Retort from the lab;Reviews;Secondary;Books

1st January 1999 at 00:00
PRACTICAL WORK IN SCHOOL SCIENCE: Which way now?. Edited by Jerry Wellington. Routledge pound;50 hb, pound;15.99 pb.

Jerry Wellington's assembly of 15 chapters by different authors is comprehensive and authoritative. The result is not an agreed programme, but rather a debate about diverse ways of exploring options for the future of the school science laboratory.

A recurrent theme is the tension between the two purposes: on the one hand to give each student personal experience of investigating scientifically, on the other to support conceptual learning with a base in hands-on reality.

Edgar Jenkins describes how this debate has unfolded over the past two centuries. However, while he seems to see the national curriculum requirement for open-ended investigations as a disastrous error, others, notably Derek Hodson and Brian Woolnough, argue that such work must be an essential component in learning science. The account, by Jenifer Helms, of pupils investigating a real environmental problem, and the argument by Clive Sutton that to understand science one must experience discourse characterised by "constant reference to tangible evidence", could both support this view. However, they would require emphasis - both on authenticity of task and on pupil discussions about interpretation of results.

The aim of supporting concept learning also evokes both controversy and conditional absolution. Robin Millar's lucid dissection of examples illustrates that there is more need "to change what we say than what we do", while Jonathan Osborne's critique leads to a plea that the time given to this laboratory work be reduced so that different ways of learning science can play a part. Others are more positive, notably Joan Solomon who argues, from a basis in cognitive psychology, that paper and pencil cannot be a substitute for touching and seeing in the development of conceptual understanding.

In one of three chapters on IT in laboratory work, it is pointed out that where data collection is made automatically and graphs are plotted on the screen as the phenomena unfold, pupils' time is released from repetitive tasks of dubious value. They can use such time for the essential, yet sadly neglected, task of arguing about what the results might mean. If this book has one powerful message, it is that the potential return on our investment in school laboratories will only be secured if all involved will think again, and more deeply, about how its practice can match its purposes. This book will give strong stimulus and support for such thinking.

Paul Black is emeritus professor of science education at King's College London

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