An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Tullamore, Co. Offaly
Roll number: 65610S
Date of inspection: 22 March 2006
Date of issue of report: 29 June 2006
This Subject Inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Choilm, Tullamore, Co. Offaly. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Science and 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 subject teachers. 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.
The evaluation of Junior Certificate Science and Leaving Certificate Biology at Coláiste Choilm was carried out over the course of two days. It commenced with a meeting with the teachers of Science and Biology. At this meeting, the objectives and procedures of the evaluation were explained. Following this, a double first-year Science class, a single second-year Science class, and a single and a double third-year Science class were observed, along with a single fifth and a double sixth-year Biology class.
Junior Certificate Science is a core subject for all three years. All classes are of mixed ability. First-year Science classes are allocated three class periods each week. This may be in the form of one double period and one single period or of three single periods. This increases to four periods, one double and two single periods, for second-year 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 recommended that class contact arrangements for first-year Science be reviewed.
The school is currently offering Biology, Chemistry and Physics as optional subjects to Leaving Certificate level. 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 of subject options, accommodating as many students as possible. Biology is the most popular of the three science-related subjects. Biology students are allocated one double period and three single periods each week. This is within syllabus guidelines. There is a maximum class size of 24 students.
An optional Transition Year (TY) programme is also available to students. TY students are allocated one double and one single class for Science each week. Modules related to Leaving Certificate Science subjects are followed, including titrations and forensic science. The course is activity oriented and is also used as a taster to assist students in choosing their subjects for Leaving Certificate.
There are three teachers of science subjects in the school. One teacher is currently teaching Biology. 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. One science teacher is a member of the Irish Science Teachers’ Association.
There is one laboratory available in the school. It is in good condition, well equipped and is adequate for its purpose. There is a storage and preparation area adjacent to the laboratory. This laboratory is used mostly for Science classes but some Mathematics classes are held in it also. There is also a much older laboratory in the school and while it is used in so far as is reasonably possible to teach Science, it is an obsolete facility. Although it has been improved recently, it is not intended to put significant resources into maintaining it as a teaching laboratory as the school is anticipating a building programme in the near future. A demonstration room is also available but this is used mostly as a classroom. Access to a laboratory for specific classes is by agreement among Science teachers. It is recommended that maximum use be made of the laboratories and demonstration room for Science classes before they are used for other subjects. In addition, it is recommended that more student-developed material, posters and project work for example, be displayed on the laboratory walls as this serves to stimulate and motivate students and enhance the learning environment.
A range of health and safety equipment was observed, including first aid kits, fire extinguishers, fire blankets, fume cupboards and gas and electricity isolation switches. The school has a health and safety statement that was drawn up a number of years ago. It is recommended that this statement is reviewed or replaced at an early date.
The school has engaged with the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) and is actively involved in the process of school development planning. Recent focus has been on the development of subject departments. The science team is currently in the process of developing a formal department structure. A co-ordinator has been appointed for Science and meetings have taken place in the context of development planning. The role of the co-ordinator has been to organise and chair formal department meetings and to report to the principal. The major issue under consideration to date has been that of curriculum planning. Frequent informal and casual meetings also take place to consider issues such as laboratory sharing and other immediate issues.
Long-term curricular plans were presented. They were of a broad and general nature. More detailed term-based planning is needed in both Junior Certificate Science and Leaving Certificate Biology. Long-term plans should include a detailed list of coursework topics, a list of practical activities associated with each topic, the intended allocation of time for the coverage of each topic and a list of resources to be used in teaching each topic. There is much helpful information in this regard available in the relevant syllabuses and on the websites of the Biology Support Service, www.bsstralee.ie, and the Junior Certificate Science Support Service, www.juniorscience.ie. Teaching and learning methodologies should also be included in term plans and lesson plans in order to ensure that teachers do not unwittingly restrict themselves to a preferred dominant style of teaching and to ensure 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. 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. Some excellent individual short-term and lesson plans were presented also. 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, good discipline was apparent. Rapport with students was good and this is to be commended. Teachers were enthusiastic, warm and considerate of students and demonstrated a professional and business-like approach to work. The level of two-way communication in classrooms was relevant to the task at hand and a good learning environment was evident in all lessons observed. Students were attentive, interested and anxious to participate in the learning process. The topics covered in the classes observed included DNA and protein synthesis, germination, the effect of exercise on breathing rate, the digestive system, magnetism and food tests.
A wide range of teaching methodologies was observed, including questioning of students, use of the board, teacher talk, OHP transparencies, student practical work, discussion, handouts and use of ICT. 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.
Some instances of very good practice in the use of methodologies were observed. Good lesson structure was apparent in some classes: the introduction to the lesson, the unveiling of new material, followed by review, closure and assignment of homework, were all clearly evident. Excellent use of questioning was evident in other classes, with all students being encouraged to participate through questions being directed to individuals, with an appropriate mix of simple questions, testing recall, and more difficult higher-order questions stimulating students to think at a deeper level. Very good use of visual learning aids, models and analogies in order to simplify difficult concepts was also observed. It is suggested that the sharing of and more extensive use of such good practice as these examples demonstrate, by all teachers, could and should be facilitated and encouraged through an active Science department. Good use of scientific terminology was evident in all lessons observed and the use of textbooks during class was appropriate.
During the observed student practical work, 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 were well prepared by the excellent use of a plenary session to review the theory and practice of the activity, in advance of carrying it out. A similar plenary session was held when the practical activity was completed, in order to review the work done and to emphasise what had been learned. Students were then given good direction in how to write up their procedure, results and the conclusions drawn from their work, in their laboratory notebooks. 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.
The excellent practice of making students aware of the objectives of a lesson at the beginning of a class period was observed in one class. The lesson objectives were clear, concise and were achieved. This is motivating to students as well as giving a sense of purpose and direction to classroom work. It can encourage a degree of self-assessment by students within the class and help individual students to monitor their own progress. It is recommended that this practice be extended to all lessons.
Students demonstrated a positive attitude towards Science and Biology as evidenced by the level of engagement and interest observed during their lessons. Most 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 through the use of questions and through teacher movement 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 some of the notebooks was excellent, some others were of a lesser quality, and overall there was quite a large variation. It is recommended that all teachers check and annotate laboratory notebooks on a regular basis. This is an excellent and necessary means of encouraging students and of pointing the way towards improvement.
All classes are assessed by means of a Christmas examination. Formal assessments are held for non-examination classes in the summer. Questions on mandatory practical work are included in these examinations. In addition, the Certificate Examination classes sit mock examinations in the spring. Teachers mark some mock examination scripts and some are marked externally. Additional testing is at the discretion of individual teachers. Records of assessment are held in teachers’ own diaries and in report books.
There was evidence of record keeping by teachers, including in such areas as student attendance, attainment and work covered. This is praiseworthy. Such 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 their choice of subjects at senior level and on what level of examination paper to choose in certificate examinations.
Results of assessment tests and progress reports are communicated to parents by means of Christmas and summer reports and also at 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 regulations. Parents are also encouraged to contact the school if they have any concerns regarding their children’s progress and the students’ journals may also be used to send notes to parents on occasion.
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:
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Science and Biology and with the 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: Observation on the content of the inspection report
The Board of Management of Coláiste Choilm welcomes the report and is very heartened by the main findings and wishes to congratulate the principal and teaching staff of the Science Department.
The Board also wishes to acknowledge the courteous and professional manner in which the inspector carried out the subject inspection and is of the opinion that the inspection process and outcomes will greatly benefit the school in its SDP.
Area 2: Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection
The Board undertakes to provide the necessary resources and support to ensure the implementation of the following: