An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Roll number: 61141M
Date of inspection: 20 and 21 March 2006
Date of issue of report: 15 December 2006
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Presentation College Carlow. 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 the subjects 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 was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
Whole school support for the provision of Science in Presentation College Carlow is very strong. A wide range of Science subjects is available on the curriculum including Junior Certificate Science, four Science modules in TY and Leaving Certificate Biology, Physics and Chemistry.
All class groups are scheduled for laboratory access for double periods and many single periods are also held in a laboratory. Good practice is also evident in the retention of the same teacher with class groups as they progress through junior cycle. The timetabling arrangements and time allocated for Biology and for Science in second and third year are good. However, in first year only three class periods are timetabled for Science and this is one period per week shorter than syllabus recommendations. The allocation in first year should be reviewed for next year.
Science is an optional subject for junior cycle students and the uptake is good. All students who choose the subject are facilitated. In general three class groups are formed each year with a maximum of twenty-four students. These groups are mixed-ability in nature. Incoming students are strongly encouraged to take Science because of the range of options the subject creates at senior cycle. Useful information about the subject is included in a booklet for parents/incoming first years. The subject is further promoted during ‘open day’ when hands-on activities take place in the laboratories. A system of ‘subject-sampling’ for optional subjects was previously in place in the school and it may be worth giving further consideration to re-introducing this, thereby allowing all students to experience the subject prior to making choices.
There are good opportunities to sample science in the school’s optional TY programme. All Transition Year students complete a course in Physics, Chemistry, Biotechnology and Health Science. The Biotechnology and Health courses are designed to present the Biology in an applied context. This allows those students with no junior Science experience the opportunity to develop practical laboratory skills and to sample the subject.
Biology is the most popular Leaving Certificate Science subject. Two classes of Biology, one class of Physics and one class of Chemistry are timetabled every year. At times a student who has not studied junior Science may opt for one of the Leaving Certificate Science subjects. This presents particular challenges for the teachers involved. However, these students are usually very well motivated and with support from their teacher they usually succeed.
Currently the only programme without any Science component is LCA. Consideration could be given to the introduction of Science into the school’s LCA programme and to examining the suitability of the Science elective module to the abilities, needs and interests of the student cohort of this school. Information about the LCA modules may be found on the website www.lca.slss.ie.
The school’s two laboratories, demonstration room and preparation area are in good condition and are well-stocked with equipment and materials. The school received an enhanced grant for the purchase of materials for the introduction of the revised junior Science syllabus. Senior management have actively pursued the provision of a third laboratory and this is currently under construction as part of a large school extension involving the re-development and modernisation of the entire Science facility.
Finance for the maintenance of the facilities and for re-stocking materials is provided through an annual Science budget. Further support for the subject is provided through a post of responsibility as co-ordinator for Science and the teacher involved oversees stock, laboratory management and department planning activities. The laboratories are equipped with appropriate safety equipment but a gas-proofing system should be installed as part of the refurbishment process.
Management and teachers are to be commended for their proactive approach in developing and enhancing the range of resources available to support teaching and learning in the sciences. The school has recently installed and activated a wireless broadband network and this network is extended to the laboratories. Modern ICT facilities, including laptop and data projector are available and the deployment of these useful tools has been undertaken. This is commendable and is already leading to the development of a broader range of stimuli for teaching and learning. There is shared access to a television and video amongst the science department and an array of useful videos has been sourced, catalogued and stored within easy access. Continuation of the good work already achieved in developing both audio visual and ICT resources is encouraged.
Continual Professional Development (CPD) is strongly supported in the school. All Science teachers have attended inservice training and are actively encouraged and facilitated to pursue additional inservice if available. This good practice will serve to add to the knowledge and skill-set of the Science department and the school as a whole.
Students are afforded the opportunity to participate in co-curricular activities in the sciences. These include, poster competitions, ‘Paperclip Physics’, ‘Intel Design and Discovery’ and a ‘Stem Cell Essay’ organised through National University of Ireland, Galway. There are strong local links established between the school and Carlow Institute of Technology. TY students have been involved in the’ Creativity in Science and Technology Awards’ (CREST) organised by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Other opportunities provided in TY include project work, group work, field-trip and guest-speakers. Practical ecology field trips in senior cycle are conducted in a nearby bog-land habitat and this provides opportunities to expand student experiences in ecology. It is recommended that the school endeavours to continue to encourage this good practice of student involvement in co-curricular activities.
The school has incorporated subject planning into the School Development Planning (SDP) process. formal subject department meetings are provided on three to four occasions during the year. The Science department also meets informally as needs or issues arise. Minutes are kept of subject department meetings and items such as health and safety, equipment, homework policy, laboratory rota, practical notebooks and assessment levels in state examinations are discussed.
There is an atmosphere of good collaborative planning and a sense of collegiality amongst the Science and Biology department. A comprehensive junior cycle Science plan has been developed by the team and assembled by the co-ordinator. This plan is viewed as an ongoing document and subject to change and development. This is in keeping with good planning practice. It is recommended that in order to expand on the good work completed so far, that the Science department would for the coming year focus on developing two areas of the Science plan in particular; provision for students with Special Educational Needs and assessment methodologies.
At individual subject level the natural extension of the current culture of collaborative planning is to incorporate shared responsibility for the development of the following three areas; topic and module specific resources, teaching and learning methodologies and assessment methodologies. This is particularly important so as to reflect current modernisation in the area of ICT. Such collaboration will help to develop resources that differentiate for mixed ability levels within each class by providing additional handouts, worksheets, tests and other student activity-based stimuli. This would prove mutually beneficial for all teachers of Science and Biology and allow more time for the adaptation of resources for students with Special Educational Needs (SEN) and language difficulties. It is also recommended that some format be established where storage of these resources take place, such as an easily accessible filing cabinet, or a ‘sharing’ enabled electronic file on the local area network.
Each teacher prepared a curriculum content plan for each class group. These plans were well structured and there was strong evidence of good progression. In one instance, the term plan was annotated with personal reflective notes to inform future planning. This is in keeping with progressive pedagogy and it is recommended that this good practice is adopted at a departmental level to complement the good work and high standard of individual planning already in existence.
There was clear evidence of considered short term planning for each lesson visited. There were some excellent examples where thorough advanced preparation to include teaching and learning aids yielded positive outcomes. These included prepared handouts, worksheets, and a variety of visual teaching aids and biological specimens.
Planning for the organisation and management of laboratory resources is also to be commended. The Science department have developed an efficient system of ‘resource boxes’ for each of the prescribed laboratory investigations. There is also a reporting system in place to record the requirements for replacing depleted items. The preparation room is well organised with easy access and clear identification of all items. Storage of chemicals is colour coded according to health and safety guidelines. Laboratory rules are visibly displayed and include clear instructions for student behaviour and procedures for dealing with incidents.
Lessons observed were delivered with confidence and were well paced. The purpose of each lesson was clearly established from the outset. Student-teacher relationships were very positive and in all classes a secure work-orientated atmosphere was evident. Strong enthusiasm for the subject matter was expressed and all lessons were interesting. The students have a good attitude towards Science and Biology as displayed by the interest and level of engagement observed during classes.
Lesson development was good and a staged approach was adopted in most lessons and this allowed students to consolidate their learning before proceeding to the next concept. There were many good examples of cross-linking with topics previously studied. Student learning was enhanced through the use of examples from relevant life situations.
A wide range of abilities was evident in each class visited. In all cases the lessons were managed in a supportive manner. Students participated well in their lessons and demonstrated clear evidence of sound previous learning. They were confident and capable of answering questions put to them. Questioning was effectively applied and was used to successfully focus students, to encourage participation and also to assess students’ level of understanding during the lessons. Open-ended questions were used in many cases. However, there was at times a need to vary the type of questions so as to challenge students of all abilities. It is recommended that questioning strategies be continually varied.
Use was made of resources and visual stimuli to facilitate the clear delivery of material. Among all teachers a particularly wide range of resources exists for each topic in both Science and Biology. However, in general, the resources used and the strategies adopted during lessons required all students to progress at more or less the same pace and to complete the same activities. Hence it is recommended that in future planning the Science department should explore the area of differentiation in Science and Biology teaching. The introduction of differentiated approaches and resources would facilitate the involvement and achievement of all students including those with special educational needs and also help in accommodating different learning styles.
Practical work is seen as central to each syllabus. It is emphasised as such with all classes and the availability of resources strongly support its implementation. The manner in which students completed responsibly the experiments assigned to them and their ability to discuss their findings among members of their group indicated success in this regard. This is commended. However, there were also some examples where a more prescriptive approach was taken to practical work in junior Science. While the activities were well-conducted, allowing the students to take an investigative approach to the particular practical activity would have more accurately reflected the underlying principles of the revised Science syllabus. Such an approach should involve the student in following a logical pattern of questioning and decision-making that enables evidence to be gathered in a manner that is not pre-determined in either procedure or outcome.
In most cases there were examples in the student’s laboratory notebooks of some very good report writing skills, particularly in relation to some of the ecology field work. In these cases, records of previous investigations were independently written, and were supported by clear conclusions. However, this was not consistent with all groups. There was also some evidence of the application of annotated feedback to students on their reports and this will support improvement in report writing. However, in other cases the individual student reports would have benefited from more regular monitoring for both errors and incomplete work. Consideration could be given to discussing general practice in relation to the monitoring of practical reports by the Science department as a whole with a view to establishing consistency of practice.
Formal whole school tests are held for first, second and fifth-year classes at Christmas and summer. Third and sixth-year classes sit mock-examinations in the spring. Reports are issued to parents twice a year and an annual parent teacher meeting is organised for each year group.
Teachers maintain notes and records of results for each student’s attendance and achievement. The class records show a normative spread of grades achieved by students which is expected given the mixed ability nature of the groups.
All students given the option of taking higher or ordinary level in the subject and are given advice on what is considered to be the best choice for them. Attainment levels in both Science and Biology are good. There is a good uptake of higher level in both subjects, particularly in Biology. This is to be expected given that students choose both Science and Biology as a preferred subject options.
Assessment strategies employed for Science and Biology focus strongly on three methods; questioning in class, homework and class tests. In most cases many class tests are given and this gives students some feedback on their achievements and capabilities. The commitment to the frequency of assessments is commended. However, there is scope for the expansion of assessment strategies particularly in the area of provision of feedback to the students on how to improve their learning. Class tests should be adapted to contain levels of differentiation which would provide challenge for students of all abilities. The Science and Biology department or even the whole-school may wish to explore the area of ‘Assessment for Learning’. This aspect of the continuing professional development of the staff may take place during part or all of a staff development day. Information about this approach to assessment may be found on www.ncca.ie.
Homework is regularly assigned and well attempted by the students. A whole-school homework policy has been formulated and this has been adopted and included in the Science plan. This is commended. In some cases a high level of attention to homework monitoring was evidenced and excellent annotated feedback was noted. It is recommended that this practice is extended throughout the department and that the homework policy is consistently applied by all teachers. Students need more formative feedback on areas where they are in need of individual improvement both in written homework and class tests.
The allocation of marks to students in some class groups for practical work is in line with the introduction of coursework in the revised junior Science programme and is to be commended. This rewards and encourages students for their efforts. It is recommended that the good practice of assessing students’ practical work/laboratory notebooks as a component of the end-of-term examinations be introduced in all year groups.
The following are the main strengths and areas for development identified in the evaluation Science and Biology:
Whole school support and overall provision for Science and Biology are very strong.
Management and teachers are to be commended for the proactive approach in developing and modernising the range of resources available to support teaching and learning.
Good opportunities for co-curricular activities are provided in the sciences.
There is good planning practice. The school supports and provides time for team planning. A comprehensive Junior Cycle Science plan has been developed. Planning for each class group and preparation for each lesson are of a high standard.
There is an atmosphere of good collaborative planning and a sense of collegiality amongst the Science and Biology teachers.
Lessons observed were well paced and well executed and all lessons were interesting.
The purpose of each lesson was clearly established from the outset.
Questioning was effectively applied. However, there was at times a need to vary the type of questions so as to challenge students of all abilities.
Practical work is emphasised with all classes. The availability of well-organised and varied resources strongly supports its implementation.
Students demonstrate good practical skills and can discuss their findings among members of their group.
Students participated well in their lessons and demonstrated clear evidence of sound previous learning.
Students have a good attitude towards Science and Biology.
There is a good uptake of higher level in both subjects, particularly in Biology.
Homework is regularly assigned and well attempted by the students. Class tests are frequently given. However, there is scope for the expansion of assessment strategies.
The allocation of marks to students in some class groups for practical work is in line with the introduction of coursework in the revised junior Science programme and should be included as a component of the end-of-term examinations in all groups.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
The timetable allocation to Science in first year should be reviewed for next year.
Consideration could be given to the introduction of Science into the LCA programme.
Over the coming year, the Science department should focus on developing two existing areas of the Science plan; assessment methodologies and the provision for students with Special Educational Needs.
Establish a form of storage for shared teaching and learning resources, such as an easily accessible filing cabinet, or a ‘sharing’ enabled electronic file on the local area network.
The Science department should explore the area of differentiation in Science and Biology teaching so as to meet the mixed ability levels within each class group.
Greater consideration should be given to varying the type of questioning used so as to challenge students of all abilities.
Ensure the approach taken to prescribed practical work in junior Science is investigative.
The Science and Biology department should explore the area of ‘Assessment for Learning’.
The practice of monitoring student work, both homework and laboratory copies, and the application of annotated feedback should be more consistently applied throughout.
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.