and Kind, P. (2019) Monitoring practical science in schools and colleges. Project Report. Durham: Durham University.

Gatsby (2017). Good Practical Science. London: The Gatsby Charitable Foundation. Available from: Good Practical Science | Education | Gatsby

Collins, K. and Clegg, A. (2021) Investigative practical science in the curriculum: Making it happen. London: British Science Association. Available from: Investigative Practical Science in the Curriculum (