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.