I have been reading quite a lot about why we do practical work. Laboratory work is a core component of the chemistry (science) curriculum but its ubiquity means that we rarely stop to consider its purpose explicitly. This leads to many problems. An interesting quote summarises one:
One of the interesting things about laboratories is that there has never been definite consensus about those serious purposes. Perhaps that is why they have remained popular: they can be thought to support almost any aim of teaching.1
Even within institutions, where their might be some prescription of what the purpose is in broad terms, different faculty involved in the laboratory may have different emphases, and subsequently the message about what the purpose of practical work is differs depending on who is running the lab on a given day.2
This matters for various reasons. The first is that if there is confusion about the purpose of practical work, then everyone involved will place their attention onto the part that they think is most important. Academics will likely consider overarching goals, with students developing scientific skills and nature of science aspects.3 Demonstrators will think about teaching how to use instruments or complete techniques. Students will follow the money, and focus on the assessment, usually the lab report, which means their time is best utilised by getting the results as quickly as possible and getting out of the lab.4 Everybody’s priority is different because the purposes were never made clear. As in crystalline.
The second reason that thinking about purposes is that without an explicit consideration of what the purposes of practical work are, it is difficult to challenge these purposes, and consider their value. How many lab manuals open up with a line similar to: “The purpose of these practicals is to reaffirm theory taught in lectures…”? The notion that the purpose of practicals is in somehow supplementing taught material in lectures has long come in for criticism, and has little basis in evidence. Laboratories are generally quite inefficient places to “teach” theory. Woolnough and Allsop argued vehemently for cutting the “Gordian Knot” between theory and practical, arguing that practical settings offered their own unique purpose that, rather than being subservient to theory work, complemented it.5 Kirchner picks this argument up, describing science education in terms of substantive structure and syntactical structure. The former deals with the knowledge base of science, the latter with the acts of how we do science.6 Anderson had earlier distinguished between “science” and “sciencing”.7
Discussion therefore needs to focus on what this syntactical structure is – what is “sciencing”? Here, the literature is vast, and often contradictory. To make a start, we look to Johnstone who, with his usual pragmatism, distinguished between aims of practical work (what we set out to do) and objectives of practical work (what the students achieve).8 With this in mind, we can begin to have some serious discussion about what we want practical work to achieve in our curricula.
- White, R. T., The link between the laboratory and learning. International Journal of Science Education 1996, 18 (7), 761-774.
- Boud, D.; Dunn, J.; Hegarty-Hazel, E., Teaching in laboratories. Society for Research into Higher Education & NFER-Nelson Guildford, Surrey, UK: 1986.
- Bretz, S. L.; Fay, M.; Bruck, L. B.; Towns, M. H., What faculty interviews reveal about meaningful learning in the undergraduate chemistry laboratory. Journal of Chemical Education 2013, 90 (3), 281-288.
- (a) DeKorver, B. K.; Towns, M. H., General Chemistry Students’ Goals for Chemistry Laboratory Coursework. Journal of Chemical Education 2015, 92 (12), 2031-2037; (b) DeKorver, B. K.; Towns, M. H., Upper-level undergraduate chemistry students’ goals for their laboratory coursework. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 2016, 53 (8), 1198-1215.
- Woolnough, B. E.; Allsop, T., Practical work in science. Cambridge University Press: 1985.
- Kirschner, P. A., Epistemology, practical work and academic skills in science education. Science & Education 1992, 1 (3), 273-299.
- Anderson, R. O., The experience of science: A new perspective for laboratory teaching. Teachers College Press, Columbia University: New York, 1976.
- Johnstone, A. H.; Al-Shuaili, A., Learning in the laboratory; some thoughts from the literature. University Chemistry Education 2001, 5 (2), 42-51.