An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Belvedere College SJ
Great Denmark St., Dublin 1
Roll number: 60520P
Date of inspection: 26 & 28 March 2007
Date of issue of report: 4 October 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Belvedere College. 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, deputy principal and the subject teachers. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report, and the response of the board will be found in the appendix of this report.
The evaluation of Junior Certificate Science and Leaving Certificate Biology at Belvedere College was carried out over the course of two days. It began with a visit to a double sixth-year biology class followed by a double second-year science class. These visits were followed by a meeting with the science and biology teachers at which the objectives and procedures of the evaluation were explained. Subsequently, a second- and a third-year science class and a fifth-year biology class were observed.
Junior Certificate Science is a core subject for all junior cycle students. All classes are of mixed ability. Four class periods, in the form of a double and two single periods, are allocated to all Junior Certificate science classes. This is within syllabus guidelines. Timetabling arrangements are such that up to twenty-nine students may be in a science class, though, in practice, class sizes of twenty-six or twenty-seven are more usual.
Following the Junior Certificate examination, students participate in a compulsory Transition Year (TY) programme before commencing the Leaving Certificate programme. As part of their TY studies, students follow modules in Biology, Physics and Chemistry. A small number of students follow an optional Sports Science course for the full year as an alternative.
On entering the Leaving Certificate, students study Irish, English, Maths and French as core subjects, along with three others, chosen from a range of subjects. Students are extensively supported in making their choice of subjects by the Guidance Counsellor, the TY coordinator, their form tutor, teachers of the various optional subjects and their parents. Classes are arranged to cater for the maximum number of students on a “best fit” basis. Virtually all students get their top three choices, with a change of mind option available to them in the first half-term. In the sciences, Biology, Chemistry and Physics are all offered to students and uptake is very encouraging.
Biology students are allocated five periods per week, in the form of one single and two double periods or one double and three single periods in the case of one class. This is within syllabus guidelines. Class sizes tend to be somewhat smaller than in junior cycle.
There are seven teachers of science subjects in the school, two of whom also take Biology. Opportunities have been availed of for continuing professional development during recent and current national in-service training programmes in Biology and Junior Certificate Science. Management is commended on the commitment given to facilitate attendance at in-service training. All science teachers are members of the Irish Science Teachers’ Association and the school supports this membership by paying their annual subscription. The school also supports teachers in attending, for example, the annual European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) summer school.
Belvedere College encourages active participation by students in a variety of extra-curricular activities. These activities include the Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, Scifest, the RDS Young Science Writers competition, at which students have performed commendably, along with Science Week and a number of other science-related events and activities. The school also supports a scholarship each year to send two students to carry out scientific research in the University of Pennsylvania in the USA. The work of the science teachers, with the support of management, in providing and supporting these opportunities for their students is praiseworthy.
There are six science laboratories in the school, on two floors. They are of recent construction and are state-of-the-art facilities. Each laboratory consists of a lecture-theatre style teaching area at one end and a working laboratory area at the other. They are well equipped and resourced. All the laboratories are equipped with a networked computer and data projector and are linked to a central server with common files containing extensive sets of PowerPoint slides and other IT resources, along with student records. The science and biology teachers are to be commended for their work in preparing these extensive resources. Each laboratory is broadband enabled also. Televisions and DVD players are available as required. A dedicated greenhouse is also available to the science department. The school funds the provision of a laboratory assistant. The provision of such resources by management is to be commended. All science classes are held in a laboratory and the laboratories are used exclusively for science subjects. Access to a laboratory for specific classes is timetabled in advance. There are some charts and posters on the laboratory walls and it is recommended that student work be displayed as well. This will serve to stimulate and motivate students and further enhance the learning environment, and will allow an opportunity to change the charts occasionally, in line with the work being done or to highlight student project work. It is suggested that the area immediately outside the laboratories, on both floors, be developed as a science resource area for students. This could consist of a display of posters and charts promoting the sciences and include notice boards with up-to-date information relating to the sciences in general, to careers in the sciences as well as to specific events within the school.
A range of health and safety equipment was observed, including first aid kits, fume cupboards, fire extinguishers and electrical isolation switches. Active safety management was apparent in one of the lessons visited as evidenced by the wearing of safety glasses by the students. This is praiseworthy. The school has an up to date health and safety statement. This statement is kept under constant review. The science teachers are involved in this on-going review. A separate science safety statement is also in place. However, it is recommended that safety notices be more prominently displayed in the laboratories.
There is a school plan in place in Belvedere College including the school’s mission statement and a comprehensive range of school policies as required by legislation. There is evidence of a strong sense of collegiality among the science teachers. A formal science department is in place and there is a recognised coordinator. The duties of the coordinator include budgeting, managing all relevant resources, convening and chairing subject department meetings, maintaining records and advising management with regard to subject needs. The coordinator also compiles and updates the science department folder and consults with the principal to formulate role descriptions for members of the science department. There is a set agenda for meetings, which are held once per term, and minutes are kept. The science teachers assist in the management of issues such as laboratory maintenance, stock control and ordering of equipment under the supervision of the co-ordinator. Informal contact between the science teachers is frequent and issues of immediate concern are dealt with. The level of co-operation between the science teachers is indeed excellent.
The science department carries out extensive curriculum planning. Common yearly plans are in place for the Junior Certificate Science and Leaving Certificate Biology courses and for the TY science modules. The focus of the Junior Certificate Science and Leaving Certificate Biology planning documents is on content and there is extensive reference to textbooks, resources and practical work. It is recommended that reference to the syllabus documents should also be included in the plans as these, rather than textbooks, are the primary documents that describe the objectives and content of the courses being followed. The topics observed being taught in the classrooms were mostly in line with the planning documents. Common assessments are used for all non-certificate examination classes at the end of the school year. The science teachers are to be congratulated for their extensive work in the area of curriculum planning and assessment.
Planning for TY Science is also excellent. The Biology module of the course aims to examine topics of general interest and relevance but which are not on the Junior Certificate science course, as well as providing an introduction to Leaving Certificate Biology. Such topics include antibiotics, ecological diversity, genetic engineering and related ethical issues, and smoking. Methodologies used are activity based, in line with the ethos of the TY programme.
There was strong evidence of short-term planning in most of the lessons observed. In almost all cases, teachers were familiar with the subject matter of their lessons and there was a theme running through the lesson. Materials necessary for class, along with the chemicals and apparatus required for student centred investigative work, had been prepared in advance. This preparation contributed to the quality of learning and is praiseworthy.
There was a disciplined atmosphere in the lessons observed and a good learning environment was evident. Rapport with students was very good and this is to be commended. Teachers were enthusiastic, warm and considerate of students. Their approach to their work was professional and business-like. Good progress was made in all lessons. The level of two-way communication in classrooms was relevant to the task at hand. Students were generally attentive, interested and anxious to participate in the learning process. There was evidence of the use of established routines in most lessons and students were conscious of teachers’ high expectations of them, both behaviourally and academically. The majority of students responded positively and worked diligently. The level of affirmation of student effort observed in some classes was very high and this enhanced further the positive nature of the student-teacher interaction.
Teachers were very knowledgeable regarding their subject matter and there was excellent use of scientific terminology throughout the lessons observed. Lessons proceeded at a suitable pace and changes in methodologies were built into lesson plans as appropriate. Students were challenged by lesson content and responded well. Continuity from previous lessons was good and new information was well linked to previous learning. There was good direction and follow through in the lessons observed. Lessons were well planned and had a clear focus in most cases. This is excellent practice. The topics covered in the classes observed included cell division, light, heat, ecology and energy.
A range of teaching methodologies was observed, including student practical work, board work, questioning, explanations, student work sheets and written work and, overall, there was a good balance between student-centred and teacher-centred methodologies. Of particular note was the extensive use of IT, mostly in the form of PowerPoint presentations, that was observed. The PowerPoint presentations were well prepared and there was excellent and extensive use of student notes in parallel. The tendency, on occasion, to allow technology to come between the teacher and students and reduce the level of personal contact must be avoided. Best practice was observed where PowerPoint slides contained only the main points of the presentation and the teacher frequently had to add to and expand on the information provided. This was done either verbally, thus engaging students to a greater extent, through use of the white board to expand and visualise points of information, or through the use of questions to elicit further information and fill in the gaps left in the presentation. This is excellent practice and it is suggested that all teachers adopt such practices in order to maximise the effective use of new technologies while not sacrificing the excellent level of contact at a personal and individual level with students that was apparent in most lessons. There was scope for greater use of questioning at times, both to elicit further information and to determine the level of student knowledge. Best practice was seen when teachers directed questions to individual, named students and, on the basis of the students’ replies, probed further with higher order questions or redirected questions as necessary. This is good practice.
During the observed student practical work the students worked in groups of two or three. It was obvious from their behaviour that the students were accustomed to carrying out practical work and the Biology teachers are to be praised for their commitment to seeing that their students get the opportunity to do this practical work themselves. It was a characteristic of most lessons that practical work was very efficiently organised and implemented and that the teacher adopted an investigative approach. This is excellent practice. The use of a number of laboratory stations, each with a separate experiment set up and through which the students rotated, was an excellent means of covering a number of investigations in an efficient manner. Students were well prepared for carrying out their practical work by the excellent use of plenary sessions to review the theory and practice of each activity before bench work started. Best practice was seen when similar plenary sessions were held when the practical activities have been completed, in order to review the work done and to emphasise what had been learned.
Teacher movement among the students, monitoring, assisting, examining and encouraging, was evident at all times during practical work. On occasion, a greater level of movement would have been of benefit during the more theoretical sections of lessons. Teachers were very affirming of student effort and were always encouraging and positive in assisting students with appropriate interventions. This is praiseworthy. Good practice concerning the minimal use of textbooks was apparent during the lessons observed. Reference to appropriate passages in textbooks was used to reinforce learning and to assist in homework preparation. Homework given was appropriate to the lesson content and was designed to assist students in learning and retaining the topic.
It is suggested that students are made aware of the objectives of the lesson at the outset of each class period. This can be motivating and informative and students may work better if they are more informed as to where a lesson is leading. The objectives should be clear, concise and achievable. It is suggested that this excellent practice be used in all lessons and that outcomes are reviewed at the end of each lesson to highlight the progress that has been made.
Students demonstrated a positive attitude towards Science and Biology as evidenced by the level of engagement and interest observed during the lessons visited. Students displayed a good level of knowledge, understanding and skills during interaction with the inspector. Formative assessment of students is carried out on an ongoing basis by questioning in class, by teacher movement and through correction of homework, both in class and by taking up homework copies for correction.
Students kept laboratory notebooks up to date as evidence of practical work being carried out. This is a very important aspect of new and revised syllabuses in the Science area. The quality of the notebooks was excellent in most cases. Some teachers engage in the commendable practice of correcting and annotating students’ laboratory copies frequently and regularly. It is important that all teachers do this as it promotes best practice among students in maintaining their laboratory notebooks to a high standard.
Test results are used to assess the progress of students and also to plan ahead. They are used to inform both teachers and students of the steps to be taken to improve performance and to set targets for future assessments. This is good practice. All first-year students are informally assessed before the Halloween break to identify those who may be experiencing difficulty and are in need of support. All classes, except TY, sit formal Christmas examinations and non-certificate examination classes sit summer examinations also. Third-year and sixth-year students do not sit formal mock examinations but teachers may, at their own discretion, administer such examinations. Additional testing is also at the discretion of individual teachers. TY students are assessed on three occasions, following the completion of each module. Students following the alternative Sports Science module are assessed on three occasions also.
Results of the Certificate examinations are collated an analysed each year and placed on a series of bar-charts to show the results in the light of national trends in each of the subject areas. This information is used to inform discussions which take place within the science department.
Parents of TY students receive three formal reports each year. Parents of all other students receive two reports, following Christmas assessments and at the end of the school year. These reports include assessment results, class averages and progress reports from the form tutors. Parents are also invited to respond to these reports. Form tutors and year heads maintain contact with parents, on a needs basis, throughout the school year. In addition, the student journal that all students are required to keep is used for communication between parents and teachers. Parent-teacher meetings are held once per year for each year group in accordance with DES guidelines and attendance by parents is very high.
There was evidence of record keeping by the science and biology teachers, covering such areas as student attendance and assessment results. This is done as part of a whole-school approach to record keeping and is used to build up a comprehensive profile of each student, thereby forming the basis of useful evidence in communicating student progress to parents and in advising both students and parents on their choice of subjects at senior level and on what level of examination paper to choose in certificate examinations.
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 and deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1 Observations on the content of the inspection report
Board accepts report and wishes to thank all involved