An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Biology
Christian Brothers College
Sidney Hill, Wellington Road, Cork
Roll number: 62520C
Date of inspection: 5 April 2006
Date of issue of report: 26 October 2006
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Leaving Certificate Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Christian Brothers College, Wellington Road, Cork. 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 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 deputy principal. 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.
All students at Christian Brothers College take Science to Junior Certificate level, in banded class groups. Following this, students enter a compulsory Transition Year (TY) programme. Students choose their Leaving Certificate subjects before TY. As a result Biology, Physics and Chemistry are all offered to the students in TY and are located in different option blocks. Student options for senior cycle subjects are used to create a “best-fit” model, which results in a yearly change in the composition of the option blocks, in favour of student demand, within the constraints of timetabling and staff allocation. Currently one double class and two single classes are allocated weekly for each of these subjects during TY. The TY Biology programme viewed contains four Leaving Certificate topics. It is important that the programme content for TY is not solely based on the Leaving Certificate Programme, but contains other areas of study that will support and complement the Leaving Certificate syllabus. Fewer than half of the students at the school study Biology, Physics and Chemistry for the Leaving Certificate. The time allocation of five lessons, comprising one double and three single lessons weekly per science subject is within curriculum guidelines. In addition, the current provision of double lessons in Biology facilitates the organisation of practical work as required by the syllabus. Two different approaches to the organisation of students in year one and year two of Leaving Certificate Biology classes currently prevail in the school. Year one students are banded on an ability basis with year two students organised on mixed ability. The school at the time of the inspection had not decided which method of organisation would be implemented in the next academic year.
The school has three laboratories and a demonstration room. The laboratories are designated individually to Biology, Physics and Chemistry with all also designated for Junior Certificate Science. There are two preparation and storage areas. The main area and larger of the two is shared between two laboratories and the demonstration room. The Biology laboratory, located across the corridor from the other facilities, has its own small storage area attached. This arrangement allows for the sharing of resources. Consideration should be given to the location and storage of some expensive items of equipment, for example the location viewed for microscopes. The organisation of some topic-specific boxes of equipment for practical work is also noted, which is good practice. It is recommended that this practice should be expanded and developed further. A corroded steel storage cabinet located in the main preparation area needs replacing. A specific budget for the sciences is not allocated. However, a list of items required for the upkeep and development of the sciences in the school is presented to management. This practice is running satisfactorily in the school. Resources observed within the laboratories included a computer (with broadband access), data projector, printer, scanner, overhead projector, television and video. These will support the teaching and learning process.
There are currently eight teachers of science subjects in the school, with three teachers delivering the Leaving Certificate Biology programme. Other members of the science staff are also qualified to teach the Leaving Certificate Biology programme. In addition, the school employs a laboratory assistant. There is a very large demand for access to the laboratories in the school. As a result, the science facilities are dedicated to science subjects but not all science classes currently can occur within these facilities. This means that there is rotation for laboratory access among all the science staff. Biology classes retain the same teacher from TY into year one and two of Leaving Certificate, with teachers assigned to classes by management.
The school has a health and safety statement, which has recently been reviewed. The school has also allocated a post of responsibility to this area and has a health and safety committee. A member of the science team is on this committee and management stated that this committee meets twice a term, which is good practice. There is good provision of safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, safety blankets, safety glasses etc., in the laboratories. The inclusion of more safety signage in the laboratories, to inform students of what is good practice, should be considered. Copies of the published guidelines on safety – Safety in School Science and Safety in the School Laboratory, published by the Department of Education and Science in 1996, are available. Additional copies if required can be downloaded from the internet at http://www.psi-net.org/chemistry.
Wall charts were viewed in some of the science facilities. The use of visual stimuli in the laboratories to include the use of display boards which contain for example, charts, diagrams, displays of student work and recent science-related articles could be considered. Regular updating of this material should help to maintain the interest and stimulation of the students. As an initiative to further raise the profile of the sciences in the school, notice boards that display student work and other science-related material could be positioned in the corridors near the science facilities.
Opportunities for continuing professional development in Junior Science and previously in Biology and the Physical Sciences have been availed of and endorsed by management. All teachers are encouraged by management to be members of their subject association.
The school is engaged in school development planning (SDP) and was part of the pilot project for Whole School Evaluation. Management stated that the school was about to start a review of its current school plan. Curricular plans for Biology in TY and year one and two of Leaving Certificate were presented. The plans contained information on syllabus content, organisation, the textbook to be used, how students keep records of work and outlined some assessment procedures. The common TY programme also contained information under the following headings: aims, objectives, resources, teaching and learning strategies, assessment and evaluation. To build on the existing planning, the curricular content of the TY programme should be reviewed and the individual Biology planning documents should be discussed and reviewed among the team members. Areas for discussion could include common curricular schemes of work, time allocation, student access and level, class organisation, record keeping, support and planning for students with special educational needs, in-career development, cross-curricular planning, sharing ideas for good practice, teaching resources, ideas for practical investigations, homework and integration of information and communication technology (ICT). The planning document should also highlight any further resource implications presented by the revised syllabus and include procedures to acquire and access these resources in the future. Discussion and reflection on the experiences gained through involvement with the revised syllabus should also be a major influence of the plan. Other science colleagues who are qualified but are not currently teaching the Leaving Certificate Biology programme in the school would benefit at attendance at some of these planning meeting.
To facilitate the planning process, a formal meeting time is allocated each September by management. This meeting deals mainly with organisational issues within the sciences. In addition, a further two to three formal planning meetings of the science team occur during the academic year. Informal co-ordination and communication is also conducted on an ongoing basis, which helps to maintain collaboration. The school has allocated a post of responsibility to encompass the position of head of science at the school.
Short-term planning was evident in the lessons observed. The lessons observed had a theme and there was an evident familiarity in the teaching of the subject matter. Prior preparation of the materials, chemicals and the apparatus required for student investigative work had also been undertaken. The variety of resources employed ranged through the use of ICT for PowerPoint presentations, models and specimens, textbooks, the whiteboard and various types of handout material, which aided student learning. Field trips have also been planned for the students of Biology.
The classes observed had a disciplined atmosphere with a clear and fair code of behaviour. A positive student-teacher rapport was noted throughout the classes, which contributed to a constructive learning environment and is to be commended. Students were generally attentive and interested in participating in the learning processes while displaying good teamwork skills in the observed practical work. In general, there was an appropriate pace to the lessons observed which facilitated student learning. The circulatory system, the heart, germination, asexual reproduction in the plant and revision of practical work through answering examination questions were the topics of study in the lessons observed.
The observed teaching methodologies included student practical work in small groups, whole- class teaching, questioning, use of State examination papers, explanation, textbook use, whiteboard work, use of models and specimens, use of handouts and worksheets and PowerPoint presentations. Although clear, the use of more colours on the whiteboard should be considered in order to enhance students’ visualisation of the material. Whole-class teaching occurred especially at the start of a lesson. When the students knew the objectives for the lesson it helped to focus their learning. Setting learning outcomes for the students will further focus their learning and it could allow for self-assessment of the lesson by the student. Whole-class teaching was also a feature of theory delivery. The delivery of new information is important to student learning. However, it is important to intersperse the teaching of theory with other activities in order to reinforce the material taught and maintain student engagement. The resources used helped to enhance teaching and consolidate learning. The observed use of visual material in the delivery of concepts was very worthwhile for the students’ understanding and enhanced the learning environment. This approach could also be worthwhile when students are engaged in revision. Sharing of resources prepared by teachers, particularly in the area of ICT, is to be encouraged to assure the quality of teaching and learning. Non-reliance solely on any one method in the delivery of the subjects is recommended to ensure student engagement.
Students during observed practical activities worked mainly in pairs or groups of three. The materials and equipment needed for the practical activity were organised and ready for use by the students. Safety precautions were outlined to the students and reinforced by the teacher, which is to be commended. However, in the interest of safety, it is recommended that students’ school bags need to be stored in an area away from where the practical work is going on. Observed practical activities began with a degree of instruction, demonstration and guidance. As the students carried out their practical activities, guidance, feedback and questioning occurred as the teacher circulated around the room, which is good practice. It is important that reference to actual results be avoided prior to the start of the practical activity. Students could be asked for their opinion or hypothesis, which they can subsequently accept or reject upon completion of their practical investigation. The use of a plenary recall session near the completion of a practical class where students share and discuss their results and conclusions, under teacher guidance, could also be considered. This might help to ensure that students become more actively engaged in their learning and could also help them to make a record of their own investigative work. This approach could also be adopted, for example, to summarise and draw together key points for the students under the guidance of the teacher during a theory class.
In the lessons observed, questioning to named students occurred. Many of the questions asked were at a factual level, testing knowledge only. More probing higher order questions testing levels of student understanding was observed during revision of material. More use of this type of questioning is recommended during lessons. It is also important to ensure that all students are engaged through questioning at different points throughout the lesson to ensure that their learning does not become purely passive. In addition, chorus answering to questioning should be discouraged as it can be very difficult to know how well individual students understand the material.
All students had laboratory notebooks or files in which they recorded all their investigative work. Monitoring of this on a regular basis is to be encouraged to assure the quality of work presented by students, as it will inform them of the need to make any required corrections to their work. The inclusion of practical work in the current scheme of assessment would be beneficial, as it would provide further motivation for engagement with the practical element of the course and help focus the students to use their own words in practical write-ups. Textbooks were used in the lessons observed. Their use was limited, with teaching being actively carried out by the teachers. Consideration could be given to whether students have their textbooks or other material open during the delivery of new material and during the questioning on such material.
Correction of written homework was observed through questioning of the students on the written material completed. During and at the completion of the lessons, homework was assigned. Homework assigned was appropriate to the lesson material and was designed to assist the students in learning and retaining the topic.
In the main, the lessons observed indicated a good level of achievement by the students. Student interest and the level of engagement observed during lessons indicate a positive attitude towards Biology.
Formative assessment of the students is carried out on an ongoing basis by questioning in class, and by means of homework. Formal assessments are held for all classes at Christmas and non-State examination classes at summer. State examination classes have pre examinations at the end of January or the start of February of their examination year. The teachers mark these scripts. Formal reports are sent to parents or guardians following all examinations. In addition to reports, parent-teacher meetings occur for all classes annually. Furthermore, parents or guardians of students can make an appointment to meet with any teacher to discuss student progress.
Assessments at the end of units are administered during lesson time at the discretion of the teacher. The number of tests administered to their classes in each year group could be formalised and a method of continuous assessment developed. The inclusion of practical work in the scheme of assessment is recommended, as it provides motivation for engagement by all students with the practical element of the course and ensures regular monitoring of student laboratory notebooks. This could be considered especially for students in non-State examination year groups, acting as a stimulus for learning and a means of reward for hard work.
The following are the main strengths and areas for development identified in the evaluation:
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
A post-evaluation meeting was held 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
The Board of Management is happy to have had this independent external assessment of its service delivery in Leaving Certificate Biology. We would like to acknowledge the professional and comprehensive manner in which the examination was undertaken by the Department and by its Inspector. We welcome the report which affirms the high quality of the teaching and educational practice provided by the College. We would like to commend and acknowledge the commitment of the Biology (and Science) teaching staff in their efforts to seek continuous improvement of performance in this area.
We recognise the validity of the report’s findings whose recommendations will form a central part of our ongoing review of practice and our continuing work on school development planning.
Area 2: Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection
While noting the positive overall findings of the report, the Board also welcomes the recommendations for further improvement which are suggested in the conclusions. We wish to confirm that we will move without delay to consider how these recommendations might best be applied for the benefit of our students.
The School Plan is due for review in the coming academic year, 2006/2007 and, in this context, this report provides valuable input in the Biology (and Science) field.