On Not Learning One's Trade

Something in HE deeply worries me at the moment. In fact, something in education in the UK in general worries me - a lack of hands-on, practical education in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). This issue seems to prevail right from junior school through to HE and as an HE-based educator, I can see the effects of a lack of a practical education every day - students don't have the bench skills they used to come to university with, in my view, and I believe it's down to the removal of rigorous practical education. I want to get my views out on this subject as I know a lot of colleagues in HE in the UK feel the same way and it's starting to hit the headlines, slowly but surely, and it's not something we can hold back on - we have to keep stating this and hoping that changes get made from junior school to HE and everything in between.

When I did my A-levels, we had practical examinations for Chemistry and a research-based practical project for Biology. In the former, we had to identify unknown organic compounds in terms of if they were carboxylate, ketone, alcohol and so on and then if it was primary or secondary and so on. For Biology we spent several weeks worth of lesson time soaking potato cores in a range of solutions and measuring them and then looking at sections by light microscopy to identify what level of plasmolysis was going on. It was hard work - the exam was stressful (not least because one of my peers managed to snap a volumetric pipette and jam the broken bulb into the side of his throat and had to be carted off to hospital halfway through!), the project was hard work but given that I can remember the details of it two decades later, it must've all stuck - and it did. There is enormous value in experiential learning for all stages of education and in every subject. There is also huge value in ensuring everything we teach has some level of alignment with what employers need - essays are something only used in education as an arcane and abstract concept - sure, they have their uses in assessment but do they have any other value? Is there a value to the student?

In my field, the writing style of an essay isn't the kind of writing used in writing a journal article, a blog article, a monograph, a consultancy report, a SWAT analysis or any of other myriad of other things that an employer might actually want someone to be able to do. Why aren't we, therefore, assessing more often using real-world assessment methods? Some educators do it - for example, I've completely replaced all laboratory reports in my educational practice with journal manuscripts and essays with blog articles aimed at different demographics or consultancy reports on more applied subjects. Many of my colleagues do the same but it's not a paradigm shift that seems to be happening very fast across the sector. In an era in which employability is an enormously important metric, why aren't we helping out students to become more employable by training them in transferable skills they can actually use once they finish their education, whatever the level? It may not help them get a job per se but it might help them progress if they can hit the ground running.

Aside from the use of the essay and other arcane assessment methods, I don't understand why we're allowing practical education to be removed on the grounds of cost/space/etc. It's happening widely and it has been for >10 years now and it's now reaching a pinch point. This week I have seen an article on the BBC website about concerns over the lack of practical education in STEM subjects in schools, along with an article in the Times Higher about how unhappy students in HE are about lack of contact-hours - the bulk of cuts in this area in my field in the last decade being in practical areas - so it's clearly becoming a wider issue. As an example, when I read Chemistry at university, as a first year, you got 0900-1700h solid practicals Thu and Fri of every week in both semesters. In the second year, you got 0900-1700h solid practicals Mon and Tue, similar. This amounted to over 380h practical education per year. In the current QAA credit hour guidelines, a bog-standard 20-credit module (we didn't have credits of this type at my university - we worked in course-units) requires 200h total study on the students' part. Our >380h of practicals supported all of our modules that were practical, so about 4 x 20cr in the newer systems, which would amount to 800h study from the student - so about 50% of that time was practical education. That would these days be nigh on impossible - more students and less cash makes it hard to run such practicals - labs aren't big enough to do it and repeat-practicals aren't the best thing in the world (speaking as someone who did 16 repeats for one practical in the last month, alongside all of the rest I teach!).

So what can we do? The common solutions mooted about are to use technology-enhanced learning (TEL) and virtual learning environments to fill the void. I like the idea...it's certainly a very useful way to make lab teaching more efficient ("Watch this video on Gram staining first so you know how to do the technique before you arrive and then you can re-watch it if you need to during the practical") but they can't replace the hands-on nature of science - you can learn a lot from a good Figure in a book or a good video but you don't learn anatomy without getting your hands inside a dogfish or a rat or a person. You don't learn your trade without getting your hands dirty and this is clearly an area we should be adding to our programmes, not removing from them...the question really is how? Without all HE institutions getting more staff, more lab space and an enormous investment in STEM, we could end up with 'scientist' graduates who have yet to actually learn their trade and require almost mandatory M.Sc teaching to top up the gap before they can get a practical-job - if we did this, we're just moving the problem. We need to address the practical issue in B.Sc teaching by ensuring we add not remove practical education.

We also need to address the fact that the lack of STEM practicals in schools means we have undergraduates across the UK who have Chemistry and/or Biology A-level to whom mole calculations, serial dilutions, dissection, logs, log paper, rearranging equations and so on are almost alien - often, they have been covered at some point but forgotten as they weren't used. These are not concepts a student "needs to know" (for exam passing), they are things a student "needs to understand" as part of learning their trade as a scientist. In all levels of education in the UK, we have to ensure that understanding is gained.

Oh and while I'm on my soapbox, I find articles like this one a bit insulting - both to academics and students - we don't need to perform the Royal Variety Performance to hold an audience and keep the students interested and awake - it can be done in a standard lecture - flipped classrooms and so on have their uses but so do lectures - they're perfectly valid and useful. If you think a lecturer stands at the front and orates from behind a lectern whilst the audience falls asleep then you must've seen some bad examples - often it can be a very effective form of educating that can work in both directions without the need to "flip the classroom" and so on. Again, it's about learning one's trade and knowing one's audience. There is no one-size-fits-all teaching method that works for all students, all academics OR all students - no one method is "better" than others in my view - especially as one can't perform real controlled experiments in such areas to really test what is truly optimal - but my feeling is that different cohorts and different academics using the same method would get different results - if the flipped classroom were used as widely as lectures, it would probably be found to have failings - at present it's much of an unknown quantity - we simply haven't used it enough in UK HE to be able to really know the effects - and we probably need to - but we also need to make sure lectures are dynamic and interesting as it is - at present there are good and bad points to them but it's largely down to who's delivering them - as years of student feedback forms probably attest - it's not the technique, it's the person using it.