An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of
Science, Biology and Agricultural Science
Blackwater Community School
Lismore, County Waterford
Roll number: 91509E
Date of inspection: 23 March 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 June 2006
This Subject Inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Blackwater Community School. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Junior Science, Leaving Certificate Biology and Leaving Certificate Agricultural Science and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of these subjects 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. 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.
Science is not core to Junior Certificate. However, all first-year students study Science with the majority of second-year students and most third-year students taking science as one of their optional Junior Certificate subjects. Science is allocated one double and two single lessons weekly, which is within curriculum guidelines.
An optional Transition Year (TY) programme follows Junior Certificate. All students study science as part of TY during their weekly-allocated double lesson. Different work programmes were presented but all included some Physics, Chemistry and Biology. An elective module in science forms part of the Leaving Certificate Applied programme (LCA). All LCA year two students study this elective and are allocated one double and one single lesson weekly.
Students get the opportunity to choose their own options for senior-cycle subjects. These choices are then used to create a “best-fit” model. Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Agricultural Science are offered as optional subjects to Leaving Certificate level. The majority of students study Biology with a small number studying each of the other science subjects. At present, year-two Agricultural Science students study this subject after school but it is now facilitated on the timetable for year-one students as a result of its increase in popularity. The time allocation is within curriculum guidelines, with five lessons, comprising one double and three single lessons weekly, being allocated per subject. The current provision of double lessons in the sciences facilitates the organisation of practical work as required by each syllabus.
The teaching of science subjects is divided between five teachers. One teacher is a substitute teacher for a member of staff who is on leave. At present all teachers teach the junior-cycle science programme, with Leaving Certificate Biology being taught by three teachers and one teacher teaching Leaving Certificate Agricultural Science.
The school has three newly-equipped science laboratories and one demonstration room. The facilities viewed are maintained and are effective for the delivery of science subjects. Two preparation areas were viewed which are shared between the laboratories and demonstration room. The laboratories have been pre-assigned as the school operates teacher-based classrooms. As the school is new there is a considerable amount of storage space to facilitate the storage of science equipment. The storage areas observed were well organised with clear evidence of a lot of thought being put into these spaces by the science staff. This is to be commended. A system for logging equipment use was observed, which is good practice.
The school has a health and safety statement, which was recently reviewed. There is a high level of safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, safety blankets, safety glasses etc., in the laboratories. Safety signage was also viewed in the laboratories, to inform students of what is good practice. Excellent work has been done to ensure the safe storage of chemicals. Copies of the published guidelines on safety – Safety in School Science and Safety in the School Laboratory published by the Department of Education and Science in 1996 are available to all staff. Further copies if required can be downloaded from the Internet at http://www.psi-net.org/chemistry.
Resources such as a computer, data-projector and overhead projector, were observed in each laboratory. A television and video are also available for use when required. These resources support the teaching and learning process. The location of equipment in the laboratories and the organisation of topic-specific project boxes by the science team help in the organisation of practical work, which is good practice. A specific budget for science is not allocated. However, the science team present a list of items that they require to management for the upkeep and development of the sciences in the school. This practice is operating very satisfactorily in the school.
Some colourful visual stimuli, mainly in the form of charts, diagrams and models, were viewed in the science facilities. Some of this visual stimulus-material was of student origin, which is to be commended. The use of display boards, which contain for example, charts, diagrams, displays of student work and recent science-related articles were also observed. Student project work was viewed in the laboratories. This is good practice and with regular updating, should help to maintain the interest and stimulation of the students. As an initiative to further raise the profile of the sciences in the school, notice boards which display science-related material and student work could be positioned in the corridors near the science facilities.
Opportunities for continual professional development in Science and previously in Biology and the Physical Sciences have been availed of and endorsed by management. All teachers are encouraged to be members of their subject association.
The process of school development planning is established in the school. A plan for the science subjects was presented. This plan contained information under the following headings: aims, objectives, support and planning for students with special educational needs, time allocation, student access and level, class organisation, record keeping, assessment, in-career development, cross-curricular planning, homework and common curricular schemes of work. This represents very comprehensive work by the science team and is to be commended. This process has been facilitated by management with the allocation of formal meeting time on Mondays as part, or instead of, the weekly staff meeting. A formal subject convenor for science is also present. Management stated that this role is rotated among the science team yearly, which is good practice. In addition, co-ordination and communication are also conducted informally among the science team on an ongoing basis. In this way, collaboration is established and maintained. An agenda is set in advance and minutes are recorded for all formal meetings of the science team. Building on this planning, the science team could also consider how to share ideas for good practice, teaching resources, ideas for practical investigations, alternative forms of assessment and the integration of ICT.
Short-term planning was observed in all lessons. This was evidenced by a familiarity with the subject matter, a coherent theme running through the lessons, the prior preparation of the materials, chemicals and the apparatus required for student-centred investigative work. In addition, student learning was aided through the use of a variety of resources, which included excellent use of ICT, some use of textbooks, the use of the blackboard and the use of various types of handout material, which are to be commended. Individual planning material presented together with discussion and reflection on the experiences gained through involvement with the revised syllabuses should also help to further influence and direct the development of the Sciences within the school.
Opportunities to extend student learning outside the classroom have also been planned with visits to, and participation in, the Young Scientist and Technology exhibition, participation by teams in science quiz for both junior and senior classes, including the UCC Salter’s Science Challenge and the DCU Science Olympiad. In addition, National Science Week is an important date for the school’s calendar, with the Boyle Laboratory in Lismore a focus for activities. These help to foster active participation and develop an interest in the sciences in the school.
The lessons observed had a disciplined atmosphere with a clear and fair code of behaviour. There was a positive teacher-student rapport throughout the lessons, which is to be commended and it contributed to a constructive learning environment. Students were generally attentive, interested and anxious to participate well in the learning processes. Generally, students had a good understanding of the task in hand and displayed good teamwork skills in practical work. In general, there was an appropriate pace to the lessons observed which facilitated student learning. Breathing, respiration, genetics, heat, sexual reproduction in the flowering plant, germination and soil lime requirements were the topics of study in the lessons observed.
Teaching methodologies observed included student practical work in groups, questioning, explanation, blackboard work, use of handouts or worksheets, use of textbooks and ICT. Practical work was observed in a number of classes. Students worked in groups of two or three during all observed practical activities. Safety precautions were outlined to the students and reinforced by the teacher. In most instances students were able to set up, complete and clean up after their practical activity. This was very positive as the students’ skills were being developed. Adequate time was also allocated to the students for the completion of their practical investigations. The provision of a worksheet for the recording of findings and the application of their knowledge was also observed in some lessons. This was worthwhile as it helped to focus the students on the task while also serving to highlight potential difficulties. During all practical activities the teacher moved around the room checking student progress and questioning to assess student understanding, provided guidance when required and answered student questions. This approach aided student learning and engagement with the teacher. The use of a plenary recall session near the completion of a practical lesson where students share and discuss their results and conclusions, under teacher guidance, could be considered. Students would become more actively engaged in their learning and this could also help them to make a record of their own investigative work. This approach could also be adopted, for example, to summarise material delivered during a theory class. In the context of mixed-ability classes, the use of differentiation in order to enhance student-learning could be considered. This could be achieved through the use of differentiation by task, using differentiated worksheets or assignments where the task could be extended or reduced according to the students’ ability. While there was some evidence of differentiation through intervention during practical investigations, this could be further developed during group work, pair work, problem solving and collaborative learning.
All students had laboratory notebooks or files in which they recorded all their investigative work. Monitoring of student notebooks is noted. Corrections identified in this monitoring should be followed up to ensure the student work is complete and correct. When writing the procedures for practical work, students should be encouraged to use their own words rather than using the “recipe” in their textbooks or handout or as dictated by the teacher. The inclusion of practical work in the current scheme of assessment would be beneficial, as it would provide further motivation for engagement by all students with the practical element of the course. The use of textbooks during classes was minimal, with teaching being actively carried out by the teachers. Textbooks were, for the most part, used as student background reading and for homework. This is to be commended. Consideration could be given as to whether students have their textbooks or other material open during the delivery of new material and during the questioning of material. Homework given was appropriate to the lesson material and was designed to assist the student in learning and retaining the topic.
Effective use was made of a range of relevant resources such as PowerPoint presentations, student handouts, diagrams, and the blackboard to enhance teaching and consolidate learning. Materials were clearly planned and presented to ensure student learning and retention. The observed use of visual material in the delivery of concepts was very worthwhile for the students’ understanding and enhanced the learning environment. It is acknowledged that a lot of preparation time went into the development of the material, which was of great benefit to student learning and is to be highly commended. Sharing of resources prepared by teachers, particularly in the area of ICT, is to be encouraged to assure the quality of teaching and learning in science classrooms. Non-reliance on any one method in the delivery of the subjects is recommended to ensure student engagement.
Whole-class teaching is used effectively at the start of a lesson in order to set the scene, and provide students with clear instructions for the lesson activities. When the expected learning outcomes and objectives for the lesson were clarified to the students, it helped to focus the student learning. It is recommended that this be expanded, as it will also allow for self-assessment of the lesson by the student and will increase the student’s level of involvement in the learning process. Whole-class teaching was also used effectively at the end of some of the observed lessons. This helped to draw together key points under the guidance of the teacher, and was very effective.
Good use of questioning to named students and explanations to engage students in the learning activity were observed. This also allowed previous knowledge and understanding to be evaluated and also aided the introduction of and subsequent broadening of the topic. As all lessons observed were of mixed ability, it is recommended that differentiation by questioning be employed to encourage the active participation of students who are less able and to provide a challenge for students who are more familiar with the subject matter. Closed questions might ask for a name or specific piece of information. The use of more probing techniques for example, which might ask for a student’s line of reasoning or an opinion or evaluation, should be considered, with adequate time afforded to a student to answer. Chorus answering to questioning should be discouraged as this makes it very difficult to know how well individual students understand the material. It is also important to ensure that all students are engaged through questioning at different points throughout the lesson to ensure that their learning does not become purely passive.
The students have a good attitude towards Science, Biology and Agricultural Science, as displayed by the interest and level of engagement observed during lessons. Formative assessment of the students is carried out on an ongoing basis through questioning and by means of homework. However, to ensure that assessment of all students occurs, questioning of named students is recommended in order to prevent chorus answering. Formal assessments are held for all classes at Christmas and summer. State examination classes have pre-examinations in the spring of their examination year. Management encourages the teachers to mark these scripts but some scripts are externally assessed. Formal reports are sent to parents following Christmas, summer and pre-examinations. In addition to reports, parent-teacher meetings are held for all classes annually. The student journal is an additional means of communicating with parents as the need arises.
Tests at the end of units are administered during lesson time at the discretion of the teacher. The science team could formalise the number of tests they administer to their classes in each year group. This could be further developed to incorporate a method of continuous assessment. The inclusion of practical work in the scheme of continuous assessment is recommended, as it provides motivation for engagement by all students with the practical element of the course and ensures regular monitoring of student laboratory notebooks. This could be considered especially for students of non-examination years, acting as a stimulus for learning and a means of reward for hard work.
The following are the main strengths and areas for development 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, Biology and Agricultural Science and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
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
Recommendations have been taken on board and will be implemented at commencement of the school year 2006/7 following end of year subject Department review (2005/6)