An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Limekiln Avenue, Greenhills, Dublin 12
Roll number: 70130I
Date of inspection: 12 and 16 February 2007
Date of issue of report: 4 October 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Greenhills College, Limekiln Avenue, Greenhills, Dublin 12. 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 the subject teachers. The board of management was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
The evaluation of Junior Certificate Science and Leaving Certificate Biology at Greenhills College, Dublin 12, was carried out over the course of two days. It began with a meeting with the science and biology teachers at which the objectives and procedures of the evaluation were explained. Following this, two single first-year science classes and a single second-year science class were visited along with and a double and a single fifth-year biology class.
The location of Greenhills College has been recognised as an area of social and economic disadvantage by successive governments. The school was given disadvantaged status by the Department of Education and Science and as a result is in receipt of funding and other supports to assist students in attending and benefiting from their time spent in school. The school has also been included in the current DEIS programme. These facts bring their own challenges to the school and play a major part in the subject choices of students at all levels.
Junior Certificate Science is a core subject for all three years of junior cycle. Students are allocated four single periods each week for Science and classes are mostly streamed on the basis of assessment on entry to the school. As all classes are run concurrently, there is provision for movement of students between streams. Following the Junior Certificate examination, the school offers Biology and Physics as optional subjects to Leaving Certificate level. The option of following the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) is also available to those students with an appropriate subject combination. 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. Biology is the most popular of the science subjects and classes are allocated five periods per week in the form of one double and three single periods or, for one class group, one single and two double periods. This is within syllabus guidelines. Senior biology classes are of mixed ability.
In a number of instances, a class group may have two class periods separately timetabled for Science or Biology on the same day. In the interest of good timetabling, it is recommended that class contact is spread over as much of the week as possible and that having separate class periods in Science or Biology on the same day is avoided.
There are five teachers currently teaching science subjects in the school and two of these also teach Biology. Opportunities have been availed of for continuing professional development during recent and current national in-service training programmes in Leaving Certificate Biology and Junior Certificate Science. Management is commended on the commitment given to facilitate attendance at in-service training. Students from the school have participated in the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in the past and have been involved in Science Week activities. Ecology fieldwork is carried out locally in Tymon Park and in the wildflower garden in front of the school, and also by means of visits to Dublin Zoo and to Glendalough. The work of the science teachers in this regard is praiseworthy.
There are five laboratories in the school. They are in need of modernisation and refurbishment. The grant provided in conjunction with the implementation of the new Junior Certificate science syllabus has been used to re-equip them to a large extent recently. The gas infrastructure of the laboratories has recently been renewed and it is hoped to bring at least some of the laboratories up to modern standards over the next few years by means of the summer works scheme of the Department of Education and Science.
Each pair of laboratories shares a storage and preparation area. These areas are of a good size but are also in need of refurbishment. It is important that work on organising the storage of chemicals and other equipment in these rooms, in accordance with good safety procedures, is completed as soon as possible. Helpful information in this regard is available in the Department of Education and Science publication Safety in School Science and is also available on the website of the Second Level Support Service/Chemistry Support Service at http://chemistry.slss.ie/ch_safetydocs.html. There are appropriate charts and posters on the laboratory walls and it is recommended that some student-developed material be displayed also as this serves to stimulate and motivate students and enhances the learning environment. The majority of science classes are held in a laboratory and the laboratories are used almost entirely for science subjects with priority always being given to science classes. Access to a laboratory for specific classes is timetabled in advance.
A range of health and safety equipment was observed, including fire extinguishers, fire blankets and gas and electricity isolation switches. Attention was given to the active management of safety issues during student practical work as evidenced by the wearing of safety glasses by students in one lesson observed. This is praiseworthy. However, it is recommended that first aid kits be made available in all laboratories as a matter of urgency. The school has a health and safety statement that was drawn up approximately three years ago with the assistance of outside consultants. This statement is reviewed on an ongoing basis by staff and formally reviewed every three years. There is also reference to health and safety issues in the science department plan.
There is evidence of a sense of collegiality among the science teachers. There is a recognised co-ordinator for Science in place and this position rotates among the science teachers. The duties of the co-ordinator include convening subject department meetings, recording the outcomes of such meetings and providing feedback to management on issues raised. Formal meetings are held twice each year, in June and September. Informal contact between the science teachers is frequent and issues of immediate concern are dealt with. The science teachers share the management of issues such as stock control and ordering of equipment, under the supervision of the co-ordinator.
Curricular planning is also part of the work of the science department. A common curricular plan for the three years of the Junior Certificate science syllabus has been developed. This plan includes a list of topics in Biology, Chemistry and Physics to be taught in each of the three years. A more detailed scheme of work, which listed the topics to be taught each month for the duration of the course, was presented for the Leaving Certificate biology classes. Topics covered in lessons observed were in line with planning documents. It is suggested that the Junior Certificate science plan be rewritten to a tighter timeframe, for example on a term-by-term basis, to facilitate common assessments at Christmas as well as in the summer as is done at present in junior cycle. Both schemes should list the mandatory practical work to be covered in order to facilitate the advance preparation of the necessary resources. It is recommended that reference to teaching and learning methodologies should also be included in schemes in order to ensure that teachers do not unwittingly restrict themselves to a preferred dominant style of teaching and to ensure that material is always taught in a manner appropriate to the material itself and to the students being taught.
In most of the lessons observed there was evidence of short term planning. Teachers were familiar with the subject matter of their lesson and there was a theme running through the lesson. Materials necessary for class, along with the chemicals and apparatus required for student centred investigative work, had been prepared in advance. This preparation contributed to the quality of those lessons and is to be commended.
In most of the classes visited, there was a disciplined atmosphere. Rapport with students was generally good and this is to be commended. Most teachers were enthusiastic, warm, patient and considerate of students and worked hard to create and maintain a good learning environment in the classrooms visited. Teachers’ approach to their work was professional and business-like. The level of two-way communication in classrooms was relevant to the task in hand. Teachers demonstrated a good awareness of the needs of individual students and were very affirming of student effort. Interventions to support and assist students having difficulty were frequent and appropriate. This is good practice. Most students were attentive, interested and anxious to participate in the learning process. The topics covered in the classes observed included plant reproduction, the reaction between metals and acid, heat and chromatography.
A variety of teaching methodologies was observed, including many very good examples of active learning, not only during student practical work, but also during more theory-based sections of lessons. Methodologies observed included questioning of students, discussion, board use, handouts, teacher talk, student reading and writing and demonstrations. The behaviour of a small number of students was challenging and teachers handled these difficulties very effectively and in a professional manner in most cases. Best practice was seen where lessons were well structured and a clear and obvious plan was in place to keep students occupied and on task for the duration of the lesson. A well-structured lesson can greatly assist students in understanding and learning a topic and can help to minimise the opportunities for disruption. 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. The chosen methodologies kept students busy and actively engaged at all times allowing lessons to proceed at a suitable pace. Changes in methodologies were built into lesson plans as appropriate.
Teachers were very knowledgeable regarding their subject matter and there was good use of scientific terminology in most of the lessons observed. Students were challenged by lesson content and generally responded well. Continuity from previous lessons was good and new information was very well linked to previous learning. There was good direction and follow through in the lessons observed. Lessons were well planned and had a clear focus. This is excellent practice.
Excellent use of the blackboard was observed to highlight and emphasise information, to summarise and to illustrate concepts. This is praiseworthy. The teacher communicated effectively with students using language appropriate to their level of understanding and ability. New terminology and important keywords were effectively explained and reinforced. This is good practice. There was scope, however, at times for the use of an overhead projector in some lessons to add variety to presentations.
Questioning of students was frequently used to check on levels of knowledge and understanding, which is to be commended. Best practice was seen where questions ranged from the factual, testing recall, to questions of a higher order that were more challenging, encouraging students to think at a deeper level. Students were given time to formulate their answers and were encouraged to put up their hands before a respondent was chosen. All teachers are encouraged to give thought to their use of questioning as a methodology in order to enhance the quality of learning opportunities for students. Occasional use of general questions, eliciting chorus answers, should be guarded against.
During the observed student practical work the students worked alone or in groups of two or three. 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. Best practice was observed where students were prepared for carrying out their practical work by the excellent use of a plenary session to review the theory and practice of an activity before bench work started, with a similar plenary session when the practical activities were complete, in order to review the work done and to emphasise what had been learned. Practical work was efficiently managed and attention was paid to health and safety issues.
Teacher movement among the students, as observed, was generally purposeful, assessing, monitoring, and providing assistance and encouragement. Pacing the room is best avoided. 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 the lessons observed. Reference to appropriate passages in textbooks was used to reinforce learning and to assist in homework preparation. Homework given was appropriate to the lesson content and was designed to assist students 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.
Most students demonstrated a positive attitude towards Science and Biology 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 the excellent level of teacher movement and observation of students that was noted by the inspector during class.
Students kept laboratory notebooks and workbooks up to date as evidence of practical work being carried out. This is a very important aspect of new and revised syllabi in the science area. While the quality of some of the notebooks was excellent, some others were of a lesser quality, and overall there was some variation. It is recommended that all teachers check and annotate homework copies, laboratory notebooks and workbooks on a regular basis. This is an excellent 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. These scripts are mostly marked within the school. Additional testing is at the discretion of individual teachers. Records of assessment are held in teachers’ own diaries and on file in the school office.
Results of assessments and progress reports 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 three such meetings each year, held in accordance with Department of Education and Science guidelines. In addition, the student journal that all students are required to keep is used to communicate with parents. The school operates an open door policy and parents are encouraged to contact the school if they have any concerns regarding their children’s performance.
There was evidence of record keeping by most teachers, covering a variety of areas, including student attendance, assessment results, work completed, student behaviour and class seating plans. This is good practice and it is recommended that all teachers keep comprehensive records such as these. 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 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.