I’ve asked this question of dozens of groups of teachers over the past year or so, and the answers tend to cluster around the same set of ideas:
Thankfully, the response ‘because it’s part of the assessment’ doesn’t come up very often. It’s good to know that practical work is being done for its own sake in many classrooms up and down the country.
The purpose of practical work is an area that has been much theorised and written about. In 2014, Peter Main included a number of purposes of practical work in his design criteria for a physics curriculum, published in School Science Review (PDF) (number 352, page 46). Daniel Domin identified four different styles of practical instruction, encouraging thinking about how different types of activity can support the different intended outcomes.
In designing the OCR model for the Practical Endorsement in the reformed science A Levels, we wanted to support this range of approaches to practical work. Our model is flexible, allowing teachers to choose their approach to each activity, deciding what outcomes they want to focus on in each case and what style of activity will work best for that purpose. But for those who want more support and the peace of mind of knowing that they will cover all the required skills and techniques, we have produced a range of activities (available from Interchange) which teachers can use. These activities also follow a range of approaches, and so ensure we are supporting all those different reasons for doing practical work (see also Steve Evans and Neil Wade’s article in School Science Review) (PDF) (number 357, page 59).
For example, in my subject (chemistry) we have three activities on qualitative analysis of ions – Practical Activity Group 4 in our Endorsement model. One activity takes an expository approach, providing a set of steps that students follow in order to identify an unknown solution. The focus is on demonstrating a scientific method – you can indeed use this procedure to find out the identity of a solution! – and it can also be used to develop manipulative skills. The other activities are problem-based, asking students to decide what tests they will carry out and how this will allow them to determine the identity of their solutions. The focus here is on developing investigative skills.
So we have thought carefully about how we can make sure teachers can fulfil the requirements of the Practical Endorsement in a way that makes sense in terms of teaching approach, rather than as an ‘add-on’. But we want to know how this works out in reality, and so we’re doing a bit of research of our own as explained by Frances Wilson in the latest issue of Science Spotlight (PDF) (page 18). Initial findings show some differences in teachers’ views on practical work between GCSE and A Level, and across the science subjects. It will be interesting to see if there are any changes as the reformed specifications bed in.
If you want more guidance on how coverage of the Practical Endorsement can be embedded in teaching of the science A Levels, you may be interested in signing up for one of our CPD events on ‘Incorporating practical activity into teaching the new specifications’. Find out more on the CPD Hub.
Daniele Gibney - Subject Specialist - GCE Chemistry
Daniele has been with OCR as a GCE Chemistry Subject Specialist since March 2014. In that role she is the first port of call for teachers who have questions about specifications or assessment, and she loves getting into exchanges of ideas about how to introduce particular topics in the classroom, or embed the teaching of certain skills. Daniele has a background in educational publishing, having worked on textbooks and support materials for science education from primary to post-16.
When not having conversations about how brilliant chemistry is, she is usually either trying to keep up with her Open University degree in Social Sciences, making things out of yarn, or watching rugby or Formula 1. Frequently all three at once.