An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
St Dominics High School,
Santa Sabina, Sutton, Dublin 13
Roll number: 60380C
Date of inspection: 5 October 2006
Date of issue of report: 26 April 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Dominic’s High School, Sutton. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Science and Biology and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject in the school. The evaluation was conducted over two days 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.
Science is an optional subject in first year and uptake is good. First year students are offered this choice after an Open Evening in the school where students and their parents are given the opportunity to visit the Science laboratories and view displays of work by the Science team and some more senior students. All three Science subjects are offered at Senior Cycle and uptake again is good with Leaving Certificate Biology being the most popular. Science is also available on the compulsory Transition Year (TY) programme which includes topics such as forensics, microbiology, classification, fieldwork, microelectronics, nuclear power. TY students also investigate the salt content of crisps, “measure your explosive power”, explore eye dominance and investigate perception versus reality. All students take Science in Transition Year irrespective of Junior Certificate options and it is commendable that some students go on to take Leaving Certificate Biology and Physics, even though they have not studied Science to Junior Certificate.
Junior Science is currently allocated 4 periods per week in first year, 3 in second year and 4 in third year. This does not meet the NCCA syllabus guidelines of 4 periods per week in each year of Junior Certificate Science. In addition, this allocation is on a rotational basis and on occasion some third year Science classes have been allocated a total of 3 periods per week. This does not facilitate the more time-consuming mandatory practical activities and coursework B preparation. It is recommended that management address the area of time allocation for Junior Certificate Science in future timetabling planning. Transition Year Science is allocated 3 periods per week and 5 classes are allocated to Leaving Certificate Biology. This time allocation is appropriate. An adequate number of double periods have been allocated to the Sciences and this facilitates investigative practical work. It is suggested that management strive to avoid timetabling Science double periods across break times as some of the practical work cannot be left to sit and a number of experimental works must be monitored for their duration. It is commendable practice that management strive to retain the same teacher with a class group through the three years of Junior Cycle Science and use a similar rollover practice in Senior Cycle.
The school contains four laboratories, three of which are bright and well maintained. These laboratories have a lockable storage and preparation area for chemicals; they were well organised and some stocked chemicals on colour coded shelves. This level of organisation is laudable. The school has a fourth laboratory which is of a lesser standard and lacks appropriate storage and a preparation area. It is praiseworthy that management have put a strategy in place to renovate this fourth laboratory and plans were viewed at the time of this evaluation. Each laboratory is equipped with a range of health and safety features such as fire extinguisher, first aid kit, fire blanket and safety goggles. Health and safety precautions were displayed prominently in all laboratories and it is suggested that they be added to the front of student practical notebooks which will reinforce this good practice. The school has a Health and Safety Statement which is in need of review. This will be of particular necessity when refurbishment of the Biology laboratory has taken place.
The school is supportive of teachers’ continuing professional development. SLSS (Second Level Support Service) material is distributed to staff and relevant material is targeted towards Science teachers. Management is also supportive of any teachers who are partaking in further education through third-level courses. This is commendable.
The school has a computer room and teachers may bring students there for Science and Biology lessons when access has been negotiated. The science faculty has a positive attitude to the integration and use of ICT in supporting teaching and learning and many of the Science team expressed an aspiration to incorporate more ICT into their lessons. There is currently one PC in three of the laboratories with one data projector and the Science department have plans to acquire one further data projector. This will facilitate in-class work with science students. Broadband internet access is enabled in three of the four laboratories in the school and teachers are encouraged to exploit the potential that this offers to enhance students’ learning experiences. Advice on the use and integration of ICT may be accessed through the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE), http://www.ncte.ie, and through the network of local education centres and the assigned ICT advisers.
In the classes observed there was evidence of good short-term planning. Teachers were familiar with the subject matter of their lessons and there was a theme running through each lesson. Appropriate materials and resources necessary for each lesson had been prepared in advance. This level of preparation contributed to the quality of teaching and learning and this is to be commended.
Long term plans were available for both Junior Certificate Science and Leaving Certificate Biology. These made reference to the topics to be completed in each term and these details were displayed on the notice board in some of the laboratories. It is suggested that the science team distribute these lists to students in order to enable them in their planning and revision. Further information on subject planning is available on the SDPI website.
Co-ordination and communication among the science team is effective and takes the form of a formal departmental meeting at the start of the school year for the purpose of outlining programmes, stock control and making other subject-specific arrangements such as text books and planning for programmes of study. Effective communication also takes place regularly on an informal basis which is used to review curriculum progress and student achievement throughout the year, which is good practice.
Planning for cross- and co-curricular activities serves to augment the quality of teaching and learning in Junior Certificate Science and Senior Cycle Biology. Some students enter for the Young Scientist Competition each year, mainly from second and transition year. All second year students were brought to the Young scientist exhibition last year and the science department plan to bring all first year students this year. This is praiseworthy and it is further commendable that some students have exhibited work at the Institute of Physics stand at the exhibition. In addition, first year students have been brought to the Salters Chemistry display in Trinity College, Dublin and fifth year students have attended the Tyndall lectures hosted by the Institute of Physics. Students are encouraged to enter for Science based competitions such as the Biology Olympiad, Paper clip physics run by the Institute of Physics, the RDS Young science writer competition and the REMEDI science essay competition. The science team have also facilitated visits to W5 in Belfast, the BA festival, the Hamilton lectures and other information lectures and open days in both University College Dublin and Dublin City University. Ecology fieldwork is carried out locally on the Rocky seashore habitat at Red Rock, Sutton. This high level of involvement with co-curricular activities is laudable and the science teachers are to be commended for their high level of commitment to the subject.
A number of lessons were visited from both Junior Certificate Science and Senior Cycle Biology. Topics observed included Chromatography, Testing for Reducing Sugar, Investigating the effect of amylase on starch, the digestive system, reproduction and genetics. Each of the lessons observed was developed in a coherent, structured way and the purpose of the lesson was clear from the outset. Good use was made of a range of teaching methodologies such as groupwork, boardwork, paired work, questioning and whole class discussions. One lesson observed made good use of a CD Rom on Cell Division to introduce the topic. Students were asked to write down the four stages of cell division as observed and this served to focus students on the task and contributed to the effectiveness of this good visual teaching aid.
Teacher movement around the classroom, affirming, evaluating and explaining, served to keep students on task and encourage them to engage with their own learning. This is good practice. Discipline, while present at all times, did not have to be imposed but rather formed an intrinsic part of the dynamic of the classes. Students willingly accepted the norms of behaviour and worked with a sense of security and mutual respect. Lessons often began with a quick revision of previous work. In one case, a question was posed concerning food and this set the scene for a lively and interesting discussion on the Digestive System. In general the teaching methodologies adopted were appropriate to the abilities, needs and interests of the students and included mixed ability strategies such as attention to spelling and pronunciation of new words and some one-to-one attention. This is laudable practice.
Good use was made of paired work in one class when students worked with partners to investigate the effects of pH on enzyme activity. The lesson commenced with an introductory plenary session to introduce the practical activity to be carried out in the class. As a result students discussed the procedure to be implemented and then could proceed independently to carry out the investigation. Good routines were observed in practical classes where students were clearly confident in working as a team, in setting up apparatus and clearing it away on conclusion of the lesson. Students were then encouraged to write up their results and conclusions in their own words, which is praiseworthy.
A stimulating learning environment was achieved by providing suitably inspiring and interesting images within the laboratories such as photographs of senior cycle fieldtrips to Red Rock, Sutton, previous entries for the Young Scientist competition and clippings from newspapers and magazines. Further use of such subject-related visual display is encouraged in the laboratory, particularly the inclusion of more student-generated work.
Strong links with prior learning were established at the start of the lessons through the effective use of question and answer sessions. A mix of global and directed questions ensured that students were reminded of content covered in previous lessons. Students were also required in some cases to review their notes or locate the appropriate section in their textbooks. Questioning strategies were effective. Students responded well and were able to retrieve evidence for their answers. Issues were teased out when necessary and further questioning was designed to probe deeper levels of understanding and to provide feedback to teachers on student learning. Student engagement was of a very high order in some lessons and this is commended. Students were mature and articulate in their interactions with the inspector, they displayed a good interest in Science and were keen to contribute to discussions and answer questions.
Class tests are carried out during the school year with appropriate frequency. Results of these are recorded in the teacher’s journal. Common tests are set at Christmas and summer for all year groups and it is commendable that the Science team have also developed common marking schemes for these tests. It is recommended that the Science team consider the inclusion of a percentage for the completion of a practical activity or the standard of mandatory practical books in order to keep assessments in line with revisions to the Junior Science syllabus. Third and sixth year students are encouraged to refrain from choosing Higher or Ordinary levels for the state examination papers until after the Christmas examinations, in consultation with their class teacher.
Homework is assigned regularly and can be written exercises, revision, write up of a practical activity, examination past paper questions or drawing a diagram. Notebooks observed were generally of a good standard and contained evidence of checking and annotation. It is recommended that the science team look in to the development of common marking practices with a view to the development of a common assessment plan for the department. Potential areas to be included were discussed during the evaluation and included homework, mandatory practical notebooks, corrections and follow up on corrections.
Feed back to parents and guardians takes the form of news letters, comments in students’ journals and a parent-teacher meeting for each year group. This level of communication is appropriate.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
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 Science and Biology and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.