Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science
Mullingar, Co. Westmeath
Roll number: 63270K
Date of inspection: 7 March 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 June 2006
This Subject Inspection Report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Mhuire, Mullingar. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Junior Certificate 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.
The evaluation of Junior Certificate Science at Coláiste Mhuire, Mullingar, Co. Westmeath was carried out over the course of two days. It commenced with a pre-evaluation meeting with the teachers of Science. At this meeting, the objectives and procedures of the evaluation were explained. Following this, a number of first, second and third-year Science classes were observed.
Junior Certificate Science is a core subject for the three years of junior cycle. All incoming first-year students are placed in one of two bands, based on the results of an entrance exam and on information received from their primary schools. Approximately 60% of students are placed in band A. Those students who are in need of greater support are placed in band B. All classes are of mixed ability within their band and band A classes are larger. Provision is made to allow some movement of students between bands, subject to performance.
First-year Science classes are allocated three class periods each week, in the form of three single periods. This increases to four periods, all single, for second and third-year students. The number of class periods is below syllabus guidelines for first-year students but within guidelines for second and third-year students. The provision of a double period each week is recommended in the Junior Certificate Science syllabus and while the school considers its provision to be appropriate to its circumstances and to the needs of its students, time allocation should be kept under review.
The school currently is offering Agricultural Science, Biology, Chemistry and Physics as optional subjects to Leaving Certificate level. Following consultation with the Guidance Counsellor, with subject teachers and with their parents, third-year students are surveyed regarding their subject preferences for Leaving Certificate. The results of the survey are used to create a “best-fit” model of options from which students make their final choice of subjects. Agricultural Science, Chemistry and Physics are popular subjects with students. Biology has been reintroduced for the current fifth-year cohort, having been off the curriculum for the past two years. It is hoped that the position of Biology as a Leaving Certificate subject in the school will be maintained into the future. In order to support this, it is recommended that the timetabling provision for Biology should include at least one double class each week, as per syllabus guidelines.
There are seven teachers of Science in the school and two of these are Biology teachers. Opportunities have been availed of for continuing professional development during recent and current national in-service training programmes in the physical Sciences, Biology and Junior Certificate Science. Management is commended on the commitment given to facilitate attendance at in-service training. All teachers are members of the Irish Science Teachers Association. In addition, the school encourages active participation by students in the Young Scientist exhibition.
There are three laboratories in the school, one of which is relatively new. They are in generally good condition and are adequate for their purpose. There is an adequate storage and preparation area shared by two of the laboratories and another such area is attached to the third laboratory. A separate demonstration room is also available. These facilities are used for Science classes only, though not all Science classes take place in a laboratory. Having appropriate posters and charts on display enhanced the learning environment in some of the classrooms used to accommodate Science classes. It is recommended, however, that maximum use be made of laboratory facilities before classrooms are used for Science classes.
A range of health and safety equipment was observed, including first aid kits, fume cupboards, and gas and electrical isolation switches. A high priority was given to the active management of safety issues during student practical work, as evidenced by the wearing of safety glasses by the students in one class observed. This is praiseworthy. The school has a health and safety statement that was drawn up about four years ago. The statement is reviewed annually.
The school is actively engaged in the process of school development planning. Many elements of a school plan exist, for example a code of discipline and a homework policy are in place. Continued development is currently underway on policies such as a substance abuse policy. There is also a short induction procedure in place for new and trainee teachers.
The Science team have a formal department structure but there is not a recognised head or co-ordinator for Science. There was evidence of a strong sense of collegiality among the Science teachers. A post-holder carries out duties such as stock control and ordering chemicals and equipment. Three formal department meetings are held each year for the purpose of discussing issues such as subject planning and common testing. Frequent informal meetings are also held to discuss matters of more immediate relevance. There is no formal budget allocated to the Science department. However, funds are provided as required and teachers have expressed satisfaction with the level of support they receive. The level of co-operation among the members of the Science teaching team is laudable.
There is a three-year curricular plan in place for the teaching of Junior Certificate Science. This plan, while being of a broad and general nature, and listing the topics to be covered each term, has facilitated the frequent provision of common assessments for Science students. More specific curricular plans, with a list of topics to be covered, and also a list of student practical work to be carried out on a short-term basis, should be prepared and put in place. Teaching and learning methodologies should be included in these plans in order to ensure that teachers do not unwittingly restrict themselves to a preferred dominant style of teaching and so that material is taught in a manner appropriate to the material itself and to the students being taught. Further helpful advice is available on the School Development Planning Initiative website, www.sdpi.ie.
In the classes observed there was evidence of short-term planning. Teachers were familiar with the subject matter of their lessons and there was a theme running through each lesson. Materials necessary for class had been prepared in advance. This preparation contributed to the quality of learning and is praiseworthy.
In all classes visited, there was a disciplined atmosphere. Rapport with students was very good and this is to be commended. Teachers were enthusiastic, warm, patient and considerate of students. Their approach to their work was professional and business-like and a good learning environment was evident in all lessons observed. Good progress was made in all lessons. The level of two-way communication in classrooms was relevant to the task at hand. Students were always attentive, interested and anxious to participate in the learning process. The topics covered in the classes observed included the lungs, breathing, reproduction, separation techniques, water, magnetism and density.
A range of teaching methodologies was observed, including student practical work, the use of OHP transparencies, board work, questioning, explanations and student written work. Lessons were well planned, well structured, and had a clear focus. Students were kept busy and actively engaged at all times 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. This is excellent practice.
Questioning of students was frequently used to check on levels of knowledge and understanding, which is to be commended. Some excellent examples of the use of directed questions were observed where students were given time to formulate their answers and were encouraged to put up their hands before a respondent was chosen. Questions ranged from the factual, testing recall, to questions of a higher order that were more challenging and encouraged students to think at a deeper level. This is good practice. This methodology encouraged all of the students to engage in the teaching and learning process and it is recommended that all teachers adopt it. Use of general questions, eliciting a chorus answers, should be guarded against. The level of student engagement was generally good and students were enthusiastic. The use of directed questions will also help to maintain this very positive aspect of the observed classroom interaction even during more theoretical classes.
During the observed student practical work the students worked in groups of from two to four. It was obvious from their behaviour that the students were accustomed to carrying out practical work and the Science teachers are to be praised for their commitment to seeing that their students get the opportunity to do this practical work themselves. Students displayed a very good level of skills during the course of their work and 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. Similar plenary sessions were held when the practical activities were completed, in order to review the work done and to emphasise what had been learned. This is excellent practice.
Teacher movement among the students, assisting, examining and encouraging, was evident in all lessons observed. Teachers were very affirming of student effort and were always encouraging and positive in correcting students with appropriate interventions. This is praiseworthy. Homework given was appropriate to the lesson content and was designed to assist the student in learning and retaining the topic.
Students demonstrated a positive attitude towards Science 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, through correction of homework and through teacher movement and observation of students during class.
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 Science. While the quality of most of the notebooks was excellent, a few were of a lesser quality. It is recommended that laboratory notebooks are checked and annotated on a regular basis, by all teachers. This is an important means of encouraging students and of pointing the way towards improvement.
All classes are assessed three times during the course of the school year. The first assessment is in November, the second in mid February and the third is at the end of May. For third and fifth-year students, the February assessment is in the form of mock exams. Additional testing is at the discretion of individual teachers. Records of assessment are held in teachers’ own diaries and on computer in the school office. In addition, the principal, the Guidance Counsellor and the year heads hold a copy of assessment records.
Results and progress reports are communicated to parents following the November, February and May assessments. A newsletter is issued on these occasions also, to keep parents fully informed of other school news and events. Communication with parents is also achieved by means of parent-teacher meetings, held once per year for each class. There are five such meetings each year, held in accordance with Department of Education and Science guidelines.
There was evidence of good record keeping by teachers, covering such areas as student attendance, assessments, behaviour and work completed. This is good practice. The recorded information can be used to build up student profiles and can form the basis of very useful evidence in communicating student progress to parents and in advising both students and parents on choice of subjects at senior level and on what level of examination paper to choose in certificate examinations.
The following are the main strengths and areas for development identified in the evaluation:
· A professional approach is taken to the teaching of Science in Coláiste Mhuire, Mullingar.
· Science is well supported within the school, with good provision of resources.
· Opportunities for continual professional development in Science have been availed of and encouraged by management, which is to be commended.
· There is excellent rapport between teachers and students. A positive atmosphere was observed in the classes visited. Students were motivated and eager to engage in learning processes.
· Lessons observed were well structured and planned to ensure continuity and progression, with careful advance preparation of the necessary resource material.
· A wide range of teaching methodologies was used, to good effect. This stimulated interest and helped to motivate students.
· Student practical work was observed with further evidence in the students’ laboratory notebooks, which is to be commended.
· Areas for development include timetabling and classroom procedure.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following recommendations are made:
· The provision of only single class periods for Junior Certificate Science should be kept under review.
· It is recommended that the timetabling provision for Biology should include at least one double class each week, as per syllabus guidelines.
· It is recommended that use of laboratory facilities be maximised.
· It is recommended that all teachers adopt the practice of the use of directed questions.
· It is recommended that all laboratory notebooks are checked and annotated on a regular basis.
A post-evaluation meeting was held with the principal and with the teachers of Science at the conclusion of the evaluation at which the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.