Demonstration or Class Practical?

It’s always a tricky one, isn’t it? Do we show them the experiment, knowing that a half-dozen or so will be messing around at the back or comparing nail varnish with their friends? Or do we let them loose with glassware and clamp stands, waiting for the crashing noises or the blank looks to begin?

Okay, I’m exaggerating. A bit. But for most of us, it’s probably taking a bit of time to think about the kinds of practicals we do, and why. Are we focused enough on what the students will learn from it? Or are we doing a particular practical or demonstration because it’s in the scheme of work, or because we’ve always done it?

I’ve used among other sources David Sang and Alom Shaha’s workshop at the ASE Conference and materials from Getting Practical and SCORE Education to produce a checklist (downloadable below, simply click on the image). The focus is about the benefits of a demonstration or a class practical. It’s an easy way to think about what can be added to an activity, or ways to tweak it to improve outcomes. Simply sharing with the students what they might be trying to gain from a practical is worthwhile – although in some cases as a plenary to avoid spoiling a surprise or insight. Simply take a moment to read through the lists, and see if you can justify the activity in terms of learning. If you’re not sure, what could you change?

There’s loads of good ideas online – the National Stem Centre eLibrary is of course one place to look – and it’s often possible to convert a practical into a demo or vice versa. For example, I demonstrate heat transfer in fluids using the two chimneys apparatus and a convection square, plus hot and cold water with food colouring in gas jars, which I first saw in ‘Nina and the Neurons’. By the third demo the kids can predict and ex0plain what’s going to happen quite well. I then give them coloured ice cubes to float in water, and to predict, explain, describe and explain again (PEOE) what they see. Bonus points for a commentary that uses key ideas such as ‘density change’.

I hope this kind of reminder is useful, for experienced teachers as well as those more recently joining the profession. Feedback would be very much appreciated, as this is my 100th post and I’ve had less than 1 comment for each on average…


8 thoughts on “Demonstration or Class Practical?”

  1. Congratulations on the 100th post.

    Demonstrations vs practicals is always a tricky Conundrum and one we wrestle with at the Science Learning Centres on a regular basis. Both have their place in the classroom. In most cases it is the planning and the preparation that has the biggest effect on the outcome and whether or not the class will learn what they are meant to learn from it.

    Alom Shaha wrote a very interesting article about this in The Guardian a while back

    1. Yes – that’s where I found the link to the score education material. My main aim was to make something which would serve as a quick reference for classroom teachers without an interest in research. Thanks for commenting. . .

  2. Hi Ian

    Just exploring your blog after seeing your reference to it on PTNC. It looks really good – congratulations on 100 posts – and I hope you continue to post.

  3. Congratulations on 100 blog posts. That takes some commitment.
    I would go back to key messages from Getting Practical and Robin’s work – be absolutely clear on what you want the pupils to achieve and plan accordingly. If the pupils seeing the results and discussing them dialogically are more important than the process used to obtain the results then I would use demonstrations. However, demonstrations in biology are often of a different calibre to those in chemistry. Hence the difficulty for organisations like SCORE coming up with definitive classroom guidance.

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