When it comes to teaching, practical is my passion. I love designing new practicals - I have to do some thinking, which I love - and I enjoy assessing how well a new practical has worked with my students.
But too much practical work involves students only practically thinking, and not really thinking practically at all.
So in today's sciences Blue Skies Day, we had a focus on practical work. In particular, we worked on stretching students to link their ideas about the observable world to the world of ideas better in practicals by designing better resources.
we need to think about what the students will do, think, and learn during the practical
Designing practicals is a completely different skill to planning a theory lesson. In general for practical lessons, teachers start with the practical sheet, one they know works, and the design the learning around that, rather than starting with the learning and then designing a practical sheet to progress towards that aim.
Now, it isn't a bad thing to use someone else's practical resource: designing good practicals from scratch takes time and creativity. But, we do need to think about what the students will struggle to do, to think, and to learn during the practical, so that we can use it to its best advantage.
We used Abrahams' effectiveness grid to analyse a number of pre-made resources in mixed science groups. Different coloured pens for the different domains, of course.
Doing this really helped us get to the heart of what makes a practical sheet good and promoting student thinking. And there was nowhere near enough 'purple' on most of the resources I found (exam board core practical sheets were in the selection I used).
Designing resources to get plenty of purple
After coffee, we selected and modified sequences of practical in our schemes of work which are intended to lead to student progression throughout the topic. Focusing on different scientific skills across the set - planning, data collection, analysis, evaluation - to lead to deeper student learning.
We combined that with the skills in evaluating practicals we worked on in the morning to modify our resources and make them more effective at linking students' ideas about what they can observe and the key scientific theories.
This generally means designing the resources in-house so that there is progress in the topic and from previous topics and practical skills which have been covered. But it can also mean taking bits you like from pre-made resources, but tailoring them specifically to your own context. What, specifically, do you want your students to learn?
And this is precisely the kind of activity that a Blue Skies Day is made for.
As a Chemistry department, we focused on separation, as these practicals have been done to death at KS2 and KS3, so we needed to rethink how we were teaching them at IGCSE to make it fresh and more cognitively challenging for students.
We felt that across the topic, students did not have the opportunity to process any data. And, although there were opportunities for planning, none of the tasks set had much cognitive challenge to answer. So we designed two completely new practicals to incorporate these skills into the sequence. And modified others to better support student active thinking.
The first is based on a question from this year's IGCSE paper asking students to extract copper from malachite. We have decided to set up a practical pre-lab activity for students to complete and make observations about various reactions of copper carbonate and copper sulphate. They then break up into groups to plan a method using filtration (which is not explicitly taught, but as a given), and understanding of filtration is assessed by the teacher during the practical.
As the added stretch, students will calculate the % of copper in malachite from their data, and compare with the 'real' % to explain why their yield is low.
I saw on Twitter earlier this year that distilling cherry coke was the way to go, so we have developed a practical idea around this concept: working out which of the various flavours of coke have the most additive (by volume). We need to test this one to see if the temperatures of the distillates are sufficiently different for students to identify an unknown (if not I suppose we'll just doctor the results - we are chemists after all).
Then a 'mishap' in the coke factory could lead to two cokes being mixed together and students could identify which two. The idea here is to help students conceptually link the boiling points with the temperature of the thermometer better.
Planning and creating these ideas for stretching the students was a team effort. Our practical work needs time and input from a lot of different people to get right.
We need to set aside time for teams to work together if we want sciences departments to stop merely tinkering around the edges, and start with some blank(ish) paper, and build up schemes for student learning.
Once the separation module is resourced, I'll build this section on my website so that they (and other resources for this topic) are available for use.