How Practical Work in Physics Supports Knowledge

Back in 1994, I began by PGCE at Oxford University. I was lucky to have a brilliant tutor, Brian Woolnough. He was an important academic: with Terry Allsop he wrote the key text Practical Work in Science. We respected him enormously.

The book was a review and analysis of science teacher’ practice – why we use practical work in science. My super-short summary is that we use practical work to:

  • develop practical skills and techniques;
  • be a problem-solving scientist;
  • get a ‘feel for phenomena’.

It was obvious that Brian was excellent in the classroom too. He was a showman and had an irreverant, maverick touch. In a full lecture hall, he solomnly picked up a copy of the National Curriculum and tossed it on the floor.

I also remember we caught him cheating demonstrating a physics practical that wasn’t working. He gave us a cheeky grin and said, “Well, it doesn’t matter if they learn it, does it?”

It is noticible that the summary list does not include “learn science knowledge” – practical work is pretty poor at helping learners master exam content. But it does support the learning of knowledge, by providing a concrete structure to build a schema around.

The more abstract and theoretical the concept, the more we need something concrete to attach the learning to. A practical activity provides a concrete experience that a skilled science teacher can build upon.

But it doesn’t happen automatically. The leap from concrete to abstract is generally too far for most learners to make solo. The gap needs to be bridged.

Recently, I have used Lemov’s Write/Rewrite to help my students link abstract concepts to concrete, practical work. I refer to the same practical experiences over and over again, spaced over weeks, to help my students make permanent memories, linking to abstract ideas. If the practical can’t be set up repeatedly, I bring in a key piece of equipment and photos to remind them and I set writing tasks (in a carefuly written sentence, explain….).

write rewrite chronometer

When I am confident that the have made a reliable connection between the abstract and concrete idea, I go about building on it. I ask them to make novel comparisons using a worksheet like the one below (see The Learning Scientists on Elaboration).

Elaboration (making inflexible knowlegde flexible)

As Brian said back in 1994 -“Well, it doesn’t matter if they learn it, does it?”

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