At the Telegraph Festival of Education in June 2016, Tim Oates, Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment, posed the question as to whether science education has suffered as a result of the changes introduced from September 2015 which include the direct assessment of competence in practical skills separately from the main A Level examination and its grade.
His answer was an emphatic no, science education has not suffered, indeed the findings from our evaluation studies suggest extremely positive effects of the new approaches.
But what is this positive outlook based on?
Tim started his talk by reiterating the very real woes of prior approaches: controlled assessments, training for the test, bunching of marks, and failure to test what was intended. He pointed out that attempts to tighten the control of controlled assessment led to unintended consequences, such over-prescriptive tasks and mark schemes. And much of this missed the role of knowledge: ‘…It doesn't matter how beautiful your experiment is, it doesn't matter how carefully you collect your data - if it is based upon a faulty understanding of what is being tested, it's most likely useless…’ (L.D. Hosford)
Some voices prior to the change called for science practical to be ‘real science’, but Tim emphasised that ‘real science’ is not at all what many think it is: ‘…Science is not a whirlwind dance of excitement, illuminated by the brilliant strobe light of insight. It is a long, plodding journey through a dim maze of dead ends. It is painstaking data collection followed by repetitious calculation. It is revision, confusion, frustration, bureaucracy and bad coffee…’ (Let’s face it, science is boring, New Scientist, Battersby 2009). Trying to recreate ‘real science’ in school practical science is naïve; we need to think much harder about the purpose of school science as laying foundational understanding.
And previous approaches to practical assessment increasingly discouraged the kind of important learning which comes from things going wrong ‘…May every young scientist remember and not fail to keep his eyes open for the possibility that an irritating failure of his apparatus to give consistent results may once or twice in a lifetime conceal an important discovery…’ (Patrick Blackett, British physicist, 1897–1974)
Higher Education had put their requirements more simply. On the ‘learning’ from practical elements of school science one academic had put in bluntly: ‘…we who are not going to break equipment, won’t injure themselves and others, and know how to handle materials…’. Those consulted in HE were not anxious for practical work to contribute to the overall grade in a qualification. They wanted practical work to give an assurance that a certain level of practical competence had been reached, and that practical work in the learning programme had been used to deepen scientific understanding. The new approach reflects this, emphasising a basic threshold of practical competence which the majority of students would attain. This also allowed a basic level of skills across a breadth of competences as opposed to the rehearsed competence in a few skills.
As Tim concluded, Ofqual stuck to its guns in implementing the Practical Endorsement despite considerable pressure, and the first year of reporting appears to support their decision.
So what evidence is there to support this positive outlook?
OCR staff who monitor the new approach to practicals have visited almost 500 schools. More than 90% have met the requirements.
As a part of each visit, the monitor speaks with both staff and students. These comments from the schools are overwhelmingly positive and refer to the enhancement of the curriculum, the enhancement of assessment and increasing confidence of students in carrying out practical activities.
There are residual issues of adaptation to a new process of practical activity management and the intended integration of practical activities into teaching and learning (not continuing to treat practical activity as separate).
The good news story (quotations from monitoring visits). Here are a few examples of the feedback from schools:
“Learners agreed that this was a better way of doing assessed practical. A number of learners commented that they appreciated the opportunity to look again at their work and set it into the context of their other learning on the subject and also to research the reasons behind their results.”
“All students were on task and getting on well with their work. They were finding A Level much more challenging than GCSE but seemed to be coping. They were enjoying their practical work and liked the new regime better than the Controlled Assessment. They could see that the practical that they were doing fits into the theoretical work that they are doing in other lessons.”
“Students were questioned on how they were finding the Practical Endorsement and all of them said they were enjoying the practical experience and found it helpful in applying what they had learnt in theory lessons. They felt it was much more rigorous than the GCSE practical they had done previously.”
“The school is happy with the course and the practical work. The practical fitted in well with the scheme and they found it easy to plan practical activities. So far no real problems had been experienced though on one occasion the student instructions had to be altered.”
“The students seemed to and confirmed that they enjoyed practical work. They do a lot of practical much of which is not identified practical activities. They also found it fitted well with the theory.”
“The students appreciated being able to tackle practicals themselves and the reduced stress of the continuous assessments over controlled assessments. They could see the connection to real life situations more readily, and talked about a string of practicals they had done.”
Our conclusion from this?
We have to wait and see if this does lead to students demonstrating their wider range of competences on entry to university, but the signs are all looking good.
What do you think? Have the changes to practical lessons in Science affected the way you teach? Let us know what you think through the comments box below or tweet us @OCR_Science.
Neil Wade - Subject Specialist - Physics
Neil joined OCR in May 2014 having taught GCSE science and A Level physics for the previous 19 years. Neil has represented OCR on the cross-board working group for the Practical Endorsement, looking at its implementation both nationally for all boards and at the OCR approach to practical work in the new specifications.