Tuesday period 2 – #LoveChemistry, #LoveSalters’, Love Investigations

imageSo this post is about practical work in science, it’s not a review of the proposed changes to GCSE practical or those already in hand for A Level. It’s just my little world of practical work as a Chemistry teacher, and it is what I will be doing on Tuesday’s period 2 for a few weeks.

There are different types of practical work in science. When I used to plan on a scheme of work, we had various codes : PP pupil class practical; PD Pupils help in a demonstration.TD Teacher demonstration. AP assessed practical. I am so old that when I did my A levels we had science practical exams. In Chemistry this was usually a titration and mostly oxalate /permanganate ( ethanodioate/Manganate VII for the younger reader). We knew what to do, I had after all done one about a dozen times. We also had some analysis to do, a so called unknown and a few simple tests, flame tests and maybe some solubility tests to show this was Potassium Sulphate ( lilac flame, ppt with Barium Chloride). BUT oh how far we have come.

Let me tell you about my Yr 13 who have done practical Investigations now since 1994 and for a good few years of them I was also a moderator for Salters’ Chemistry. They have to choose their investigation, describe it including relevant chemical ideas and then plan the methods. In recent years we have had a new mark her for the difficulty and challenge of the topic, so if they choose an experiment we have done as an activity it scores low down. Modify the practical, use ideas beyond A Level and bring in a series of other skills and you might move to 4/5. Once planned we teachers have to mark the first sets of skills: planning, communicating, researching, risk assessments, references etc. The students work very hard, they score a full range of marks but maybe at the higher end of their grades. Why? Because they are A level chemists and quite good at this. However an Investigation means testing skills they don’t otherwise have

Mr Dexter at the RSC EIC 50th. School chemistry over 50 years

image Mr Dexter at the RSC EIC 50th sharing some differences between Chemistry in 1963 vs 3013 photographs from (c) Royal Society of Chemistry

So then we get going, usually three weeks of lessons and plenty of extra time. Students pop in during their free if staff allow, they come down at lunch or after school and we sometimes do a long twilight and Pizza. They start slowly in fact the first week I always wonder if they will make it but week two sees much progress and week three I see…experts! So now they have some results and observations to report ( and score) and they can analyse them (and score) and finally they do a decent job on what I usually think is the hardest area, evaluating what they have been through – scientifically evaluating that is, not a series of moans!imageBefore you say it cannot be assessed, I disagree the Salters’ mark schemes work. They work because back in the early 90’s teachers and boards worked together. They work because there were trials and developments. They work because there were good Chemistry teachers (who will remain nameless but you know who you are, ensuring marking and moderation worked.) but mostly they worked for being well designed, well thought out and because of the reactions we saw in our students ( not chemical reactions!!)
Why do I like Investigations?

  • It does feel as if this is what proper chemists and maybe research chemists actually do. A mix of researching methods, designing an investigation, carrying it out and persevering when it doesn’t quite do as it’s told.
  • We all learn lots of Chemistry, the students, the staff, the lab technicians but most of all the students. Even those who can just about understand concentration, dissolving, diluting etc get a much clearer understanding by doing it and by doing it AND being assessed.
  • The quality of work can be amazing. I recall in the early days of moderating seeing some truly wonderful investigations, given a relatively free rein it showed just what A level Chemists could do. they were ambitious, clever and often original. I even recall showing Professor David Waddington a project he diligently read it.’ What do you think?’ I hoped he would say it was ‘very interesting’ or’ innovative’, his reply: “probably worth a first”.
  • It’s one of the few bits of assessed work students enjoy. I know they also get stressed about the marks but if they plod on they usually enjoy the experience, usually do quite well and genuinely understand chemistry better.
  • They become mini experts. When we resume ‘normal work’ and revision they can teach their peers on kinetics, on errors, on calculations etc. I often turn to them ” tell us how you solved that”, explain how you worked ‘that’out.
  • It can inspire and motivate. In my day whenever did an A Level practical, let alone an assessed one, persuade me that Chemistry was exciting or innovative or frontier, though to be fair it showed me it was very useful. I have seen young people carry out their practical project and want a rethink on their HE choices. See n many of them get to grips with this fascinating subject in new ways.
  • It builds skills, all sorts from the practicalities of problem solving through to the softer skills of perseverance (though maybe if I say ‘Character building ‘ the politicians will listen). They also work on their own not in a pair or a group but independently – hey a bit like real Chemists?
  • It is perfectly assessable. Our students get a range of marks, from many 4/5 or 5/6 right down to 2 or 3/6. That’s a tribute to a good mark scheme, fairly properly applied, internally moderated and externally moderated. Practical work vital to my subject, should and can be assessed.
  • The hardest aspect back in the early days was researching ideas and practicals, it so often depended on getting the right books or articles, but what a great opportunity to raid the ASE and RSC cupboards. Now of course we can go on the internet. AND sure I know that’s why some people feel the whole of practical work can be cheating but really – have you ever met Chemicals?
  • No one gets a practice. You can’t do a four week project twice, you can’t rehearse, you can’t spend weeks researching and planning and then change your mind. It’s a good test!

imageAnd if Investigations ( let alone practical work) disappear?

I, for one , will be sad, I can’t think any other assessment building skills, showing off Chemistry, motivating and contributing to the student learning experience. ( although I do know learning for an ordinary test or exam does concentrate the mind). Maybe we can still do them, say the end of Y12 (Oh No) the skills won’t be quite so well developed and hey the AS is gone or going or something. Maybe we can do a mini project (Oh No)– you need four weeks, is there really that much spare time or are we refilled with extra content in the new world? Maybe there is after school, the Chemistry club – Oh No – how disappointing that something which should be done in lessons is reduced to ‘after school’ or ‘ in the holidays’.

If you are an examiner, assesor, moderator reading this, don’t worry we Chemistry teachers will make whatever yuou give us work, its what we do, but me, I am still allowed to mourn.

I never did an Investigation when I was at school, and it never did me any harm. I didn’t do one in my three years as an undergraduate maybe that didn’t do me any harm, but I did a part II whole year of research which I adored. That was back in the day without the resources we have now, I think I’ll just be that sad old Chemistry teacher…..”oh in my day”

My plea, please don’t throw out the baby with the waterbathimage

You might like to read other posts from my timetable of teaching – each is set out from lesson in the school week, before or after school or at the weekends, appropriate to the time of day. I have also started a  class lists or “set lists” which was to answer the questions: “why be a teacher?”or “why have other responsibilities in a school?” Shortly I am starting a new area about progress from one role or experience in teaching to another with hints and tips about successfully moving on in the job and your teaching career.


2 thoughts on “Tuesday period 2 – #LoveChemistry, #LoveSalters’, Love Investigations

    • One of the great heroes of Chemistry teaching honours my post. Thank you David – means a lot and a reminder when teachers like us had enough influence to bring about some positive changes to curr development thanks to the Pilling & Holman and Waddington era at York.
      My very best wishes to you Sir!


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