Organising a class of young people can be a daunting prospect in any lesson. Introduce chemicals and a Bunsen burner to the mix for example and it can be a bit of a challenge to say the least.
With the support of some experienced teachers and technicians I soon learned how not to do things in a controlled setting. I would like to share my top tips on how to run a practical in busy secondary schools today.
1. Befriend the technician, they are your saviour
The technician has a wealth of useful knowledge and experience. They have always been my first port of call where there is uncertainty or when things don’t quite go to plan.
2. Ask yourself ‘Why am I doing this practical?’
Practical for practical sake is less effective. Focusing on science skills has its place but if it can be combined with acquiring key content knowledge then it is a much better use of valuable teacher and student time. Do the students know why they are doing the practical? Tell them at the start of the lesson and then ask them after if they know why they’ve done the lesson, success or not.
3. Think about background information
Do the students have enough background information to carry out the practical effectively? Is this the best time to engage in the practical or is it the time you planned to? If the students have not learnt the relevant content yet, then reschedule the practical. At the end of the lesson before your planned practical you should know if you have covered the relevant content sufficiently. This is the time to consult with the technician about your change of plan.
4. Practice the practical
Can you identify any aspect that the students might make mistakes on or not understand? Could misconceptions be born here? Seek advice. Once again who can you turn to? The technicians are the best source of information. In addition to other colleagues including ITT’s and NQT’s as they might have been taught in a slightly different way that could be beneficial to you and your class. Observe another colleague carrying out the practical if possible. Find their top tips and decide what is not for you. It is never a waste of time to observe. We can learn more from a practical that doesn’t go to plan, than one that runs so smoothly you don’t notice anything useful to your teaching.
5. Look at equipment and resources
Work out if there is enough equipment or resources to support your planned lesson. Are there any alternatives that you could use? Could you use less resources by scaling back the measurements for example? Have you planned the practical for the whole class, a group or as a demo? How will the practical run to suit your teaching and your class needs? A demo is much less effective in the learning of the content, but it is better than no practical at all. Allow students to witness a hands-on investigation where possible. Group work has its place if there aren’t enough resources to go around. Group work is powerful in terms of learning but only if the tasks are group worthy.
6. Health and safety
Are there any H&S issues? Find out what your responsibility is before the start of the practical – locate and study any CLEAPPS information or school documentation for this specific practical. And guess who else could help and advise you? Yes, you guessed correctly our lovely technicians.
Locate essential safety equipment including the eyewash, first aid kit and stop button or key for the gas supply. AND know how to use them correctly. Not knowing how these work is like driving your car without knowing how to use the brakes! You shouldn’t really be in a lab situation in my view if you cannot do this efficiently. You are responsible for yourself and a group of young people after all. Go through the H&S rules at the start of every practical lesson. Where appropriate review key skills to keep safe, for example, how to measure and swirl chemicals, wafting gases and using glassware. Students should always stand up for practicals. Seats should be safely pushed under the desk and bags and coats tidied away. If anything is dropped or spilled it will land on the desk not the students’ feet or their new coat or bag discarded on the floor!
7. Have you got essential general equipment to work the practical?
Matches, splints and/or a lighter for example. Are you timetabled for the best working environment for your practical lesson? – Ask around someone might be able to swap their lab for your lesson. Be kind to your colleagues and they will collaborate where they can. It is all about the best outcome for the students after all.
8. Consider how you will manage the class
Don’t take the organisation of the students for granted. Could an extra set of eyes or pair of hands help? Ask a colleague or technician if they can support in the lesson. Try to reduce movement around the room – this is often where behaviour issues develop. For example, can you set up the equipment in stations near to working groups to avoid the whole class moving to one location?
Do students need goggles, gloves or lab coats? – Make sure you have enough before the start of the practical. Do you need to order these from the technician? If you are using a different working space do you know where to find them? If you are planning to use food, check for allergies – if in doubt throw the practical out! It really isn’t worth the risk. You can’t always rely on the students or records to be accurate. A note home in a planner is the most reliable source of allergy information that I know. Use the fume cupboard or ventilate the room well when gases are produced – small amounts can trigger asthma or breathing problems.
9. What is your expected outcome of the lesson?
Be clear in your mind and share this with the students. But remind students that practicals never go wrong! The result might not be what you or they are expecting but not ‘wrong’. Otherwise we would not be using many medicines and technology today.
Check out our previous blog about secondary science, or explore our range of classroom science resources.