Amanda Spielman questions motivation behind science practicals

The Ofsted chief inspector points to evidence showing that teacher instruction is a more effective method of learning in science

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Amanda Spielman has raised questions about the usefulness of practical science experiments, pointing to evidence that shows that teacher instruction is a more effective method of learning.

Speaking at the Association for Science Education’s annual conference, the Ofsted chief inspector said that pupil enjoyment and motivation were not sufficient reasons to teach practical science.

She said that an analysis of the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) science results revealed that enquiry-based learning had a negative association with pupils’ scores across the countries included in the Pisa tables. By contrast, there was a positive association between teacher-directed instruction and pupils’ scores.

“This is just one piece of evidence, but it is interesting,” Ms Spielman told the conference, held at the University of Liverpool this month. “It does remind us how important it is to keep testing our own assumptions about what is ‘good’, or what is ‘best practice’.”

She also cited the recent Gatsby report on good practical science, which said that teachers name "motivation" as the most important reason for teaching science practicals.

'More than just motivation'

“We should be uncomfortable with the idea of practical science being mainly about motivation,” Ms Spielman said.

“Yes, children should find experiments fun and motivating, but making sure children finish practical tasks having learned something, or having consolidated what they have just been taught, is most important.”

She added that it did not mean that Ofsted inspectors would now be looking for a specific type of teaching in science.

This year, for the first time, A-level pupils’ science practicals did not count towards their overall exam grade. Instead, students were awarded a pass if they demonstrated competence in 12 practical activities over the duration of their course.

And in 2015 exams regulator Ofqual announced that practical work would no longer contribute towards overall grades at science GCSE.

But, in her speech to the Association for Science Education, Ms Spielman reiterated her belief that the curriculum should not be determined by a desire for good exam results.

“Exams should exist in service to the curriculum, rather than the other way around,” she said.

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