A CRITICAL APPRAISAL OF THE ROLE OF LABORATORY
PRACTICAL WORK IN SCIENCE TEACHING IN
ISAAC OLAKANMI ABIMBOLA
The purpose of this paper is to sensitize science teachers and educators on the need to rethink the traditional role usually accorded laboratory practical work in science teaching. The historical evolution of the use of laboratory work in science teaching it-as traced to the early scientists. Then, the paper examined how the laboratory method first found favour with some science educators and how others later experienced disillusionment. Some initial suggestions were made that could replace or minimize the use of the laboratory method of teaching science.
The use of the laboratory method of teaching science has become a dogma among science educators and teachers. On the one hand, they extolled the importance of the use of the laboratory method in science teaching while on the other hand, they only pay "lip service" to its use in practice. Science teachers do not usually find it convenient to make laboratory work the centre of their instruction. They usually complain of lack of materials and equipment to carry out practical work. At the same time, it is possible that some of these materials and equipment may be locked up in the school laboratory store without teachers being aware of their existence. The conditions under which many teachers function do not engender any enthusiasm to use the laboratory method of teaching science even where they know that these materials and equipment are available. Class size in urban schools is getting larger and this does not usually encourage teachers to use the laboratory method to teach science. In some states of the country, teachers go for months without salary owing to shortage of funds. Science teachers who fall in this category cannot reasonably be expected to give off their best to their students.
Such governments see, to have given up on their capacity to equip all school laboratories. They have therefore resorted to designating selected schools as "science schools" that they equipped with their meager resources. They usually used the traditional help received from the Federal Government in equipping school laboratories for these science schools. The condition of the national economy continues to deteriorate without any sign of improvement in sight. Is it not time to get realistic with our science teaching? I think it is high time we started.
The purpose of this paper is to sensitize science teachers on the need to look for alternatives to the traditional laboratory method of teaching science. First, I traced the historical evolution of the use of laboratory work in science to the early scientists' use of the experimental method. Second, I searched for answers to the question of why science educators think that the laboratory method should take a centre stage in science teaching. Third, I then provided evidences to illustrate, what I consider, a quiet disillusionment among some science educators concerning the role of laboratory work in science teaching. Fourth, I affirmed that the disillusionment is real. Then, I made some suggestions that could free science teachers and examination bodies from the dogma of laboratory work.
Origins of Experimental Science
The use of laboratory method in science teaching originated from the ideas of early scientists. The l7th Century is very significant in this respect. Mendelson (1982) has characterized the Century as the century of "The Scientific Revolution." This characterization is so because, according to Westfall (1971), "it was in the 17th Century that the experimental method... became a widely employed tool of scientific investigation" (p.115). The general feeling of disillusionment among scientists with earlier methods precipitated this trend. (Butterfield, 1957; Westfall, 1971). The feeling of disillusionment had to do with results of scientific investigations that did not match the efforts put into them. The scientists of the time blamed the method of conducting science, for the low output.
it was in the 17th Century that scientists paid the greatest attention to the
scientific method that led to a revolution in science. The sheer number of
persons that paid attention to method then indicated the need for an acceptable
method of conducting science. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was perhaps the first
in the 17th Century to formulate a series of steps to account for the
scientific method in his hook Novum organum (The New Instruments, 1620),
(Taylor, 1963). The book was a reaction to Aristotle's treatise in logic
referred to as Organum. Bacon based his method on the inductive method of
objective observation and experimentation without any preconceptions. Rene Descartes'
(1569-1650) Discourse on Method based on mathematical reasoning and deduction
closely followed Bacon's book. Westfall (1971) has credited Robert Boyle with
perhaps the best statement of the experimental method that focused on "the
activity of investigation that distinguishes the experimental method of modern
science from logic" (p. 115). Pascal, Gassendi, and
Importance of Science Practical Work
Shulman and Tamir's (1973) review of research on science teaching, they
identified three rationales generally advanced by those that supported the use
of the laboratory in science teaching. The rationales included: (1) The subject
matter of science is highly complex and abstract, (2) Students need to
participate in enquiry to appreciate the spirit and methods of science, and (3)
Practical work is intrinsically interesting to students. Shulman and Tamir also
compiled a list of objectives of using laboratory work in science teaching. The
list included the teaching and learning of skills, concepts, attitudes,
cognitive abilities, and understanding the nature of science. Also, there is
hardly any science method's book that does not usually list the objectives of
science laboratory work (see, Abdullahi, 1982; Collette & Chiappetta, 1984).
All science curricula in
dogma about the importance of laboratory work originated from the views of a few
American educationists in the early sixties that extolled the importance of
laboratory work in science teaching. Notable among these personalities are
Bruner (1961), Gagne’ (1963), and Schwab (1960), They all extolled the virtues
of teaching science as a process of inquiry or discovery. Before them, Dewey
(1938) advocated learning by doing through his "project method" that
he considered as a method of organizing the school curriculum on a scientific
basis. Another American, Charles Pierce (Peirce, 1877, 1958) who advocated the
use of the method of science as a mode of inquiry to satisfy our doubts, in
turn, influenced him. The ultimate goal of these advocates of practical work
was to train students in the ways of practising scientists so that students could
become good scientists in the future. The surprise by which the former
Doubts About the Importance of Laboratory Work
Research into the role of laboratory work in science teaching has a long history. Blosser (1981) put the beginning date at the 1930's. These research efforts into the role of laboratory work in science teaching reached, their peak in the 1960's and 1970's during the curriculum development years. Abimbola (1981), Bates (1978). Blosser (1981, 1983), and Shulman and Tamir (1973) carried out reviews of research in this area. All of them concluded that science education researchers failed to provide conclusive evidence to support the view that using the laboratory method of teaching science is superior to other methods, at least, as measured by paper and pencil achievement tests. This conclusion is perhaps what prompted Leonard (1981) to exclaim that "Laboratory instruction is on trial" (p.445)- Also, the 1980-81 Board of Directors of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) in the U-S- recognized that there were widespread doubts about the importance of the laboratory in the seventies (Klein. Yager. & McCurdy, 1982), The Board thereafter put out a position statement in support of laboratory method of teaching science as follows:
The National Science Teachers Association endorses the necessity of laboratory experiences for teaching and learning in science. Adequate support for materials, equipment, and teacher time is available for schools to maintain quality science instruction. Such a quality program is critical in today's age of science and technology (Klein, Yager, & McCurdy, 1982, p.20. (emphasis in original)
Also, the Board commissioned various persons to write position statements to support the use of laboratory work at different levels of education and all the position statements appeared in one issue of The Science Teacher 49(2), 20-23. For instance. Tafel (1982) wrote for the Middle/junior School; Perez (1982) wrote for the high school; Bybee (1982) wrote for the "Basics" movement; Lunetta (1982) wrote from the curriculum perspective; Hurd (1982) wrote from the teaching perspective and Bates (1982) wrote from the research perspective.
The purpose of this section is to briefly provide examples of conclusions from the reviews mentioned above, part of which generated the reactions of the Board of Directors of the NSTA. For instance, in Abimbola's (1981) review of conceptions of discovery in science held by educators and philosophers of science, he concluded that the conceptions of discovery in science held by major schools of philosophy of science then, did not influence the "teaching by discovery" and "discovery learning" slogans. According to him, "the studies reviewed provided little elucidation about the efficacy of the discovery method of teaching and learning (p. 103). The discovery method of teaching and learning has as its main focus, the use of laboratory work in science teaching and learning.
Bates (1978), too, in a review of the role of the laboratory in secondary school science programs, concluded that despite seventy five years of studies in this area, the consistent conclusion is that "laboratory experiences neither help nor hinder student achievement - at least as measured by standard paper and pencil tests of subject matter" (p.68). Specifically, he found, among other things, that "lecture, demonstration, and laboratory teaching methods appear equally effective in transmitting science content" (p.74). Nonetheless, he found laboratory experiences to be "superior for providing students' skills in working with equipment" (p.74) and in maintaining students' interest in science. These are important objectives to achieve in science teaching and learning. However, how many of the skills acquired from laboratory work do students use in real life situations? Put differently, how does the lack of possession of these skills adversely affect the functioning of individuals in their daily life activities?
Shulman and Tamir (1973) upheld some of Yager, Englen, & Snider's (1969) conclusions about the need to question the central role of the laboratory in science teaching. They thought that science teachers could obtain desirable learning outcomes with limited laboratory experiences. Also, they concluded that, a verbal, non-laboratory approach might be best for some teachers and students. Some students may find laboratory activity a sheer waste of their time. They finally emphasized the need to structure some new courses that would deemphasize laboratory work without de-emphasizing the nature of science. We can achieve this restructuring of courses by giving equitable attention to the teaching of science concepts and principles, science process skills, and scientific attitudes without over emphasizing one over the others that was the case in the science programmes of the sixties and seventies. All this goes to show that the disillusionment is real.
any case, studies in
Alternatives to Laboratory Work
Continuing to accord a central role to laboratory work in science teaching does not seem reasonable and feasible any more in the developing countries. I therefore intend to explore some alternatives to laboratory work for science teaching. Teachers that cannot do away with laboratory work can record on video tape well-planned demonstration experiments that they can later show to their students at appropriate times, Modern day secondary school students are likely to enjoy watching a video recording than carrying out laboratory work. This practice would save teachers and administrators some money and effort because it requires a one-time investment of money without further expenses on many consumable items.
Most traditional laboratory activities are gradually being banned in the developed countries either because of their health hazards or because of special interest groups. For example, animal dissection that used to be the core of biological experiments is gradually being phased out because of the influence of animal right activists, despite the spirited defence of animal use in the guidelines issued by the National Association of Biology Teachers (1980). The introductory statement of the guidelines goes thus: "Living things are the subject of biology and their direct study is an appropriate and necessary pan of biology teaching" (p.426). Computer simulations of dissection experiments are gradually becoming popular with schools. Interactive computer activities are gradually replacing laboratory experiments, thanks to the evolution of multimedia computer programs. Computer programs are also available for problem-solving exercises in the major sciences. The acquisition of computers by schools requires a one-time investment of money. The computers are also useful for other purposes apart from being used as an alternative to actual practical work. Computer simulations can only approximate the real feeling of working with live animals. However, for the knowledge gained by students from such an activity, the difference between the two activities is not likely to be significant.
The West African Examinations Council has already tried the "alternative to practical" form of examination with the Ordinary Level G.C.E., without many complaints. This form of examination requires candidates to answer questions on laboratory practical work off hand without having to do any laboratory work involving concrete specimens. This form of examination has not only saved the Council much money on the administration of laboratory practical examinations, it has also saved it time and effort usually expended on such examinations. Since most science teachers teach most practical lessons by the lecture method, they can go an additional step by examining their students using an "alternative to practical" method. My proposal is that if students listened and understood the teacher's lesson, they should be able to pass such examinations very well. The West African Examinations Council could therefore extend its "alternative to practical" examination method to all its otherwise laboratory practical-based examinations.
Bloom (1956) has said that most of the subject matter content of most disciplines is informational. That is, the content involves the teaching and learning of basic concepts, laws and theories related to that discipline. The objective stated for any unit of instruction has been found to be generally in the ratio of the cognitive domain, 50%; the psychomotor domain, 25% and the affective domain 25%. If this proportion is so, and if students are able to master the cognitive component of their lessons, it should have transfer value on the affective and psychomotor domains. Abimbola & Danmole (1995) have recommended the use of content analysis method by concept maps to help students to understand the conceptual knowledge in science. Abimbola (1996) has also recommended the use of concept maps in constructing some of the items in nationally conducted examinations. Since teachers use some laboratory activities in science to elucidate what they had taught in science classes, if their students can achieve proper understanding of concepts and principles by using concept maps or other means, will the same goal of elucidation not have been achieved in a cheaper and perhaps, more effective way?
I have attempted in this paper to take a critical look at the traditional importance usually associated with the use of laboratory %work in science teaching and to question whether the status quo should continue. First, I traced the origin of laboratory work to the 16th Century and how it blossomed in the 17th Century thereby causing a scientific revolution. Second. I provided information on why educators, and science educators, in particular, usually think that laboratory work is crucial in the teaching and learning of science. Third, I provided evidences that I thought caused some science educators to doubt whether the usual importance ascribed to laboratory work in science teaching is not misplaced. The assertions of importance do not carry corresponding evidential support- In fact, results of some of the studies seemed to suggest that the use of laboratory work in science teaching did not make much difference in students' learning outcomes. Finally, I made some preliminary suggestions about what science teachers could use in place of laboratory work that would still preserve the nature of science and improve students' achievement in science.
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Dr. I. O. Abimbola is
a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Curriculum studies and Educational
Technology, University of Ilorin,
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