An Roinn Oideachais agus EolaŪochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Chemistry
Dingle, County Kerry
Roll number: 91511O
Date of inspection: 26 September 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Chemistry
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Science and Chemistry 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 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 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.
All students are provided with the opportunity to develop their scientific literacy and science-process skills in Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne. Junior Certificate Science is a core subject and Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Agricultural Science are offered as optional subjects for Leaving Certificate. The Transition Year (TY) programme is optional. The school's commitment to offering Biology, Chemistry and Physics as compulsory modules in Transition Year is commended, not least because it is very much in keeping with the TY philosophy of a broad-based educational experience and the development of life skills. Each student studies each module for a third of the year, having one double and one single period per week. This is good provision. It is also good to note that Leaving Certificate subject pre-selection does not occur in Transition Year, allowing students an extra year of experience and maturity before making their choices. It is noteworthy that the uptake of Biology and Agricultural Science is good. During the evaluation it was reported that science was not always a core subject prior to amalgamation. While acknowledging that this may have had some influence on the current uptake of the physical sciences, nevertheless management and staff are encouraged to investigate strategies that would increase student uptake of these subjects. The provision of elective modules in Science as components of the Leaving Certificate Applied programme (LCA) is commended.
Timetabling supports the delivery of the curricula, with appropriate time allocation and almost all classes receiving an even spread of classes over the week. This is praiseworthy. Management should strive to build on this good practice and endeavour to have timetable slots for all classes well spread across the timetable as it assists in continuity of learning for students. The timetabling of double lessons facilitates practical work. The practice of incorporating student input into the production of the subject blocks for optional subjects for Leaving Certificate is commended.
During the evaluation, teachers stated that the practice for making decisions with regard to the level at which students sit the Junior Certificate examination in Science had usually been taken in third year prior to amalgamation. However in the current third year there is a dedicated ordinary-level class group that also contains two students who aspire to take the higher-level examination. It is recommended that this practice of organisation of science classes be revisited to ensure that students study at the higher level for as long as is possible. Mixed-ability classes would assist in this practice. Management should ensure that the practice of retention of class groups by teachers throughout junior cycle and again for senior cycle is employed for all classes as this supports the continuity of learning. It was reported that teachers have the opportunity to teach at all levels. This is good practice. It is suggested that teachers are provided with the opportunity to teach in all programmes as this further develops the expertise available in the school.
The school is very well resourced for the teaching of the sciences, with three well-equipped laboratories and a demonstration room. Storage/preparation areas adjoin two laboratories in one location, and the third laboratory and the demonstration room in another location. The science department and management are commended on the very successful work done on the effective organising of resources since the school was built. The presence of biological models and scientific posters on the walls help to make the laboratories visually stimulating. It is suggested that studentsí work be displayed in the laboratories, thus celebrating their achievements.
There is a high level of safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, safety blankets, sand buckets, safety glasses etc., in the laboratories and preparation areas. Good work has been done to ensure the safe storage of chemicals. Building on this good work, it is recommended that all flammable chemicals be stored in the flame resistant press that has been provided. It is good to note that the science teachers were consulted when the health and safety statement was recently devised. The inspector queried the level of ventilation in the chemical stores and the principal guaranteed that the matter would be investigated.
There is a very good level of information and communication technologies (ICT) to support the teaching and learning of the sciences. There are computers and a mounted data projector in all laboratories in addition to data-logging equipment. Two computer rooms are also available to support studentsí learning.
Significantly, in second year a science class for students with special education needs has been put in place. It is recommended that links with the special education needs department be enhanced. It is suggested that one of the special education needs team discuss effective teaching methodologies with science teachers to assist students with special education needs in their learning.
The principal stated that at present approximately thirty percent of teaching is through English in senior cycle and seventy percent is through Irish. This is an interim agreement. Therefore classes are bilingual in senior cycle. It was also stated that the policy of the school in junior cycle is to endeavour to get every student to study through the medium of Irish and that this system would work its way through to Leaving Certificate. Cognisance would however be taken of the needs of students who are in receipt of reports from the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS). However, the school has a written language policy that states all subjects are taught through Irish but that Ďcognisance is taken of the needs of teaching and learning in the case of other languages that are taughtí. The written policy is not fully in accordance with the practice in the school.
Senior management reported that supports are provided to first-year students in the form of language assistants, a homework club, a small class group in Irish to cater for the needs of some students and a recently established optional lunchtime social club. In addition, a number of students were offered scholarships to summer Irish colleges. Furthermore a pamphlet containing useful Irish phrases has been produced by the school. A new venture has been the production of a school science textbook in Irish. This book contains many visual images that will support studentsí learning. The work involved is commended.
Management encourages teachers to avail of all continuing professional development (CPD) training being offered. Teachers have attended in-career development in the sciences. Their commitment to enhancing their skills is evidenced by their attendance at optional courses focusing on ICT in Science and the use of data sensors. In addition, the teachers have developed links with other schools that teach through the medium of Irish with a view to exchanging resources. Furthermore teachersí involvement in action research under the auspices of the Biology and Chemistry Support Services has facilitated the development of resources. This participation in professional development is highly commended. Whole-staff CPD has taken also place in Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne.
Teachers are commended on their commitment to providing a good range of co-curricular and extracurricular activities to support the teaching and learning of the sciences. Participation in events such as Science Week activities, science quizzes in which students have achieved some success and attendance at instrumentation workshops in the Institute of Technology, Tralee help to stimulate studentsí interest and enthusiasm for the sciences.
A high level of both formal and informal collaboration exists within the science department. This co-operation is enhanced by the work of a co-ordinator, the role of whom includes chairing and minuting of meetings, stock control and ordering of resources.
School management facilitates and actively encourages subject department collaboration and planning. Science department meetings take place frequently. During the first year after amalgamation these meetings were held on a weekly basis in order to initiate and consolidate departmental work. Department planning documentation was presented during the course of the evaluation. Teachers are commended on the work involved in putting working subject plans for the sciences in place in such a short time. These broad-ranging plans include a common outline programme of work for each year group in junior cycle and programmes of work for the Leaving Certificate sciences. Of particular note is the use of learning outcomes as a component of the Junior Certificate Science plan. It is recommended that these programmes of work be reviewed over time and developed to include, for example, teaching and learning strategies as well as linking the resources to specific topics. They could also be expanded to include the indicative timeframes for teaching and learning in each topic, as was observed in some instances in individual teachersí plans. In the instance where the plan comprises a list of topics, it is recommended that this plan be extended in line with the other programmes of work.
Written programmes of work were furnished for TY Chemistry and Biology. Both plans are good. They include elements that consolidate studentsí previous learning and some Leaving Certificate topics. In addition they have a practical focus and provide students with the opportunity to explore scientific topics that are not included in the Junior Certificate and the Leaving Certificate syllabuses. This is highly commended. Care should be taken to ensure that any material from the Leaving Certificate syllabuses is taught in a way that is significantly different to the approach for Leaving Certificate.
The science teachers are commended on the sharing of personally devised resources with each other and with colleagues in other schools. This level of collegiality supports the teaching and learning of the sciences in the school. Planning for the lessons observed was good. Advance preparation for lessons was illustrated by the effective organisation of chemicals, equipment and worksheets, and was equally apparent by the manner in which all resources were ready for use during lessons.
Classroom management was very good and a pleasant and positive atmosphere prevailed. A very good teacher-student rapport existed, and relations were grounded in a sense of mutual respect. The students were attentive and participated well in the learning process. Studentsí contributions to the lessons were welcomed and appropriately addressed. The supportive atmosphere facilitated students in asking questions in both English and Irish when necessary.
Lessons were well structured, student-centred and in almost all instances the pace was appropriate to the studentsí abilities. The learning outcomes were shared with students at the outset of some lessons. It is recommended that this good practice be employed by all teachers. This would provide a focus and a structure for the lesson and help students take responsibility for what they should understand and be able to do at the end of the lesson. A return to the learning outcomes at the end of lessons would help to summarise the learning for the students. A range of teaching methodologies was used, including teacher explanation, studentsí practical activities, and questioning. The blackboard was effectively used to reinforce salient points. In some instances in both junior and senior cycles PowerPoint presentations were very successfully employed to communicate lesson content to all students, in particular because the main points of the topics were outlined using bilingual text in addition to the reinforcement provided by the visual stimuli that were incorporated.
In almost all instances cognisance was taken of the studentsí needs and abilities in using Irish as a means of communication. Almost all lessons were conducted either bilingually or in English in order to ensure that students could access the scientific concepts being taught. In some lessons the language of instruction was interchanged in a seamless manner in order to meet the needs of the students. This is commended. In one lesson in Junior Cycle the predominant language of instruction was Irish. While acknowledging that English was used when it became clear that students were unable to answer specific questions, the pace of this lesson and its medium of instruction resulted in a number of students being unclear of the required learning outcome. As was observed in almost all instances, when planning lessons, cognisance should be taken of studentsí needs and abilities, the language of instruction and the pace and duration of the lesson. A number of strategies, such as use of visual images and writing the main points in both languages on the whiteboard or on a PowerPoint presentation, were successful in communicating the scientific concepts to the students in many lessons. In addition students were encouraged to respond orally and there was evidence that activities such as cloze tests were used to consolidate studentsí learning. Other strategies that could be employed to assist students in learning in a language other than their first language include matching columns, word searches and sequencing activities.
Good continuity with previous lessons, building on studentsí prior knowledge and experience, was observed in all lessons. This was achieved through questioning to ascertain studentsí learning. This is commended. There were also some very effective examples of linking the lesson content to the everyday life experiences of the students, thus stimulating student interest and making the subject tangible and relevant. For example in one lesson in order to aid studentsí understanding of the relative sizes of blood vessels, the teacher used the streets of Dingle as an example and further illustrated the concept with markers of differing thickness. In another lesson students used different berries to investigate their usefulness as indicators.
Question-and-answer sessions were also employed as a central means of developing new content as lessons proceeded in many instances, thus providing for effective engagement of students in the learning throughout the lesson. The degrees of difficulty of such questions and the forms they took were well tailored to the abilities of the students concerned. In addition, in almost all lessons questions were asked and answers received in the studentsí preferred languages, thus facilitating the studentsí learning and the teacherís assessment of studentsí progress. In the main, studentsí responses indicated good understanding and knowledge.
Practical work was highly organised, and students were supported in their work as their teacher moved about the room. In some instances the teacher focused on key aspects of the practical activity, selecting and emphasising particular elements prior to the students performing the investigation/experiment. This is commended and all teachers are encouraged to employ this good practice as in these instances students exhibited an understanding of the underlying scientific concepts. Students worked singly or in small groups. In some instances a plenary session was employed on completion of the practical activity to reinforce studentsí learning. This very good approach to practical lessons should be utilised in all instances where students are involved in hands-on practical activities. Due regard was given to safety procedures. However, teachers should be vigilant in ensuring that all students and the teacher himself or herself wear their safety spectacles for the complete duration of their experimental work.
Homework was given in the lessons observed, thus providing an opportunity for students to consolidate their learning. There was good evidence of learning as generally students were confident and capable of answering questions put to them during the course of the visit. Their skills and competencies were demonstrated by their abilities to complete the practical tasks. There was evidence of the development of studentsí practical skills as they progressed up through the school.
Teachers deserve acknowledgement for their work in stimulating in students an interest in the sciences and for their part in generating this warm atmosphere, conducive to learning.
Assessment methods at the school include both continuous assessment and formal whole-school examinations that are held for all non-examination classes in the summer. Examination classes sit pre-examinations in the spring. Students sit three class tests during the Christmas term and the average result from these is inserted into the studentís Christmas report. Common assessments are utilised in junior cycle to complement the common programme of work. This is very good practice as it helps to establish a common direction for the subject, whilst ensuring consistency and cohesiveness within the department.
All students have a laboratory notebook or workbook in which they record all their practical work in their preferred language. In the main students' written and practical work indicates that good progress is being made and that students are purposeful in their work and generally well organised. Students are given credit for the completion of practical work and the laboratory report in the final grade given in formal school assessments. This is good practice as an aggregate mark that includes two of the three components of the examination provides a more accurate indicator of the studentís ability in the subject.
There was evidence of good practice with regard to the regular setting and in some instances checking and monitoring of homework in the teaching of Science and Chemistry. It is strongly recommended that all copybooks be monitored and corrected on a regular basis and that AfL principles be put into practice to encourage learner automony. This practice is intrinsically valuable in enhancing the studentsí role in their own learning. Information on AfL can be accessed at www.ncca.ie. In many instances, studentsí written work was in their preferred language, monitoring and annotation by the teacher being conducted in the same language. This cognisance of studentsí needs is good practice. Assessment criteria should be shared with students and should be linked to learning outcomes.
Commendably, the school has devised a written homework policy that is in the process of being ratified. The policy states that homework should be done in Irish except for the transitional groups and those in receipt of psychological reports from NEPS.
Attendance rates and assessment results are recorded in teachersí journals. Written reports are sent to parents twice a year and provide a profile of the studentís achievement in the subject. Parent-teacher meetings are held annually for each year group. The student's school journal is also utilised as a means of communication between teachers and parents/guardians. An annual analysis is conducted to compare the outcome of the schoolís results in the subjects in the State Examinations to national norms and to compare the results achieved by various class groups.
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 Chemistry and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published, March 2009