An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Biology
Our Lady’s Bower
Athlone, County Westmeath
Roll number: 63210P
Date of inspection: 10 and 11 December 2007
Date of issue of report: 22 May 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Our Lady’s Bower. 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 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 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 of the school was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report, and the response of the board will be found in the appendix of this report.
The evaluation of Leaving Certificate Biology at Our Lady’s Bower, Athlone, Co. Weatmeath, was carried out over the course of two days. It began with a meeting with the biology teachers at which the objectives and procedures of the evaluation were explained. Following this, two double fifth-year biology classes and a double sixth-year biology class were observed. In addition, a meeting was held with the principal to discuss whole-school support.
Junior Certificate Science is a core subject for all junior cycle students. All classes are of mixed ability. Four class periods, in the form of one double and two single periods, are allocated to all Junior Certificate science classes. This is within syllabus guidelines.
Following the Junior Certificate examination, students choose between Transition Year (TY) and the Leaving Certificate programme. Students who opt for TY receive one double and two single classes of Science each week and they study a module in Forensic Science. A significant amount of time is given to facilitating students to prepare entries for the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition.
The option of following the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) is available to those students with an appropriate subject combination in senior cycle. The school is currently offering Biology, Chemistry and Physics as optional subjects to Leaving Certificate level. The school aims for a maximum class size of twenty-five students for the sciences in senior cycle. Students are provided with the opportunity to choose their own subjects for senior cycle. These choices are then used to create a “best-fit” model of subject options, accommodating as many students as possible. Biology is the most popular of the science subjects and numbers are very encouraging. Biology classes are allocated five periods per week, in the form of one double and three single periods. This is within syllabus guidelines. All classes are of mixed ability.
There are three teachers of Biology in the school. Opportunities have been availed of for continuing professional development during recent and current national in-service programmes in Leaving Certificate Biology and Junior Certificate Science. In addition, biology teachers have attended courses in Athlone Education Centre on data logging, genetics and information technology (IT) in the classroom. Two of the biology teachers were also members of a teacher design team, under the auspices of the Biology Support Service, and they designed and made a template for protein synthesis which is currently available to teachers on the Biology Support Service website at http://biology.slss.ie/teacherdesignteams.html. Both management and the biology teachers are commended for their commitment to facilitate, attend and participate in continuous professional development.
The school encourages active participation in a range of science-related extra-curricular activities. These activities include the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition; Science Week, during which students visit Athlone Institute of Technology and also take part in a science quiz; the European Union Science Olympiad; visits to a water treatment plant, a recycling centre, a science-based business enterprise, and trips to the European Space Camp. Speakers are invited to address the students, in school, on topics such as careers in Science and related areas. The school holds an Arts Week every five years and there is always a science component included in the programme, for example speakers, science shows and science activities. The work of the science teachers in this regard is indeed praiseworthy.
Completion of a major building and refurbishment programme is due in the near future. There are three laboratories in the school at present, designated Biology, Chemistry and Physics. A storage and preparation area is shared by two of these subjects. Access from this area to the third laboratory is via a laboratory and a smaller storage area. It is hoped to refurbish the laboratories in the near future as part of ongoing building work. In addition, a room has been designated for fitting out as a fourth laboratory. The main storage area is well stocked, well maintained and well ordered. A full-time laboratory technician is available to support the science teachers. This excellent support, provided by management, is an indication of the priority given to the sciences by the school. Resources available to biology teachers include overhead projectors, broadband-enabled desktop computers, and data projectors. The biology laboratory is also fitted with an interactive whiteboard. The provision of such resources by management is to be commended.
The majority of science classes, including all double classes, are held in a laboratory and the laboratories are used exclusively for science subjects. It is recommended that the use of the laboratories be maximised by holding as many single-period lessons as possible there also. The laboratories provide the most suitable environment for the teaching of Science. There will be scope for the display of student-developed charts and posters on the walls of the laboratories when the present building works have been completed. This is encouraged as it serves to stimulate and motivate students and further enhance the learning environment. The displays can be changed, occasionally, in line with the work being done or to highlight students’ project work.
Active management of safety issues during student practical work was observed, as evidenced by the wearing of protective clothing by students. In addition, a risk assessment of the science laboratories was recently carried out and steps taken to minimise the identifiable risks were listed. This is good practice. The school has a health and safety statement that was drawn up more than ten years ago. It is important that this statement is brought up to date to reflect the new situation as soon as reasonably possible, and that it then be subjected to regular review.
There is evidence of a strong sense of collegiality among the biology teachers. A formal science department is in place and there is a recognised co-ordinator for Biology within the department. The duties of the co-ordinator include convening and chairing subject department meetings, keeping minutes of these meetings, and liaising with management. Six such department meetings have been held so far this year, mostly at lunchtime, along with a number of short informal meetings. In addition, time was made available to the science department to meet in the course of a school development planning day. A variety of issues have been considered at these meetings, including the science plan, text books, student access to the laboratories, IT infrastructure, and the purchase of equipment. The laboratory technician manages issues such as laboratory maintenance, stock control and ordering of equipment. Management provides a budget for the purchase of equipment and other materials. Teachers expressed satisfaction with the level of support provided.
Subject planning is being carried out currently in Biology and a planning document for fifth-year and sixth-year Biology was presented. The biology teachers are to be praised for their work in compiling this plan. The plan includes the aims and objectives of the science department, and makes reference to students with special educational needs, to planning for a culturally diverse society, and cross-curricular issues. This is commendable. Also included is reference to health and safety, homework procedures, record keeping, and teacher in-career development.
The curricular section of the plan is broad and general, listing only the major units from the biology syllabus to be taught in each of fifth and sixth year. Commendably, the Leaving Certificate biology syllabus is the basis of this work. However, it is recommended that this section of the plan be re-examined and more detail included. The range of topics to be taught, and associated mandatory practical work, needs to be time-bound to a greater extent. Differentiation, in the context of mixed-ability classes, needs to be considered in detail, as does the issue of assessment. Defining assessment criteria appropriate to each age group across a range of skills would assist teachers and standardise practice. Standards for 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. Such detailed planning will, in future, facilitate the planning of common testing across all classes in a single year group and the substitution of teachers when required. It will also assist the laboratory technician in planning for resources and in preparing for practical work.
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 practical 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. Most students were attentive, interested and anxious to participate in the learning process. The topics covered in the classes observed included dissection of the rabbit, plant hormones and cell division.
A range of teaching methodologies was observed, including questioning of students, discussion, demonstrations, student practical activity, and the use of IT. There was appropriate use of handouts and student worksheets. Lessons were generally well structured and students were kept busy and actively engaged at all times. Best practice was seen where previous learning was reviewed, in order to set the stage for moving on. This review was followed by the presentation of new material, using appropriate methodologies, and students were provided with opportunities to put the new learning into practice, before a final summarising of the lesson and assignment of homework. There was a good balance between active learning methodologies and teacher-centred presentations in most lessons. There was 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 good use of scientific terminology in the lessons observed. Students were challenged by lesson content and responded well. Continuity from previous lessons was good and new information was well linked to previous learning. Lessons had a clear focus. 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 students were given time to formulate their answers and were encouraged to put up their hands before a respondent was chosen. In order to foster an investigative approach to the learning of Biology, it is important that students are encouraged to hypothesize, to speculate and to explain their reasoning when answering. In some of the lessons observed, there was a balance between global and student-specific questioning, and questioning was used not only to inform the teacher of student understanding and knowledge but also as a means to control the pace of the lesson, and to encourage student participation. This is good practice. All teachers are encouraged to give thought to their use of questioning as a methodology in order to enhance the quality of learning opportunities for students.
The practical work that was undertaken was efficiently organized and implemented. The students worked in groups of up to six and demonstrated a mature approach to their work. It is important that students are briefed thoroughly before the practical work begins. Best practice was observed where the teacher facilitated plenary sessions before and after the experiment, thus ensuring that the students clearly understood the purpose of the practical work and had an opportunity to discuss and rationalize their findings afterwards. This is laudable.
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 Biology as evidenced by the level of engagement and interest observed during the lessons visited. Students displayed a very good level of knowledge, understanding and skills during interaction with the inspector. Formative assessment of students’ progress and learning 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.
In most classes, students kept 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 science area. The quality of the notebooks examined by the inspector was excellent due to the extent of attention paid by the biology teachers to them, with particular attention being paid to entering the results of each activity and drawing appropriate conclusions. This is excellent practice. It is suggested that laboratory notebooks are annotated directly as part of this process with positive and affirming comments.
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. Certificate examination classes sit mock examinations in the spring. The students’ scripts are assessed externally. Additional testing is at the discretion of individual teachers. Records of assessment are held in teachers’ own diaries and in report books in the school office.
Results of assessments and progress reports are communicated to parents by means of Christmas reports for all classes, at the end of the school year for students who are not sitting state examinations, and following mock examinations for third-year and sixth-year students. Additional progress reports are issued if parents or teachers request them. 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, covering student attendance and assessment. It is recommended that record keeping be expanded to include student behaviour, work covered and the quality and frequency of homework done. 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 the 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 Biology and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 2 Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection
activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection.
The Health and Safety statement for the school is now almost completed. The staff inservice on the Health and Safety statement is set for 1st May 2008.