Foxrock, Dublin 18
Roll number: 60240J
Date of issue of report: 21 June 2007
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Loreto College. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Biology and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of the subject in the school. The evaluation was conducted over one day during which the inspector visited classrooms and observed teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with students and teachers, examined students’ work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and subject teachers. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
Biology is the most popular Leaving Certificate science subject in this school and the majority of students take Biology as an examination subject for Leaving Certificate. In general, four or five biology class groups are scheduled each year. The high numbers choosing Biology is supported by a number of factors including the fact that all students study Science as a core subject for Junior Certificate. In addition, students interested in studying Biology at Leaving Certificate have the opportunity to sample the subject during Transition Year (TY) in which there is a distinct Biology module. Most students of the school follow the TY programme. Students are appropriately advised on their subject options for Leaving Certificate and they receive guidance from the career guidance teacher. A promotional video on careers in Biology is also used with TY students to encourage them to consider the subject. Additional support is given to the subject in the option blocks as Biology appears in each option line allowing enhanced access to the subject. Biology is also effectively promoted during TY. Students taking this option are responsible for maintaining the school’s science notice board, and part of their work in the Biology module is to use the notice board to promote topical biological issues affecting their peers.
There is a maximum of twenty-four students in each class group. All class groups are mixed ability in nature. Good practice is evident in the retention of the same teacher with class groups as they progress through senior cycle. There are four teachers of Biology with qualifications in this subject area. Each biology teacher teaches both TY Biology and Leaving Certificate Biology. Teachers are assigned to these groups on a rotational basis.
There are three laboratories in the school, one of which is dedicated as a biology laboratory with the others dedicated to Physics and Chemistry. Each laboratory is also used for junior Science. In addition, the demonstration room is located adjacent to the biology laboratory and this is used for lessons in the sciences. These facilities are very well-maintained, working laboratories with practical work on-going throughout the school day. The biology laboratory provides a stimulating learning environment with many colourful up-to-date biological charts and an array of student project work on display. The projects displayed are varied and represent research into broader areas of Biology that will be beneficial to the appreciation of contemporary issues.
Teaching resources present in the biology laboratory include a computer with data projector, audio-visual equipment and overhead projectors. The computer in the biology laboratory contains a vast array of files on topics from the syllabus including many presentations and visual resources. It is planned to network all of the school’s computers which would allow enhanced access to these files from any location, not just the biology laboratory and this is recommended. Internet access is not presently available in the biology laboratory and management are urged to consider supplying this as an additional support to teaching and learning. However, internet access is available on the six computers in the staff room and teachers of Biology make use of this in their lesson preparation. ICT facilities are further enhanced by the schools’ specialised multi-media room with interactive white board, which can, on arrangement, be used with any class group. The school’s ICT co-ordinator is also available as a valuable source of support for biology teachers.
The timetable arrangements for biology classes meet syllabus requirements. All biology class groups are scheduled to have five class periods per week including one double period. All lessons with double periods are scheduled to take place in a laboratory. However, not all classes have access to the biology laboratory for the double period lesson and some biology practical work is undertaken in the adjacent Physics laboratory. Materials for practical work are easily transferred to the other laboratory. Teachers also occasionally rotate laboratories to facilitate access to a particular laboratory. Given the popularity of Biology as a senior cycle subject and the requirement for mandatory practical activities, the school is considering the development of a second biology laboratory bringing the number of laboratories to four.
Continuous Professional Development (CPD) is afforded high priority by biology teachers and it is also strongly supported by management. In-school CPD on a range of educational issues takes place during the school year, including the area of school development planning. All biology teachers have attended inservice training in the revised syllabus. School management supports teacher membership of the Irish Science Teachers’ Association and the board of management supports teachers in the pursuit of further education and training. Some biology teachers attend cluster meetings of the Biology Support Service (BSS) in the local education centre and are actively involved in designing resource materials for use with the syllabus. Such material is then shared with all biology teachers nationally. This is of immense value to individual professional development and such participation is highly commended. Teachers report that participation in this activity provides a great source of useful ideas for teaching Biology.
The overall aims for the teaching of Biology within the school are linked to the school’s mission statement as well as to the aims and objectives of the biology syllabus. The aims of the biology plan include the development of an enabling learning environment and the provision of modern and varied learning experiences for the students. These are valid and worthy aims. Since 2004, it has been an aim of the biology department to raise the profile of the subject and to build a positive attitude towards Biology in the school. Eight targets have been laid down to achieve this aim over a three-year period. These targets include organising science lectures/activities for each year group annually and increasing the use of ICT in teaching and learning. Evidence gathered during the inspection suggests that the biology department has achieved very good success in each of the target areas and is to be highly commended for the approach taken in this regard.
An extensive subject department plan for Biology has been developed. The plan includes provision for a range of issues that affect the teaching and learning in Biology. Of particular significance are the sections on methods of assessment, the agreed homework policy for the sciences, and approaches to aid students with certain types of Special Educational Needs (SEN), including gifted students. The plan also includes a yearly schedule of work for each of the year groups’ transition year, fifth year and sixth year. The schedules are well structured and there was strong evidence of good progression with each in the classes visited.
Provision for collaborative planning processes among the biology teachers is excellent. Formal meetings are scheduled for the science subject department and for TY planning. Biology teachers also meet other times as a biology department, sometimes formally through facilitation by management, and sometimes informally whereby colleagues share ideas on an on-going basis. Topics discussed during meetings include resources, teaching methodologies, and matters relating to student management. As many as ten meetings may take place during a school year. Minutes of these meetings are kept in the biology laboratory along with the biology planning folder. The department meets at the end of each school year to conduct an end-of-year evaluation and to agree on the main aim for the next year. This is worthy of particular commendation. The attention given to planning has resulted in a focused, innovative and progressive biology department in the school. There was evidence during the inspection that this has also led to the development of best practice in teaching and learning methodologies and the range of co-curricular activities. There was a strong sense of collegiality among biology teachers. Attention given to planning is to be highly commended.
Planning for resource provision has been particularly successful. There is an extensive and commendable range of modern aids to support teaching and learning in Biology. Biology teachers are making very good use of the available ICT facilities to source and to produce classroom resources. Paper resources, such as handouts and assessment materials, are kept in shared folders in the staff room. A broad range of ICT, video and DVD material has also been sourced. Both the electronic and the paper resources are constantly being developed and enhanced as teachers engage in collaborative planning. This is highly commendable practice. Teachers are encouraged to continue to engage in such valuable dialogue, to continue to modernise and to ensure that each resource used differentiates appropriately for the range of student abilities.
The TY biology plan aims to “inspire an interest in biological science outside the boundaries of a syllabus”. The plan has a practical emphasis and includes contemporary biological issues as well as providing opportunities for some commendable activity-based learning. Valuable assessment strategies are also included in the plan, particularly the assessment of student projects. The development of resources to support teaching and learning in TY Biology is given high priority. It is laudable that the majority of topics in the TY Biology plan are covered in a way that is different from the way they would be treated in Leaving Certificate Biology. However, there is scope for the extension of this principle. The plan is reviewed at the end of each year according to an evaluation by TY students. It is recommended that the annual review would be used to introduce a more diverse range of topics especially those from outside the Leaving Certificate syllabus. For example, the inclusion of interdisciplinary topics in the sciences, plant and animal life cycles, soil, horticulture, bioinformatics, genomics, bioremediation and cosmetic science.
Planning for laboratory provision is excellent. Financial support for the purchase of consumable materials and resources is provided through a generous annual budget. Further support for the subject is provided through a teacher acting as co-ordinator for biology and a science laboratory technician who is employed directly by the school. The laboratory technician oversees the re-stocking of necessary materials, the management of each laboratory and preparation of items for student practical work for the whole science department. The storage and preparation areas are highly organised and all resource items are clearly labelled. A system of resource boxes is in use for some of the prescribed student practicals and this level of organisation is to be highly commended as it ensures immediate access to necessary resources by teachers.
Good attention is paid to matters of health and safety. The school’s health and safety statement was recently drawn up in consultation with the science teachers. The safety statement has been included in the school’s biology plan together with a section on laboratory hazards. End-of-day, weekly and termly safety checklists are in place for the laboratories. Chemicals are stored in a colour-coded fashion according to health and safety guidelines in a locked chemical store. Health and safety issues are appropriately highlighted for biology students and they are issued with a ‘contract’, which they must sign, outlining the safety procedures necessary when in a laboratory. Students demonstrated safe laboratory conduct during practical work.
An excellent learning environment exists in biology lessons. Students are encouraged to be responsible for their own learning and they demonstrate maturity in this regard. Students are respectful, disciplined and eager to learn. They are aware of the expectations made of them in terms of work ethic and participation in their lessons. A student-centred approach was taken in all lessons observed with the teacher acting as facilitator of learning. This was achieved through skilful teaching strategies and also through thorough preparation for each lesson.
Lessons were well structured and there was smooth flow from one activity to the next. A variety of learning experiences was integrated into each of the lessons observed and this is highly commendable. This was supported by the wide variety of resources applied at various stages during the lessons. These included video, presentations, overhead transparencies, charts and handouts, as well as biological specimens and equipment for practical work. The resources chosen complement each other and supported the topic very well. The visual resources chosen were particularly good and they served to enhance the students’ understanding of biological processes. For example, during a power point presentation on osmosis the movement of water molecules was clearly illustrated in a short video clip that was integrated into one of the slides.
Lessons were based on the principle of moving from the concrete to the abstract in terms of cognitive skill acquisition. In all cases, the teacher built upon the students’ existing knowledge of a particular topic, drew examples from everyday observations and then developed the topic in stages until the full theory was realised by the students. Students demonstrated a genuine interest in their study of biology and an excellent appreciation of the subject. This was supported by the strong enthusiasm for the subject expressed by the teachers throughout. A positive flexibility to lessons was also observed as the students sometimes asked questions relating to the topic which required some short divergence from the plan to allow students to explore extensions of the topic.
Skilful questioning techniques were used to support the learning process. Questions used varied in format, were challenging and were affirmative. As well as using ‘recall’ and ‘describe’ type questions, teachers asked their students to engage in higher order thinking around the topics and to apply their knowledge. Teachers demonstrated a strong awareness of their students’ individual capabilities and adapted the teaching approach accordingly. For example, role-play was used effectively to enhance understanding of a difficult concept. The students participated willingly in their lessons and demonstrated excellent communication skills. Although a range of abilities was evident in each class visited, and some students needed prompting from time to time, the quality of learning was very high. Students were confident and capable in accurately answering questions put to them and they demonstrated a sound understanding of the subject matter learned.
During practical work, the students displayed excellent skills and they followed the scientific method accurately. An investigative approach was taken to the experiment and this is to be commended as it allowed the students to find the outcome for themselves. Students worked well in their groups and demonstrated an ability to discuss the findings among themselves. Afterwards, they wrote up the laboratory reports individually, basing the report on the actual method used, which is best practice. Records of all previous investigations are comprehensively presented in the students’ laboratory records. This work is monitored regularly by teachers and annotated feedback is given by teachers in the reports. The students recalled with accuracy the process and outcome of any previously conducted investigation.
Opportunities for student engagement in co-curricular activities in Biology are good, particularly during Transition Year. This school year, increased emphasis is being placed on encouraging entries to the BT Young Scientist and Technology exhibition, involving a poster awareness campaign and lunch time meetings for interested students. Science Week is celebrated in the school each year with promotional activities and ‘fun science’ events. The science notice board is used to display event and information material. Three science prefects are selected from the student body annually to assist with activities.
Homework and written questions are discussed and corrected in class. This ensures immediate feedback to the students, providing the opportunity for reinforcement and further clarification. Students were observed to be vigilant at making corrections in their own copies during the plenary correction of homework. The feedback given to students at this time was excellent and supported the learning process.
A variety of other assessment practices are also in use for Biology. Continuous assessment methods are implemented to maintain student focus and to reward ongoing work. The following techniques are used to assess student performance in fifth and sixth year; classroom observation, class questions, observation of laboratory notebooks, class chapter examinations, Christmas examination on the terms work, common terminal examination in summer of fifth year and revision tests based on scheduled revision chapters throughout sixth year. This is a broad range of assessment strategies, representing much best practice, and is to be highly commended. There was evidence in students’ copies that tests were corrected according to a transparent marking scheme. Annotated feedback is also given to students on their written work thereby enabling them to develop and strengthen their own learning. This is highly effective. It is suggested that the biology department would consider the allocation of marks to students for practical work and the inclusion of this mark in the continuous assessment grade.
TY students are assessed in more varied ways, as is appropriate for this programme. These include observations of how well the students work as a team, their willingness to participate in discussions and their ability to apply everyday occurrences to the topic being taught. They are also assessed on a project completed during the year, for which there are also detailed criteria for evaluation.
Teachers maintain records for each student’s attendance and achievement. Each year three written reports are sent to parents. Every year group in the school has an annual parent-teacher meeting.
The following are the main strengths and areas for development identified in the evaluation of Biology:
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Biology and with the principal and deputy principal, at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.