An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Scoil na mBráithre
Dungarvan, County Waterford
Roll number: 64880T
Date of inspection: 31 January 2007
Date of issue of report: 21 June 2007
the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Scoil na mBráithre. 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 these subjects 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 all written preparation presented. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and the teachers of these subjects. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
Junior Certificate Science is part of the core curriculum in the school. Students have a weekly time allocation of one double lesson and two single lessons during each of the three years of study for junior Science. This is consistent with what is recommended by the curriculum guidelines. Classes are arranged on a mixed-ability basis with students retaining, in the main, the same teacher for the duration of their junior science programme. Currently the practice in the school is for one teacher to have all science classes in a year group. The value of having more than one teacher engaged with each year group should be explored by the science team, in consultation with management, as part of the planning process.
On completion of the Junior Certificate examination, students can enter the optional Transition Year (TY) programme. Students have an opportunity to study aspects of both Biology and Physics with a weekly allocation for the year of two double lessons.
At senior cycle the established Leaving Certificate programme is offered in the school. Students in the school have a choice of three senior science subjects, Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Currently a high proportion of students are choosing to study at least one of these science subjects for their Leaving Certificate, which is very positive. Currently the subject option blocks from which student must choose are devised by the school. Management stated that this approach is taken to ensure that, for example, all science subjects are chosen for Leaving Certificate. It would be important to review this regularly to ensure that students’ satisfaction levels remain high. All senior science subjects have an allocation of one double lesson and three single lessons in both year one and year two of Leaving Certificate, which is within curriculum guidelines.
There are three staff members currently involved in the delivery of Science and Biology in the school. The school has one laboratory. All science classes cannot take place in the laboratory but both the science team and management strive to ensure that, at minimum, double lessons occur in the laboratory. There is a rota for additional access, with collaboration between members of the team for further access, which is to be commended. The laboratory has its own preparation/storage area. The chemical store associated with this space has no ventilation. A specific ventilation system needs to be provided for this space. In addition, the use of flame-resistant chemical presses for specific groups of chemicals should be acquired. Oxidisers should be segregated from flammable chemicals. Chemicals need to be organised and stored correctly, based on chemical properties and not by alphabet. The remainder of the preparation area needs to be audited and a system of organisation and storage of material and equipment adopted by the team. The team should use the junior Science as the basis for this and develop into the senior science subjects. This reorganisation should be done in conjunction with that of the laboratory. What is currently stored in the laboratory and where and how it is stored needs to be evaluated by the team. This work should take priority for the future. In addition, the acquisition of some new laboratory stools is necessary, to replace those that are ergonomically at the wrong height for the current benches.
The laboratory is a nice bright room. Some posters were displayed on the walls, some of which were of student origin. Permanent resources in this space include a computer, which is networked, and a data projector, which is to be commended. The school also has a computer room with thirty computers in the new school and an additional, smaller computer room with older computers in the existing older part of the school. These spaces can be booked for use with a class when required. There was also a small library in the laboratory, which could be developed further to benefit the students. The use of notice-boards to display science-related material and students’ work and achievements is also noted and is to be commended. These should be updated regularly to maintain students’ interest. In addition, other resources such as television and video, and overhead projectors are available for use in the teaching and learning, which is commended. A budget is provided to the sciences by management when required.
The school has a health and safety statement, which was drawn up in 1999. Management stated that the science staff were involved in drawing up the safety statement and that this statement is under review. Safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, safety blankets and safety glasses were observed in the laboratory. Additional safety signage could also be considered in the laboratories. The guidelines on safety, Safety in School Science and Safety in the School Laboratory, published by the Department of Education and Science, should be consulted and can be downloaded from the internet at http://www.psi-net.org/chemistry. In addition, the current gas isolation valve needs to be upgraded to the recommended standard for school laboratories.
Students have had opportunities to experience science outside the laboratory through ecological fieldtrips, attendance at some science events at Waterford Institute of Technology and quizzes. Such activities are to be encouraged. In addition, the teachers have availed of opportunities for continuing professional development in Biology and Junior Science.
The school is at an early stage of school development planning. The main focus has been in the area of subject planning. Management, through one formal meeting per term, has facilitated this planning process. Minutes are recorded at each meeting. The team could also consider the use of an agenda for these formal meetings. In addition to these formal meetings, members of the science team communicate informally on a regular basis. The role of co-ordinator has been assigned which is a post of responsibility. The co-ordinator takes a lead role in the purchasing of material and equipment in the sciences. The acquisition of a trolley which could be used to transport equipment and material safely from the laboratory to nearby classrooms could be considered by the team. This would allow some student practical activities to occur outside the laboratory. As the school only has one laboratory, the team could also explore with management the possible development of one of the classrooms near the laboratory for use as a laboratory space. Suitable flooring and a cabinet for storage of some basic equipment would be required. Extra power points may also be required and a sink would be of benefit. This could also be utilised as a general classroom with priority given to science subjects.
The science team has developed common plans for junior Science, which is to be commended. The team, at future meetings, should discuss the interpretation of this common plan and the order in which topics are studied. A common approach to this may help in the development of a science assessment policy in the future. Students’ achievement, homework, revision work, support and planning for mixed-ability classes, support and planning for students with special educational needs, in-career development, cross-curricular planning, and the integration of information and communication technology (ICT) could also be considered in the future planning of the team. All plans developed will require review and possible modifications to meet the needs of the students. Individual planning documents for Leaving Certificate Biology were also presented. These could be discussed and a common approach explored by the team. Websites such as www.bsstralee.ie and www.juniorscience.ie could be of assistance, with further links to other relevant information sites. In addition, syllabuses and “Guidelines for Teachers” should be useful in this work.
A considerable amount of preparation went into the lessons observed. Preparation included the preparation of handouts for class assignments and homework, PowerPoint presentation to aid students’ learning and visualisation of a topic, models to illustrate a specific process to help students’ understanding and organised board work which aided students in their note-taking. In some instances, notice-boards in the students’ base classroom were used to display material relevant to the topic being studied, which was very good to observe. The team could consider sharing resources that were prepared individually and found to be effective in the teaching of certain topics. This would be very good practice.
Atomic structure, water treatment, ecology and genetics were the topics being studied in the lessons observed. In the main, lessons had structure and were of an appropriate pace to facilitate students’ learning. Students settled down to work well in most of the lessons, with all lessons starting with some form of recall of previous learning. This was achieved through questioning to named students. There was also a significant level of questioning during the lessons, with most students being asked to contribute. This helped to ascertain students’ level of achievement in the lessons. Recall-type questions were the main method being used, with some probing and higher-order questions used on occasion. The use of various types of questioning is encouraged during a lesson, with all students engaged at some point in this activity. It is important that when a student fails to answer a question or furnishes the incorrect answer to a question that the correct information is then provided either by a student or the teacher. It would be important for the teacher to check the student’s understanding at a later stage in the lesson by, for example, additional questioning, to ensure that the student can correctly provide the answer. In addition, students should be encouraged to close all books before questioning to ensure that the students’ learning is being ascertained.
During the lessons, when new work progressed, good linkages were established with previous learning, which is good practice. Well-constructed board work served to help students visualise the material being studied and also as a source of notes for the students to record, to aid their learning. The use of more colours in some instances could be considered. Students’ learning was also enhanced by the use of ICT. A lot of time has been spent in the development of material for use in this area and this is to be commended. This is a very good resource, which will benefit the whole science team. When ICT was used in conjunction with other methodologies it aided students’ understanding of the topic being studied. However, overuse of this or any one methodology in a lesson can reduce its effectiveness and also reduce students’ engagement, learning and therefore levels of achievement and should be avoided. The use of worksheets and handouts served to develop and consolidate students’ learning during the lesson, which is to be commended. Observation and correction of this work enabled the teacher to ascertain the different levels of student achievement with the topic during the lesson, which is good practice.
All lessons observed involved mixed-ability student groups. Some differentiation was observed which aided students’ learning and achievement. However where differentiation did not occur, the learning was affected. The team, as part of their planning, should discuss approaches and strategies to mixed-ability teaching as stated earlier in the report. In the main, discipline was sensitively maintained, with effective classroom management also evident. This was aided by the teacher circulating the room regularly during most lessons, asking questions or observing students’ work being completed. This also helped to build a good teacher-student rapport during the lesson.
The lessons observed were, in the main, theory based. The use of demonstration, ICT, handouts and worksheets helped in the delivery of the theory. These activities also served to break up the material for the student, which helped their learning and understanding of the topic. In some instances students fixed the handout material into their laboratory notebook during the lesson to ensure its retention, which was a good strategy. The use of the notice-boards in classrooms for display of science material was very good to observe. The material on display in the laboratory should reflect the topics being studied at any given time and should be changed regularly to reflect this.
Student practical activity was not observed. However, observation of students’ practical laboratory notebooks provided evidence of practical work completed by the students. Monitoring of students’ practical notebooks is encouraged and could be incorporated into the scheme for assessment.
Homework assigned was designed to assist the student in learning and retaining the topic, which is good practice. It is to be commended that reference to textbooks was only used to supplement and reinforce the learning and teaching which had already been completed during the lesson.
Formal school examinations occur at Christmas and summer, with examination classes also sitting pre-examinations in the spring of their examination year. Currently pre-examination scripts are sent away for external correction. Formal reports are sent to parents following Christmas, summer and pre-examinations. In addition to reports, parent-teacher meetings are held for all classes annually. Currently, students in each year group have a common examination because the same teacher is involved. However, if this situation was to be reviewed, the development of a common assessment plan could be considered. As already stated, consideration should be given to awarding all students marks for their practical copies as part of their overall grade in the subject. This could have the effect of providing the students with further motivation for engagement with the practical elements of the course.
Informal assessment of students’ learning is assessed daily. This is achieved through homework and oral questioning at the start of and during the lessons. This was observed in the lessons viewed. Continuous assessment also occurs with class tests administered by the teacher on completion of a unit of work or a topic. The teacher retains records of all tests completed.
Details of Assessment for Learning (AFL) methodologies to further enhance the impact of formative assessment on students’ learning are available on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) website www.ncca.ie.
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:
A post-evaluation meeting was held with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.