An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science, Biology and
Coachford, County Cork
Roll number: 70960D
Date of inspection: 7 December 2006
Date of issue of report: 26 April 2007
the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science, Biology and Agricultural Science
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coachford College. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Science, 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 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 all written preparation presented. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal. 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. In first year, all classes are of mixed ability. In second and third year, the classes are banded. Science is taught to mixed- ability groups in band one with streaming of students in band two. Class groups are smaller in band two and in the main are in receipt of extra resources to aid their learning. In general, students retain the same teacher from second to third year though this may not always be feasible from first year to second year due to the creation of the two bands. The retention of the same teacher throughout junior cycle would support continuity of student learning and could be explored. Students are allocated one single lesson and one double lesson in first year for the study of Science. This is increased in second and third year to four single lessons. Curriculum guidelines recommend one double lesson and two single lessons for the duration of the course. Double lessons are recommended to allow sufficient time for the investigatory element of student-based practical activities to develop. The science team stated that they were satisfied with the current timetable arrangement and that they were able to fulfill the requirement of the syllabus in relation to the practical activities. This situation should be monitored and if progress of work is affected, consideration should be given to the allocation of a double lesson to second-year and third-year students.
An optional Transition Year (TY) programme is running in the school. Three teachers are currently involved in the delivery of the science component of this programme. All TY students study a module of Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Horticulture is an optional subject and is studied by some students. A generous time allocation of two double lessons and two single lessons is given to these science subjects. The TY biology programme viewed contained only Leaving Certificate material. The programme content for TY should not be based solely on the Leaving Certificate programme. It should contain other areas of study that will support and complement the two-year Leaving Certificate syllabus.
The school offers the established Leaving Certificate programme, with students having the option of taking the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) as part of their studies. Four senior science subjects are offered to their students: Agricultural Science, Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Initially students are given the previous year’s option blocks with provision to indicate difficulties they may have with these blocks. Management stated that this process is repeated once or twice more in order to obtain option blocks that best fits the needs of the cohort of students given that the process is limited by the resources available to the school. Within the option blocks, classes are set by ability if there is more than one class group of a particular subject in that option. All science subjects are popular in the school with students able to study more than one science subject if they wish. The time allocations for these science subjects are within curriculum guidelines. They are each currently allocated five classes weekly, consisting of one double lesson and three single lessons in both year one and year two of Leaving Certificate for each subject.
The science staff in the school totals eight teachers currently, with all involved in Junior Certificate Science. Three teachers are delivering the biology programme with one teacher also delivering the agricultural science curriculum. The school has three laboratories. The laboratories are designated individually to Biology/Agricultural Science, Chemistry and Physics. Junior Science is taught in all laboratories. The chemistry and physics laboratories are located beside each other and share a preparation and storage area. The biology laboratory is located in another part of the school and has its own associated preparation and storage area. This preparation and storage area requires some modernisation. Funding for this work could be applied for through the department’s summer works scheme. Each laboratory currently operates as a separate unit with a lead role for each facility taken by one teacher. Some co-ordination towards ordering of class materials and equipment should be considered by the team in order to maximise the resources available to the sciences in the school. Access to the laboratories is rotated among the science staff in order to allow students to have experience of their science subject in the laboratory. Management stated that laboratories are used for non-science classes when general classrooms are not available. This practice is not desirable and alternatives should be explored. The laboratory facilities are maintained and are effective locations for the delivery of the sciences, which is to be commended. The biology laboratory did have some damp patches on the ceiling, which could develop into a health and safety issue if not rectified. In addition the floor covering in this laboratory is not suitable and should be replaced with one more appropriate for use in a laboratory. This laboratory has views out onto a busy corridor through large windows. The use of frosted contact sheets or similar material should be considered which would prevent activities in the corridor from affecting lesson progress.
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 is noted which made the materials very accessible to the teacher. Development of this method of organisation is to be encouraged. In addition some laboratories would benefit from additional storage. Shelving could be designed which would allow the safe storage of materials and equipment while also making them accessible to students.
The school has a health and safety statement, which was drawn up in 2002 in consultation with the staff and adopted by the board of management. A hazard audit is conducted annually. Management stated that this review involves the science teachers, which is good practice. Safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, safety blankets and safety glasses were noted 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, 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.
Each teaching space in the school, including the laboratories, has a computer. All computers are networked and have broadband access to the internet. In addition, the biology laboratory has a data projector and a laptop, with a new LCD panel connected to the computer in the physics laboratory. Television and video and overhead projectors are other available resources for use in teaching and learning, which is to be commended. A specific budgetary amount is not specified but management stated that no request for resources has ever been refused.
Visual stimuli, mainly in the form of charts, diagrams and models were observed within the laboratories, which is commendable. Some material was of student origin, which is to be encouraged. A stimulating print-rich environment should be developed in all rooms that are used to teach science subjects on a regular basis in the school. In addition, this colourful environment should continue to develop and expand to the corridors around all the science facilities. Displays of student work and achievement is to be encouraged with notice boards used to display science- related material. Regular updating of this visually rich environment should help to maintain the interest and stimulation of the students. The presence of a small library of science-related books in some of the facilities is also noted, and could be useful to students in their learning. Management stated that the school library also has a science section.
Students have had opportunities to experience science outside the laboratory through fieldtrips and attendance at some science events. The benefit of these experiences to the student must not be under estimated as a means of reinforcing and enhancing their learning. Such activities are to be encouraged for all science students. The teachers have availed of opportunities for continual professional development in Science and previously in Biology and the physical sciences.
The school is engaged in the process of school development planning (SDP). The school has four two-hour sessions allocated to SDP during the current academic year. Each meeting is divided between policy development and subject-department meetings. These were scheduled during the current school year to occur in August, November, January and February. Currently, the area of Leaving Certificate Biology is a focus of the SDP process, with the remaining science teachers involved in the planning for Mathematics. During the next academic year, Junior Certificate Science will be the focus of the science team. The role of convenor is voluntary and all members of the team should get an opportunity to undertake this role. Currently the science team is operating a common plan in first year. The development of this planning to second-year and third-year students is to be encouraged. This will establish a common purpose and direction for the subject, facilitating the sharing of expertise and resources and consequently contributing to high quality teaching and learning.
The science plans presented could be further developed. In addition to the sequencing of the syllabuses, areas such as resources available for the learning and teaching of each topic and time allocation to the subject could be considered. The areas of student access and level, class organisation, record keeping, student achievement, optional assessment methods, homework and revision work could also be discussed and incorporated into the plans. To further the development of the plans the areas of 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. 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 the published guidelines for teachers should be useful in this work.
In all instances, the lessons observed were very well prepared and planned, and reflected syllabus requirements. Materials needed for the lessons were available and readily accessible to the students. Written documentation was also presented. In addition, student learning was aided through the use of a variety of resources, which included the whiteboard, the use of models, and various types of handout material, ICT and use of the overhead projector, which are to be commended. The sharing of resources that were prepared individually or found effective in the teaching of certain topics would be very good practice.
Very good quality teaching and learning were in evidence in the variety of lesson types observed, both practical and theory. Observed lessons were disciplined and involved effective classroom management. In the main, lessons were structured and were of an appropriate pace which facilitated student learning. Students were generally attentive, interested and anxious to participate well in the learning processes. Good teacher-student rapport was also evident. The topics of study in the observed lessons were sound, animal feedstuffs, enzymes, respiration, water treatment, the skeleton, metals and non-metals, and electronics.
The initial time of most lessons began with some recap of previous learning. This was done through question and answer sessions. Questions directed at individual students helped to ascertain the quality of learning. Indirect questioning in the main resulted in chorus answering by the class. This method will indicate whole-class learning but will not identify individual difficulties students may be experiencing. A mixture of questioning techniques and question types is important in all lessons. The use of recall questions must be expanded to more probing higher- order questions on occasion, which will assist in the evaluation of the students’ level of understanding and learning. Skillful questioning was also observed in lessons with lower ability students, which helped to develop student understanding and also helped to maintain a high level of student engagement in the lesson. In all instances, the teacher affirmed student responses.
Lessons were carefully planned, with both the learning objectives and the connection with previous learning clear to the students. Delivery of material was generally clear and appropriate to the student ability. The use of scientific terminology was gradually introduced and integrated into the lessons, which helped student understanding. In the main, the students learning experience was enhanced by being enabled to visualise the concepts being delivered. The use of models, diagrams, handouts, whiteboard, ICT, acetates and specimens, as well as completing practical activities themselves, helped in their learning experience. In addition, once a concept was explained, students were questioned. Board work was developed and handouts were also used successfully to reinforce the learning. In all instances, students made some record of the work completed which was generally reinforced by the assigned homework. Reference to textbooks was only used to supplement and reinforce the learning and teaching, which had already been completed during the lesson.
The delivery of theory was reinforced by the use of the board, handouts, acetates and models. However, when the delivery of theory is to dominate the lesson, student engagement must remain a priority. Reliance on any one method of delivery will result in students becoming very passive so varying the methodology is very important. Student recording was a significant part of some lessons and was used to reinforce the learning. However, when the amount of writing was substantial, it resulted in the students becoming very passive and reduced their level of engagement. The integration of more practical activities with the theory would help to alleviate this difficulty.
Both mandatory and non-mandatory activities were observed in the majority of lessons, which is to be commended. Students were organized in groups of a maximum of three students. They set about their tasks and in most instances were guided by a handout prepared by the teacher. Students were able to complete all aspects of their practical activity. The teacher provided guidance with any health and safety issues highlighted in advance of the activity. The teacher circulated around the room giving assistance and answering questions when required, which is to be commended. Before the completion of some practical activities it would be interesting to get the students to predict what they think might occur before the completion of the task, based on their theoretical knowledge of the topic. This could be accepted or rejected when the task is completed. When guided discussion by the teacher was observed on completion of the task, student knowledge and understanding was consolidated and this practice 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. Regular monitoring of student work is encouraged. Observed practical demonstrations, for lower ability classes were organised in short achievable units. The students then recorded information, either into their note copy or on carefully designed worksheets. A sense of achievement resulted; student self esteem was elevated with affirmation given throughout the class, which is to be commended.
The school is currently working on a homework and assessment policy through their SDP process. All students sit formal Christmas examinations. Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate students have pre-examinations in the February of their examination year. Currently the teacher marks these scripts. Students in first year, second year, TY and year one of Leaving Certificate also have formal examinations at summer. There is continuous assessment for Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate students who do monthly assessments in September, October, January, March and April of each year. TY students also have mid-term assessments in October and February each year. 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, student learning is informally assessed daily through homework and oral questioning during the lessons. The teacher records student results of all assessments completed. Consideration should be given to awarding 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.
Parent/guardians are informed of academic progress and attendance in all reports sent home. Formal reports are sent to parents following each examination listed previously. In addition to reports, parent-teacher meetings are held for all classes annually. All students are required to have a student journal, which is also used to communicate to the parent. The schools “ePortal” system may in the future be used to communicate examination, attendance and other information to the parents of the students.
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:
· An immediate review of the topics in the current TY biology programme is strongly recommended. The TY programme should not be confined to material from the Leaving Certificate Biology syllabus but should contain non-Leaving Certificate areas of study that will complement and support the two-year curriculum at Leaving Certificate.
· A strategy of continuous assessment for practical work should be adopted for all classes, as it would provide motivation for engagement by all students with the practical element of the course.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Science, 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.