An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Physics and Science
De La Salle College
St Mantan’s Road, Wicklow
Roll number: 61850S
Date of inspection: 9 February 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 June 2006
This Subject Inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in De la Salle College Wicklow. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Physics and Science 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 the 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 a mandatory subject at De La Salle College, Wicklow. Classes are of mixed ability and generally retain the same teacher throughout the junior cycle. The majority of students study the higher-level course in Science. However uptake of higher-level Science has somewhat decreased over recent years. It is recommended that this issue be addressed.
The Transition Year programme (TY) is mandatory in the school. A written Transition Year programme is available. Parents of third-tear students are invited to an information evening in March regarding subject choices. The guidance counsellor and subject teachers address students and advise them on suitable subjects for the Leaving Certificate examination. Option blocks are formed in which the vast majority of students get their desired choice. Physics, Chemistry and Biology are currently offered at senior cycle. However, students are asked to choose their Leaving Certificate subjects before Transition Year has commenced. It is recommended that students get “taster subjects” in Transition Year so that they can make an informed choice for the Leaving Certificate towards the end of Transition Year. School management should refer to Circular M1/00 which states “A Transition Year Programme is not part of the Leaving Certificate Programme and should not be seen as an opportunity for spending three years rather than two studying Leaving Certificate material”.
Numbers choosing Physics have remained stable but low over recent years. It is recommended that measures be put in place to increase the uptake of Physics so that the subject remains a viable option in the school.
The time allocation to Science and Physics is not satisfactory. Junior cycle classes have three forty-minute class periods per week. Most classes have one double and one single class period, or, in the case of one first-year and one third-year class, three single class periods per week. The Science syllabus recommends 240 to 270 hours of class contact time, normally equivalent to four classes per week, over the three years of the junior cycle. It is recommended that the school allocates sufficient time to the teaching of Science in accordance with syllabus guidelines. Furthermore, it is of concern that there is no double period for Science allocated to some classes. It is recommended that a double period be allocated so that there is sufficient time to carry out investigative practical work.
At senior cycle, Physics is allocated two double class periods in fifth year. The Physics Leaving Certificate Guidelines for Teachers recommends class contact time of 180 hours over the duration of the course. This would equate to five forty-minute class periods each week over the two-year Leaving Certificate cycle. It is recommended that school management gives consideration to the allocation of extra time to teach Physics in accordance with the Guidelines.
The practice of having two double class periods or one double and one single class period has adverse implications for teacher contact points with students and continuity of work over the year. In addition it has implications for restricted allocation of assignments and homework to students. It is recommended that this practice be reconsidered.
There are four teachers in the Science department in the school. In addition the school has a laboratory assistant. Teachers need to be updated and upskilled for the requirements of the revised syllabus and they achieve this in part by attending the junior cycle Science inservice programme.
There is one Science laboratory in the school. It is bright and spacious and well maintained. This is commended. An area for the preparation and storage of materials adjoins the laboratory and a small library is provided within the laboratory. Presses are labelled and equipment is stored in an orderly fashion. One Science teacher is based in the laboratory and exchanges classrooms informally with another Science teacher when requested. Many practical lessons take place in classrooms. In the interests of investigative practical work being carried out effectively and in the interests of best practice it is recommended that a laboratory timetable be drawn up to make the laboratory available to each teacher for a minimum of a double lesson per week for each class.
A computer is located in the preparation and storage area. In addition a laptop computer purchased with the Physical Sciences Initiative grant is available together with datalogging equipment. The school has recently been connected to broadband. It is recommended that Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) facilities in the laboratory be upgraded and that teachers should seek training in the use of ICT in teaching and learning. Science ICT courses are currently available from the Second Level Support Service. There is a budget for Science, and the Science grants have been spent on various essential items of apparatus in the laboratories.
A health and safety statement has been prepared but it is in need of updating. Safety equipment including fire extinguishers, gas and electrical isolation switches have been installed in the laboratory. In addition laboratory rules and emergency phone numbers are clearly displayed on the laboratory door. This is commended. The school has developed a clearly laid out document on laboratory management and practical work and for this it is commended. The duties of the class teacher and laboratory assistant are listed and specific reference is made to health and safety.
School development planning is ongoing and subject planning was formally put in place in January 2006 following attendance at a School Development Planning Initiative inservice day by the deputy principal. The Science department has met once formally to date. This meeting was minuted, had an agreed agenda and used a template supplied at the inservice meeting. This is very good practice and is commended.
The school has a rotating Science co-ordinator who draws up an agreed agenda for meetings and consults with senior management regarding issues that may arise. In addition the school employs a part-time laboratory assistant who is also the school caretaker. The laboratory assistant works under the direction of the class teacher and helps with the management and organisation of the Science department.
Significant planning is in place. A common approach to assessment has been adopted and there is a common plan for Junior Certificate Science. This plan documents resources that may be used in Science lessons. In addition teaching methodologies are listed. Details of junior-cycle Science inservice are listed together with the teachers who attended. The agreed curriculum content at junior cycle is given in terms of textbook chapter numbers. In the interests of best practice it would better to base the agreed curriculum content on the syllabus. It is recommended that the Science plan be developed and extended incorporating senior-cycle Science subjects. It should document existing policy on the teaching of Science and plan for the future of Science in the school. In this way issues such as the uptake of Science subjects at senior level; timetabling of classes; access to the laboratories; time allocation to Science; materials and resources; best practice in methodologies; agreed learning outcomes; and curricular provision could be addressed.
The resource teacher informs staff regarding students with special educational needs. The precise nature of the students’ learning difficulties is outlined and advice is given on how best to work with these students.
Very good preparation and advance planning of the lessons was observed during the course of the visit. Teaching and learning were enhanced as equipment was ready in advance and handouts had been prepared and ready for distribution. The work of the teachers in this regard is highly commended.
The quality of teaching and learning was very high. A good learning atmosphere existed in all lessons observed and participation levels in all aspects of lessons were good. Students were affirmed when they had done good work or given good answers to questions and they responded positively. They showed enthusiasm for their work and a very good rapport existed between students and teachers. Teachers were sensitive to the individual needs of students and circulated around the classroom giving expert guidance and support when required. Students were generally addressed by name and an atmosphere of mutual respect was cultivated.
The whiteboard was used effectively. Key concepts were highlighted throughout the lessons. For example, when students were introduced to particle physics, commendably clear explanations of these difficult concepts were provided. Mathematical problems were clearly laid out and students were contributing effectively to the lesson by calculating results which were written up on the whiteboard. The textbook was used extensively during some investigations and classroom discussions. It is recommended that worksheets be used more widely as an aid to focus students’ attention on the material being discussed or under investigation. Relevant follow-up homework questions could be added to the worksheets to reinforce further the content of the lessons.
Questioning was used effectively in all lessons observed. Many lessons began with revision questions. Constant affirmation was given when students answered correctly. Follow-up probing questions were asked later in the lessons to stimulate discussion and interest. In addition there were many questions from students who were motivated to find out more information on the particular topic being discussed. These questions were answered skilfully and in some cases were posed to the whole class for general discussion.
Practical investigations formed part of many lessons observed. In all cases there was a strong emphasis on safety. Students worked collaboratively in small groups. In addition to the general guidance given, each group received individual help and support. Clear explanations of practical procedures were given. This was observed for example, where students were investigating the separation of sand and salt from rock salt. The method was discussed in advance of the investigation and students worked collaboratively. All students actively participated in the investigation and were affirmed when they reached the desired result. A further example occurred when students were examining onion cells. The investigation was carried out efficiently following clear instructions and a practical demonstration on slide preparation and the workings of a microscope. Students carried out the practical investigations enthusiastically. The apparatus was put away in an orderly fashion at the conclusion of each lesson.
An investigative approach to learning was evident in the lessons observed. This is highly commended. Biology Investigative Title 2006 for Coursework B was discussed in one class visited during the inspection. Students were asked how best to investigate the assignment regarding the soaking of marrowfat peas in water to aid germination. Planning was discussed and key words were explained clearly. The conditions for germination were revised with the aid of a demonstration. The stages in the germination of seeds were thoroughly discussed and demonstrated. Students’ answers were affirmed. Students worked diligently on their assignment.
In many lessons, Science was made relevant and linked to students’ everyday experiences. The real-life applications of the material being taught were emphasised and this practice is commendable.
Formal examinations take place at Christmas and in the summer term. Common examinations are given in Science to first-year students and this practice will be extended across the junior- cycle classes. In addition teachers use end of chapter tests and end of topic tests to assess their classes.
Most teachers give credit for practical work completed and written up in the laboratory notebooks. This policy is commended as it reflects the aims and objectives of the revised Science syllabus. In addition it encourages high standards in the carrying out and recording of practical investigations. It is recommended that this practice be extended across all classes.
There is ongoing assessment and revision by means of class questioning. Students were generally confident at answering questions on their work during the lessons observed.
The practical notebooks are taken up by some teachers. In some classes students had recorded a small number of practical experiments. Annotation of notebooks and follow up on student errors were generally not in evidence. It is recommended that practical notebooks be annotated regularly and corrections should be followed up. This practice would improve the quality of practical work being presented. It is important that practical work is carried out regularly with all students at junior and senior level. In addition students need to write up the experiments completed in order to take ownership of their completed work.
Towards the end of many observed lessons homework was assigned. In many cases it consisted of completion of problems or completion of a practical investigation.
Annual parent-teacher meetings take place for each year group. Two written reports are sent to parents each year. A homework journal system operates in which parents are kept informed regularly of students’ homework progress.
Students who are underachieving are put ‘on report’ by the year head for one week. The students are advised and encouraged to improve. If necessary a meeting of the year head, principal and parents is convened. In addition the student may be referred to the guidance counsellor or resource teacher. The support given by the school is commended.
Students from De La Salle College have participated in many extra-curricular and out-of-school activities. These include the Science Olympiads and the BT Young Scientists’ Competition. The encouragement and support given by the teachers in this regard is commended.
The following are the main strengths and areas for development identified in the evaluation:
· The commitment shown by the Physics and Science teachers in De La Salle College has been crucial in driving the development of Physics and Science in the school.
· Good planning is evident in the work of individual teachers.
· In general, the lessons observed were well planned, had a clear structure and were delivered at a pace appropriate to the students. The lessons were presented and designed to facilitate the active involvement of all pupils in learning.
· The practical work was well organised with an emphasis on an investigative approach to learning.
· Assessment of students was carried out on an on-going basis with extra support for students with special needs.
· The school provides a caring and supportive learning environment.
· There is good whole-school support for Physics and Science in that all students take Science for the Junior Certificate and Transition Year and Physics, Chemistry Biology are available to Leaving Certificate students.
· The school encourages and facilitates teachers to attend inservice.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following recommendations are made:
· Students should get “taster subjects” in Transition Year so that they can make an informed choice for the Leaving Certificate towards the end of Transition Year.
· Measures should be put in place to increase the uptake of Physics so that the subject remains a viable option in the school.
· The practice of having only two points in the week during which the teacher has contact with a class should be reconsidered.
· The school should allocate sufficient time to the teaching of Science in accordance with syllabus guidelines and a double period should be allocated to each class group so that there is sufficient time to carry out investigative practical work. School management should give consideration to the allocation of extra time to teach Physics in accordance with the Physics Leaving Certificate Guidelines for Teachers.
· A laboratory timetable should be drawn up to make the laboratory available to each teacher for a minimum of a double lesson each week.
· ICT facilities in the laboratory should be upgraded and teachers should seek training in the use of ICT in teaching and learning.
· The Science plan should be developed and extended, incorporating senior Science subjects.
· Worksheets should be used more widely as an aid to focus students’ attention on the material being discussed or under investigation.
· Practical notebooks should be annotated regularly and corrections should be followed up by teachers. Students need to write up the experiments completed in order to take ownership of their completed work.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the principal and with the teachers of Physics and Science at the conclusion of the evaluation at which the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.