Building a Class up to Practicals

Let’s start with an undeniable fact: Some classes are more difficult than others. Many teachers I have worked with avoid practicals with these classes:

“If I can’t trust them with a book lesson, there is no way I will trust them with a Bunsen Burner”

I disagree.

With any problem class, you must teach them how they behave during practicals. You must build a class up to full-blown practicals:

  1. Start with single spectacular demonstrations as starters: methane bubbles, supercooling water or a heart dissection. Discuss dangers
  2. Don’t talk when demonstrating a procedure. Show, then tell, then show again. Pupils find it difficult to watch what you are doing AND listen to what you are saying.
  3. Try out small and VERY safe practicals: melting ice on different surfaces, or the effect of renin on milk. Discuss safety rules and ruthlessly enforce. Have written work at the back for transgressors.
  4. Keep writing to a minimum, focus on the kids learning the practical skills – this is still a valid learning objective. You don’t need writing to prove learning has taken place.
  5. Build on the complexity a little at a time. Focus on one aspect of investigation at a time (e.g. planning OR creating a table OR gaining results).
  6. Build up to a high difficulty, low risk practical – modelling the digestive system or Moment calculations

Once the class have become accustomed to practical, you can give full investigations a go.

The classes that will benefit most from practical lessons are those who have the potential to cause you problems. Classes who resent being forced to sit quietly in a seat for an hour and copy from a book will welcome the freedom of a practical science lesson. They will see your lesson as ‘fun.’ It is amazing how much learning takes place when a class thinks they are just having fun.

But you need to put in the prep first. If you throw one of these classes into an investigation-type practical you are going to have one hell of a rollercoaster ride. Having not been trusted with this degree of freedom before, they will likely abuse the privilege. The lesson will almost certainly be unsafe (See “Train-wreck Thursday”).


  • If you have a disaster-lesson, analyse what went wrong and pull the class back a step. Don’t give up or ban them from practical.
  • Get them to do safety assessments before you up the difficulty. Are they capable of doing your next experiment?
  • When a student is unsafe during a lesson, stop them from practical for the rest of the lesson, then give them a safety re-assessment (small practicals during a detention that proves they can be safe).
  • Safety comes before fun. Be ruthless with your safety rules.
  • Minimise writing when teaching a difficult class how to do practical. (This is key!)

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