An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science
North Richmond Street, Dublin 1
Roll number: 60440R
Date of inspection: 29 November 2007
Date of issue of report: 22 May 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science
This report has been written following a subject inspection in O’Connell 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 principal and the 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.
The evaluation of Junior Certificate Science at O’Connell School was carried out over the course of one day. It began with a visit to a single second-year science class, followed by a single first-year science class. These visits were followed by a meeting with the science teachers, at which the objectives and procedures of the evaluation were explained; and by a meeting with the principal to discuss whole-school support. Subsequently, a single third-year science class was observed, along with a science class for newcomer students where the specific focus was on the use of language.
Junior Certificate Science is a core subject for all junior cycle students. Junior Certificate science classes are banded according to student ability and all class groups are allocated four single class periods per week. 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 Science classes be kept under review. Class sizes tend to be small.
Following the Junior Certificate examination, students choose between the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme and the Leaving Certificate (Established) programme. Those who choose the latter are further encouraged to follow the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) if they have the appropriate combination of subjects. Physics, Chemistry and Biology are all offered as optional subjects to Leaving Certificate.
There are currently four teachers of Junior Certificate Science in the school. Opportunities have been availed of to release teachers for continuing professional development during recent and current national in-service programmes in Junior Certificate Science. Management is commended on the commitment given to facilitate attendance at in-service training. Students visit the Young Scientist Exhibition annually and have also attended the BA Festival of Science. Students are brought to the Phoenix Park and to the seashore to carry out fieldwork in Ecology. The work of the science teachers in this regard is praiseworthy.
The school has three science laboratories. Each has a separate storage and preparation area. They are suitably equipped and adequate for their purpose. They are used exclusively for the teaching of science subjects. All science class groups have weekly access to a laboratory, although not all science classes are held in a laboratory. It is recommended that the use of the laboratories be maximised, as they provide the most suitable environment for the teaching of Science. Laptop computers and data projectors are available for use by science teachers as required.
There is scope in all cases for greater use of student-developed material to be displayed on the walls of the laboratories and classrooms alongside commercial charts and posters. This is encouraged as it serves to stimulate and motivate students and further enhance the learning environment, and 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 fire extinguishers, a fire blanket, a fume cupboard, and gas and electrical isolation switches. It is necessary that first aid kits be made available in the laboratories at an early date in case of injury to students. The school has a health and safety statement that was drawn up last year. It is important to review this statement on an annual basis, with the involvement of the science teachers, as appropriate.
The science team has a formal department structure and there is a recognised head or co-ordinator for Science. There was evidence of a strong sense of collegiality among the teachers of Science, and this is laudable. The coordinator carries out duties such as convening and chairing meetings of the science department, keeping minutes of these meetings, and managing the development of the science plan. A formal meeting of the science department is held each half term to discuss planning, class arrangements and other issues. Frequent informal meetings are also held to discuss matters of more immediate relevance. There is no formal budget allocated to the science department. However, finance for the purchase of equipment and consumables is provided by management, on request, and teachers expressed satisfaction with the level of support provided.
There is a three-year curricular plan in place for the teaching of Junior Certificate Science. Commendably, this plan lists the aims and objectives of the science department, provides information on the manner in which classes are arranged and details how access to higher and ordinary levels is managed. There is also reference in the document to cross-curricular planning and to planning for a culturally diverse society. This is laudable. A list of topics to be completed by Christmas, and by the end of the year, for each of the three years of junior cycle is also included. It is commendable that this list has been drawn up with reference to the Junior Certificate science syllabus. There is also reference to effective teaching methodologies, in the specific context of the school and its students. The curricular content of the plan has been further broken down into a monthly list of topics by one of the teachers, listing the accompanying mandatory practical work and also the resources to be deployed to support the teaching of each topic. This is excellent practice and all teachers are encouraged to do this.
It is recommended that the science department now turn its attention to planning for assessment. Assessment criteria appropriate to each age group across a range of skills would assist teachers and standardise practice. The science team could pool their knowledge and resources in this regard and exemplars would be helpful. The assessment of oral and writing tasks could be highlighted in the document. It is recommended that the approach of Assessment for learning (AfL) be examined and adopted. Further information on AfL can be found on the website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment at www.ncca.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 attentive, interested and anxious to participate in the learning process. The topics covered in the classes observed included heat transfer, the human respiratory system, digestion and electricity.
A range of teaching methodologies was observed, including use of the overhead projector, questioning of students, discussion, demonstrations and the use of information and communication technology (ICT). There was extensive and appropriate use of handouts and student worksheets. Care must be taken, when carrying out demonstrations, that all students are included and are given the opportunity to see the demonstration, and both to ask and to answer questions as appropriate. Lessons were generally well structured and students were kept busy and actively engaged at all times. There was a good balance between active learning methodologies and teacher-centred presentations in most lessons. There was clear evidence of differentiation in the manner in which lessons were conducted and all students were given an opportunity to achieve according to their abilities.
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. Lessons were well planned and had a clear focus. This is excellent practice.
The resource material used in the lessons was produced by the teachers themselves and was of a very high quality. During the lessons the teachers used language that was appropriate to the needs of their students, while maintaining the precision required by the subject matter. In some classes, key scientific terms were written on the board in order to highlight them and there was clear evidence that students understood them from the extent of their use of these terms during the lesson. This is excellent practice.
The teachers moved through the classroom assisting, examining and encouraging the students. The teachers’ questions elicited factual responses and also facilitated higher order thinking. Best practice was seen where there was a balance between global and student-specific questioning, and where questioning was used not only to inform the teacher of student understanding and knowledge but also as a means of controlling the pace of the lesson and of encouraging student participation. In order to foster an investigative approach to the learning of Science, as outlined on pages four and six of the Junior Certificate science syllabus, it is important that students are given time to think about questions put to them and are encouraged to hypothesize, to speculate and to explain their reasoning when answering. The temptation to provide answers too quickly should be resisted by teachers. This is best practice and teachers are commended for their innovative and considered approach in a number of instances.
Good practice concerning the minimal use of textbooks was apparent during the lessons. The homework given was appropriate to the lesson content, was varied as to type and was designed to assist the student in learning and understanding the topic in question.
In order for students to make better progress and to put class work in context, it is suggested that the learning goals be clearly outlined to students at the outset of each lesson. These goals should be concise and achievable. They can encourage a degree of self-assessment by students within the class and help individuals to monitor their own progress. They also provide a basis upon which the teacher can summarise the lesson content and the learning that should have taken place, at the end of the class period, and upon which homework can be given.
Students demonstrated a positive attitude towards Science as evidenced by the level of engagement and interest observed during the lessons visited. Students displayed a very good level of knowledge and understanding 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 keep laboratory notebooks up to date as evidence of practical work being carried out.
In one lesson visited, an excellent example of student self-evaluation was observed, where students were encouraged to pick out words and terms, from the lesson, that they did not understand, and look up their meanings in a dictionary. This is good practice.
All classes are assessed by means of formal examinations at Halloween and at Christmas. Formal assessments are held for non-examination classes in the summer. Questions on mandatory practical work are included in these examinations. Certificate examination classes sit mock examinations in the spring. Additional testing is at the discretion of individual teachers. Records of assessment are held in teachers’ own diaries and in the school office.
Results of assessments and progress reports are communicated to parents by means of October, Christmas and summer reports for all classes, and following mock examinations for third-year and sixth-year students. Communication with parents is also achieved by means of parent-teacher meetings, held once per year for each class. 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. Best practice was seen where the records included such areas as assessment results, attendance and work covered. It is suggested that record keeping be extended to include the quality of homework presented, student behaviour, attendance at parent-teacher meetings and other areas as issues arise, and that all teachers keep such comprehensive records in order to build up a profile of each student. Such information can form the basis of very useful evidence in communicating student progress to parents and in advising both students and parents on their choice of subjects at senior level and on the appropriate level of examination paper to choose in certificate examinations.
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.