An Roinn Oideachais agus EolaŪochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science
Newcastle West, County Limerick
Roll number: 71790J
Date of inspection: 06 and 07 November 2006
Date of issue of report:† 22 February 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Desmond College. 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 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 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.
Desmond College is located in the town of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick. The school has an associated GaelcholŠiste where teaching and learning occurs through Irish.
Science subjects are an integral part of the schoolís curriculum, featuring as part of the Junior Certificate, Junior Certificate Schools Programme, Established Leaving Certificate, and Leaving Certificate Applied programmes. At junior cycle, nearly all students study Science and this shows good support for the subject. The science subjects offered by the school at senior cycle are Leaving Certificate Biology, Leaving Certificate Chemistry, Leaving Certificate Physics, and Leaving Certificate Applied Science. There is a generally good uptake of science subjects at senior cycle.
There is good support for students in making their senior-cycle subject choices and students may potentially study all of the senior-cycle science subjects offered by the school. Information on subject choices is disseminated by subject teachers who speak with students and at open nights that are held for parents. Students have an open choice of senior-cycle subjects and a ďbest-fitĒ method is used to arrive at the option bands. This is an optimal method of facilitating studentsí subject choices.
At senior cycle, the uptake of science subjects in the school tends to follow traditional lines. Discussion with the Science teachers revealed awareness of these trends and a desire to encourage a gender-balanced uptake. The work of the Science staff in promoting a gender-balanced uptake is encouraged. In furthering this work, the Science staff is advised, within the subject planning process, to pool its extensive expertise and experience to develop a formal strategy to deal with the issue.
All class groupings are of mixed ability. Classes retain the same Science teacher throughout junior cycle. This supports continuity of teaching and learning and this is good practice.
The school reports that it provides a number of categories of funding for science subjects and evidence of these categories was provided. The school reports that it has requested subject departments to develop proposals for purchase of further resources and that development of these proposals is ongoing. There is good satisfaction among the science staff in relation to the level of resources available to them.
The school has two science laboratories and one adjoining preparation area. The laboratories and preparation area are clean, in good repair, and well stocked with appropriate materials and equipment. Good work has been done in the preparation area in the labelling and storage of chemicals according to Department of Education and Science guidelines and best safety practice. This work is commended.
An annual stocktake has been a feature of the system used in managing equipment and materials for science subjects. Use of such a system is helpful in planning for the purchase of resources and it is encouraged that an annual stocktake remain central to the planning and management processes for equipment and materials for science subjects.
There is a good level of awareness among the Science staff of the importance of good health and safety practices. The school, appropriately, has a health and safety statement. It is reported that the health and safety statement is reviewed every two years and that the science teachers play an active part in the review process. In building on the established good practices, the school should consider reviewing the health and safety statement annually or more regularly as needs arise. A set of laboratory rules is displayed in each laboratory and this is wholly appropriate.
Science students are timetabled for four class periods weekly consisting of one double and two single class periods. This timetable allocation is appropriate. The double class period takes place in a science laboratory and this facilitates student performance of practical investigative work on which the syllabus is predicated.
There is a good range of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) resources available to the science staff. The resources include desktop computers, laptop computers, and a data projector. Interview with the Science teachers showed that there is a high level of enthusiasm for developing the integration of ICT in the teaching and learning of Science and this is encouraged.
There is good support for teachersí continuing professional development as evidenced by the fact that all the Science teachers have been facilitated in attending relevant in-service science education courses. A culture of support for teachersí continuing professional development is further exemplified by the facilitation of staff development on issues such as school development planning, inclusion and differentiation strategies, and child protection guidelines. The school reports that it supports teachers in their membership of the relevant subject association and that it assists teachers who undertake further study by facilitating appropriate timetable arrangements, subject to school needs. The high level of support for teachersí continuing professional development is acknowledged and commended.
The school has a significant number of students with special educational needs and language support needs. There are high levels of awareness and commitment among the Science staff to meeting the needs of these students. The school has shown good support for staff by facilitating engagement with the Special Education Support Service (SESS). Science teachers are made aware of the individual learning needs of students and there has been some support from the schoolís learning support personnel in advising on the most effective methodologies to use with students. In building on the good work and cooperative efforts of the science teachers and learning support personnel, it is recommended that future work focus on the sharing of methodologies and resources specific to each studentís individual needs. Some useful resources for teachers in their work with students with special educational needs may be found at www.sess.ie and www.profexcel.net. Resources in the area of language support for students for whom English is not their first language may be found at www.iilt.ie.
A comprehensive, documented Science plan was viewed. The plan included references to the mission statement, subject aims and objectives, teacher details, time allocations, option† structures, timetabling arrangements, arrangements for grouping of students, textbooks used, resources used, health and safety requirements, content to be covered with each year group, homework procedures, assessment procedures, record keeping procedures, and details of teachersí in-career development. The Science staff has done very good work in developing the plan and this work is commended.
Interview showed that the Science teachers work well together. There is a beneficial atmosphere of collegiality and collaboration and this supports the good work done in planning for the teaching and learning of Science. A Science teacher acts as subject co-ordinator for Science. The Science department meets regularly, both formally and informally. In supporting the collegial atmosphere within the science department, it might be useful to circulate a copy of brief minutes of planning meetings and to copy these to senior school management.
All lessons visited were appropriate to the syllabus and all requisite materials were to hand and had been prepared appropriately in advance. This demonstrates good short-term lesson planning.
A variety of interesting methodologies was observed. Questioning was used effectively in all lessons. Questioning styles varied between global and directed questioning. Teachers were careful to balance the type of questioning used and it was observed that directed questioning was the predominant type. This is appropriate as directed questioning enables teachers to vary the level of challenge appropriate to studentsí abilities and to easily collect feedback on studentsí understanding. This can then be used as an aid to pacing and content delivery within lessons. In all lessons, teachers highlighted the key learning points for students. This good practice was further supported by the manner in which teachers, throughout the lessons taught, continually reinforced the key points.
It was evident from classroom observation and interaction with students that there was a wide range of academic and linguistic abilities in the classes observed. Teachers showed a high level of awareness of studentsí abilities and strove to engage students at an appropriate level. Support for students was apparent from the manner, in one lesson, in which emphasis was placed on studentsí acquisition and understanding of the scientific terminology used. In another lesson students benefited from the way in which the teacher used a model and the miming of words to overcome language difficulties and in another lesson the importance placed on scientific literacy and the spelling of key words was supportive of studentsí learning needs. The use of clear, labelled diagrams was also of great benefit to students. Where Irish was the language of instruction used, it was noted that the lessons progressed, appropriately, almost exclusively through Irish and with good support for students who had any language difficulties. Students were supported through the use of a handout that had been prepared in advance by the teacher and also by guidance and advice from the teacher to individual students. Interaction with students showed that they were generally comfortable and confident working through Irish.
Discipline was maintained in a sensitive manner in all of the lessons observed. There was a good rapport among students and teachers and this contributed to a positive learning environment. Studentsí efforts were affirmed in all lessons. Affirming and rewarding students for their efforts and attainment is a valuable method of supporting and promoting student motivation. Affirmation is especially important where students have a diversity of learning needs and abilities and its use in this context by teachers is acknowledged and commended. A very notable feature of lessons observed was the level of enthusiasm for the study of Science among teachers and students and this contributed beneficially to the learning atmosphere.
There was a sense of scientific learning space in the laboratories in which the lessons took place. This was enhanced by the presence of charts, posters, models, student work and basic glassware. In continuing to support students in acquiring and understanding scientific terminology, particularly where English is not the studentsí first language, it would be beneficial to develop the use and display of multi-lingual word charts and the creation of these charts could be usefully assigned as an exercise for students.
Student performance of practical work was a key feature of all lessons observed. In all lessons, appropriate emphasis was placed on good safety practices. Teachers circulated among the students while the students worked. Teachers gave students individual advice and guidance as required. This exemplifies a positive culture where teachers strive to meet studentsí individual learning needs. It was observed that students wrote up their experiments in their own words, with assistance from their teachers as needed. This is good scientific practice as it fosters a sense of ownership of the experimental procedure and creates a record of the work completed that will be individually accessible to the student. Another good practice that was observed was where students were engaged in tidying up after their experimental work. This practice is commended as it encourages studentsí autonomy and responsibility for their work.
Students were engaged and participative in all lessons observed. Observation of studentsí responses to questions posed by their teachers, questions posed by students and interaction between the inspector and students showed that they had generally good levels of knowledge and understanding relative to their year group and abilities.
Science students are assessed regularly using class assessments and formal year-group assessments. The results of assessments are sent home periodically. This is appropriate. The science teachers report that they are working towards using common assessments and this is encouraged. The use of common assessment is valuable as it supports collaborative planning by enabling comparison of student attainment across a year group. The results of this comparison can be used to refine subject planning and content delivery and this supports the collaborative work of subject departments.
The school has a formal homework policy and this was presented for viewing. The policy provides a useful guide for teachers in assigning homework to students. Classroom visits showed that the policy is being successfully implemented, as homework was a feature of all lessons observed.
Samples of studentsí homework and experimental copies were viewed. Some of the samples examined showed that language and literacy difficulties are an issue for some students. The samples showed that regular monitoring of homework and of studentsí write up of experimental work is a valuable aspect of the teaching and learning processes used. It is encouraged that ongoing development of practices and policies in relation to monitoring, evaluation and feedback to students focus on techniques that continue to improve studentsí scientific literacy and language abilities. As part of a balanced approach to homework, creativity was noted where students were assigned the task of composing a role-play to describe and explain the topic they had studied. This creative approach to student learning is commended as it engages studentsí in developing their higher order thinking skills and yet provides a task accessible to all students regardless of ability levels. Generally, teachers give feedback to students as they perform their experimental work and on the write up of that work. In building on the existing assessment and feedback practices the science staff is encouraged to develop further assessment and feedback strategies that give credit for student performance of practical work.
The school recognises the importance of maintaining regular communication with studentsí parents/guardians and strives to ensure that frequent communication occurs. Home-school communication is maintained through use of assessment reports, parent-teacher meetings, school website, newsletters, student journal, and personal meetings as required. The student journal plays a valuable role in maintaining regular home-school communication and its use is commended.
The school, within its schedule of posts of responsibility, has created a role of academic monitor whose function is to provide assistance for under-performing students. Where a student has been identified as being in need of assistance, the academic monitor in cooperation with the studentís teacher meets with the student to guide and advise him/her. The studentís parents/guardians are advised of the meeting and this further exemplifies a cooperative approach between the school and home in supporting students in their learning.
The work of the science teachers in supporting studentsí participation in science-related extra-curricular and co-curricular activities is acknowledged and commended. Students have benefited from this support and have taken part in activities such as the Young Scientists and Technology Exhibition, science quizzes, ecology trips, recycling initiatives, and visits to science-related events.
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 with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.