Opinion: The most memorable part of biology for students are experiments, but when they're asked about their understanding of the concept that underpins the experiment, most don’t know.

The most popular subject that students choose to study at Leaving Cert level is biology. As part of the curriculum, there are 22 mandatory practical activities that are assessed by a written exam at the end of the two-year senior cycle.

Research into how practical work is conducted indicates that it is generally taught by a 'recipe method' where students follow a list of instructions to produce a predetermined result.

If you ask students what they remember from doing experiments, a common response involves experiments that produced a loud bang or flash, where there was some kind of unusual smell or if there was a ‘gore’ factor. Outside of this, it is hard to recollect much of the practical work that was done.

Yet if you ask students what they like most about doing science, the majority will say experiments; many answering that it is because they don’t have to sit and listen to the teacher (some teachers also recognised this as a reason why students like doing practical work!).

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What has become apparent is that students are happy to do practical work because it is a change from the routine of being in the classroom. They get to work with their friends, to move around and chat, and all they have to do is follow the instructions, produce the phenomenon and write up the recipe. Simple.

So what’s the problem?

Most students can tell you what they did with the materials and equipment in an experiment, but if you ask them about their understanding of the concept that underpins the experiment, most don’t know. Their hands are on the work they're doing, but their minds aren't.

This has been widely reported in international research journals for decades now and yet we still persist in following the recipe in teaching labs at second and third-level. Early indications from my research in Ireland show that there is no scientific enquiry at all in Senior Cycle biology - much of the practical work done is just busy work in the way it is taught.

If you read the Leaving Cert syllabus documents, you will see that it was never the intention that teaching experiments would be conducted in this way. In fact, it's recommended that the scientific method of enquiry be taught to students and that the practical work should not be confined to just 22 experiments.

In reality, what has happened is that the first chapter in most biology books is about the scientific method of enquiry. That is generally the only time that students hear about it as it is not incorporated into the practical work that they do.

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How did it come to be that teaching experiments has been distilled down in this way? If you ask teachers, they will all tell you that there is no enquiry at Senior Cycle, and that there is no point in learning though enquiry because students don’t get any points for this.

It is partly a case of the assessment tail wagging the practical work dog, and you can’t blame teachers for this. At the end of the day, teachers do their best to ensure that their students do well in the Leaving Cert as that is their job. The juggernaut that is the Leaving Cert doesn’t allow space for experimenting with enquiry.

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Or does it? I would like to find out if it is possible to disrupt the recipe style of teaching that persists in our classrooms. I am collaborating with a team of teachers who have allowed me into their classrooms to observe their lessons.

We are working together to design a framework for teaching practical work that can be used, even within the constraints of the Leaving Cert, to develop learning through scientific enquiry in the classroom. The aim is to get students hands and minds on the work they are doing.

It would be so beneficial if we could move students away from blindly following a set list of instructions to a place where thinking, questioning, analysing and collaborating become standard practice.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ