An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Physics
St Andrew’s College
Booterstown Avenue, Blackrock, County Dublin
Roll number: 60650F
Date of inspection: 5 February 2007
Date of issue of report: 8 November 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Physics
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Andrew’s College. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Physics 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 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.
Science is a core subject at St Andrew’s College. Classes are of mixed ability and generally retain the same teacher throughout junior cycle, subject to teacher availability and timetabling constraints.
There is a mandatory Transition Year (TY) programme in the college. Science, which is offered for three class periods per week, is an optional subject in this programme. The course is divided into three ten-week modules each of Physics, Chemistry and Biology. A written programme for Science exists and indicates that the programme is well balanced between the senior Science subjects. It is commendable that each subject area has core material dealing with areas such as key skills, scientific knowledge and concepts. However, the number of students choosing TY Science is disappointing at less than a quarter of all TY students. It is recommended that the college gives consideration to providing aspects of Science to all TY students in light of the subject being core for junior cycle and the college having a strong tradition of Science at senior cycle. In addition the Physics department should supplement the ‘taster’ course in Physics with an applied Physics module in line with the innovative nature of TY.
Students are well supported in making informed choices regarding Leaving Certificate subjects. Subject choice meetings are held for parents and students. The guidance counsellor plays an active part in meeting and advising students and aptitude tests are administered during TY. Subject teachers advise students regarding choosing their subject specialism. Students are surveyed regarding choices and suitable option subject blocks are created in such a way that the vast majority of students are successful in gaining their desired choice. This is commended. The college currently offers Physics, Chemistry and Biology at senior cycle. The uptake of senior Science subjects is good. There are two Physics class groups in fifth year and sixth year. To meet the needs of the college’s large cohort of international students, the college offers the International Baccalaureate (IB). There is a fifth year and a sixth year IB class group in Physics, each receiving six class periods per week.
There is satisfactory time allocation of four class periods per week to Science at junior cycle and five class periods per week to Leaving Certificate Physics at senior cycle. Each class group is allocated a double period, which takes place in a laboratory.
There are nine teachers of junior Science and two teachers of senior Physics in St Andrew’s College. The in-service provided by the Junior Science Support Service has been attended by all Science teachers. Physics teachers have attended subject related in-service in the past in conjunction with the introduction of the revised syllabus. IB teachers have attended professional development courses organised by the IB organisation. An IB accreditation team visited the college in 2004 and evaluated all subjects including Science subjects at senior level. Requests for additional professional development within budgetary limitations are favourably considered by the college. This is commended.
The college has five Science laboratories with separate storage facilities. These laboratories are currently also used as general classrooms due to pressure on space. The new college building plan proposes to demolish the Physics laboratory and a general Science laboratory and to replace these with two new Physics laboratories, a Biology laboratory and a general Science laboratory. This programme when completed will greatly enhance the over-stretched Science facilities in the college.
The college health and safety statement is reviewed annually and was last reviewed in early 2006. The Science related section of this report was reviewed in late 2006 and science teachers were consulted in the process. It is noteworthy that two Science teachers are on the college safety committee. The Physics laboratory has in evidence appropriate safety equipment. It is of concern that some chemicals are stored on shelves in the laboratory. Therefore, it is recommended that all chemicals be stored in a storeroom, which is separate from the laboratory. The implementation of this recommendation is more urgent in light of the fact that this laboratory is used as a classroom for subjects other than Science.
There is a computer in each laboratory and in addition there is a laptop computer and a data-projector dedicated to Science department usage. Additional data-projectors are available in the college and it is commendable that this provision is being expanded. Data logging equipment is available. Broadband internet access is installed around the college. It is recommended that school management, within its decision making in relation to allocation of resources, should consider enhancing further the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) facilities in the Science laboratories. Teachers should seek training in the use of ICT in the classroom. Modular courses on the use of ICT in the classroom are available from the Second Level Support Service.
Students from St Andrew’s College have participated in many extra-curricular and out- of-school activities, which include student participation in the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition and Physics Olympiads.
St Andrew’s College is an international school accredited by the Council of International Schools (CIS) and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). A positive outcome of this is that the Science and Physics departments have good planning systems in place. The plans presented include details of self-evaluation of Physics provision in the college. This is highly commended. In addition it includes an overview and schemes of work for fifth year and sixth year. Resources available are clearly documented including useful web sites, video/DVD lists and a comprehensive list of available equipment. There are very useful laboratory safety checklists for daily, weekly and once a term use. Reports from the ten-year and two-year accreditation visit from CIS/NEASC are included together with an appendix of various documents including the TY Science plan, subject-co-ordinator, minutes of Science meetings, special needs programme and plans for new laboratories. This is very commendable. It is recommended that this plan be kept up to date, evaluated and modified in line with future developments in the college. Areas worth consideration for inclusion are: statistics on the uptake of the Science subjects and gender balance within those subjects, continuous professional development of teachers and plans for dissemination of knowledge gained at in-service courses among Science teachers, sharing of best practice including innovative classroom methodologies including ICT and the development of Science in the college into the future including TY provision. While it is acknowledged that general long-term plans exist in the Physics department, it is recommended that teachers also develop the short term planning process.
The college has a Science co-ordinator and a Physics co-ordinator in place. Meetings of the Science team take place twice per term. Minutes are taken, are relayed to school management and are filed in the Science plan appendix. This is highly commended. The college has a clearly documented list of subject co-ordinator duties and these include the scheduling of work within the department, arranging meetings and delegating responsibilities. In addition subject co-ordinators are encouraged to develop professional initiatives for teachers in their department, and look after the induction needs of new teachers. This is commended.
There is an annual budget allocated to Science, which is reported to meet the needs of the Science department. The budget is ‘zero based’ in that the educational needs and requirements are identified by Science teachers following consultation and these requirements determine the budget allocation.
The lessons observed were well planned. Equipment and teaching resources were ready in advance and this good planning enhanced the teaching and learning experience.
There was a good atmosphere of learning in all lessons. Students were motivated, maintained a strong interest in the lesson material and showed good initiative in coming up with solutions to problems posed by teachers and by other students. The quality of student answers demonstrated a good level of knowledge and understanding of concepts. The lessons were well organised. There was clear affirmation of work well answered or work completed by students. Students were generally addressed by name and a sense of mutual respect existed. While participation levels were good, it is important that efforts are made to enable all students to interact more fully in some lessons.
Effective questioning was used extensively throughout all lessons, as a means of student assessment of material learned and to stimulate interest in the new material being taught. A good mix of whole class questions and individual questions were used skilfully to elicit student responses. Open-ended probing questions were used to stimulate interest and to link the content of the lesson to students’ everyday experiences. The clarity of explanations given during lessons and in response to student questions was noteworthy and some difficult concepts were explained clearly and unambiguously. This high quality of teaching is commended.
Methodologies were used effectively in many cases. The whiteboard was used to good effect to highlight key concepts, to focus attention on formulas and equations and to summarise lesson content. This enhanced student engagement with the lesson content. However, there was an example where students took notes from the whiteboard when it may have been more effective and time-efficient to have used an overhead projector (OHP) with pre-prepared slides. Methodologies used in lessons visited were, in general, traditional in nature, as exemplified above, and are in need of review. It is recommended that consideration be given to the focused and intermittent use of more varied methodologies including ICT and the OHP. The use of relevant worksheets would have enhanced many lessons observed. They would serve as a means of focussing students’ attention on the material being taught and discussed while giving the teacher an opportunity to circulate in order to give individual attention. The completion of such worksheets could be used as a homework exercise.
The investigative practical work observed was well organised. There was an example where students were investigating specific heat capacity and specific latent heat. Students worked in small groups and there was good collaboration and discussion regarding various aspects of the investigation. Students were sufficiently challenged. A good discussion on possible errors followed the investigation. At the end of the investigation the students tidied up in an orderly fashion.
Teacher demonstrations formed part of some lessons observed. The theory behind each demonstration was clearly explained with the aid of the whiteboard. Sometimes, a historical approach was adopted with the relevant scientist being briefly discussed when relevant. These demonstrations were well planned and combined with clear explanations of the theory, had a very good impact on teaching and learning.
Teachers’ enthusiasm for their subject was evident and had the desired motivating effect on students. There was an example where a practical investigation on acceleration due to gravity was being discussed. A very good and probing discussion on errors and precautions followed. Previously corrected and annotated work was distributed and this had the effect of reinforcing student learning. Helpful individual advice and support was given during the lesson.
The physics laboratory was enhanced with relevant posters and a notice board highlighting careers in Physics. It was commendable that good links were made between classroom theory and everyday life experiences.
The uptake of higher-level Science is very good. The vast majority of students take Physics at higher level for the Leaving Certificate examination. Student outcomes in terms of knowledge and skills are very good. The answers to questions posed in the course of this evaluation showed that students have acquired good subject knowledge and skills. Students were generally confident at answering questions on their work during the lessons observed.
Formal school examinations take place at Christmas and summer. Pre-examinations are held for third and sixth-year classes. In-house correcting of these pre-examinations takes place. There are mid-term tests for examination classes and there is ongoing assessment and revision for all classes by means of short class tests and class questioning.
The principal analyses the Certificate examination results and reports his findings to the board of management and the parents’ association. In addition this analysis is given to the subject department to aid them in self-evaluation within the Physics department. This is very commendable practice.
Homework was completed mostly to a high standard and teachers generally checked it at regular intervals. In one case it consisted of attempting questions on mandatory experiments from previous examination papers. This is very good practice. Homework was assigned at the conclusion of many lessons.
Students kept folders of mandatory experiments rather than conventional practical notebooks. This practice is reported to be working well in the college. It is noteworthy and commendable that credit is given in school assessments for practical work completed and recorded. However, many students did not have a substantial number of previously completed experiments with them on the day of the evaluation.
School policy provides for individual meetings with parents by request at any time. Parent-teacher meetings are held annually for each class group. Parents are kept informed by means of written reports, which are sent home after the Christmas, summer and mock examinations. Two reports per term are sent home for fifth and sixth-year students. A homework journal system is in operation and this provides further communication between school and home.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Science is a core subject at St Andrew’s College. Classes are of mixed ability and generally retain the same teacher throughout junior cycle.
· A written TY programme for Science exists and indicates that the programme is well balanced between the senior Science subjects. It is commendable that each subject area has core material dealing with areas such as key skills, scientific knowledge and concepts.
· Students are well supported in making informed choices regarding Leaving Certificate subjects.
· There is satisfactory time allocation to Science at junior cycle and to Physics at senior cycle.
· In-service provision is well attended.
· The school health and safety statement is reviewed annually.
· The Physics department has good planning systems in place. Minuted meetings of the Science team meetings take place twice per term.
· The lessons observed were well planned. There was a good atmosphere of learning in all lessons. Effective questioning was used extensively throughout all lessons. The clarity of explanations given during lessons and in response to student questions was noteworthy. Teachers’ enthusiasm for their subject was evident and had the desired motivating effect on students.
· Investigative practical work observed was well organised.
· The vast majority of students take Physics at higher level for the Leaving Certificate examination.
· Formal school examinations take place at Christmas and summer. Pre-examinations are held for third and sixth year classes.
· Parents are kept informed by means of written reports, which are sent home after the Christmas, summer and mock examinations.
· It is noteworthy and commendable that credit is given in school assessments for practical work completed and recorded.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The college should give consideration to providing aspects of Science to all TY students in light of the subject being core for junior cycle and the college having a strong tradition of Science at senior cycle. In addition the Physics department should supplement the ‘taster’ course in Physics with an applied Physics module in line with the innovative nature of TY.
· All chemicals should be stored in a storeroom, which is separate from the laboratory.
· ICT facilities in the Science laboratories should be further enhanced within allocated resources. School management should facilitate teachers in seeking training in the use of ICT in the classroom.
· The Science plan should be kept up to date evaluated and modified in line with future developments in the college. In addition teachers should develop the short term planning process.
· Consideration should be given to the focused and intermittent use of more varied methodologies in class, including ICT, worksheets and the OHP.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Physics, the Science co-ordinator together with the principal, at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.