An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta

Department of Education and Science

 

Subject Inspection of Science

REPORT

 

Scoil Mhuire agus Íde

Newcastle West, County Limerick

Roll number: 64170L

 

Date of inspection: 07 and 08 November 2006

Date of issue of report: 22 February 2007

 

Subject inspection report

Subject provision and whole school support

Planning and preparation

Teaching and learning

Assessment

Summary of main findings and recommendations

 

 

Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science

 

 

Subject inspection report

 

This report has been written following a subject inspection in Scoil Mhuire agus Íde. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in 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 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.

 

Subject provision and whole school support

 

Scoil Mhuire agus Íde is a post-primary, co-educational school located in the town of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick.

 

The science subjects in the school are Junior Certificate Science and Leaving Certificate Agricultural Science, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. Thus, students may study a wide range of science subjects.

 

Good support for the study of Science is shown by the fact that it is a core subject at junior cycle in the school. The uptake of science subjects at senior cycle is generally high and this demonstrates positive attitudes among students to studying science subjects. It is reported that students’ subject choices at senior cycle are facilitated through an open choice, “best-fit” model. The use of a “best-fit” model means that subject choice is student driven and is responsive to students’ needs. This is commended.

 

There is good support for students in making their choices of subjects for senior cycle. They are assisted by guidance counselling, information from subject teachers, information from external speakers, visits to the school by third level college personnel, and information disseminated at open nights for parents.

 

The school offers an optional Transition Year (TY) programme and science subjects are a component of the programme. This is beneficial as exposure to science subjects during TY serves to better inform students when making their senior-cycle subject choices. The TY programme was viewed. There is good support for the study of science subjects during TY as there is a generous time allocation for Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. Good work has been done in developing the science components of the programme. Various components show innovative uses of information and communications technology (ICT) and creative uses of alternative programme content and methodologies. This good work is commended and it is encouraged that these approaches be extended to all of the science components.

 

The uptake of some science subjects at senior cycle tends to follow traditional lines, with significantly more girls than boys taking Biology and more boys than girls taking Physics. The school is aware of these trends and strives to encourage a gender-balanced uptake. In building on its current good practices, the school is encouraged to continue its work to develop a gender-balanced uptake of science subjects. The use of the TY programme to explore gender issues in science subjects might be of further benefit.

 

The time allocation for Science consists of one double class period and two single class periods weekly. This allocation is in keeping with the recommendations of the syllabus and the relevant circular letters. The provision of double class periods is wholly appropriate as it facilitates student performance of practical work on which the syllabus is predicated.

 

All class groups are of mixed ability. It is reported that class groups retain the same teacher throughout junior cycle. This is beneficial as it helps to ensure continuity of learning.

 

There are three science laboratories and one demonstration room in the school. There is a preparation area adjacent to the science laboratories. These facilities were viewed and they are clean, well maintained and in good repair. It was noted that chemicals have been appropriately labelled and are stored in accordance with Department of Education and Science recommendations and best safety practices. It is reported that the school funds the employment of a laboratory assistant from its own finances.

 

The science teachers show a high level of awareness in relation to health and safety practices. Good work has been done in drafting a Science safety statement and in developing rules for the science laboratories. This good work has resulted in a high level of awareness among students of good safety practices. The school, appropriately, has a safety statement and it was reviewed during the last academic year. It is reported that the safety statement is reviewed annually or as needs arise and that the science teachers are involved in any review. This is best practice.

 

There is a high level of satisfaction among the science teachers with the level of resources and equipment available. A stocktake is used in managing the science resources and this is appropriate.

 

It is reported that science teachers may bring a class to use the computer room and that this occurs periodically. There is a good amount of ICT resources and equipment available to the science teachers and discussion with the science staff showed that there is a high level of enthusiasm to continue developing and integrating these resources in the teaching and learning of science subjects. This is encouraged as the integration of ICT in teaching and learning can serve to enhance students’ motivation and students’ independence as learners.

 

There is a culture of support for teachers’ continuing professional development and this is shown by the fact that all of the Science teachers have been facilitated in attending relevant Junior Science Support Service (JSSS) in-service education courses. The school has facilitated whole-staff continuing professional development activities with external speakers delivering in-service education courses on topics such as subject planning, child protection guidelines, and inclusion for persons with special needs. The school’s support for teachers’ continuing professional development is commended.

  

Planning and preparation

 

Interview with the science teachers showed that they work well together as a team. They show a high degree of collaboration and collegiality and they report a sense of shared responsibility for planning work in Science. The individual science teachers have a wide range of experience and knowledge and this means that there is a significant breadth and depth of expertise available when planning for the teaching and learning of Science.

 

The Science teachers meet regularly, both formally and informally, to plan. Minutes of Science meetings are kept. This is a useful way of recording any issues that arise and ensuring that these issues are progressed.

 

A comprehensive Science plan was viewed. It was evident that a large amount of work has been done in developing this plan. The plan dealt with the aims of Science, referenced content to the syllabus, described learning outcomes, and listed methodologies, resources, modes of assessment and modes of evaluation to be used. In particular, the use of learning outcomes is very valuable as such descriptors mean that students’ learning is successful when students achieve the desired outcome in contrast with students’ learning being successful when a particular amount of content has been covered. The use of learning outcomes serves to assist teachers in tailoring their approaches to ensure successful learning for all students.

 

There is a culture, in the school, of analysing the results obtained by students in the State examinations and of using this information to inform subject planning. This demonstrates appropriate reflective practice and is constructive within the subject planning process.

 

All lessons observed were appropriate to the syllabus and a high level of individual lesson planning was noted. Where lesson planning related the lesson content to the desired learning outcomes this was noted as very good practice.

Teaching and learning

 

A wide range of methodologies was observed. Questioning was foremost among these methodologies. Questioning styles varied between global and directed questioning. There was good balance in the use of global and directed questioning, with directed questioning being the predominant style used. This is wholly appropriate as directed questioning enables teachers to vary the levels of challenge of questions and to collect useful feedback on students’ knowledge and understanding. Question types were primarily recall based but with some good use made of higher-order questions. Where higher-order questions were used they were effective in engaging students in considering, thinking, explaining and predicting. Gradually introducing and increasing the use of higher-order questions with students as their base of scientific knowledge and understanding increases enables students to reflect and consider. This consequently assists students to develop the skills necessary to become more autonomous in their learning.

 

The whiteboard and over-head projector were used effectively and clearly to focus students’ attention on the key learning points. Students gained the greatest level of benefit from these strategies where they made a personal record of the key learning points. Regular recap and reinforcement of previous learning was a notable feature of the teaching strategies used in all lessons observed and were valuable in maintaining students’ focus on the key learning objectives. In one lesson observed, brainstorming and the collection of students’ opinions and knowledge of a topic were used effectively to aid the introduction of material to be studied.

 

Students benefited from high levels of individual attention given to them by their teachers. Teachers circulated among students during the lessons and were available to students as required.

 

There was good discipline in all lessons observed. Students were addressed by name and their answers were accepted and affirmed. This resulted in a positive learning atmosphere in all lessons. A significant feature of one lesson observed was the very high level of teacher and student enthusiasm for the study of Science. This enthusiasm was well managed through use of established class routines and was supported by the use of ongoing affirmation of students’ efforts. The comfortable, relaxed, and good-humoured interactions between the teacher and students was a very notable feature of another lesson observed. The positive atmosphere resulting from the beneficial use of affirmation to encourage and support students’ efforts was a noteworthy aspect of another lesson.

 

The science laboratories benefit from displays of posters, charts and students’ work. There are also models, equipment, and glassware on display. This means that there is a sense of a scientific learning space in the laboratories.

 

Where students undertook experimental work, it was performed safely and with an emphasis on good safety practices. It was observed that students worked well in their groups and that they showed good familiarity with procedures used during experimental work. Students were involved in tidying up after their experimental work. This is beneficial as it encourages them to accept responsibility for their work. It was noted that students write up their experimental work in their own words. This is commended as good laboratory practice. In building on this practice, all students should be reminded to include a brief outline of the planning they undertook in advance of performing their experimental work.

 

Observation showed that students were participative and engaged in their learning. Observation of students’ answers to questions posed by their teachers, questions posed by students, and interactions between the inspector and students showed that students had generally good levels of knowledge and understanding in the topics under study.

Assessment

 

Teachers’ and the school’s expectations play a key role in shaping how students see themselves. Thus, it is beneficial that the school holds high levels of expectation for all students as it is reported that all students follow the higher-level syllabus for as long as possible.

 

Students are assessed regularly using a mixture of class-based assessments and year-group assessments. The results of these assessments are sent home periodically. These practices are appropriate and show that assessment of students’ attainment and reporting to parents/guardians are central to the school’s operation.

 

There are good systems in place for supporting and maintaining communication between the school and home. These systems include use of homework journals, reports that are sent home, parent-teacher meetings, telephone calls, tests signed by parents, and meetings by appointment.

 

Homework is an integral part of students’ learning experiences. The school recognises this and in supporting this has produced a formal homework policy. This document was viewed. It provides valuable guidance on the length of time that homework should take, places the homework journal at the centre of recording and monitoring homework, and explains the role of teachers in assigning homework, the role of students in doing their homework and the role of parents in monitoring homework completion.

 

Samples of students’ work were viewed. These samples showed that homework is a regular feature of the teaching and learning processes used in Science. Students had completed a generally good amount of work, relative to their year group and abilities. Discussion revealed that in some cases the correction of homework is mainly done orally in class. Where this is the case, all students should be encouraged to develop a practice of correcting their own work and where errors have occurred they should record the correct answers. This will help students when using their homework as an aid to revision. Very frequent monitoring of students’ homework and laboratory copies was evident in some samples viewed. A high level of monitoring shows students that their work is valued and fosters a sense of its importance. In some samples of students’ work, use of formative, comment-based feedback was noted. The use of this type of feedback is of great advantage to students as it highlights what they have successfully achieved as well as outlining how they may continue to improve. It is encouraged that the science staff continues to use and develop this type of feedback as part of the assessment and feedback techniques in use. Use of creative homework tasks was noted. Where this was observed students undertook to source and bring to school, materials related to the topic under study that could be used as part of planned experimental work. This type of homework task fosters a sense of responsibility and autonomy among students as well as engaging them creatively in their work. This is commended. In building on the good work done by the school in its homework policy document and by the science department in its current practices it would be useful for the science teachers to develop and formalise its own homework practices in relation to the types of homework to be assigned and the levels, types and frequency of correction and feedback to students.

 

The school took part, some years ago, in an external pilot project that examined methods of assessing students’ experimental skills. Discussion with the science teachers showed that they recognise the value of rewarding students for the practical skills gained during the study of Science and the role that a variety of assessment modes can play in this regard. When considering approaches to the homework practices outlined above, the science team is encouraged to consider additional assessment strategies that give credit for the practical skills students gain through the performance of experimental work.

 

The science teachers report that they are working to create and implement a system of common assessments. This good work is encouraged. A system of common assessments is advantageous as it enables comparison of student attainment across year groups and this supports a collaborative team-based approach to subject planning.

 

There is good support for students’ participation in science-related extra-curricular activities. Teachers have worked with students and facilitated their participation in a wide range of science-related activities such as science quizzes, chemistry festivals, ecology trips, trips to water treatment facilities, trips to industrial facilities, lectures on current science issues, environmental awareness work, and work in electronics. The high level of support that teachers have provided for students in this work is commended.

 

 

Summary of main findings and recommendations

 

The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:

 

  • The science staff is professional and dedicated in its work.
  • A wide range of teaching methodologies was used effectively in the lessons inspected.
  • There was good discipline in all lessons observed.
  • Performance of practical work is a positive aspect of students’ learning in Science.
  • Students were participative and engaged in their learning.
  • Good work has been done in developing a subject plan for Science.
  • The science team works well together with a high degree of collaboration and collegiality.
  • Regular assessment and reporting to parents is a key feature of the teaching and learning processes in this school.
  • There is good support for students’ participation in science-related extra-curricular activities.
  • There is a good amount of ICT resources and equipment available to the science teachers and there is a high level of enthusiasm to continue developing the use of these resources in the teaching and learning of science subjects.
  • There is good support for teachers’ continuing professional development.
  • There is good support for students in choosing their senior-cycle subjects.
  • Various elements of the TY programme show innovative uses of ICT and creative use of alternative programme content and methodologies.

 

 

As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:

 

  • In building on its current good practices, the school is encouraged to continue its work to develop a gender-balanced uptake of science subjects.
  • It is encouraged that the good work done in integrating and using ICT and alternative programme content and methodologies during the TY programme be extended to all of the science components of the programme.
  • In building on the good work done by the school in its homework policy document and by the science department in its current practices, the science team is encouraged when formalising its own homework practices for students to consider additional assessment strategies that give credit for the practical skills students gain through the performance of experimental work.

 

Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Science and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.