An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Scoil Mhuire Convent of Mercy
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Scoil Mhuire, Convent of Mercy, Ennistymon. 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 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.
Whole school support for the sciences is very good in Scoil Mhuire. Junior Certificate Science is a core subject and all students study Biology, Science and Horticulture in Transition Year. Currently Biology is timetabled in both fifth year and sixth year, Agricultural Science is timetabled in fifth year and Chemistry in sixth year. Timetable co-operation with the local Christian Brothers School (CBS) facilitates students in both schools in their subject choices for Leaving Certificate. Underpinning this level of collaboration is the desire to provide for students’ interests and needs in both schools, a strategy that is commended. Currently, fifth-year Chemistry and all senior cycle Physics are taken by the girls in the local CBS. The uptake of the sciences for Leaving Certificate is good. While the time allocation is in line with syllabus guidelines for all leaving certificate sciences, it is slightly low in Junior Certificate Science. This is due to timetabling constraints as a result of operating a taster system for optional subjects in first year, a strategy that affords students the opportunity to make informed choices on entering second year. Notwithstanding this, management should investigate the possibility of increasing the contact time for Science when timetabling for future years. It is recommended that management endeavour to have timetable slots for all classes well scattered across the timetable and that timetabling of double lessons across a break be avoided. Good collaboration between members of the science department ensures access to the laboratory for all class groups as needed. However, consideration should also be given to the avoidance of concurrent timetabling of science classes as far as possible in order to maximise access to the laboratory.
The laboratory is attractive and provides a stimulating learning environment, which is enhanced by a variety of educational posters, the presence of plants and the aquarium. The sets of books in the laboratory provide a good resource that supports teaching and learning. The good practice of affirming students’ work by exhibiting examples of it in the laboratory is noted. There is a good level of safety equipment such as fire extinguishers and safety blankets in the laboratory. Chemicals are stored according to best safety practice and Department of Education and Science guidelines. Teachers are commended on this good work and should ensure that oxidisers are stored separately from the flammable chemicals at all times. It is noteworthy that safety practices in the laboratory are highlighted by the display of the safety rules on the wall of the laboratory. The health and safety statement has recently been reviewed in consultation with the science teachers. This is commended.
All science classes are of mixed ability. Students are encouraged to study higher-level Science. Classes retain the same teacher from second through to third year of junior cycle and again in senior cycle. This is praiseworthy as it promotes continuity of learning. Management should endeavour to extend this good practice to first year.
Students entering fifth year are supported in making their subject choices. Initially students are offered an open choice. These choices are then used to create a “best-fit” model for the leaving certificate subjects. An information night is provided for the parents of students entering fifth year, in order that they may be informed of the subject options available and the future implications of subject choice in senior cycle. This is commended.
A good level of information and communications technologies (ICT) facilities, including data logging equipment, a computer, overhead projector and a TV/DVD and video are present in the laboratory. Data projectors are available in the school. It is understood that it is planned to purchase a ceiling-mounted data projector and an interactive whiteboard in the near future. Management is to be commended on its commitment to enhancing the ICT resources. The science teachers are encouraged to utilise these as much as possible to support the teaching and learning processes. It is good to note that the science teachers are supported financially by management on a needs basis for the updating, repair or enhancement of existing resources. A system is in place for the improvement of resources. Teachers are encouraged to continue enhancing the scientific resources each year.
Significantly, one science teacher is also the learning-support teacher, thus facilitating good communication with the teachers of students who require learning support. It is noteworthy that learning support is provided in Science as necessary.
Management encourages teachers to avail of all continuing professional development (CPD) training being offered. The teachers have attended in-career development in the sciences and the school supports membership of the Irish Science Teachers’ Association. This is commended as in this way teachers keep informed of issues concerning science education.
A good level of provision is made for co-curricular and extracurricular science activities including fieldtrips and quizzes. Commendably Scoil Mhuire is a ‘green school’. Students have been successful at science and chemistry olympiads and at the time of the inspection, a number of students were waiting for approval to progress with their entries for the Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. Those involved are to be praised for their commitment to facilitating such educational and motivating activities.
The organisation of the science department is facilitated by the co-ordinator, who convenes meetings that are minuted, liaises with senior management and co-ordinates subject-department planning, including the planning for resources. A very good level of co-operation and communication is conducted informally among the teachers in the science department and school management facilitates formal collaboration by providing time for subject departments to meet. An appropriately resourced laboratory provides evidence of successful planning for resources.
It is good to note that a common outline scheme of work has been devised for Science. This good work could be built upon by expanding the scheme of work to incorporate timeframes, teaching methodologies, assessment strategies and scientific skills. Strategies to differentiate teaching methodologies for the mixed-ability science classes and the integration of ICT should also be included. The variety of experiences of all the science teachers in the school is a major resource in this process. The chemistry scheme of work contains the chapters in the textbook to be covered each term. It is recommended that work be initiated towards the development of a formal plan for Chemistry in line with the school’s progress through the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI). The Leaving Certificate Chemistry Guidelines for Teachers and the Assessment for Learning project of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) could be of assistance in this planning process.
There was clear evidence of planning for the TY modules in Science, Horticulture and Biology. Effective TY modules can be of significance in developing and supporting the skills required in the leaving certificate sciences. While a small proportion of the content is leaving certificate material, cognisance has been taken of the spirit and philosophy of TY when developing the modules. Students are afforded the opportunity to study aspects of science that are outside the leaving certificate syllabuses. Forensic fingerprinting, the study of seals and data analysis relating to this study, and the study of the lives of various scientists are some examples of the exposure of students to a variety of scientific topics. Teachers are commended on their approach to the teaching and learning of science in TY.
There was clear evidence of thorough planning and preparation for the lessons observed and the quality of this was good. Effective advance preparation was apparent by the manner in which all equipment, resources and handouts were ready for use during lessons. Through discussions, it was found that individual teacher planning for Science and Chemistry in this school reflects an understanding of the curriculum and the requirements of the examinations.
There was evidence of extensive folders of resources, including electronic resources that have been developed and compiled to support teaching and learning. This is commended. Those involved are commended on their level of collegiality that is evident by their willingness to share their resources.
There is a good quality of teaching and learning in Science and Chemistry in Scoil Mhuire. This was evident by well-structured lessons that were appropriately paced, in the main, and by the effective use of a variety of methodologies. Lessons were generally student centred. The lessons observed provided a relaxed, warm environment, in which students felt secure and confident and which supported students’ learning. Very good teacher/student rapport was observed in the level of attentiveness, enthusiasm and co-operation seen in the lessons. A clear and fair code of behaviour was very much in evidence in all lessons observed.
Many elements of good, and in some instances very good practice were observed in the chemistry and science lessons. Lessons had clear aims, and there was evidence of good continuity with previous lessons by linking with, and building on, students’ prior knowledge and experience. For example, the lesson on rates of reaction began by questioning students to establish their understanding of the concept that had previously been covered for Junior Certificate. This was very successful in aiding the introduction and subsequent broadening of the topic. There were also some very nice examples of linking the lesson content to the everyday life experiences of the students, thus making the subject tangible and relevant. In one lesson students were actively engaged in determining how the voice box works. As an aid to understanding the teacher drew a parallel between the operation of strings on a guitar to produce music and the functioning of the vocal cords in the voice box. This practice is commended.
In one instance ICT was very effectively employed in developing lesson content and in supporting students’ learning by providing visual images and animations. Acetates and the whiteboard were also productively utilised to highlight the significant points in lessons. However, care should be taken to ensure the fonts are clearly legible from the back of the laboratory. The use of mnemonics to aid students in learning the types of energy in this instance is good practice. For a short period in one lesson, students read from the textbook in chorus fashion. The textbook would be more suitably employed perhaps to highlight the main points, provide a visual stimulus and to consolidate students’ learning.
In practical lessons students were enthusiastically involved in hands-on practical activities, working in pairs or groups of three. The practical lessons were well organised. In one lesson, a rota of short experiments, with written procedural instructions being provided to assist students as they investigated a variety of energy conversions, provided the opportunity for students to work collaboratively, share their views and discuss what had been observed. This is highly commended, as the use of an investigative approach facilitates students in reflecting on, and evaluating, their own work and progress. It is recommended that all teachers explore the application of the investigative approach to a greater extent and plan for greater students’ discovery learning. During all students’ practical work, the teachers constantly moved around the classroom giving appropriate attention and support to students with individual needs. This is praiseworthy. Due regard was paid to safety procedures at all times. Students were confident and capable in setting up and completing the tasks and their practical skills were well developed. It is recommended that when planning for practical lessons, time should be factored in for a plenary session that would consolidate students’ learning during the lesson.
Questioning was used very effectively to engage students in the learning activities and to develop lesson content. Most of the questions were of a recall type, though some good use was made of more probing or open-ended questions. This is commended. In the main, students’ responses indicated good understanding and knowledge of the subject.
Students’ participation was warmly welcomed and encouraged and effective use was made of student affirmation. In the lessons observed, almost all students engaged readily with the classroom activities and they were purposeful in their work. They were encouraged to work collaboratively during practical activities. Students exhibited a genuine interest in and enthusiasm for the sciences in the main and are encouraged to work hard and achieve their best by their dedicated teachers.
Assessment of students’ learning is carried out using a range of strategies. Formal assessment occurs four times each year, October, Christmas, spring and summer, following which a report is issued. In October the assessment of first-year, second-year and third-year students is based on continuous assessment and there are scheduled house examinations for fifth-year and sixth-year students. Formal examinations take place at Christmas for all year groups and in the summer for the non-examination classes. In spring, continuous assessment operates once again for the first-year and second-year students, while the fifth-year students have house examinations and the examination classes sit their pre-examinations. This commitment to regular assessment and regular feedback to parents is commended. Communication with parents is enhanced further through the annual parent-teacher meetings, the students’ journals and the facility provided for parents to meet individual teachers on request.
Commendably the science department operates a common assessment policy, to complement the common programme of work for the formal examinations that are held concurrently. In the event that examinations for the different classes cannot be held at the same time, common topics are assessed. This effort to administer a consistent approach across year groups is commended. In TY, formal end-of-term assessments are held. Students’ practical work, students’ homework and their scientific projects also form a significant component of students’ formal assessment in TY. This is excellent practice as an aggregate mark that includes all components of students’ learning provides a more accurate indicator of the student’s ability in the subject.
Students have a laboratory notebook or file in which they record all their experimental work. In almost all instances, these practical notebooks are monitored. This is commended. There was also evidence of the good practice of annotation of students’ work, a procedure that is to be encouraged. It is understood that in one instance, students’ laboratory notebooks are included in a scheme of continuous assessment. This good practice should be extended to all classes in junior cycle, as it would provide motivation for engagement by all students with the practical element of the course. Such practice also reflects the assessment objectives of the junior certificate syllabus. An innovative strategy to publicly affirm students’ efforts is provided by the awarding of prizes on the school’s prize-giving day for well-presented laboratory copybooks. This is commended.
Oral assessments to determine students’ understanding were integrated into all lessons observed. To consolidate students’ learning in class, written homework is regularly assigned, and generally monitored and annotated, a practice that is encouraged as its helps provide information on students’ understanding. There was evidence of class tests on specific topics. This is laudable. School management conducts an analysis of the State examination results on a subject-by-subject basis. This is then made available to all teachers, parents’ association, board of management and trustees.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Whole-school support for the sciences is very good in Scoil Mhuire. Junior Certificate Science is a core subject and all students study Biology, Science and Horticulture in Transition Year. In collaboration with the local boys’ school, provision is made for all the leaving certificate sciences.
· The organisation of the science department is facilitated by the co-ordinator. Formal minuted meetings in conjunction with a very good level of informal co-operation and collaboration provide for effective planning for and teaching of the sciences.
· It is good to note that a common outline scheme of work has been devised for Science, which is complemented by common assessments where it is feasible.
· There is a good quality of teaching and learning in Science and Chemistry. The science teachers are dedicated and very good teacher/student rapport successfully supports teaching and learning.
· A well-resourced laboratory and individual teacher resources, including electronic resources, that teachers willingly share, provide evidence of a good level of planning and collegiality.
· The students were attentive, enthusiastic, were actively engaged through questioning and practical activities and achieve well in the very positive learning environment.
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.
Published June 2008