An Roinn Oideachais agus EolaŪochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Mountrath Road, Portlaoise, Co. Laois
Roll number: 71501A
Date of inspection: 10 February 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Portlaoise 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 studentsí work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachersí 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 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.
Junior Certificate Science is a core subject for first-year and second-year students in Portlaoise College. It is an optional subject for current third-year students. However, from next year onwards, Science will be a core subject for all students at junior cycle. Biology, which was introduced last year, is an optional subject for fifth-year students. It is the only science subject on the senior curriculum at present. The level of uptake of Biology, in fifth year, is encouraging. The school is commended for making Science a core subject at junior level while providing a greater choice at senior cycle students by making Biology an optional subject for the Leaving Certificate. Biology is timetabled against Art and History and this choice is set in order to facilitate students to fulfil the requirements for the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP), should students decide to avail of this programme. Students are supported in making their subject choices by advice from the guidance counsellor.
In first and second year, there are two mixed-ability science classes, and a third stream to cater for the needs of students who experience difficulty with the curriculum. Third-year science and senior biology classes are all mixed ability. Junior Certificate science classes are allocated four periods per week. Generously, an extra period is also provided during one of the three years of junior cycle. This is not provided concurrently. In order to facilitate planning co-ordination between the three class groups, it is suggested that all classes receive this extra period during the same year. First-year and second-year allocation, at present, is in the form of single periods only and, in some instances, there are two separate periods on the same day. It is recommended that provision include at least one double period each week, as recommended in the Junior Certificate science syllabus, and that same-day provision of separate single periods be avoided. Third-year students receive two double periods and one single period each week. This represents a generous allocation.
In senior cycle Biology classes are allocated five periods each week, in line with the recommendations of the biology syllabus. However, this is in the form of five single periods for sixth-year students. A more appropriate arrangement, consisting of two double periods and one single period, is provided for fifth-year students and it is recommended that the provision of at least one double period per week be maintained in future, in line with syllabus recommendations. All class periods are of forty minutes duration.
While senior cycle biology classes tend to be small, class sizes in Junior Certificate science are variable, ranging from ten up to twenty-eight students. This situation should be monitored, in consultation with the science teachers, to ensure that class sizes are such that the needs of all students are adequately catered for, within the resources available to the school, and that all students are placed in the best possible learning environment.
The school has a significant number of students who are in need of language support or who have special educational needs. A commendable variety of appropriate supports is provided to these students. Classes in English as an additional language (EAL) are provided as necessary, along with in-class, individual and group support. Special needs assistants (SNAs) also provide individual support for students with special educational needs.
Currently, there are four teachers of Science in the school and all are well qualified to teach Science. Opportunities for continuing professional development have been availed of during recent and current national in-service training programmes. Management is commended on the commitment given to facilitating attendance at in-service training. One teacher is also a member of the Irish Science Teachers Association (ISTA). It would be beneficial if all teachers became members of this professional body and it is suggested that school management examine ways to encourage such membership. Teachers are generally assigned to classes on a rota basis, but criteria such as continuity of contact and whether teachers are teaching another subject to a class are also considered. This is good practice.
The science and biology teachers, with the support of school management, are involved in a number of extra-curricular and co-curricular activities. These activities are used as a means of stimulating interest in and supporting the sciences in the school. Activities include encouraging and supporting students to enter the BT Young Scientist and Technology exhibition, promoting studentsí involvement in Science Week activities, and attending Science Alive seminars in UCD. The science teachers are commended for providing students with these opportunities.
There are two new and fully equipped laboratories in the school and these are linked by a well-organised storage and preparation area. Information and communications technologies (ICT) facilities are good. Both laboratories contain a networked personal computer (PC) and a printer, and are broadband enabled. It is recommended that the PCs be moved to more suitable locations, towards the front of each laboratory, to facilitate their use with mobile or fixed data projectors and to bring the use of ICT more centre-stage in the laboratories. It is intended to provide an interactive whiteboard in one laboratory at an early date. In addition, a tiered demonstration room is available to the science teachers. This room is equipped with a fixed data projector, a PC and is also broadband enabled. The provision of such resources by management is commended.
A variety of posters and charts was observed on the laboratory walls, including some student-generated work, thus creating attractive and stimulating learning environments. It is suggested that these displays be changed occasionally, in line with the work being done, and to highlight studentsí project work. Additionally, it is recommended that the wall space in the corridor outside the laboratories be used as a resource for the display of science-related posters, charts, careers information and other material to highlight the sciences and motivate students.
A range of health and safety equipment was observed, including first-aid kits, gas isolation switches and fire extinguishers. Displaying simple and direct laboratory rules in a more prominent manner should enhance this good attention to safety. Good practice in relation to the active management of safety issues during student practical work was evident in some of the lessons observed, where students wore protective laboratory coats, eye protection and plastic gloves. This is good practice. The school has a health and safety statement that was drawn up with appropriate consultation. This statement is currently being updated to ensure its relevance to the present situation.
The science team has a formal department structure and there is a recognised head or co-ordinator for Science. Positively, it is intended to rotate this role among the science teachers, at suitable intervals. It is suggested that, following a needs analysis within the department, a written schedule of co-ordinator duties be prepared to facilitate this process and to ensure that all relevant functions are accounted for. There was evidence of a strong sense of collegiality among the teachers of Science and this is laudable. The co-ordinator carries out duties such as convening and chairing meetings of the science department, ordering laboratory equipment and chemicals, and liaising with management. Frequent informal meetings of the science teachers take place to discuss planning issues and also matters of more immediate relevance. However, there are no formal meetings of the entire science department.
Management provides a substantial budget allocation for the science department each year, for the purchase of equipment and consumables. Additional finance for capital expenditure is made available on request, subject to availability. Teachers expressed satisfaction with the level of support provided. The science teachers are commended for their work in setting up the laboratories in the new school buildings, over the past two years, and in managing the purchase and deployment of equipment.
Comprehensive written plans, based on templates provided by the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI), have been prepared in relation to Junior Certificate Science and Leaving Certificate Biology. Among the items included in these plans are an outline of the aims and objectives of the courses, the skills to be developed by students, co-ordination and timetabling information, subject options, grouping of students and access to levels, planning for students with special educational needs, effective methodologies, curriculum content and homework procedures. The members of the science department are commended for their work in compiling the planning documents.
Building on the planning work already completed, it is recommended that management put in place arrangements to facilitate timely meetings of the entire science department, as required, in order to progress planning in the following areas: combining teachersí existing curriculum delivery schedules into a common curricular plan covering all three years of the junior cycle and two years of the senior cycle; more definite cross-curricular planning to support a more focussed implementation of the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP); more detail in relation to a differentiated approach to teaching and learning; assessment, including assessment for learning (AfL); and an expansion of the work already being done in the use of ICT in teaching and learning. It is also recommended that, in curricular planning, there should be a greater focus on learning outcomes as a means of describing the material to be taught and learned, as this will readily facilitate the establishment of closer links between what is taught in the classroom and what is to be assessed.
In the lessons observed there was evidence of short-term planning and the topics being taught were in line with the planning documents presented. Teachers were familiar with the subject matter of their lessons and there was an identifiable theme running through each lesson. Materials and resources 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 praiseworthy.
In all classes visited, there was a disciplined atmosphere, patience and consideration of studentsí needs was obvious, and a good learning environment was evident. Rapport with students was good, and this is commended. Students were attentive, interested, well behaved, and engaged very well in the learning process. Students were challenged by lesson content and responded well. Teaching was carried out with enthusiasm and a professional and business-like approach to work was the norm. The level of two-way communication in classrooms was relevant to the task at hand.
There was evidence of differentiation in the manner in which all lessons were conducted, and students were given opportunities to achieve according to their abilities. A high expectation for studentsí achievement was apparent and an atmosphere of affirmation and support of their efforts was evident at all times. There was good use of scientific terminology in most lessons observed. Continuity from previous lessons was good and new information was well linked to previous learning. Lessons had a clear focus. They proceeded at a suitable pace and good progress was made in all cases. This is commendable. The topics covered in the lessons observed included measurement, microscopy, the skeleton, atoms and fossil fuels.
A range of well-chosen and stimulating teaching methodologies was observed and changes in methodologies were built into lesson plans, as appropriate. These methodologies included teacher demonstrations and presentations, discussion, use of worksheets, student writing, student practical activity, questioning, role play, and the use of ICT. The whiteboard was used well in many instances to record and summarise information. Students were encouraged to make use of wall charts in one lesson, to find information when learning about the structure of the atom. There was a good balance between active-learning methodologies and teacher-centred presentations in many of the lessons observed. The tendency to rely on traditional methodologies in some instances should be avoided, as it can reduce the level of active student participation. It is recommended that active participation of students in their own learning should be facilitated whenever possible.
Questioning of students was frequently used to check on levels of knowledge and understanding, which is to be commended. 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. When using directed questions, the respondent should be chosen after allowing time for students to compose their answers and raise their hands, thus encouraging all students to engage in this activity.
Of particular note was the manner in which ICT was used, in one lesson, to assist students in carrying out practical work. The required equipment for the activity was listed on a power point slide and students were then encouraged to read the slides and follow the clear, simple, step-by-step instructions to complete the activity. The teacher, in the meantime, circulated around the laboratory to support and assist students, where necessary, in doing their work and was careful to ensure that all students were included. This is excellent practice.
Lessons were mostly well structured and students were kept busy and actively engaged at all times. Best practice was seen where previous learning was reviewed, in order to set the stage for moving on. This review was followed by the presentation of new material and students were then provided with opportunities to put new learning into practice, before a final summarising of the lesson and assignment of homework. It is recommended that clear learning goals be outlined to students at the outset of lessons. These goals should be concise and achievable. Expressing these goals in the form of learning outcomes can encourage a degree of self-assessment by students within the class and help individuals to monitor their own progress. Learning outcomes also provide a basis upon which the teacher can summarise the lesson content at relevant stages during lessons, and again at the end of lessons, and upon which homework can be given.
The practical work that was undertaken was efficiently organized and implemented. The students worked singly or in small groups and they demonstrated a mature approach to their work. Best practice was observed where teachers facilitated plenary sessions before and after the experiment, thus ensuring that the students clearly understood the purpose of the practical work, the procedures to be followed and all relevant health and safety considerations, and had an opportunity to discuss and rationalize their findings afterwards. All teachers should adopt this sequence of steps when students are carrying out practical work.
Good practice concerning the minimal use of textbooks was apparent during all lessons observed. Students were assigned homework at the conclusion of all lessons. This homework was appropriate to the lesson content, was varied, and was designed to assist each student in learning and understanding the topic in question.
Formative assessment of students is carried out continuously through questioning of students, correction of homework and monitoring of students during class. It is important that teachers circulate around the classrooms, at appropriate times, to ensure that all students are included in interactions, and are supported as necessary. It is recommended that the approach of Assessment for learning (AfL) be examined and adopted as a means of enhancing teachersí capacity in monitoring student performance and responding to their needs. Further information on AfL can be found on the website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment at www.ncca.ie.
Variation was evident in the extent to which teachers monitor studentsí copy books and laboratory notebooks. It is recommended that, as part of collaborative planning, common practices be developed in the monitoring of studentsí written work. The standard of the practical notebooks examined in the course of the evaluation was varied. In an effort to further improve the quality of studentsí written practical records, teachers are encouraged to give feedback to students that, as well as commenting on their work, indicates what they should do to achieve better outcomes.
Formal examinations for non-certificate examination classes are held at Christmas and again prior to the summer holidays. Students in certificate examination classes sit a formal examination at Christmas and sit mock examinations in February each year. House examinations mirror the type of questioning used in the certificate examinations and a portion of marks may be allocated for the satisfactory completion of the studentsí practical workbooks. This is good practice. Additional informal testing, including end-of-term assessments, is carried out frequently and at the discretion of individual teachers. It is recommended that common papers, corrected in accordance with an agreed marking scheme, should be provided where possible.
The school has put in place a range of mechanisms for communicating with parents and these include use of a student journal system, parent-teacher meetings, and formal reports. Telephone contact and formal letters are also used if the need arises. Other, less formal meetings can be arranged if required. These practices are wholly appropriate. Progress reports are sent to parents following Christmas and summer assessments for all first, second and fifth years, and following Christmas and mock examinations for third-year and sixth-year students.
Good practice in relation to recording student attainment and attendance by most teachers was evident. Roll call was taken at the beginning of each class and recorded in the teachersí diaries. In addition, some teachersí diaries contained comprehensive records of the performance of students in class and details of work covered. It is recommended that all teachers keep adequate records for the purpose of building up a profile of each student.
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.
Published, October 2009
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 2†† Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection
†††††††††††††† activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection