On Friday 6th February 2015, OCR launched the arrangements for the practical endorsement which will form part of the new science A Level specifications that will be taught from September 2015. The decision to separate the assessment of practical work from the final grade and have an endorsement on the student’s certificate of either pass or fail has been a controversial one. Many institutions (The Wellcome Trust, SCORE, The ASE, BERG) have come out against this decision and over. In the past week there have been quite a few news stories about this from Nicky Morgan asking Qfqual to revert this decision, The Wellcome Trust expressing their displeasure (again), a response from Ofqual and a letter from Nobel Laureate (and President of the Royal Society) Sir Paul Nurse. What has been interesting that within the classroom this decision has been welcomed by many of the teachers that I know.
Personally I am glad that the practical assessment has gone as the system is set up to be gamed and cheated so easily and the focus on a small number practicals for the assessment means that students practical experience in A Level is limited to only what is required to pass the assessment.
The OCR Launch event was not a CPD session but was more like a press conference, focussing on communicating to the assembled important people (and us teachers) what the new arrangements for assessing practical work will look like as well as justifying the decision. The following is my summary of what I took from the event.
What is the point of science education?
After the initial hellos there was a talk from Tim Oates (Group Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment) who was giving a précis of his talk at the ASE Conference in 2014 Radical solutions in demanding times: alternative approaches for appropriate placing of ‘coursework components’ in GCSE examinations. When discussing the role of practical work in science, the purpose of science education needs to be established. Is the purpose of science education to produce little scientists or is it about producing knowledgeable students who could move on to be scientists? I have always thought that the first role of science education is to give students enough of a scientific understanding so that they can survive in the adult world (Science for Citizenship) and its secondary purpose is to prepare students who wish to work in the world of science (Science for Scientists). As most students will not end up as scientists then the role of practical work must reflect that.
What is the role of practical work in science education?
What was interesting for me was this was the first event I’ve attended where the idea that practical work isn’t as good as it is was openly expressed. While the quote “Science without practical, is like swimming without water” was shown there was a greater admission that students find practical work boring, an easy lesson and isn’t great at getting the students to learn science but it is good at getting them to develop their practical skills and can help reinforce their learning by contextualising the knowledge taught in lessons. The epitome of this for me was Tim Oates saying “School practical work is not science”, while there is some level of investigation that can be done, school science is not the long, laborious and usually dull process of real science. School science cannot emulate that therefore we shouldn’t. The practicals that are done at A Level should therefore be about teaching the students the skills and competencies that they may need in their next step be it higher education or the workplace. The work of Robin Millar, Jonathan Osbourne and Ian Abrahams was used to illustrate the realities of practical work by Steve Jones of Cleapss though he did show a way of using practical work to delveir content by using water dousing to teach about the double blind method. While his quick demo of how to run a lesson was great I couldn’t help but think that this was a classic case of an expert showing me a great practical lesson but one that only taught one thing. In the realities of the classroom I do not have that short of time to spend to teach one learning objective. I also found it odd that after using dousing to promote the scientific method the Chinese Proverb “Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, I’ll understand” was used as the final argument for using practical work, for me that proverb has as much rigour as the learning pyramid.
DAPS & IAPS
If teachers are going to be assessing the practical work of the students throughout the course rather than at specific points then the way that is done needs to be examined. This is where direct and indirect assessment of practical skills (DAPS and IAPS) come into play. For many of these practicals direct assessment of the students ability is needed in the lesson e.g. can they set up the equipment and use the equipment safely, they can take accurate readings, and using the student write ups after the lesson is over will not necessarily provide teachers with the most accurate information of if they have met the criteria. Right now most of the students practical assessment is by the IAPS process, we are seeing what they understand about how the practical works and not if they can actually do the practical. It seems that in order to provide evidence that the student has developed competency in their practical skills the DIAPS approach will be needed, this will probably lead to the requirement to do more practical work as in a large class will one teacher be able to effectively assess every student’s ability to do the practical?
For more on this see: Ian Abrahams, Michael J. Reiss & Rachael M. Sharpe (2013) The assessment of practical work in school science, Studies in Science Education, 49:2, 209-251, DOI: 10.1080/03057267.2013.858496
12 Practicals or 12 Competencies?
After the removal of the practical component from the final exam (but not really, see later) the next thing that was complained about was the ideas that there are only 12 practicals that the students have to do over the two years. For many that was too few and while I know that some schools do less than that there are some that do deliver excellent practical sessions for their students. It seems to think about them as 12 practicals is incorrect, there are 12 practical skills that the students need to demonstrate competency in. The more I thought about this, the more I realised that there is no way that 12 practicals will enough for a student to show the level of competency in the practical skills in order to get a pass. This really does goes against the reports that the decoupling of the practical work from the final grade will reduce the number of practicals that students do. In order for a student to pass they need to show that they have a mastery of the skill that is being assessed. For example, one of the skills in Biology is using a microscope. There is no way that in the first microscope practical you do with your students that they will all produce work that is good enough to be considered competent (unless they have done a lot of microscopy before, which lets face it is unlikely) so many opportunities throughout the two years will be needed in order for the teacher to confidently say that the student is good enough. This confirms what I thought when this all started, that more practical work will have to be done at A Level and not less. Those schools that are telling us that they already so loads of practical work will be in the better position of offering the new A Levels and ensuring that students can get the pass. Because students need to maintain a record of the practical work they do this is where the Lab Book comes into play.
The idea of using a lab book for students to write up their practical work has been around for a while and in industry lab books are routinely used in paper and electronic format so scientists can keep a record of what procedures have been done. Students will need to keep their own record of all the practical work that they do over the course of the A Level and a lab book shouldn’t be thought of as a portfolio full of perfect practical write ups, but should be more like an art sketch book where students can compile their work, stains and all, to build up their evidence that they are becoming competent in the 12 skill areas. This lab book will become a key document in awarding the student the pass mark as well as provide them with a valuable resource for revising for the exams as 15% of the marks in the exams will come from questions about practical work. This 15% is only a little less than the value of coursework in science A Levels at the moment so as long as the questions are worded in a way that means that students will have had to have completed practical work in order to answer them then this means that practical work will form part of the student’s final grade. With the specifications increasing the % of the AO2 style of questions (being able to apply their knowledge to new situations) this means that students can be asked about any practical work not just what they could have done in lessons, further showing the importance for allowing the students to have a varied and throughout practical work experience in lessons.
In order for teachers to monitor what students have done, a spreadsheet has been produced by OCR. Here teachers can keep track of what practical work has been done, mapping the individual practicals to all the skill requirements by monitoring student attendance for the practical lessons and then ticking if they are competent in the skill. This spreadsheet will ensure that teachers have placed enough practicals into their schemes of work to meet all of the requirements as well as see which students are doing well and which need to develop. The spreadsheet has been designed with teacher workload in mind so that all they have to do is deselect the students that were absent and have not met the competency so hopefully reduce the number of clicks that a teacher has to perform on the spreadsheet. There is also space on the spreadsheet for teachers to add in their own practicals that they do so those can also be mapped to the skills so that all practical work can be evidenced as working towards competency.
Monitoring not Moderation
What will be done to check that schools are correctly implementing the practical work? Rather than the concept of moderation, monitoring visits will be set up to check that schools are following the process correctly. The difference between monitoring and moderation was made very clear, monitoring will be a formative assessment approach, with the monitor checking that practicals are integrated into the schemes of work, that student lab books are being completed and maybe watching a practical lesson take place to see how schools are delivering the practical work. Monitors will be providing advice and support so that all schools can get it done correctly. Who the people doing this monitoring will be still needs to be sorted out. Personally I think schools should work together in clusters with real teachers visiting different institutions that way advice can be a two way process. I could show a school what’s done at my place and I could take good ideas back to my department to develop our delivery. Whether this will happen or if senior management will allow the time off timetable is another thing.
I think that any school that thinks they will be able to get away with just doing 12 practicals in order to get the students the pass will find that it is not possible, as students will need opportunities to practice and develop before they can show that they have mastery of the skills. I also think that the idea of “Practice Practicals” and “Assessed Practicals” should not be an avenue to go down. Every practical that is done is a potential assessment opportunity as well as a skill development one.
This new way of assessing practical work will free up teachers to deliver practical lessons in a much better way. We can integrate practical work throughout the year rather than having to crowbar it in to the part of the specification that the current practical assessment is on. Students will have the time to develop their skills and show real progression rather than the do or die card of a practical exam and use the work they do to help reinforce the learning in non-practical lessons. Schools that have said from the beginning of these changes that they do loads of practical work will have little to worry about. They can still do loads of practical work and use it to get the best out of their students. It is the schools that only do the bare minimum that will have to up their game as there are very few students who you can say they’ve mastered a skill after the first attempt.
There are of course some issues to be dealt with, such as making sure students that we are inheriting from the current GCSE system who will be used to practical assessment in the old way and so may not have the basic skills to begin with. It is also essential that the questions that are in the exam are worded in a way that students have to have done the practical in order to answer them and so reinforce their importance. The idea that the removal of practical work from the final grade will reduce the importance of it is incorrect. It has give practical work its correct place in the qualification as a supporting set of skills that are needed at times to do the subject but are not part of the knowledge required to understand science.
The two main arguments of those who disagree with these new changes are that practical work will reduce in A Level lessons and that practical work will become devalued by the students as it is not in the exam. Both of these are incorrect as reading through the OCR Biology Specification I can see more practical work than there is currently (see my next blog post) and there will be at least 15% of marks in the exams about practical work as well as the students having a record of their developing skills and a clear endorsement on their certificate saying if they are any good or not. For those who wanted to go back to a proper practical exam situation, I’d like to remind them of this.
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