An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Biology
Athy Community College
Athy, County Kildare
Roll number: 70650L
Date of inspection: 11 October 2007
Date of issue of report: 17 April 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Athy Community College. 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 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.
The evaluation of Leaving Certificate Biology at Athy Community College, Athy, Co. Kildare was carried out over one day. It began with a visit to a double fifth-year biology class. This visit was followed by a meeting with the biology teachers at which the objectives and procedures of the evaluation were explained and then by a meeting with the principal to discuss whole-school support. Subsequently, a double sixth-year biology class was observed.
Junior Certificate Science is a core subject for all junior-cycle students and all classes are streamed. However, the possibility of having mixed-ability classes is under consideration for next year. The school is encouraged to follow through with this positive and inclusive measure. Four class periods, in the form of a double and two single periods, are allocated for all Junior Certificate science classes. This is within syllabus guidelines. Class sizes are small and there are currently less than twenty-four students in all science classes.
The school currently is offering only Biology as an optional science subject to Leaving Certificate level. Biology classes are of mixed ability. When choosing their subjects, students consult with their parents, their teachers and the career guidance counsellor. An information evening for third-year students and their parents is organised each year to assist students in making informed choices. The student choices are then used to create a “best-fit” model of subject options from which students make their final choice of subjects. Two double periods and one single period are allocated to Leaving Certificate Biology classes. This is within syllabus guidelines and, once again, class sizes tend to be small. Students also have the option of following the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) and Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme.
There are two teachers of Biology in the school. Opportunities have been availed of for continuing professional development during recent and current national in-service training programmes in Leaving Certificate Biology and Junior Certificate Science. Management is commended on the commitment given to facilitate attendance at in-service training and for its support for the continued professional development of staff, as evidenced by the payment of teachers’ subscriptions to relevant professional bodies.
The school is involved in a number of initiatives to promote the uptake of Science in senior cycle and at third level. Links have been developed with Carlow IT and NUI Maynooth. The school, with the support of the science teachers, encourages active participation by students in Science Week events, including attendance at Science Week lectures at these colleges. Students have attended Science summer schools in Carlow IT. The school has participated in the NUI Maynooth initiative to bring Science into the community; sixth-year students have attended Biology laboratory revision days in NUI Maynooth; participation in second-year student achievement awards and third-year academic awards, under the auspices of NUI Maynooth have also taken place; and a number of students have availed of access programmes and have been accepted into science-based courses in NUI Maynooth. The work of the school and the science teachers in this regard is indeed praiseworthy.
There are two laboratories in the school. While both are in a good state of repair, basic facilities are lacking. One is very old and is no longer suitable for use as a modern teaching and learning facility. Best use has been made of it however, and it is a bright room with many charts and posters on display, including student-produced material. The other laboratory is a little better with working gas and electricity points and it also has a similar display of charts and posters. This laboratory has a storage and preparation area adjacent to it. The storage area is adequately stocked and well ordered. Resources available to the biology teachers include overhead projectors, broadband-enabled laptop computers, a data projector, a television and video and DVD players. The provision of such resources by management is to be commended
It is hoped to commence with the construction of a new school on a green-field site, in the near future. A site has been made available and plans have already been drawn up for this new state-of-the-art school.
A range of health and safety equipment was observed, including first aid kits, fire extinguishers, fire blankets and gas isolation switches in both laboratories. The school has a health and safety statement that was drawn up approximately five years ago with the assistance of the science teachers and an outside consultant. This statement was last reviewed last year and it is generally reviewed on a three-year basis.
The school has engaged with the School Development Planning Initiative and substantial planning has been carried out at whole-school level. Planning has also progressed to the level of subject departments. The benefits of this planning to the school and its students are evident from the consideration, already mentioned, now being given to mixed-ability classes in junior cycle; the generous science department budget now allocated and used appropriately; and the planning documents that have been drawn up by the members of the science department. The science plan lists topics to be covered for the duration of the course. Individual plans and schemes, based on this plan, also deal with issues such as resources and methodologies. This is laudable. It is recommended that practical work be also listed in the planning documents as this will assist in the timely sourcing and preparation of the necessary resources.
The two science teachers work closely together and effectively share responsibility for the running of the science department. One teacher takes the role of coordinator and convenes meetings and coordinates programmes of work. Time is allocated for whole-school subject planning on three occasions each year. The science teachers also use the last class period on Mondays, when both are free, to meet and deal with issues of immediate concern as well as to plan for more long-term issues and extra-curricular activities. This is commendable practice. It is recommended that planning now be extended to consider differentiation in a mixed-ability setting, as preparation for the introduction of mixed-ability classes in science next year. This planning should also make reference to assessment in the new teaching environment.
The science department is also involved in cross-curricular work with the teachers of CSPE and Home Economics in areas where there is overlap in their respective curriculums, for example litter, ecology, recycling and topics relating to food. This is excellent practice and is to be highly commended.
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 investigative 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 very 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. Students were attentive, interested and anxious to participate in the learning process. The topics covered in the classes observed included the nitrogen cycle, digestion and breathing.
A range of appropriately used teaching methodologies was observed including questioning, teacher talk, student reading, handouts and student worksheets, models, student practical work and teacher demonstrations. While lessons were well structured, it is important that students are kept busy and actively engaged at all times. Long theoretical sections should be broken up with student-focussed activities, such as questioning, discussions, writing, group or pair work, or lively, colourful and attractive presentations should be made with the use of information and communications technology (ICT), DVDs and so on. Lessons proceeded at a suitable pace and changes in methodologies were built into lesson plans. Teachers were very knowledgeable about their subject matter and there was excellent use of scientific terminology throughout the lessons observed. Students were challenged by lesson content and responded well. Continuity from previous lessons was good and new information was very well linked to previous learning. Lessons were well planned and had a clear focus. This is excellent practice.
Questioning of students was used to review previously taught material and also to check on levels of knowledge and understanding as lessons progressed, which is to be commended. Best practice was evident where students were given time to formulate their answers and were encouraged to put up their hands before a respondent was chosen. Questions were mostly factual, testing recall. It is important, also, to include higher order questions that challenge students and encourage them to think at a deeper level. 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 level of student engagement was very good and students were enthusiastic. The use of directed questions will also help to maintain this very positive aspect of the observed classroom interaction even during more theoretical classes.
During the observed student practical work the students worked in groups of three or four. It was obvious from their behaviour that the students were accustomed to carrying out practical work and the Biology teachers are to be praised for their commitment to seeing that their students get the opportunity to do this practical work themselves. Students displayed a good level of skills during the course of their work and demonstrated a mature approach. They were well prepared for carrying out their practical work by the excellent use of a demonstration in advance.
Teacher movement among the students, assisting, examining and encouraging, was evident in all lessons observed. Teachers were very affirming of student effort and were always encouraging and positive in correcting students with appropriate interventions. This is praiseworthy. Good practice concerning the minimal use of textbooks was apparent during all lessons. Homework given was appropriate to the lesson content and was designed to assist the student in learning and retaining the topic. Where possible, the assigning of homework should be integrated into the lesson rather than being introduced at the end of the session when students’ focus and level of concentration is beginning to fall off.
In order for students to make better progress and gain a better understanding of their course of study, it is suggested that students are made aware of the objectives of the lesson at the outset of each class period. Students may work better if they are more informed as to where a lesson is leading, and where it fits into the larger picture. This can be motivating and informative as well as giving a sense of purpose and direction to classroom work. These lesson objectives should be clear, concise and achievable. They can encourage a degree of self-assessment by students within the class and help individuals to monitor their own progress.
Students demonstrated a positive attitude towards Biology as evidenced by the level of engagement and interest observed during the lessons visited. Students displayed a good level of knowledge, understanding and skills during interaction with the inspector. Formative assessment of students 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.
Students kept laboratory notebooks and workbooks up to date as evidence of practical work being carried out. This is a very important aspect of new and revised syllabuses in the sciences. While some unevenness was evident in the quality of the notebooks, some were very good, due in no small measure to the extent of attention paid to them by teachers. Best practice was seen when positive comments, pointing the way towards improvement, were written in by teachers. This is excellent practice and is a powerful means of motivating students.
All classes are assessed by means of a Christmas examination. Formal assessments are also held for non-examination classes in the summer. Questions on mandatory practical work are integrated into both of these assessments. In addition, the certificate examination classes sit mock exams in the spring. Additional testing is at the discretion of individual teachers.
There was evidence of record keeping by teachers, covering such areas as student attendance, assessment records and homework. This is good practice. 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 on what level of examination paper to choose in certificate examinations.
Results of assessment tests and progress reports are communicated to parents by means of Christmas and summer reports and also following mock examinations. Parent-teacher meetings are held once per year for each class. The timing and duration of parent-teacher meetings is in line with Department of Education and Science rules. Students’ journals are also used to keep parents informed of more immediate events and issues
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:
· It is recommended that greater use be made of directed questions and that more higher order questions be used in order to challenge students and encourage them to think at a deeper level.
· In order for students to make better progress and gain a better understanding of their course of study, it is suggested that students are made aware of the objectives of the lesson at the outset of each class period.
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.