An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science
Clonaslee Vocational School
Clonaslee, Co. Laois
Roll number: 71470O
Date of inspection: 17 May 2007
Date of issue of report: 8 November 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Clonaslee Vocational School. 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 one day 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 deputy 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.
The evaluation of Junior Certificate Science at Clonaslee Vocational School was carried out over the course of one day. It began with a visit to a double first-year science class, followed by a single third-year science class. These visits were followed by a meeting with the principal to discuss whole-school support and by a meeting with the science teachers at which the objectives and procedures of the evaluation were explained. Subsequently, a single second-year and a single first-year science class were observed.
Junior Certificate Science is a core subject for all junior cycle students. All classes are of mixed ability. Four single class periods per week, or one double and two single periods in the case of one class, are allocated to Junior Certificate science classes. The number of class periods is within syllabus guidelines. However, as the Junior Certificate Science syllabus document recommends the allocation of a double period each week to all science classes to facilitate laboratory work by students, it is recommended that the provision of only single periods for most classes be kept under review. Class sizes tend to be small, reflecting the size of the school.
Following the Junior Certificate examination, students choose between Transition Year (TY) and the Leaving Certificate (Established) programme. Science is a subject on the TY curriculum and is allocated four single periods each week. Modules in forensic science, herbs and cosmetics are followed. TY students also carry out web quests and study the lives of famous scientists. Physics and Chemistry (Combined), Agricultural Science and Biology are offered as optional subjects to Leaving Certificate students and the level of uptake is encouraging in all three subjects.
There are four teachers of science subjects in the school and all of these teachers are currently teaching Science. Opportunities have been availed of to release teachers for continuing professional development during recent and current national in-service training programmes in Junior Certificate Science. Management is commended on the commitment given to facilitate attendance at in-service training. The school encourages active participation by students in Science Week activities and in attending mandatory laboratory experiment revision courses in the Institute of Technology, Athlone. Ecology fieldwork is carried out locally and students have also travelled to Galway to study a seashore habitat. The work of the science teachers in this regard is praiseworthy.
The school has one science laboratory. It is of relatively recent construction and is adequately equipped for its purpose. There is a well stocked and well ordered storage and preparation area adjacent to the laboratory. All science classes have weekly access to the laboratory although, due to the number of classes requiring access, not all science classes are held in the laboratory. In addition, while science classes are always given priority, the laboratory may also be used to accommodate classes in other subjects. A good display of charts was observed in the laboratory. However, greater use of student-developed material is encouraged as it serves to stimulate and motivate students and further enhance the learning environment. It will also allow an opportunity to change the charts occasionally, in line with the work being done or to highlight student project work.
A range of health and safety equipment was observed, including a first aid kit, a fume cupboard, and gas and electrical isolation switches. A high priority was given to the active management of safety issues during student practical work as evidenced by the wearing of white coats, protective eyewear and gloves by students in one lesson observed. This is praiseworthy. The school has a health and safety statement that was drawn up last year. It is to be reviewed on an annual basis, at the end of the school year.
There is evidence of a strong sense of collegiality among the science teachers. Although school development planning has not yet progressed to the level of subject department planning, there is a recognised coordinator for Science in place. Frequent informal meetings of the science teachers take place and, together, they carry out all curriculum planning, stock control and laboratory management duties as a team. The science teachers deserve credit for their level of cooperation. Funding for the sciences is provided as requested and management has been very supportive to date.
Long-term curricular planning documents were presented in relation to all junior cycle science classes. The planning documents include a list of coursework topics to be taught each term. There are also some references to assessment and resources in the planning documents. This is praiseworthy. However, the plans are basic in nature and they are focused on course content. It is recommended that the science teachers draw up and implement a common plan for all three years of the junior cycle. In this plan, reference should be made to the Junior Certificate Science syllabus document, as this is the primary document that describes the objectives and content of the courses being followed. Reference should also be made to the mandatory practical activities associated with the various topics on the course, and the resources required in order to carry out these activities. It is recommended that teaching methodologies should be included in planning documents so as 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. Further helpful advice on planning is available on the School Development Planning Initiative website, www.sdpi.ie and from the Junior Certificate Science Support Service (www.jcsss.ie).
In the classes 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 and for student-centred investigative work had been prepared in advance. This preparation contributed to the quality of learning and is praiseworthy.
In all classes visited, there was a disciplined atmosphere. Rapport with students was good and this is to be commended. Teachers were enthusiastic, warm, patient and considerate of students. Their approach to their work was professional and business-like and a good learning environment was evident in all lessons observed. Good progress was made in all lessons. The level of two-way communication in classrooms was relevant to the task at hand. Students were always attentive, interested and anxious to participate in the learning process. The topics covered in the classes observed included flower structure and plant reproduction, revision of some chemistry topics and food tests.
A range of teaching methodologies was observed, including use of the overhead projector, questioning, student worksheets, student practical work and teacher explanations. 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. Teachers were very knowledgeable about their subject matter and there was excellent use of scientific terminology throughout the lessons observed. 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.
Questioning of students was frequently used to check on levels of knowledge and understanding, which is to be commended. 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. Good use of questioning techniques is also a useful tool for drawing out those students who would otherwise participate minimally in class. Directing questions to individual, named students for a response is a very useful means of encouraging all students to engage actively in a lesson. Questions ranged from the factual, testing recall, to questions of a higher order that were more challenging and encouraged students to think at a deeper level. 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.
During the observed student practical work the students worked in groups of two. 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 displayed a very good level of skills during the course of their work and demonstrated a mature approach. It is recommended that students are prepared for carrying out their practical work by the use of a plenary session to review the theory and practice of each activity, before bench work begins. A similar plenary session is necessary when the practical activities have been completed, in order to review the work done and to emphasise what had been learned.
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. Good practice concerning the minimal use of textbooks was apparent during all lessons. Textbooks were mainly used for background reading by students and to assist in homework. Homework given was appropriate to the lesson content and was designed to assist the student 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. 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.
Students demonstrated a positive attitude towards Science 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 during class that was noted by the inspector.
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. The degree to which teachers examined and corrected notebooks is uneven and it is recommended that all teachers check and annotate laboratory notebooks 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. It is suggested that in-house examination papers and procedures are matched closely to the Junior Certificate in order to familiarise students with these examinations and that an allowance of up 10% of available marks be allocated to student practical notebooks in order to encourage a high standard of content and presentation. Certificate examination classes sit mock examinations in the spring. The students’ scripts are assessed internally in the case of Junior Certificate examinations and externally for Leaving Certificate papers. Additional testing is at the discretion of individual teachers. Records of assessment are held in teachers’ own diaries and in report books and on computer 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. 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 record keeping by teachers, covering such areas as student attendance, assessment results, student behaviour and topics taught. This is good practice. 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:
· A professional approach is taken to the teaching of Science in Clonaslee Vocational School.
· Science is well supported within the school, with good provision of resources.
· Opportunities for professional development have been encouraged by management and availed of by teachers.
· There is good rapport between teachers and students. A positive atmosphere was observed in all the classes visited. Students were motivated and eager to engage in learning processes.
· Good planning is being carried out to enhance the teaching of Science.
· Lessons observed were planned to ensure continuity and progression and with careful advance preparation of the necessary resource material.
· Student practical work was observed with further evidence in the students’ laboratory notebooks, which is to be commended.
· Heath and safety issues are given a high priority and are actively managed.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· It is recommended that the provision of only single periods for most science classes be kept under review.
· It is recommended that the science teachers draw up and implement a detailed common plan for all three years of the junior cycle.
· It is recommended that adequate time be allowed for a plenary session in advance of any practical work, when clear instructions can be given to students in a structured manner, and again at the end of a practical session to review the lesson.
· It is recommended that all teachers check and annotate laboratory notebooks regularly.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Science and with the deputy principal, at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.