An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Castlepollard Community College
Castlepollard, Co. Westmeath
Roll number: 71420W
Date of inspection: 20 & 22 March 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 Castlepollard Community College. 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 Castlepollard Community College was carried out over the course of two days. It began with a visit to a fourth-year and fifth-year biology classes. This was followed by a meeting with the principal to discuss whole-school support followed by a meeting with the science and biology teachers at which the objectives and procedures of the evaluation were explained. Subsequently, first-year, second-year and third-year science classes were observed.
Junior Certificate Science is a core subject for the three years of junior cycle. First-year students are allocated four class periods per week for Science, in the form of four single periods. Second year students are allocated three periods, in the form of one double and one single period, while third-year students are allocated one double and two single periods each week. It is recommended that, in accordance with syllabus guidelines, all classes be allocated four periods each week for Science, to include a double period. There is a maximum class size of 24 students. First- and second-year classes are of mixed ability. There is a second class group in third year. This is small group, facilitating the provision of extra attention and support to individual students.
The school is currently offering Biology as an optional subject to Leaving Certificate level. Students are provided with the opportunity to choose their own subjects for senior cycle. Their subject preferences are surveyed and the results of the survey used to create a “best-fit” model of subject options, accommodating as many students as possible. All senior cycle students follow the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme. Senior biology classes are of mixed ability. Biology students are allocated five periods per week, in the form of one double and three single periods. This is within syllabus guidelines. Once again, there is a maximum class size of 24 students.
There are two teachers of Science and Biology in the school. 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.
Castlepollard Community College has recently occupied a new school building. The school has one science laboratory. It is built to a very high standard and is adequately equipped for its purpose. There is a storage and preparation area adjacent to the laboratory. This area is well stocked. It is recommended that the manner of storage of chemicals be reviewed and a colour-coded method be introduced. Specific advice is available on the Second Level Support Service website at http://chemistry.slss.ie/downloads/ch_sd_safetyandstorage.pdf. The majority of science classes are held in the laboratory and the laboratory is used almost entirely for science subjects. Access to a laboratory for specific classes is by agreement among the science teachers. The laboratory is broadband enabled and is equipped with personal computer and data projector, an overhead projector, a television and a DVD/video. Management is to be commended on the provision of these resources. A range of appropriate charts and posters is displayed in the laboratory. It is recommended that more student work be displayed, allowing an opportunity to change the charts occasionally, in line with the work being done or to highlight student project work. This will serve to stimulate and motivate students and enhance the learning environment.
A range of health and safety equipment was observed, including a first aid kit, a fume cupboard, gas and electrical isolation switches, a fire extinguisher and fire blankets. A high priority was given to the active management of safety issues during student practical work, as evidenced by the wearing of white coats by students in all the practical lessons observed. Teachers led by example in most of the lessons observed. This is praiseworthy. The school has a health and safety statement that was drawn up in 1998. A new statement reflecting the situation in the new school buildings is almost complete. The science teachers have had specific input into this document. A copy of the laboratory safety rules is distributed to all students and their parents who must then sign and return them to the school. It is suggested that copies of these rules be prominently displayed in the laboratory.
Due to the relatively small size of the school, it has not been considered necessary to set up a formal science department. However, there is evidence of a strong sense of collegiality among the science teachers. Frequent informal meetings of the science teachers take place and together, they carry out all curriculum planning, stock control, equipment ordering and laboratory management duties as a team. The science teachers deserve credit for the amount of work done. Funding for the sciences is provided as requested and management has been very supportive to date.
Curricular planning documents were presented in relation to all junior cycle science classes and for fifth- and sixth-year Biology. Resource material for Junior Certificate Science includes a list of coursework topics to be taught each term over the three years of the course, along with the time to be allowed for each topic, a list of practical activities associated with the topic and a comprehensive set of resources such as overhead transparencies, worksheets, assessments and other materials. This material is an excellent foundation for a complete three-year plan for Junior Certificate Science. It is recommended that reference to teaching methodologies should be included in planning documents in order to raise teachers’ consciousness of the variety of methodologies available to them and 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. The science teachers deserve great praise for the work that has been put into compiling the junior cycle resource material. The plan for senior cycle Biology is more basic but there is scope to develop it in a manner similar to that of the junior cycle material over time, leading to a comprehensive curriculum planning document.
In the lessons observed there was evidence of short term planning. Teachers were familiar with the subject matter of every lesson and there was a theme running through each 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 learning and is to be commended.
In all classes visited, good discipline was apparent. Rapport with students was good and this is to be commended. Teachers were enthusiastic, warm, very patient and considerate of students and had a gentle and caring approach to their charges. Teachers 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 were mostly anxious to participate in the learning process. The topics covered in the classes observed included arteries and veins, osmosis, chromatography, heat transfer and habitat study.
A range of teaching methodologies was observed, including use of the white board, questioning, student worksheets, student practical work and teacher explanations. The computer and data projector were simply and effectively used in one lesson. There was a good balance between active learning methodologies and teacher-centred presentations in all classes. Lessons were well structured and students were kept busy and actively engaged at all times. Lessons proceeded at a suitable pace 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 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.
Some excellent use of the board was observed, to highlight and emphasise keywords and to summarise and to organise concepts. This is praiseworthy. It is suggested, however, that greater use be made of the board, or the overhead projector, to provide diagrams and tables during the more theory-based sections of lessons, as such illustrations can greatly assist students in grasping and understanding new ideas and concepts. Questioning of students was frequently used to check on levels of knowledge and understanding, which is to be commended. It is important to discourage chorus answering and to direct questions to individual students. Best practice was seen where students were given time to formulate their answers and were encouraged to put up their hands before a respondent was chosen. This methodology will encourage all students to engage in the teaching and learning process. The level of student engagement was good and most students were enthusiastic. The use of directed questions will 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 two to three. It was obvious from their behaviour that the students were accustomed to carrying out practical work and the science and biology 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 demonstrated a mature approach. 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 in all classes and good attention was paid to health and safety issues.
Teacher movement among the students, monitoring, assisting, examining and encouraging, was evident at all times during practical work. On occasion, a greater level of movement would have been of benefit during the more theoretical sections of lessons. 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 it is suggested that they are made aware of the learning outcomes at the outset of each lesson. Students may work better if they are more informed as to where a lesson is leading. This can be motivating and informative and can give a sense of purpose and direction to classroom work. The learning outcomes 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. It is recommended that this excellent practice be used in all lessons and that outcomes are reviewed at the end of each lesson to highlight the progress that has been made.
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 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 many of the notebooks was excellent, a few were of a lesser quality. It is recommended that laboratory notebooks and homework copies are checked and annotated on a regular basis. It is also important that teachers follow up on instructions given to students on how to improve their presentations and see that these are implemented. This is an important means of encouraging students and of pointing the way towards improvement.
First-year, second-year and fourth-year students sit three formal examinations each year, at Halloween, Christmas and at the end of the school year. Certificate examination classes are assessed at Halloween and Christmas, with mock examinations in the spring. Questions on mandatory practical work are included in house examinations and, in addition, a percentage of marks had been set aside for the completion of laboratory notebooks. Mock examination papers are mostly corrected by teachers. Some papers are assessed externally when a more independent opinion is required. Additional testing is at the discretion of individual teachers. Records of assessment are held in teachers’ own diaries and in the school office.
Results of assessment tests and progress reports are communicated to parents by means of Halloween, Christmas and summer reports and also at parent-teacher meetings, held once per year for each class. There are two such meetings each year held in accordance with Department of Education and Science regulations. 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 progress.
There was evidence of record keeping by teachers. Best practice was seen where the records included such areas as assessment results, attendance and work covered. It is suggested that record keeping be extended to include the quality of homework presented, student behaviour, attendance at parent-teacher meetings and other areas as issues arise, and that all teachers keep such comprehensive records in order to build up a profile of their students. Such information 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 the appropriate 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.