An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Mullingar Community College
Mullingar, County Westmeath
Roll number: 71450I
Date of inspection: 13 & 16 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 Mullingar 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 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 Mullingar Community College was carried out over the course of two days. It began with a visit to a double second-year science class. This was followed by a pre-evaluation meeting with the science and biology teachers at which the objectives and procedures of the evaluation were explained. Following this, double fifth-year and sixth-year biology lessons were observed along with first-year, second year and third-year science lessons. The school was given disadvantaged status by the Department of Education and Science in 1994 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.
In-coming first-year students are placed in one of four bands, on the basis of entrance assessments and feedback from primary schools. Students in three of these bands study Junior Certificate Science, the fourth band being given extra classes in core subjects such as English and Mathematics. All junior cycle science classes are allocated four class periods each week. This is in the form of two single periods and one double period, or, if requested by teachers, four single periods. This is within syllabus guidelines. There is a maximum class size of 24 students for Junior Certificate Science and classes are commonly smaller than this.
Following the Junior Certificate examination, students choose between the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme and the Leaving Certificate Established (LCE) or Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP). The school is currently offering Biology and Physics as optional subjects for students who choose the LCE or LCVP. During their third year and following consultation with the Guidance Counsellor, subject teachers and their parents, students are surveyed regarding their subject preferences. The results of the survey are used to create a “best-fit” model of options from which students make their final choice of subjects. Biology is the more popular of the two science subjects. Biology classes are timetabled for five periods per week, in the form of one double and three single periods in fifth year and two double periods and one single period in sixth year. This is in line with syllabus guidelines. Maximum class size, once again, is twenty-four students.
There are four teachers of science subjects in the school. One of these teachers is currently teaching Biology. Opportunities have been availed of to release teachers for continuing professional development during recent and current national in-service training programmes in Biology and Junior Certificate Science. Management is commended on the commitment given to facilitate attendance at in-service training.
There are two laboratories in the school. These laboratories are in poor condition, due to their age. Good use is being made of them in spite of this and teachers are to be commended for their efforts. The laboratories share a common storage and preparation area. This area is well stocked and chemicals are appropriately stored. All science classes are held in a laboratory and, in addition, some mathematics classes are held there. A variety of posters and charts were observed on the laboratory walls. Many of these are old and in need of replacement. It is recommended that some student-developed material, posters and project work for example, be put on display as this serves to stimulate and motivate students and to enhance the learning environment. It is suggested that these charts and posters be changed occasionally, in line with the seasons for example, or with the topics being taught at a particular time.
A range of health and safety equipment was observed, including first aid kits, fire extinguishers, fire blankets and gas isolation switches. A high priority was given to the active management of safety issues during student practical work in one lesson, as evidenced by the carrying out of a risk assessment and the wearing of safety glasses by the students. This is excellent practice. The school has a health and safety statement that was drawn up about three years ago. The statement is reviewed annually.
There is evidence of a growing sense of collegiality among the science teachers. There has been recent engagement with the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) in order to support subject planning and the process of setting up a formal science department is now underway. A convenor has yet to be appointed. Informal meetings of the science and biology teachers are held frequently and issues of immediate importance are discussed. All science teachers collaborate in the ordering of equipment and responsibility for laboratory maintenance is shared.
The behaviour of a small number of students during class was challenging. Planning has taken place at whole school level in order to address such difficulties. The school has a code of behaviour in place and subjects offered to students in junior cycle are appropriately chosen. It is important that lessons should also be planned so as to anticipate and minimise such difficulties and that appropriate action should take place when instances of misbehaviour occur. Best practice was seen where students were kept actively engaged in their learning at all times, thereby minimising opportunities for disruption, and where a firm and direct approach was taken to keeping students on task when the need arose.
Schemes of work for the current year were presented in relation to the present first-year science classes. These schemes outline the topics to be covered, on a term-by term basis. There is no formal budget allocated to the sciences. However, funds are provided as required and teachers have expressed satisfaction with the level of support they receive.
It is recommended that a formal science department should be put in place as soon as possible. Long-term plans for the implementation and support of the sciences should then be drawn up. These plans should address such areas as curriculum planning, planning for resources, methodologies and assessment. A detailed list of coursework topics, including a list of practical activities, the intended allocation of time and a list of resources to be used in teaching each topic should then be prepared. Teaching and learning methodologies should be included 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 under instruction. Assessment objectives should be defined for the various tests and examinations during the school year so that appropriate types of examinations can be administered. It is also recommended that the science teachers co-ordinate their planning documents so that classes reach the same endpoint each term and common assessments can be facilitated and to ensure continuity from year to year. Further helpful advice is available on the SDPI website, www.sdpi.ie. A list of possible resources for Junior Certificate Science can be found on the Junior Certificate Science Support Service website, www.juniorscience.ie. Similar information in relation to the Leaving Certificate science subjects is available on the website of the Second Level Support Service at www.slss.ie.
In most of the lessons 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 class, along with the apparatus required for student centred investigative work, had been prepared in advance. This preparation contributed to the quality of learning and is praiseworthy.
In the classes visited, the level of discipline was generally good. Rapport with students was generally good also and this is commended. Teachers were enthusiastic, patient and considerate of students. Their approach to their work was professional and business-like and a good learning environment was evident in most lessons observed. The level of two-way communication in classrooms was relevant to the task at hand. Most students were attentive, interested and anxious to participate in the learning process. The topics covered in the classes observed included sound, rates of enzyme reaction, electricity circuits and volume.
A variety of teaching methodologies was observed, including student practical work, demonstration, handouts, questioning, use of IT and student written work. Teachers were very knowledgeable and there was excellent use of scientific terminology throughout most the lessons observed. Lessons proceeded at a suitable pace and changes in methodologies were built into most lessons as appropriate. Students were challenged by lesson content and many responded well. Continuity from previous lessons was good and new information was well linked to previous learning and to the students’ experiences in general. There was good direction and follow through in the lessons observed. Most lessons had a clear focus. This is good practice.
Questioning of students was frequently used to assess their level of knowledge and understanding. This is to be commended. However, many 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. Best practice was seen where questions were directed towards individual students, allowing the teacher an opportunity to gauge the level of understanding from the student’s reply and it is recommended that more extensive use of this methodology should be made. Additionally, students should be given time to think and to formulate their answers and should be encouraged to put up their hands before a respondent is chosen, encouraging all of them to engage in the learning process. This is especially important if questions are of a higher order, encouraging students to think at a deeper level. It is important that the pace of the lesson is dictated by the teacher. This can help to settle lively and enthusiastic students, and gives the teacher time to observe the performance of individual students. The level of student engagement was generally 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 from two to five. 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 work themselves. Students displayed a very good level of skills during the course of their work and demonstrated a mature approach. 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, complemented by 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, as observed, was generally purposeful, assessing, monitoring, and providing assistance and encouragement. Pacing the room is best avoided. Teachers were affirming of student effort in most lessons and were 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 they 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 and help them 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 teacher movement and observation of students during class.
Students keep 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 the sciences. While the quality of some of the notebooks was excellent, some were of a lesser quality and overall there was some variation. It is recommended that all teachers check and annotate homework copies and laboratory notebooks regularly. 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 fifth-year students are assessed by means of Halloween, Christmas and summer examinations. Questions on mandatory practical work are included in these examinations. Third-year and sixth-year students are assessed at Halloween and by mock examinations in the spring. Teachers correct these mock examinations. Additional testing is at the discretion of individual teachers. Records of assessment are held in teachers’ own diaries, by year heads and on computer in the school office.
Results of assessments and progress reports are communicated to parents by means of October, Christmas and summer reports for non-certificate examination classes, and by means of October and mock examination reports for Junior and Leaving Certificate classes. Communication with parents is also achieved by means of parent-teacher meetings, held once per year for each class. These meetings are 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 good record keeping by some teachers, including in such areas as assessment results, attendance, student behaviour, homework and practical work completed. This is good practice. It is recommended 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 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.