The Propello Press | Education Insights, Resources, and Tools

Making Practical Science Practical

For the last 5 years of my teaching career I was an Advanced Skills Teacher specialising in Science. I can remember vividly the day I was assessed for the accreditation. I had opted to do a practical science lesson that involved pupils whizzing toy cars around the school hall and spent the entire lesson willing them not to lose the plot. Luckily the incidents of toy cars being used for ‘not best choices’ was minimal in the end, but between worrying that I had enough resources, that there was no dead time where pupils might engage in their own unplanned ‘experimenting’ or whether my instructions around the key science concepts were clear enough, even as an experienced teacher the fear of the practical science lessons was very real.

So with the recent Ofsted report into Science highlighting the need for pupils to engage in more high-quality practical science, how can teachers make these lessons more targeted, simple to plan for, effective in delivering key learning, and most importantly, not something to fear and avoid?

Plan carefully

While planning the session, consider how you are delivering the key science learning, both substantive and disciplinary. Keep it simple and don’t go for style over substance. It can be very tempting to pull out all the fun gadgets from the store cupboard but only use resources that actually feed directly into the key learning and outcomes you are wanting to achieve. Also, pupils fare better with clear and straightforward practicals as they can see in advance what they are aiming for.

Prepare resources in advance

If you’re lucky enough to have a lab technician this will be a much easier job, but either way make sure that you have checked your equipment in advance, that it is all working and that you have enough of it. Prepare worksheets or instructions in advance too and lay everything out ready on desks so that when pupils enter the classroom they will feel the excitement of what is to come and are ready to go.

Explicitly teach equipment use and care

We all remember the fun of burning bits of paper on a bunsen burner when the teacher wasn’t looking so make sure that teacher and subsequent health and safety nightmare isn’t you. Teach pupils how to set up equipment, manage it safely during use and how to put it away again after. Have high expectations of equipment use and care and communicate this to pupils.

Think about waiting times and early finishers 

There will be times during a practical where pupils are waiting, either for their turn in group work say,  or for a reaction to develop. Think through how they can use this time effectively, perhaps setting up some retrieval activity questions or encouraging them to research the practical further using books or online resources. Early finishers should be directed to extension activities so that they can deepen and apply their experience and learning so make sure that you have these ready for them.

Break up instructions

Lengthy instructions at the beginning followed by ‘off you go’ is best avoided as it gives you no opportunity to address misconceptions during the lesson or have those natural breaks which keep behaviour on the right side of excited. Instead break the lesson up into smaller parts to keep it flowing and allow you to have better management by calling pupils back to the group for discussion, questions and delivering the next steps. 

Keep pupils active

Keep your groups as small as possible to ensure that all pupils are participating in the practical. Pupils who are actively engaged will be learning more than those just watching, and of course, pupils who are not actively engaged in the lesson may well actively engage themselves in something you’d prefer they didn’t (see bunsen burner example above).

Don’t overcontrol

Fear of chaos can lead even a confident, experienced teacher to over control a practical but this can prevent pupils from extending their own learning. It can look messy, but when you hone in on groups doing something off script you will often find that they are trying to see what else happens if they add a new component or explore something differently (and this was very much the case with my class whizzing their cars around). Children and young people do this very naturally, so if you have followed all the suggestions above then occasionally just let them run with it.

How can Propello help?

Propello has a range of practical science lessons, including AQA KS4 required practicals on site. Sign up for a free account to access these, along with full range of adaptable teaching and learning resources, individual learning paths and SEND accessibility features.