An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Biology and Agricultural Science
De La Salle College
Roll number: 64950O
Date of inspection: 12 December 2006
Date of issue of report: 21 June 2007
the Quality of Learning and Teaching in biology and Agricultural Science
This report has been written following a subject inspection in De La Salle College. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Biology and Agricultural Science 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. All classes are of mixed-ability groups. In the main students retain the same teacher throughout junior cycle. Students are allocated two single lessons and one double lesson in each year of junior cycle for the study of Science, which is consistent with what is recommended by the curriculum guidelines.
An optional Transition Year (TY) is running in the school. Currently two teachers are involved in the delivery of this programme in the school. The programme contains some biological and physical sciences which is currently allocated three periods weekly, one double and two single lessons, for the school year.
The school offers the established Leaving Certificate Programme. The Leaving Certificate Applied Programme is also available in the school. Currently the elective science and the vocational specialism Agriculture/Horticulture are not offered as part of this programme. In addition the school also has a Leaving Certificate repeat class, which is open to both boys and girls to attend.
The school has four senior science subjects: Agricultural Science, Biology, Chemistry and Physics. These are part of the sixteen optional subjects in the school from which students must choose. Students are given an open choice from which option blocks are created and a “best fit” model applied. Classes are arranged on a mixed-ability basis, with students retaining the same teacher for the duration of their studies. 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 four staff members currently involved in the delivery of Biology and Agricultural Science in the school. The school has six laboratories and two demonstration rooms. Three of the laboratories are located in the main school along one corridor. Two of these laboratories share a preparation/storage area with the third laboratory across the corridor having its own independent preparation/storage area. The walls of the chemical store in this preparation area do not meet the ceiling. The resulting gap provides the only ventilation to this space. This is not adequate and a more suitable method of ventilating this space should be established. The other three laboratories are in a newer extension at the back of the school. They are very much independent from the other laboratories, with each of these laboratory spaces having its own preparation/storage area. All laboratories are designated for Junior Science. The number of science facilities has allowed each teacher to be based, in the main, in one laboratory. As a result laboratories have become specific for each of the science subjects at Leaving Certificate. The three laboratories in the main school currently cater for Biology and Agricultural Science, with Biology, Physics and Chemistry occurring in each of the newer laboratories. All laboratories viewed are effective locations for the delivery of the sciences.
Organisation of materials and equipment was evident within the facilities, which is to be commended. The use of labelled plastic containers of materials and equipment was noted, which made the materials very accessible to the teacher. Development of this method of organisation is to be encouraged.
The school has a health and safety statement, which was drawn up in 2004 by an external consultant. Management stated that the science staff were involved in drawing up the safety statement. Safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, laboratory coats, safety blankets and safety glasses were observed in the laboratories. Additional safety signage could also be considered in the laboratories. The guidelines on safety: Safety in School Science and Safety in the School Laboratory could be consulted and can be downloaded from the internet at http://www.psi-net.org/chemistry.
All laboratory spaces have access to ICT equipment, including computers and data projectors. Television and video, overhead projectors and a digital camera are other available resources for use in the teaching and learning, which is to be commended. A budget is provided but must firstly be approved by the financial sub-committee of the Board of management.
Charts, diagrams and models were observed within the laboratories, which is commendable. Some material was of student origin, which is to be encouraged. Regular updating should help to maintain the interest and stimulation of the students. Display cases containing science materials and specimens were located in other parts of the school. The further development of a stimulating print-rich environment which could develop and expand to the corridors around all the science facilities is to be encouraged. The use of notice boards to display science-related material and students’ work and achievements should be considered.
Students have had opportunities to experience science outside the laboratory through fieldtrips and attendance at some science events. Such activities are to be encouraged. In addition the teachers have availed of opportunities for continuing professional development in Biology.
The school is engaged in the process of school development planning, with one full staff planning day already occurring during this academic year. Subject departments are allocated three or four meetings per year by management. As a result of these meetings subject planning documents have been developed by the team. There is currently a coordinator for science in the school, whose role is to chair the meetings and is also involved in planning. In addition a coordinating role for junior science coursework has also been developed in the school. The development of common plans is to be encouraged where applicable. This will help to establish a common purpose and direction for the subjects which will facilitate the sharing of expertise and resources and consequently contribute to a high quality teaching and learning.
As the team furthers the development of their plans, areas such as aims, objectives, resources available for the learning and teaching of each topic could be considered. In addition, record keeping, student achievement, optional assessment methods, revision work, support and planning for mixed-ability classes, support and planning for students with special educational needs, in-career development, cross-curricular planning, homework 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. 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.
The lessons observed were very well prepared, planned and reflected syllabus requirements. Materials needed for the lessons were available and readily accessible to the students. In some instances written documentation was also presented. In addition students’ learning was aided through the use of a variety of resources and activities undertaken. These included use of the whiteboard, various types of handout material, ICT, use of the overhead projector, teacher demonstration and student practical activities which are to be commended. 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.
Effective teaching and learning was observed in the lessons observed. The teaching methodologies observed included student practical work, questioning, explanation, whiteboard work, use of handouts, acetates, worksheets use of ICT and the textbook. All lessons comprised some practical activities conducted by the students with additional theory delivery also observed in some of the lessons viewed. Student engagement was a strong feature of the lessons as they were completing a practical task, writing up their work or answering questions posed by the teacher. Discipline was always maintained and effective classroom management was evident. In the main, lessons had structure and were of an appropriate pace to facilitate learning. Generally students seemed interested in what they were doing and participated purposefully in the lesson. Clearly evident was good teacher-student rapport. Enzymes, the microscope and soil texture were the topics being studied in the lessons observed.
Students settled down to work very quickly in the lessons observed. The initial phase of most lessons began with some recap of previous learning. This was done through question-and-answer sessions. This helped to establish students’ learning and understanding and was very worthwhile. Student practical activities occurred after this with students completing their practical task individually or in groups of two or three students. Practical activities observed were both mandatory and non-mandatory in nature. Workstations were either set up in advance by the teacher or materials were easily accessible to the students centrally. Either method allowed the students to complete their specific task. When students’ worksheets were provided, they gave students a focus for their work. The teacher provided guidance with any health-and-safety issues highlighted in advance of the activity, which is good practice. The teacher circulated the room observing students’ progress. In some instances the students were asked relevant questions about what they were doing and the results they were obtaining. This questioning also helped to develop students’ understanding and helped to maintain a high level of student engagement in the lesson. All students’ responses were affirmed and on occasion students were encouraged to develop their response, which was very good to see. This was very effective and allowed learning to be assessed, which is to be encouraged. When class sets of equipment were not available and students had to take turns with the equipment, relevant written work was assigned to the class to ensure students were not idle. The teacher circulated around the room providing guidance to the students completing the practical work and help with any questions the students may have with the assigned written work. On completion of most practical activities there was guided discussion by the teacher, which helped to consolidate students’ learning which is to be encouraged. This will also aid students’ ability to make a record of their practical work. All students had laboratory notebooks in which they recorded all their investigative work. Some monitoring was noted. Regular monitoring of student work is encouraged. In most instances sufficient time was afforded to facilitate the students to clean up after their activity, which is good practice.
All lessons had some level of questioning which helped to consolidate learning for the students. Questioning in the main required only recall answering by the students. The development of more probing higher-order questioning should be considered which would evaluate students’ level of understanding and complement their level of recall knowledge. This would be especially important for students studying the higher-level course. The delivery of theory was used to reinforce the practical activity. ICT and the board were used and helped students’ understanding of the topic. In the main the students reinforced all learning through the recording of their work. This recording was either completed in class or assigned for homework. The range of homework assigned was designed to assist the student in learning and retaining the topic, which is good practice. Reference to textbooks was only used to supplement and reinforce the learning and teaching, which had already been completed during the lesson.
There is ongoing development of assessment through subject department planning as part of the SDP process in the school. Formal assessments are held in the school at Christmas. State examination classes sit pre-examinations in the spring of their examination year. Currently scripts can be marked by the teacher or can be sent away for external correction. Non-examination classes also sit examinations at summer. 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. The development of common assessments could be explored by the team as a result of the development of common planning within the subjects.
Students’ learning is also informally assessed daily through homework and oral questioning during the lessons. The teacher administers class examinations on completion of a topic. The teacher keeps a record of all tests completed by the student. This information is provided in printed format by some of the team to parents at parent-teacher meetings. This is a very effective approach and should be explored as part of the team’s developments in this area of work. Details of Assessment for Learning (AFL) methodologies to further enhance the impact of formative assessment on student learning are available on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) website www.ncca.ie. In addition, consideration should be given to awarding all students marks for their practical laboratory books 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.
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 Agricultural Science and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.