An Roinn Oideachais agus EolaŪochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
St. Johnís College De La Salle
Le Fanu Road, Ballyfermot, Dublin 10.
Roll number: 60510M
Date of inspection: 6 and 7 February 2007
Date of issue of report: 21 June 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St. Johnís College, Ballyfermot, Dublin 10. 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 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 and Leaving Certificate Biology at St. Johnís College was carried out over the course of two days. It commenced with a visit to a double third-year science class. This visit was followed by a meeting with the teachers of Science and Biology. At this meeting, the objectives and procedures of the evaluation were explained. Following this, a double first-year, two single second-year and a double third-year science class were observed. In addition, a double fifth-year and a double sixth-year biology class were visited.
Junior Certificate Science is a core subject for the three years of junior cycle. Classes are of mixed ability except for a small second year class which caters for JCSP students, who also study Science. First-year science classes are allocated four class periods each week, in the form of one double and two single periods. This increases to five periods, one double and three single, for second and third-year students. The number of class periods is within syllabus guidelines for first-year students and above guidelines for second and third-year students.
Following the Junior Certificate examination, students choose between Leaving Certificate (Established) and the Leaving Certificate Applied programme. For those who continue with the Leaving Certificate (Established) programme, the school is currently offering Biology and Physics as optional subjects to Leaving Certificate level. Students are provided with the opportunity to choose their own subjects for senior cycle. These choices are then used to create a ďbest-fitĒ model of subject options, accommodating as many students as possible. Biology is the more popular of the two science-related subjects. Biology classes are of mixed ability. Biology students are allocated six periods per week, in the form of one double and four single periods. This is generous in the context of syllabus guidelines.
There are three teachers of Science in the school. One of these is currently teaching Biology. Opportunities have been availed of for continuing professional development during recent and current national in-service training programmes in Leaving Certificate Biology and Junior Certificate Science. Management is commended on the commitment given to facilitate attendance at in-service training. The school encourages active participation by students in the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition along with visits to the zoo and the Phoenix Park for ecology studies and nature walks. One teacher is also a member of the Irish Science Teachers Association (ISTA).
There are three science laboratories available in the school. The laboratories are separately designated for Physics, Chemistry and Biology and all accommodate Junior Certificate Science. They are in reasonable condition and are adequate for their purpose. Teachers are currently in the process of equipping and re-stocking the laboratories using the grant provided in conjunction with the implementation of the new Junior Certificate science course. Two of the laboratories share a storage and preparation area. The third laboratory has its own storage room. IT facilities are excellent, with all three laboratories having an internet-enabled computer and a data projector. Other available resources include televisions, DVD players and overhead projectors. Management is commended for the provision of these resources. All science classes are held in a laboratory and the laboratories are used almost entirely for science subjects. A variety of posters and charts were observed on the laboratory walls, including some student-generated work, creating an attractive and stimulating learning environment. It is suggested that the area immediately outside the laboratories be developed as a science resource space for students. †This could display posters and charts promoting the sciences and include notice boards with up-to-date information relating to the sciences in general, to careers in the sciences as well as to specific events within the school.
A range of health and safety equipment was observed, including first aid kits, fume cupboards, gas and electrical isolation switches, fire extinguishers and fire blankets. Laboratory safety rules were prominently displayed in all laboratories, though it is suggested that these be redone in larger script as they are a somewhat difficult to read at present. A high priority was given to the active management of safety issues during student practical work as evidenced by the wearing of protective eyewear by students. This is praiseworthy. The school has a health and safety statement that was drawn up approximately six years ago. This statement was last reviewed three years ago and is due for review again. There is also reference to health and safety issues and procedures in the science department plan and the science teachers have carried out a safety audit of the laboratories recently. This is good practice.
There is evidence of a strong sense of collegiality among the science teachers. There has been recent engagement with the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) in order to support subject planning and a formal science department is now in place with a recognised co-ordinator. It is intended to rotate this position annually. The duties of the co-ordinator include convening and chairing subject department meetings, liaising with management, stock control and ordering equipment. Formal department meetings are held at the end of each month and there have been five such meetings so far in the current school year, along with several casual and informal meetings. All science teachers assist the co-ordinator and contribute to the work of the department. This is praiseworthy.
Commendably, curricular planning has always been carried out by the science teachers and this is now being formalised in the context of the science department. A comprehensive science department folder has been compiled and it contains items such as emergency phone numbers, laboratory safety rules, the schoolís code of behaviour, records of department meetings and the subject plan. The curricular planning documents presented ranged from broad year plans to more detailed, time-bound plans listing the topics and experiments for each week of the school year. The topics observed during classroom observation were in line with the planning documents. It is suggested that reference be made to methodologies in the planning documents in order to raise teachersí awareness of what can be done and in order to avoid over dependence on a preferred style of teaching.
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, 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 the classes visited, the level of discipline was generally good. Rapport with students was generally good also and this is praiseworthy. Teachers were enthusiastic, patient and considerate of students. Their approach to their work was professional and business-like and a good learning environment was evident in most lessons observed. The level of two-way communication in classrooms was relevant to the task at hand. Students were generally attentive, interested and anxious to participate in the learning process. The topics covered in the classes observed included pressure, osmosis, states of matter, heat transfer and DNA extraction.
A range of teaching methodologies was observed and there was a good balance between active learning and teacher-centred instruction. Lesson structure was generally good. Students were kept busy and actively engaged at all times, lessons proceeded at a suitable pace and changes in methodologies were built into lesson plans as appropriate. Excellent practice with regard to the seamless integration of information technology (IT) into teaching was observed in a number of lessons and very good use was made of data projectors and the internet, in simple but effective ways. Teachers were very knowledgeable regarding 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. There was good direction and follow through in the lessons observed. Lessons were well planned and had a clear focus. This is excellent practice.
Questioning of students was frequently used to check on levels of knowledge and understanding, which is to be commended. Best practice was seen where students were given time to formulate their answers and were encouraged to put up their hands before a respondent was chosen. 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. All teachers are encouraged to give thought to their use of questioning as a methodology in order to enhance the quality of the learning experience for students. Occasional use of general questions, eliciting a chorus answers, should be guarded against and care must be taken to include all students in classroom interactions of this kind.
During the observed student practical work the students worked in groups of two to five. It was obvious from their behaviour that the students were accustomed to carrying out practical work and the science teachers are to be praised for their commitment to seeing that their students get the opportunity to do this practical work themselves. Students displayed a very good level of skills during the course of their work and demonstrated a mature approach. Best practice was observed where students were well prepared for carrying out their practical work by the excellent use of a plenary session to review the theory and practice of an activity before bench work started, with a similar plenary session when the practical activities were complete, in order to review the work done and to emphasise what had been learned. Practical work was efficiently managed in all classes and good attention was paid to health and safety issues.
The level of teacher movement among the students varied from lesson to lesson. It is important to establish and maintain the presence of the teacher in the classroom, to take control of and direct the lesson, and ensure that all students are included. Best practice was seen where movement was purposeful, assessing and monitoring students and providing assistance and encouragement where needed. Teachers were very affirming of student effort and were always encouraging and positive in correcting students with appropriate interventions. This is praiseworthy. Good practice concerning the minimal use of textbooks was apparent during the lessons observed. Reference to appropriate passages in textbooks was used to reinforce learning and to assist in homework preparation. Homework given was appropriate to the lesson content and was designed to assist students in learning and retaining the topic.
In order for students to make better progress and gain a better understanding of their course of study, it is suggested that students are made aware of the objectives of the lesson at the outset of each class period. Students may work better if they are more informed as to where a lesson is leading and where it fits into the larger picture. This can be motivating and informative as well as giving a sense of purpose and direction to classroom work. These lesson objectives should be clear, concise and achievable. They can encourage a degree of self-assessment by students within the class and help individuals to monitor their own progress.
Students demonstrated a positive attitude towards Science and Biology as evidenced by the level of engagement and interest observed during the lessons visited. Students displayed a good level of knowledge, understanding and skills 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 teacher movement and observation of students during class.
Students keep laboratory notebooks up to date as evidence of practical work being carried out. This is a very important aspect of new and revised syllabuses in the sciences. While the quality of most of the notebooks was excellent, a few were of a lesser quality. It is recommended that laboratory notebooks are checked and annotated as necessary on a regular basis. It is also important that teachers follow up on instructions given to students on how to improve their presentations and see that these are implemented. This is an important means of encouraging students and of pointing the way towards improvement.
All classes are assessed by means of a Christmas examination. Formal assessments are held for non-examination classes in the summer. Questions on mandatory practical work are included in these examinations. In addition, the certificate examination classes sit mock examinations in the spring. The teachers assess these scripts. Additional testing is at the discretion of individual teachers. Records of assessment are held in teachersí own diaries and in report books in the school office.
Results of assessments and progress reports are communicated to parents by means of Christmas and summer reports, and following mock examinations. Communication with parents is also achieved by means of parent-teacher meetings, held once per year for each class. Three of these meetings are held outside school hours and two within, in accordance with Department of Education and Science rules. In addition, the student journal that all students are required to keep is used to communicate with parents. Parents are required to sign these journals weekly. Meetings are also held for parents of incoming first-year students and for parents of third-year students to inform them on issues such as subject levels and options for Leaving Certificate. Parents are also encouraged to contact the school if they have any concerns regarding the progress of their children.
There was evidence of record keeping by teachers, covering such areas as student attendance, assessments, class seating arrangements, homework and topics taught. This is good practice. The recorded information can be used to build up student profiles and can form the basis of very useful evidence in communicating student progress to parents and in advising both students and parents on choice of subjects at senior level and on what 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 Biology and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.