An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta

Department of Education and Science

 

Subject Inspection of Biology

REPORT

 

Dominican College,

Muckross Park, Dublin 4

Roll number: 60710U

 

Date of inspection: 5 December 2007

Date of issue of report: 22 May 2008

 

 

 

This Subject Inspection report

Subject Provision and Whole School Support

Planning and Preparation

Teaching and Learning

Assessment

Summary of Main Findings and Recommendations

 

 

 

 

Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Biology

 

This Subject Inspection report

 

This report has been written following a subject inspection in Dominican College, Muckross Park. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Biology and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of the 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 teachers.  The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.

 

 

Subject Provision and Whole School Support

 

The science subjects on the curriculum at Dominican College are Junior Certificate Science, Transition Year (TY) Science and Leaving Certificate Biology, Physics and Chemistry. Biology is a popular subject for Leaving Certificate and four mixed-ability class groups are formed each year. Teachers generally follow the higher-level course with each group until after the mock examinations. This is commended. The uptake of Physics and Chemistry is also very good.

 

Science is not a core subject for Junior Certificate but the subject is chosen by the majority of students. Science education is enhanced through provision of a varied range of science modules in the compulsory TY programme. The modules run for five weeks and include biotechnology, chemical analysis, data logging, environmental science, genetic engineering, medical physics, horticulture, graph drawing, forensics and the study of disease. This provides continuity for students who have studied Science for Junior Certificate and also allows students who have not had that opportunity to learn some key scientific principles and to experience practical work. Some of these students go on to study a science subject for Leaving Certificate and it is reported that they apply themselves very well.

 

All biology class groups have five class periods per week including one double period, and this meets syllabus requirements. However, because some lesson periods are just thirty-five minutes in duration, the overall time allocated to some class groups can be less than others. It is recommended that a review of the overall instruction time for each group studying Biology take place in order to inform timetabling arrangements for next year.

 

The six teachers of Biology are assigned to teach Biology and the biology-related modules in TY on a fair, rotational basis. Newly appointed science teachers have experienced good induction into the school and the science department and this is commended. Continuing professional development is strongly supported and teachers are facilitated in attending training events and in-service. Some biology teachers are actively involved with the Biology Support Service and with the national Discover Sensors project, and this is highly commended. There was evidence that such participation has provided useful ideas and resources for teaching Biology.

All biology lessons take place in a laboratory. Laboratory provision is very good as the school has four new laboratories and one demonstration room. The laboratories are located in the same area of the building, and in pairs, sharing preparation rooms. The laboratories are fully resourced for the teaching of Biology. Each laboratory has been enhanced with a variety of visual and stimulating resources, including good quality charts and biological models with commendable student work also displayed. The overhead projector (OHP) is used in many lessons, and blinds and a screen are present. Modern information communication technology (ICT) equipment with internet access is also present in each laboratory and in regular use. As all computers are networked, a range of electronic resources to support teaching and learning in Biology is available in each laboratory. Many of these have been sourced through the Biology and Science support services. A data projector is permanently mounted in one laboratory and also used regularly to support teaching and learning of the subject. It is recommended that some means of projecting electronic resources and DVDs be placed in each of the other laboratories. Data logging equipment is used for some investigations and forms the basis of a module in TY Science. The development and use of ICT and data logging equipment to add variety to the teaching and learning methods employed for the subject are highly commended.

 

Thorough organisation of materials was evident in the preparation areas and chemical stores, enabling ready access to resources for practical work. All materials are clearly labelled and resource boxes have been developed for key experiments. Student workbenches within the laboratories contain a capsule set of equipment for practical work and all other materials are distributed during the lesson. There is a good system for ordering supplies, and effective co-ordination of laboratory resource provision. Laboratory guidelines have been drawn up outlining good practice for teachers. The level of laboratory organisation is exemplary.

 

Very good attention is paid to matters of health and safety. The school has a health and safety statement. The laboratories are fitted to high standards with emergency shut-off switches for all services and proper safety equipment. Ventilation in the laboratories and chemical store, however, is a matter of concern for teachers and it is recommended that this be pursued as a safety issue. Daily, weekly and end-of-term safety checklists are in place. This is commended. Safety rules are signed by all students and they demonstrated safe laboratory conduct at all times.

 

 

Planning and Preparation

 

The collaborative attitude taken to planning for Biology is commended. Teachers meet as a science department through School Development Planning. In addition, biology teachers meet frequently as a group at times outside their teaching timetables. Meetings provide the teachers with a valuable opportunity to share their expertise as well as to plan for development. Biology teachers consult with each other daily, sharing resources and new ways to teach topics.

 

An organised approach is taken to subject planning. Biology teachers have worked together to produce a scheme of work for Biology which forms a component part of the overall science plan. This is presented to senior management annually, in line with best practice. A wide range of teaching and learning approaches and resources that are available for each topic are listed in the scheme of work and this is commended. It is recommended that the good work in the science plan be built on by including aims for the teaching of each subject, details of assessment and homework practices and a section setting out long-term goals and strategies for the development of the sciences in the school.

 

The programme for Science in TY is well designed and innovative and much work has gone into revising the Science programme over the past year. The modular plan is commended for the inclusion of topics from outside the Leaving Certificate syllabuses and the provision of varied learning opportunities in a range of disciplines. Good aims and rationale are provided in the modules. Commendably, many of the activities promote discovery learning, investigation and self-directed learning. Procedures for recording and reporting on the outcomes of student assessment in each of the ten modules should be explored and outlined in the plan.

 

The optimum level of preparation was undertaken for each lesson. Presentations and resource materials were carefully chosen to maximise opportunities for student involvement and to provide a visual reference for learning. Lessons were focused and productive as a consequence.

 

 

Teaching and Learning

 

A positive learning environment was encountered in all of the lessons visited. This was supported by the very positive approach adopted by the teachers and by the willingness of the students to participate constructively. Students were focused at all times and the majority of students demonstrated a very high level of motivation in learning Biology. The teachers were knowledgeable, taught with enthusiasm, catered for a range of learning styles and challenged the students appropriately. Particular care was taken to include all of the learners in the lessons through the use of directed questioning, supplementary materials and appropriate differentiation.

 

The lessons were very well organised, had clear objectives and incorporated a range of teaching methodologies. Clear and concise instruction was used to develop the topic and teachers varied the learning experience for the student by using the OHP, some ICT presentations, handouts, props and student paired work. Furthermore, every effort was made to contextualise the material being covered by reference to historical events, film and the media, or by drawing on the students’ own experiences.

 

Students were confident and asked good questions in most lessons. Frequently, these contributed to the development of the ideas under consideration and provided the teacher with an opportunity to enrich the classroom experience. In many cases, the students took notes independently as the lesson progressed. Teachers were assiduous in ensuring that all students understood the lesson content and had recorded notes accurately in their copybooks.

 

Students with special educational needs were well catered for. Examples of this included the presentation of pre-printed notes and procedures for practical work which the students could supplement through the addition of their own notes or by filling in the results of experimental work.

 

The students displayed very good practical skills and the laboratory notebooks were exemplary. It was clear that the students were used to doing practical work and that they had mastered the skills of report writing. Their attention to detail in relation to recording results, drawing conclusions and applying correct procedures when drawing graphs was very good.

 

Students’ ability to explain and apply biological concepts in response to questioning varied according to the wide range of individual abilities among members of the same class group. Much excellence was apparent in student responses with some students needing prompting to arrive at the correct answer. However, the overall standard of learning was very high. Records from the State Examinations Commission show that most students take higher-level Biology with the majority achieving grades in the higher percentiles. It is commendable that such high grades are consistently achieved by the students. However, for the past number of years, a very small number of students failed the higher-level biology paper in the Leaving Certificate examination. It would have been more appropriate for these students to take the ordinary-level paper. It was found that teachers are acutely aware of the abilities of each student and it is practice for teachers to advise students to take Biology at the level best suited to the ability of the individual. The procedure of choosing higher or ordinary level is done in consultation with parents. While students are strongly advised to take the recommendation of the teacher, a very small number do not always follow this advice. This issue should continue to be closely examined by all so that students are realistic about what level of the syllabus they can reasonably attain at.

 

Teachers clearly expected good work and commitment from students and in turn students generally demanded high standards of themselves. In the light of students own high expectations of themselves, teachers should feel confident about placing greater emphasis on self-directed learning. Two concrete suggestions follow on how this might be achieved. Firstly, the plenary question and answer session held at the start of every lesson should be sufficiently extended to provide students with a rigorous review of what had been learned successfully from the previous lesson and what needed to be revisited. Secondly, existing good practice in homework allocation could be accentuated in order to differentiate between written homework, arising naturally from class work, and study to be undertaken by the students to underpin their understanding of the subject matter. An additional column could be added to the homework journal to facilitate this.

 

 

Assessment

 

Highly commendable assessment practices were observed. Homework was assigned at the end of each lesson and class tests were seen to be frequently administered. Students expect and receive class tests at the end of each topic. Teachers maintain details of the outcomes of all tests and record the completion of homework. The combination of frequent tests and daily formative assessment is highly commended as it provides many opportunities for students to recall their learning and to receive constructive feedback on their individual progress. Questions from past examination papers are often allocated as homework. The official marking scheme is applied by teachers when correcting these, allowing students to observe in exact detail their own performance and to target areas for improvement. Students’ written submissions are very well monitored with an excellent level of written feedback given in copies, tests and laboratory notebooks. It is suggested that revision schedules be given to students in sixth year outlining topics to be revised, on a weekly basis, spanning the whole course over the complete year and that one of the questions given each week from the past papers be based on these schedules.

 

Formal school-based examinations are held at Christmas and summer for the fifth-year groups while sixth-year students sit mock examinations in the spring. Common examinations are agreed by all teachers and set for students at these times and this is commended. Some credit is allocated for the completion of laboratory work and for the ecology portfolio as part of the overall grade for the year and this is good practice. Results from examinations and assessments provide a basis for informed comment on student progress to parents in school reports and during annual parent-teacher meetings.

 

 

 

 

 

Summary of Main Findings and Recommendations

 

The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation of Biology:

·         Senior management strongly supports and provides very well for the subject.

·         Four new laboratories with ample resources for practical work and very good facilities for teaching, including modern ICT facilities and resources are available.

·         The level of organisation observed in the laboratory and store areas is exemplary.

·         There is active participation in continuing professional development in Biology.

·         Very good planning practices are evident.

·         The programme for Science in TY is well-designed, modular and innovative, promoting discovery learning, investigation and self-directed learning.

·         Students participated constructively in a positive learning environment.

·         Teachers catered for a range of learning styles and challenged the students appropriately.

·         Students displayed very good practical skills and laboratory notebooks were exemplary.

·         Highly commendable assessment practices were in use.

·         Most of students take higher-level Biology in the State Examinations with the majority achieving grades in the higher percentiles.

 

As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:

·         A review of the overall instruction time allocated to each class group studying Biology should take place in order to inform timetabling arrangements for next year.

·         Procedures for recording and reporting on the outcomes of student assessment in each of the ten TY science modules should be explored and outlined in the TY science plan.

·         Greater emphasis could be placed on self-directed learning in fifth and sixth year.

·         It is suggested that revision schedules be given to students in sixth year.

 

Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Biology and with the principal, at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.