Cookbook Labs

In a recent post, Nicholas J lamented the requirement of the use of “humdrum labs” in his AP Chemistry class that have “shockingly predictable results.”

Nicholas J is not alone.  From the drafters of the Iowa Model Core:

The depth of understanding required of our students is not possible with lectures, readings, cookbook labs, and plug-and-chug problem solving. Students must be actively investigating: designing experiments, observing, questioning, exploring, making and testing hypotheses, making and comparing predictions, evaluating data, and communicating and defending conclusions.

Because of the Blogathon and, mostly, because the certainty of the phrase not possible is provocative, I offer this defense of the cookbook lab.

Father M liked to issue frequent grim reminders to us that “physics is fun,” while Mr. G chose to impress us early on with the dangers–eyewash station and emergency shower kind of dangers–inherent in the chemistry lab.

He wowed us with the sodium in water demonstration then warned us with the cautionary tale of the boy who tried to sneak sodium out of the chemistry lab only to burn a hole in his pants when he started to sweat.


In retrospect, I think that high school chemistry teachers must be made of stern stuff to venture into the laboratory with novice chemists year after year.

Cookbook labs provide students the opportunity to develop technical laboratory skills: how to measure with precision, how to work with laboratory glassware, and how to work with an open flame without lighting your sleeve on fire or singeing your hair.

Cookbook labs provide students with the opportunity to develop scientific habits: starting with a hypothesis, working with care and precision, making and recording observations, and writing lab reports.  In other words, the opportunity to do everything on the Model Core list except designing.

As a practical matter, the true virtue of a cookbook lab is that it can be reliably completed within the time allotted with predictable results.  That is to say, that the predictability of the cookbook lab is a virtue.

Why would that be so?

In The War Against Grammar (blogged about previously in this post), David Mulroy writes:

There is something to be said for hard-nosed formal instruction–for rote learning.  Knowing specified rules and definitions gives students autonomy.  When they are right, they are right.  They do not have to rely on a teacher’s subjective approval.

I think cookbook labs provide students of science a measure of autonomy too.  They can prove to themselves, through achieving the predicted results, that the things they have learned about the chemical properties of the elements and chemical reactions (or laws of physics for that matter) are true–not because their teacher or the textbook said so–but because they have been able to replicate the predicted results and observe it for themselves.

Keep in mind, this is how real scientists work too.  Advances in scientific knowledge are not accepted until the findings can be reliably replicated by someone else.


8 thoughts on “Cookbook Labs

  1. Chris Liebig

    Interesting. I can see what you’re saying, but it seems like a little bit of that would go a long way. On the other hand, I’m having a hard time visualizing the “actively investigating” that the standards describe. It’s not like hundreds of thousands of high-school students are going to be embarking on original research in these chemistry labs. What exactly is it that the students are supposed to do?

    I remember having a similar feeling about the various “thesis” requirements I experienced in college and law school. It was like they wanted us to pretend to be scholars, but of course there is no way that hundreds of thousands of college students or law students were going to come up with ideas for academic papers that hadn’t already been researched and analyzed by others. Genuine contributions to scholarship can only come from someone who has spent years reviewing the existing literature. Sometimes it seemed that they were after some ersatz version of that — again, proving something that had almost certainly been proven by someone else before, but in a way that didn’t just cite the previous work and then say The End.

    1. Karen W Post author

      I think the students are supposed to design their own labs that will reliably produce the predicted results without the benefit of the experience of the people who wrote the hated cookbook labs?

      “Genuine contributions to scholarship can only come from someone who has spent years reviewing the existing literature.”

      I absolutely agree with this but I think this proposition has been rejected by some significant number of K-12 educators–both in terms of scholarship but also in the sense that becoming an expert in something might require years of study and experience. Why do engineers need years of university level course work when junior high students armed with boxes of spaghetti can do their jobs?

    2. Shawn Cornally

      I think I can help with the investigating confusion. First of all, yes high schoolers can and will do original work. I’d really caution you against the idea that knowing a lot of stuff is the precursor to asking a good question, it certainly can help in some situations though, I’ll give you that.

      Perhaps the coupled-inquiry model would be of help in describing how this works? I bring it up, because I do it everyday with my students.

      Good luck, and you guys might want to avoid the Ayn Rand-type comments.

      1. Karen W Post author

        Shawn–I’m a proponent of Montessori education. I get the coupled-inquiry model you are describing. But I also understand that Montessori teachers have flexibility with time and curriculum that most other teachers don’t. Montessori teachers have three years to get through the science curriculum and have three hour work periods. They have time for guided inquiry. And if students get into an experiment and want to follow up with variations of their own, all other subjects can wait or be tied into the experiments.

        Most teachers don’t have that kind of flexibility. My teacher met with us daily for 50 minute periods. If we were going to get through the material, we needed labs that could reliably be set up, completed, and cleaned up within fifty minutes. So, I guess I think that the Model Core statement is false–students can learn under those circumstances–and that it is unfair to teachers using the “cookbook” labs– that can be reliably conducted within the time they have available–to suggest that their students can’t possibly be learning anything.

  2. Luann Lee

    The scientists who came up with the concepts demonstrated in a “cookbook lab” had to actually see, experience, measure, and interpret what they saw in order to grasp the concept. Sometimes, our students need to do the same. Sometimes, they understand if we just tell them what someone else found. Not very often, in my experience. Inquiry, engineering design, creativity are all very important in our children’s learning. In science, however, you first have to know something, or you’re taking the slow boat to the re-invention of the wheel.

  3. Chris Liebig

    Shawn — Thanks for the link. I guess when I think about this topic, I try to imagine how I would go about learning chemistry, or learning the scientific method, if I decided to pursue it as an adult. (God knows I remember almost nothing about chemistry from my school days.) I know not everyone learns in the same way, but I don’t think that’s a bad way to frame the question. I don’t have a strong immediate opinion about what my answer would be, but my initial reaction is that I wouldn’t think to spend a whole lot of time re-enacting experiments, or even executing my own (possibly “guided”) experiments, in a lab. It still strikes me as kind of a play-acting exercise. I guess I start with the idea that, at least for me, reading about a topic is an awfully efficient way to learn about it. But I do think that everyone learns differently.

    But you’re losing me with the Ayn Rand reference. What comment are you referring to?

  4. Dr. Trace Pickering

    If Montessori is one of the best ways to learn [and I believe it is] then perhaps we should be helping our community confront their assumptions about school so that all education can be Montessori-like. That common-core standard shares our interest in higher-engagement and inquiry in school but is often sub-optimized by a lack of understanding about how school is designed to do quite the opposite, forcing teachers to do things that are less powerful and more constrained. School is expressly designed to sort-and-select kids based on an industrial-age model meeting the needs of an industrial-age world. A part of this is artificially separating subjects into disciplines and organizing learning into 50 minute segments. If we want Montessori like experiences for all kids, then let’s figure out how to design schools to allow such things to happen. Here’s an excerpt from a book called Turning Learning Right Side Up that is an interesting read around this topic:

    Thanks for your on-going posts about a variety of education issues. Perhaps you might enjoy stepping in for a bit for this which is happening right in your backyard!

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