Meeting 3 of the ASE Inclusive Science Education group (practical work)


The inclusive science group is made of interested educators from all phases and sectors who have an interest in teaching students who have additional support needs or special educational needs. It is organised by Rob Butler from the ASE and Jane Essex (ASE and RSC member) who both have an interest in this area of science education. Membership of this group is open to anyone, and attendance at the meetings is optional. Notes taken during the discussion will be shared with the whole group. You can join by filling in the form at

Meeting 20th April 2021

Focus – Practical work for SEND learners

The notes don’t identify the contributions from members of the group unless they specifically request to be identified.

Opening comments

Rob opened the meeting with reminders about practical work – the best practical work is purposeful and the teacher has planned for it in the sequence of learning.

A good question to consider before planning to carry out any practical activity is: What do I expect the students to learn by doing this practical task that they could not learn at all, or not so well, if they were merely told what happens? (Millar, 2002).Really effective practical activities enable students to build a bridge between what they can see and handle (hands-on) and scientific ideas that account for their observations (brains-on). Making these connections is challenging, so practical activities that make these links explicit are more likely to be successful (Millar, 2004)

Rob also reminded the group about the Gatsby Practical Science benchmarks which refers to five purposes of practical science. The report also gives suggestions for improving practical work in schools and is well worth a read.

ATo teach the principles of scientific inquiry
BTo improve understanding of theory through practical experience
CTo teach specific practical skills, such as measurement and observation, that may be useful in future study or employment
DTo motivate and engage students
ETo develop higher level skills and attributes such as communication, teamwork and perseverance

Rob also referred to the Getting Practical: a framework for practical science in schools (SCORE, 2009a) p7 from which he took the following 

These reports serve as useful reminders of the importance of practical work, not only for the teaching of science but also for contributing to the wider development of skills for our learners, especially those with SEND.

Jane asked the group “What are the successful characteristics of practical work for our SEND learners?”

  • Immediate results – SEND learners often have a reduced attention span so can struggle with some of the longer or more extended projects
  • Ones where you limit the introduction of new pieces of equipment or techniques to keep unfamiliarity to a minimum
  • The use of digital meters can help those who struggle with reading traditional equipment or those who are colour blind.  For these learners Jane suggested using an app that identifies the colour, some will even speak the name of the colour.
  • Hands-on activities with clear results
  • A fast start is key, with achievable goals in between
  • Something that can spread over several lessons
  • Something that gets a ‘wow’ or holds their attention
  • ‘Slow practicals’ where the teacher breaks the task down into smaller chunks and the groups complete the task at the same time. They can then understand each step and there is the opportunity for the teacher to direct and discuss as you go through. You can also discuss what is happening and the students can put it all together at the end. This benefits all learners – not just those with SEND. These are also referred to as ‘lockstep’ instructions by some teachers.
  • Another teacher said that some of her students struggle with written instructions. The Integrated instructions (David Paterson, RSC) helped some learners but the weaker students still got confused when using these. Her solution was to use a very structured approach with a ‘me do, you do’ approach. This allowed the students to experience success 
  • One person mentioned Bukky Yusuf from Twitter uses fold-over instructions to help students focus (or they can be use as a reveal) Link: Jane has used laminates in a similar way for students to cross off as they work through.
  • Students can worry about getting it wrong, sometimes I photograph of the equipment can reassure learners as it shows them how to set up their equipment (and some students can’t interpret a traditional line drawing)
  • One attendee used to do practical work to build up confidence without the worry of having to record results etc. The same teacher went on to use practical activities that could be revisited and improved lesson after lesson, for example designing catapults. As there were no right or wrong ways of doing things, and it was unique to each group, it allowed all groups to progress, but it took a lot more time to work in this way.

Many SEND learners value the opportunity to work in the garden or a horticulture setting. This could be as simple as planting seeds or working in the school garden. This is an approach that has been adopted by several teachers.

Students in a PRU can also lack confidence in practical work, one teacher used a step by step (demon, do, demo, do etc) in a similar way to those above to allow students to experience success and remove anxieties in these lessons.

Another attendee mentioned a project from Heathlands school for the Deaf who were funded by the RSC. They made videos of different videos, 2 pupils presented the experiment, 2 filmed and other students photographed, prompted information etc. This is all planned in advance but led by the students. When revisited a year later the students were much more confident.

Opening STEM clubs to all can be valuable, especially given the time constraints in normal curriculum lessons. Jane runs inclusive science festivals that are open ended/plan for progress but allow students to work at their own pace and develop their self-confidence and self-esteem.

Next steps

Jane told the group about plans to apply for the RSC outreach fund to pay for microscale kits, to allow students to do more investigations on a self-managed way. This is to stop students being frightened of the equipment and reagents they use, and allow learners to focus on the science.

At the next meeting we could consider what experiments or investigations would be valuable to pilot in this way. 

This was well received by the group. Rob agreed with another speaker than SEND learners can have a tendency to shovel chemicals (especially if they think there will be a more impressive reaction/bang etc)

Closing remarks

  • Jane shared a story of a previous project (some time ago) for which the authority provided funding and students made a complicated chemical product (emulsion paint) and took it home.
  • Jane asked if teachers had come across schools that don’t like students with behaviour that might prevent them from doing practical work. One teacher in a PRU said that this was less likely to happen in a smaller group.
  • Rob mentioned culture for learning is important, he had a culture of practical science. It took time to establish but the norm was to do as much practical work as possible so learners developed a love of practical work and removal from the practical work was used as a sanction (although could still stop in the room and watch in most cases) Rob did varied experiments, an example sprang to mind with modelling radioactive decay with popcorn (although it was messy) The research doesn’t always suggest that practical work is good for abstract concepts, although Rob maintains that this approach benefited his SEND learners who also showed improved behaviour so they could join in the practical work. Culture takes time to establish in the classroom whether in a school, department or for an individual teacher. 
  • Open ended investigations are squeezed out due to time constraints for many
  • One delegate made stained glass. Jane asked if it was beads of borax glass. Jane also recommended making sugar class from the Salters chemistry handbook.
  • Another participant mentioned natural indicators used in a more open-ended way
  • Jane expressed the opinion that there is much to be said for doing less and doing it better but the pressure for assessment outcomes can be very unhelpful for these learners. Someone else asked “Is it better to have covered half the curriculum in depth or all of it superficially?”
  • One delegate reported that a deaf child was excluded from practical lessons because the school felt they couldn’t do experiments. They were removed from the lesson and put in the resource centre to do extra maths and English. The group were upset to hear this and felt that it would be challengable under discrimination/equal opportunities legislation. It was only with intervention from outside the school that the situation was resolved.
  • Rob asked the group about how covid has affected practical work in their settings? Teachers have experienced difficulties troubleshooting from the front in this situation. Visualisers can be a useful tool for teachers to use in this situation.

Links from the chat:’s%20Science%20Education%20in%20BSL%20Videos%3A%20Natural%20Indicators%20%3A%202.%20%20Bluebell%20pH%20indicator/1_20necta0


Published by Rob Butler

Ex-science teacher, ex-school leader and full-time geek.