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International Journal of Science

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Practical work in school science:

exploring some directions for
Derek Hodson
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education , Toronto,
Published online: 24 Feb 2007.

To cite this article: Derek Hodson (1996) Practical work in school science: exploring some
directions for change, International Journal of Science Education, 18:7, 755-760, DOI:

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INT. J. sci. EDUC., 1996, VOL. 18, NO. 7, 755-760

Practical work in school science: exploring some

directions for change

Derek Hodson, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto, Canada

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In discussing some of the contemporary challenges for science education, science education research
and science education journals, Gilbert (1994) outlined some strategies for a way forward. Included
among them was the commissioning of a series of journal articles addressing a common theme. I am
delighted to have been given the opportunity to coordinate such an initiative on the topic of practical
work/laboratory work in school science.

The situation and the problems

In some countries, practical work has a long history and is now part of a well-
established tradition of science teaching. In Britain, for example, it was established
quite early that science education should be taught in laboratories (Layton 1973,
1990, Jenkins 1979, Gee and Clackson 1992) and although priority among the
purposes that teachers assign to it may have shifted over the years, that assumption
has never since been seriously challenged. Consequently, Solomon's (1980) asser-
tion that 'science teaching must take place in a laboratory; about that at least there
is no controversy' seems unremarkable to many teachers. By contrast, in some
other countries practical work is frequently neglected by teachers and curriculum
developers and is largely ignored by those who set public examinations. Both
situations demand attention; both require that we subject claims for the educa-
tional value of practical work to rigorous critical scrutinyespecially since there
are many who would claim that practical work has maintained its prominence and
curricular significance more on grounds of 'strong professional feelings' about its
desirability than convincing empirical research evidence or compelling theoretical
It is interesting to speculate on why practical work was able to achieve such
high status in the pedagogical repertoire of British science teachers. Those of a
cynical disposition may discern a strong element of self-interest in science tea-
chers' continued claims that teaching their subject requires special (and expensive)
rooms, apparatus and teaching methods. The more charitable may attribute it to
socializing processes within the scientific community: because experiments are
widely used in science, intending science teachers become socialized, during
their own science education, into regarding them as essential to science education.
In other words, since teachers assume that their subject must be taught in
surroundings that mimic the location in which science itself is often carried
out (the laboratory) and by methods which teachers believe scientists use

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(experimentation). The difficulties these assumptions create for science education

are discussed at length by Hodson (1988) and will not be elaborated here.
Other difficulties arise from the tendency for teachers to use practical work in
pursuit of any and every goal of science education, among them:

Motivating students by stimulating interest and enjoyment

Teaching laboratory skills
Assisting concept acquisition and development
Developing an understanding of scientific inquiry and developing expertise
in conducting inquiries
Inculcating the so-called 'scientific attitudes' (Gauld and Hukins 1980)
Encouraging social skill development
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As a consequence of these diverse goals, the terms 'practical work' and

'experiment' have come to include a wide variety of practices and organizational
patterns, with attendant confusion for those conducting research on educational
outcomes. At present, the best that researchers can say is that some teachers are
able to use some kinds of practical work successfully with some students in pursuit
of some of these goals (Hodson 1993a).

Towards a solution
It could be argued that practical work is both over-used and under-used. It is over-
used in the sense that teachers engage in practical work as a matter of course,
expecting it to assist the attainment of all learning goals. It is under-used in the
sense that its real potential is only rarely fully exploited. One way out of this
confusing and educationally unproductive situation is to reconceptualize practical
work in terms of three associated purposes:

To help students learn scienceacquire and develop conceptual and theore-

tical knowledge
To help students learn about sciencedevelop an understanding of the nat-
ure and methods of science and an awareness of the complex interactions
among science, technology, society and the environment
To enable students to do scienceengage in and develop expertise in scien-
tific inquiry and problem solving

To an extent these can be regarded as different goals, each of which has a range of
sub-goals for which different approaches are necessary. To ensure good curricu-
lum design and effective teaching, teachers need to be clear about the sub-goals
they have for a particular lesson and to design learning activities that are specifi-
cally suited to their attainment. Experiences designed to give students opportu-
nities to design and conduct their own scientific inquiries, for example, may not be
well suited to the acquisition of some particular conceptual understanding
demanded by the curriculum plan, and vice versa. Hence, simply 'doing practical
work' is no longer good enough. Sub-goals need to be clearer, learning experiences
need to be more carefully designed.
Of course, learning science, learning about science and doing science are also
closely related. Students can learn some science and can learn more about science

by conducting well-designed scientific investigations (that is, by doing science)

under the watchful eye of a skilled professional. In any scientific inquiry, students
achieve three kinds of learning. First, enhanced conceptual understanding of what-
ever is being studied or investigated. Second, enhanced procedural knowledge
learning more about experiments and correlational studies, and acquiring a more
sophisticated understanding of observation, experiment and theory. Third,
enhanced investigative expertise. Providing opportunities for students to report
and debate their findings, and supporting them in reflecting critically on personal
progress made during the inquiry, are key elements in achieving this integrative
understanding. However, because of the idiosyncratic nature of scientific investi-
gation and the highly specialized but necessarily limited range of conceptual issues
involved in any particular inquiry, doing science is insufficient in itself to bring
about the breadth of conceptual understanding that a curriculum seeks. Nor can it
provide an adequate depth of understanding about science and scientific inquiry.
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It is also the case that restricting the curriculum to learning science and learning
about science will not ensure that students are able to do science for themselves.
Though necessary, conceptual knowledge and knowledge about procedures that
scientists can adopt (and may have adopted in particular circumstances in the past)
are insufficient in themselves to enable students to engage successfully in scientific
inquiry. That ability is only developed through hands-on experience of doing
science in a critical and supportive environment (Hodson 1992).

The articles
The four articles in this mini Special Issue of IJSE extend and refine this discus-
sion. Two of the four are principally concerned with learning science, two with
learning about science; all four illustrate the separateness and inter-dependence of
learning science, learning about science and doing science. While two proffer
advice on how science teachers might design more productive learning experi-
ences, the remaining two pieces take the view that researchers, teachers and teacher
educators can learn more about these enterprises by looking critically at teaching/
learning episodes, especially at those episodes in which things don't turn out the
way the teacher had anticipated.
After a brief discussion of what he terms five 'sorts of knowledge'
(propositions, images, episodes, intellectual skills, motor skills), White concen-
trates on episodes ("recollections of events in which the person took part or at
least observed") as both a crucial element in understanding and a major outcome
of practical work, which for White includes bench work, teacher demonstrations,
video presentation, computer-based activities and so on. A critical task for tea-
chers, he argues, is to establish significant and enduring links between episodic and
propositional knowledge. He proceeds to explore possible ways of establishing
these links and relating the science of the curriculum to the world outside the
Gott and Duggan build a case for a shift of emphasis in practical work towards
'teaching for the development of experimental skills'. Not only do students need to
know certain chunks of scientific knowledge, they also need to know why and how
scientists have come to know and, perhaps, they need to have sufficient knowledge
and confidence to be able to engage in these procedures for themselves. But under-
standing of scientific evidence and the ways in which it is assembled will not

simply emerge from 'doing practical work'. Such understanding has to be taught.
Gott and Duggan focus on the knowledge base that underpins the manipulation of
variables in experimental investigations, identifying what they term the 'concepts
of evidence' essential to an appraisal of the reliability and validity of experimen-
tally gathered data. Although it neglects to consider other socially-located aspects
of scientific theory building, and so could be accused of being somewhat narrow in
focus, Gott and Duggan's article does emphasize very clearly the key role of
experimentation in 'coming to know'. In addition, by illustrating how investigative
work in school can be used to give students both a sounder grasp of procedural
understanding and an opportunity to use and refine their conceptual understand-
ing in practical contexts, their proposals meet one of White's principal criteria for
more effective practical work.
Whenever practical work is used as a means of promoting conceptual under-
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standing there is a tension between the teacher's desire to afford students a mea-
sure of autonomy (responsibility for designing and conducting their own
investigations, for example) and the need to reach what Olsen, Hewson and
Lyons call 'preordained science' (the particular understanding specified by the
curriculum plan). When particular findings that lead to particular conclusions
are needed, student-driven practical work may not be the best route (Hodson
1993a). Nevertheless, there remains the problem of what do when 'things go
wrong', in the sense that students obtain unanticipated results, confusing or con-
tradictory results, or no results at all. In such circumstances, teachers commonly
adopt such strategies as 'talking your way out of it', 'rigging* and 'conjuring' (Nott
and Smith 1995). The case study data presented by Olsen, Hewson and Lyons
illustrate how the strategy a teacher adopts can have an impact on students' views
about science and their views about learning science. It so has significant implica-
tions both for science teacher education and curriculum design.
Nott and Wellington elaborate this line of argument into a proposal that dis-
cussion of the kinds of critical incidents likely to occur during practical work, and
guidance on how to handle them, should be a feature of both pre-service and in-
service science teacher education. Their analysis of typical responses to those
occasions when 'the black box springs open' identifies a second major tension
for teachers in the design of practical workthe tension between their role as a
teacher (whose task is to ensure particular conceptual understanding) and their role
as a scientist (whose responsibility is to uphold the proper standards for the con-
duct of scientific inquiry). They note that this tension, which in some senses is
unresolvable, is compounded by time constraints, the desire for 'an easy classroom
life', the need to finish the syllabus and the wish to present scientific knowledge
clearly and simply. These conclusions support my own research findings that even
those teachers who hold clear and coherent views about the nature of science and
scientific inquiry do not always plan laboratory-based activities consistent with
those views, concentrating instead on the immediate concerns of classroom man-
agement and on concept acquisition and development (Hodson 1993b).

The challenge
Many teacher education programmes and many research studies are predicated on
the grounds of a simple sequence of causal relationships among teachers' views
about the nature of science, the design of curriculum experiences (including prac-

tical work) and student learning outcomes. A similar linear model links teachers'
views of concept acquisition and development, curriculum design and learning
outcomes. The articles in this collection show the inadequacy of such linear think-
ing and point out the urgency of employing a model of teaching and learning that
takes account of the loss of integrity in translating rhetoric into action, identifies
potential areas of conflict, and recognizes the unstable nature of teachers' philo-
sophic and psychological stance when confronted with the demands of planning
worthwhile and effective laboratory activities in the face of financial constraints,
insufficient time and the dictates of examinations.
There are also clear pointers towards a style of teacher education, both pre-
service and in-service, that recognizes the reflexivity of educational practice: tea-
chers' views of science and of science learning are reflected in their practice and, in
turn, are informed by critical reflection on that practice. Teaching effectively in
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practical contexts is not easy; it requires special skills. If we are to improve the
quality of practical work we need to provide pre-service and in-service courses that
focus more sharply on the role of practical work in creating opportunities for
students to learn science, learn about science and do science, while taking account
of the everyday realities of teachers' lives. Significant change will only occur if
teachers' concerns are recognized, their problems acknowledged, and their view-
points taken seriously. Like student learning, teacher development and change has
to start with an exploration and evaluation of current practices and beliefs, and has
to take seriously teachers' concerns with their own professionalism and feelings of
self-worth. My hope is that researchers and teacher educators will take up this

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