Guest Blog: 6 approaches schools can use to provide practical science opportunities in this ‘new normal’

How can teachers ensure that they continue to create safe opportunities for hands-on, practical scientific learning in these challenging times? That is the question that Nadia Moustapha, Science Leader and Key Stage 2 teacher at Billesley Primary School, poses in this new blog…

When Covid-19 meant schools were closed to most pupils in the first national lockdown, schools were forced to think quickly about how scientific learning could continue. Replicating practical activities and experiments in a home environment proved particularly challenging, as teachers could not be sure what resources or adult support their students would have access to.

The importance of hands-on experience in science has been highlighted most recently in the EEF’s ‘Improving Secondary Science’ guidance report. This states that purposeful, practical activities can lead to significant learning gains: 

"Seeing is believing. As well as being intrinsic to science, experiments help pupils to root scientific theory and knowledge in reality.”

They can increase pupil engagement, helping develop an understanding of key scientific skills and concepts, and the scientific investigation process. This is arguably most important for primary schools to consider, as we try to inculcate in our pupils the curiosity and interest that will encourage them to engage further with science as they get older.

So, what now? We cannot predict how long the challenges presented by Covid-19 will be around, nor can we ignore the research and evidence that tells us how important practical work is. (Gatsby; 2017) How, therefore, do we manage this ‘new normal’?

It may be a while before we can determine the most effective strategies, but these are the initial approaches we are exploring at Billesley Primary School, with examples of how they could manifest in science lessons across different key stages.

It’s important to say at the outset that our key aim is reducing and, if possible, avoiding the sharing of equipment. Where possible, each year group has access to their own set of equipment for the duration of a topic, and each classroom their own allocation of resources. Equipment is sanitised after use regardless of when it will be used again.

Providing children with individual sets of resources (if the availability is there)

For example, a Year 2 lesson involving melting chocolate could mean each child having their own square of chocolate in their own plastic bag. A Year 4 lesson exploring melting could mean each child having their own ice cube to handle.

Providing a small group of children a shared set of resources (requires handwashing and sanitising resources after use)

For example, in a Year 3 lesson on magnets, children could work in pairs or small groups, share the magnet and, without touching the given tray of objects, test if they are magnetic or not. A Year 6 lesson on separation involving sieving, filtering and use of funnels could involve a small group sharing the sieve then wiping it down before swapping.

Assigning children specific roles within small groups for set-up and measurements

For example, in a Year 6 lesson involving dissolving, each child could be assigned a role to carry out during the investigation. One child could collect the water needed, another could have a thermometer to record water temperature while a third could add the solid and stir. This way, unnecessary sharing of equipment can be restricted.

Observing demonstrations - using visualisers or live-streaming to project onto whiteboards

For example, if restrictions on resources mean the children cannot set up the activity themselves, this does not remove the possibility of ‘practical’ work, as teachers can demonstrate from the front of the classroom. The use of visualisers can allow children to see demonstrations without having to move from their seats or cluster together.

In the same way, a teacher demonstration could take place as part of a carousel of activities, with the teacher showing one area of the classroom at a time. The children’s role in working scientifically may then shift to making observations, taking measurements or displaying results rather than the set-up process. The children can talk the teacher through the steps that should be taken, discussing, for instance, whether they are setting up a fair test or that the correct variable has been chosen to answer the question. Teachers can direct this through clear, planned questioning.

Big Picture Theme: Developing effective learners

Big Picture Theme: Developing effective learners

Evidence on supporting pupils to become effective and self-motivated learners from the Teaching and Learning Toolkit alongside the findings from recent EEF projects.

Virtual and digital science - using pre-recorded demonstrations, science simulations and online clips

Using online video clips or interactive activities can provide a virtual way for children to gain hands-on experience, as long as we plan how we are going to get children to engage in an effective way. Simply watching a video does not replace the process our brains go through when doing something ourselves. For this reason, it is important that -through planned questioning and discussion- children engage in critical thinking alongside watching a virtual demonstration.

Science simulations can also be used when necessary. For example, the DC Circuit Builder allows children to build circuits and test to see if they work. The Melting and Boiling Simulator allows children to see what happens to the molecules when an ice cube is heated and then water is boiled.

Taking learning outside

There is a wealth of resources available outside that replace the need for sharing. For example, a Year 3 lesson involving learning about friction on different surfaces can be taken outdoors, where there are an abundance of different surfaces on which children can test how objects move differently. Children can even use their own pencil case as the object, or their own shoe! In some instances, simply taking a teacher demonstration outside may allow children to see what is happening more easily than inside in a classroom.

It is a challenging time for everyone working in education. Practical science for the interim may feel less creative and less flexible. Children may not be provided with as much freedom when it comes to planning out how they will investigate an idea, or what resources they will use.

However, with some extra thought and planning none of these challenges is insurmountable. A rich science curriculum must always strive to have ‘frequent, purposeful and impactful practical work’ (ASE; 2020). Through open discussions with one another and time spent exploring new and different ways of providing pupils with practical opportunities, we will ensure the best possible outcomes for both children and staff when it comes to teaching science effectively.

References

ASE; (2020) ; Good Practical Science - making it happen post-Covid-19 https://www.ase.org.uk/sites/default/files/GoodPracSci%20-%20Benchmarks%203.0.pdf

The Education Endowment Foundation ; (2018); Improving Secondary Science https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/tools/guidance-reports/improving-secondary-science/

The Gatsby Charitable Foundation ; (2017) ; The Good Practical Science Report https://www.gatsby.org.uk/uploads/education/reports/pdf/good-practical-science-report.pdf

Emma Woodley ; ASE ; (2009); Practical work in school science – why is it important?http://www.gettingpractical.org.uk/documents/EmmaWoodleyarticle.pdf

Online Simulations Site https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/collection/simulations/ last accessed 8/10/20