1st January 2010 at 00:00
I am a science teacher and have one class that is well behaved during theory lessons but terribly behaved in practicals. How can I lay ground rules?

Ofsted would shudder to hear this. It said in a report last year that practical investigations are a great way to enliven science lessons. It wants to see more, not less.

Ofsted believes that a lack of specialist knowledge is putting teachers off "hands-on" work. Without it, teachers simply don't have the confidence to lead experiments, its report Success in Science concluded. However, it doesn't sound like you lack subject knowledge; your issue seems to lie with behaviour management.

It's hard to gauge whether this is down to pupils' "terrible" behaviour or your discomfort with group work. Science practicals can be rowdy affairs - the combination of Bunsen burners, noxious substances and rowdy pupils can understandably put teachers off.

But even within this noisy madness, learning may still be taking place. "Children learn from and remember practicals," says Simon Decker, headteacher of Rainham Mark Grammar School in Kent, and a practising science teacher. "If they are well organised, the lessons can be incredibly rewarding and interesting."

He admits, however, that experiments may prompt more challenging behaviour, not least because pupils are given a green light to get off their chairs and start talking. Some will inevitable take advantage.

"Co-ordinating all the technical equipment with the chemicals means more can go wrong," says Mr Decker. "Many teachers need back up. They need to think carefully about the arrangement and length of the lesson, plus what they are hoping to achieve."

It will be worth it though. When they go well, practical activities perfectly complement theoretical learning, Mr Decker adds. "Good experiments form the essence of scientific discovery," he says.

But if behaviour is getting in the way of success, ask your head of department (HoD) for help, says Phil Bunyan from CLEAPSS, an advisory body that promotes practical science teaching. The HoD should be willing to sit in on the class, without taking over.

Teachers of other practical subjects, such as PE and design and technology, are also worth approaching. Ask them whether the class plays up in their lessons. They may be able to offer further strategies, including how to group individual pupils to minimise disruption. Beyond that, make sure your practical lessons are as well organised as possible. In terms of planning, think at least two lessons ahead of yourself, says Successful Science Practicals, a document compiled by CLEAPSS for new science teachers.

"Good practical lessons don't just happen," it states. "They are carefully planned, prepared, introduced and concluded." If you are struggling in any of these areas, make sure you get the training you need.

The Government's Getting Practical website ( offers professional development programmes and resources. It is also worth accessing the Practical Chemistry, Practical Physics or Practical Biology websites.

In the meantime, carefully trial your experiments before you conduct them with pupils. Make sure your written and verbal instructions are clear enough, plus that you are giving the pupils enough time to complete the task; they will usually need three times as long as you.

Clarity is also key, adds Mr Bunyan. "The pupils need to know exactly what the lesson is about, what they will be doing and why they are doing it," he says. "Tell the pupils that you are doing this experiment because it is the best way to learn. You can't assume they share the same paradigms as you. They might think that if they are not writing, they are not learning."

Just as people can't learn about how to play hockey by solely reading the rules of the game, so pupils must get their hands dirty in science if they are to truly raise their level of understanding. By seeking help and ensuring your practical lessons are as tightly focused and organised as possible, behaviour should markedly improve. Pupils may start to grasp the wonder of science; something a worksheet can rarely boast.

Next week disabled mocked


- Have clear learning outcomes.

- Focus on quality, not quantity of experiments.

- Use a plenary to check what pupils have learnt.

- Ask your line manager for help with behaviour.


- Give up on practicals: pupils often report that it is their favourite part of science.

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