No alternative to practicals

Published: March 13, 2018
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

Talking of facts, there is an increasing number of students in the country who opt for O’ and A’ level exams compared to the national system. The reasons for this are myriad and beyond the article’s scope. Second, there are a significantly higher number of students who choose to pursue science compared to arts or humanities. Third, there is broad agreement among experts in education that we can do more in terms of fostering creativity, independence in thought and problem-solving skills.

Now overlay these facts on the latest trend in O’ and A’ level sciences where, instead of doing actual experiments, most schools only offer ‘ATP’ or ‘alternative to practicals’ approach. The idea for ATP is that students learn about the instruments and methods, but instead of doing actual experiments they analyse the data of hypothetical experiments. To be clear, this is not a trend started by Pakistanis but a method sanctioned and embraced by the Cambridge International Examination Board. ATP is used widely in the country and many students who appear for the O’ and A’ level exams end up learning about experimental skills only from textbooks, videos and previous exams. For a country like Pakistan, with the challenges that we face in our education system, this is a disastrous recipe.

First, doing experiments is more than just measurement and analysis. It is also about setting up the right experiment, which is about creativity and imagination. It is about learning how to do the experiment to answer the question, to pursue the unknown and to validate a hypothesis. A sheet with numbers that only asks you to compute the error or identify the right method neither fosters creativity nor creates the necessary lab skills.

Second, doing experiments is also about learning from failure, identifying the errors and coming up with new methods. Any experimentalist would tell you that more often than not experiments fail, but it is in that failure that new knowledge is uncovered and the errors of one’s approach fixed. Any alternative to actually doing, and failing, takes away our richest opportunity to learn.

Third, experiments are also about inspiration. The chance to see something change colour upon a reaction, get a peek into the structure of a cell or setting up one’s first circuit are memories of a lifetime. Robbing the students of that moment is neither prudent nor just. Then there is the issue of gaming the system. Theoretical knowledge alone opens the window for cramming, rote learning and focusing on previous exams.

Finally, there is evidence from literature, (e.g. the work by Ian Hughes from Leeds University) suggesting that students who use these alternative methods are not better off in performing experimental analysis or statistics. In fact, it was found later, students who learned by doing actual experiments did significantly better on understanding the instrumentation and practical aspects than those who learned only the theoretical concepts.

In my own experience mentoring students in the lab for over a decade, I have found that students, who come from learning by doing, and learning through failure, tend to perform significantly better than those who learn through ATP. The ones who have done experiments in the lab in high school tend to be methodical, cognisant of lab safety, and are far more creative than their peers. Ultimately, the ones who had done experiments outperform those who hadn’t.

The main argument by the schools supporting ATP in Pakistan is that of costs. But that argument is also hypocritical since most schools that offer ATP are for profit and money. The parents, as a group, need to stand up to schools that rob the brilliant young boys and girls of the opportunity of becoming scientists. They need to recognise that when it comes to knowledge, learning and intellectual development, there is no alternative to practicals.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 13th, 2018.

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