Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Biology
Brigidine Secondary School
Mountrath, Co. Laois
Roll number: 63410A
Date of inspection: 24 February 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 June 2006
This Subject Inspection Report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in the Brigidine Secondary School, Mountrath. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Leaving Certificate 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 deputy 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 Leaving Certificate Biology at the Brigidine Secondary School, Mountrath, Co. Laois was carried out over the course of two days. It commenced with a visit to a double sixth-year Biology class. This was followed by a meeting with the teachers of Biology. At this meeting, the objectives and procedures of the evaluation were explained. Following this, two fifth-year Biology classes and a sixth-year Biology class were also observed.
Junior Certificate Science is a core subject for first-year students. On entering second-year, students must choose between Science and Home Economics as Junior Certificate subjects. In the past two years, a small majority of students have chosen Science. There is a maximum class size of twenty-four students at Junior Certificate level. First-year Science classes are allocated three class periods each week, in the form of one double period and one single period. This increases to four periods, one double and two single periods, 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. It is suggested that consideration be given to running taster programmes for the first half-term for new first-year students in a range of subjects and that choices for Junior Certificate may be made then. This has the benefit of allowing students to sample subjects before making a choice while also providing the maximum time for them to study their chosen subjects to Junior Certificate.
The school is currently offering Biology, Physics and Chemistry as optional subjects to Leaving Certificate level. All classes are of mixed ability. Students are provided with the opportunity to choose their own subjects for senior cycle. These choices are then used to create a “best-fit” model, accommodating as many students as possible. It is commendable that a school of the size of the Brigidine Secondary School has managed to maintain such a range Science subjects on its curriculum. A majority of students choose Biology and maximum class size may exceed twenty-four students on occasion. Biology students are allocated one double period and three single periods each week. This is within syllabus guidelines.
An optional Transition Year (TY) programme is also offered. TY students are allocated one double and one single class for Science each week. A range of topics is studied in Biology, including genetics and ecology. The course is activity-oriented and is also used as a taster to assist students in choosing their subjects for Leaving Certificate.
There are four 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. The school encourages active participation by students in the Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition and in Science Week.
The school has one Science laboratory and it is adequately equipped for its purpose. It is not used exclusively for Science classes and while many Science classes take place in the laboratory, other classes are held there also. It is recommended that maximum use be made of the laboratory for Science classes before classes in other subjects are held there. There is a preparation and storage area adjacent to the laboratory. The level of ventilation in this area is poor and there is a potential safety hazard. It must be improved as a matter of urgency. Resources available include an overhead projector, an internet-enabled desktop computer and data projector, models and charts. Management is to be commended on the provision of such resources. However, the learning environment could be further enhanced by displays of student work which would also serve to reinforce learning.
A range of health and safety equipment was observed, including a first aid kit, a fire extinguisher, a fire blanket and a fume cupboard. A health and safety statement was drawn up in 2002 with the assistance of an outside facilitator and with input from staff, including the Science teachers. It was last reviewed two years ago and is due to be reviewed again in the near future.
The school is actively engaged in the process of school development planning. Many elements of a school plan exist, including a code of discipline and policies related to admissions, homework, substance abuse and acceptable internet use. The school is scheduled to amalgamate with two nearby schools in two years time, but it intends to continue with further policy development in the interim.
The Science team do not have a formal department structure. Co-ordination is managed informally and there is a good level of collegiality among the Science teaching team. Frequent informal meetings are held in order to manage issues such as planning of curricula, stock control and ordering, and to discuss items of immediate concern. Funding for equipment and consumables is provided on request, subject to resources. It is recommended that a more formal and organised Science department structure be put in place. The possibility of making planning time available to the Science teachers should also be explored. Given the size of the school, and that fact that it will be involved in an amalgamation in the not too distant future, it would be to the advantage of the Science teaching team to work within a more formal structure. There are efficiencies to be gained in terms of laboratory management and the management of curricular issues. It is also important that the Science teachers begin to explore their attitude to the wide range of issues that will affect them in the amalgamation.
There is a two-year curricular plan in place for the teaching of Biology. This plan is suitably based on the syllabus document but is of a broad and general nature. More specific curricular plans, with a list of topics to be covered and a list of student practical work to be carried out on a short-term basis, should be prepared and put in place with regard to the Leaving Certificate Biology programme. 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. Detailed curriculum planning and co-ordination is a necessary precursor to the introduction of common tests for all classes in a year group and appropriate timetabling of assessments can also facilitate this process. 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 classes 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. A good learning environment was evident in all lessons observed, and good progress was made in all classes. 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 viruses, respiration, genetics and blood.
A range of teaching methodologies was observed, including an excellent workshop-style class, board work, questioning, explanations and student written work. The use of scientific language and terminology in the lessons observed was excellent. Lesson content was well planned and there was a clear focus. The pacing of lessons was good, students were kept busy and 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. It is recommended that some more thought be given to the structuring of lessons. A well-structured lesson can greatly assist students in understanding and learning a topic. There should be a clear introductory phase to the lesson, a clear exposition of new material, an opportunity for students to put their new knowledge into practice and a review of what has been learned. Appropriate homework can then be given to reinforce the learning.
Some excellent use of the blackboard was observed, to highlight and emphasise information, to summarise and to illustrate concepts. This is praiseworthy. Questioning of students was frequently used to assess their level of knowledge. This is to be commended. However, most of the questions asked were factual in nature, testing memory rather than understanding. The use of general questions, eliciting chorus answers, should be guarded against. When questions are directed towards individual students, there is an opportunity to gauge the level of student understanding during the course of a lesson and it is recommended that more extensive use should be made of this methodology. When a question has been asked, students should be given time to formulate their answers and should be encouraged to put up their hands. Then a respondent may be chosen. This will encourage all students to engage in the teaching and learning process. This methodology is especially important if questions are of a higher order, encouraging students to think at a deeper level. The level of student engagement was 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.
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. Good practice concerning the minimal use of textbooks was apparent during some of the lessons observed. Reading appropriate passages in textbooks was used to reinforce new learning and to assist in homework preparation. Homework given was appropriate to the lesson content and was designed to assist the student in learning and retaining the topic.
In order for students to make better progress and gain a better understanding of their course of study, it is suggested that students are made aware of the objectives of the lesson at the outset of each class period. Students may work better if they are more informed as to where a lesson is leading and where it fits into the larger picture. This can be motivating and informative as well as giving a sense of purpose and direction to classroom work. These lesson objectives should be clear, concise and achievable. They can encourage a degree of self-assessment by students within the class and help individuals to monitor their own progress.
Students demonstrated a positive attitude towards Biology as evidenced by the level of engagement and interest observed during their lessons. Students displayed a good level of knowledge, understanding and skills during interaction with the inspector. Homework is examined through questioning in class and by frequently 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 Science. The quality of the notebooks was excellent. It is recommended that laboratory notebooks are checked and annotated as necessary on a regular basis, as is done with homework copies. This is an important means of encouraging students and of pointing the way towards improvement.
All first, second and fifth-year classes are assessed by means of Christmas and summer examinations. For first-year students, the Christmas assessment is based on continuous assessment. Questions on mandatory practical work are included in these examinations. Junior Certificate classes also have Christmas examinations while Leaving Certificate classes are assessed in November. In addition, Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate classes sit mock examinations during the second term. These examinations are corrected externally. Additional testing is at the discretion of individual teachers. Records of assessment are held in teachers’ own diaries and in report books. Results in Biology in the Leaving Certificate examination are very good.
Results are communicated to parents by means of Christmas and summer reports, and following mock examinations. Communication with parents is also achieved by means of parent-teacher meetings, held once per year for each class. There are four such meetings each year, three outside of school hours, and one within school hours. In addition, the student journal that all students are required to have is used to communicate with parents. Parents’ evenings are also held as part of the induction of new students and to inform parents on issues such as Transition Year and the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme.
There was evidence of record keeping by teachers, covering such areas as student attendance and results of assessments. 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 and Biology in the Brigidine Secondary School, Mountrath.
· Biology is well supported within the school, with good provision of resources and of double classes to facilitate practical work.
· To date, opportunities for professional development have been availed of and encouraged by management.
· 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 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.
· Areas for development include timetabling, room allocation and usage, long-term planning and classroom procedure.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following recommendations are made:
· It is suggested that consideration be given to running taster programmes for the first half-term for new first-year students in a range of subjects and that subject choices for Junior Certificate be made then.
· It is recommended that maximum use be made of the laboratory for Science classes before classes in other subjects are held there. Ventilation should also be improved in the preparation area adjacent to the laboratory.
· It is recommended that a more formal and organised Science Department structure be put in place. This will facilitate more detailed curricular planning and laboratory management.
· It is recommended that some more thought be given to structuring of lessons and that greater use be made of directed questions in class.
· It is recommended that laboratory notebooks are checked and annotated as necessary on a regular basis.
· It is suggested that students are made aware of the objectives of the lesson at the outset of each class period.
A post-evaluation meeting was held with the deputy principal and with the teachers of Science and Biology at the conclusion of the evaluation at which the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.