An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science, Biology and Agricultural Science
Mallow, County Cork
Roll number: 71020G
Date of inspection: 26 September 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 February 2007
the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science, biology and agricultural science
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Davis 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 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 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 a core subject, which is to be commended. Students of junior Science are organised in streamed groups and in most cases retain the same teacher for the duration of the science programme. All junior science classes have a weekly time allocation of one double lesson and two single lessons, which is within curriculum guidelines. On completion of the Junior Certificate students choose to do the optional Transition Year Programme (TY) or enter the established Leaving Certificate programme. A science programme comprises part of the TY programme, with students studying some Physics, Chemistry and Biology during their two weekly single classes. The allocation of a double class which would facilitate more easily the further development of practical work should be considered. At Leaving Certificate level the school is currently offering Agricultural Science, Biology, Physics and Chemistry as optional subjects. Students are surveyed prior to entry to year one of Leaving Certificate. Students each rank their six favoured subjects and a “best fit” model is applied, from which option blocks are created. The option blocks vary yearly but currently Biology is located in two blocks in both years one and two of Leaving Certificate. Agricultural Science is located in one option block in each year group.
Currently the majority of senior students study Biology, with a significant number studying Agricultural Science and Physics. Chemistry is studied by a few students at present. The time allocation for these science subjects is within curriculum guidelines, with each allocated three double lessons in year one and two double lessons and one single lesson in year 2 of Leaving Certificate. Student-based practical work is an important feature of both the revised Science and Biology syllabuses and the current provision of a double lesson each week for all groups facilitates the organisation of practical work as required by each syllabus, which is to be commended.
There are four teachers of the sciences in the school. At present there are two teachers teaching Leaving Certificate Biology and one teaching Leaving Certificate Agricultural Science. The school has two laboratories and a separate demonstration room. A shared preparation or storage area connects the laboratories. This arrangement allows for the sharing of resources. The laboratories are well maintained and are effective for the teaching of sciences. The roof on occasion has leaked in the laboratories. This could develop into a health and safety issue if not rectified in the near future. The majority of science classes take place in the laboratory with the teachers rotating for access to the laboratory. Double classes get priority for access to the laboratory and the demonstration room with non-science classes occurring in the demonstration room when required. The facilities viewed are maintained and are effective for the delivery of science subjects, which is to be commended.
Organisation in the storage or preparation area observed could be reviewed by the science team. In conjunction with this, the amount of storage facilities in the laboratories could also be reviewed. Common items such as glass wear should be stored in the laboratories on shelves and should be easily accessible to the students for their practical activities. The preparation area could then store other materials and equipment, possibly organised by topic and or in specific boxes for the mandatory practical investigations. A system for logging equipment use could also be considered by the team.
The school has a health and safety statement. Management stated that the science teachers were involved in the last review of this statement, which is good practice. There is a high level of safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, safety blankets and safety glasses in the laboratories. Additional safety signage could also be considered in the laboratories. Excellent work has been done to ensure the safe storage of chemicals. Copies of the published guidelines on safety: Safety in School Science and Safety in the School Laboratory published by the Department of Education and Science in 1996 are available to all staff. Further copies if required can be downloaded from the internet at http://www.psi-net.org/chemistry.
Resources such as a computer, overhead projector and data projector are available to the science team, which is to be commended. Additional ICT equipment is currently on order in the school, which should enhance its availability for use and will support the teaching and learning process. The computer room is located near the science area. This facility could be utilised on occasion by the science team. A yearly budget is also allocated by management for the upkeep and development of the sciences in the school, which is to be commended. This practice is running very satisfactorily in the school.
The laboratories had some colourful visual stimuli, mainly in the form of charts, diagrams and models. Material of student origin is to be encouraged. The display boards present could also be used for example to display student work and recent science-related articles. This could be further developed on display boards on the corridors near science laboratories as an initiative to raise the profile of the sciences in the school. Regular updating of the visually-rich environment should help to maintain the interest and stimulation of the students.
Opportunities for continual professional development in Science and previously in Biology and the physical sciences have been availed of and encouraged by management. All teachers are encouraged to be members of their subject association.
The school has been engaged in the process of school development planning and has a co-ordinator for this area. The science team has developed a science curricular plan for junior Science, senior Biology and Agricultural Science students. This is to be commended. Management has facilitated this process with the allocation of one planning meeting per term. The team has used the material provided by the school development planning initiative in the creation of these plans. A formal subject convenor for sciences is also present, which is to be commended. Co-ordination and communication is also conducted informally among the teachers on an ongoing basis. In this way collaboration is established and maintained, which is good practice. Minutes are recorded for all meetings of the science team. Setting an agenda in advance could be considered for future meetings of the science team. These meetings could also facilitate a review of the organisation of the laboratories.
Building on this planning, the science team could also consider alternative forms of assessment, homework, student access and level, class organisation, record keeping, support and planning for students with special educational needs, in-career development, cross-curricular planning, and the integration of information and communication technology (ICT). Discussion would also allow for the sharing of ideas for good practice, teaching resources and other ideas for practical investigations. Course syllabuses and ‘Guidelines for Teachers’ should provide the basis for such detailed planning. It is important to remember that any plan created will require regular review and should be modified to meet the needs of the students. Additional materials in relation to junior Science and Biology can be accessed for example on the following websites, www.bsstralee.ie and www.juniorscience.ie with further links to other relevant information sites.
In the classes observed there was evidence of short-term planning. This was evidenced by a familiarity with the subject matter, a coherent theme running through the classes, the prior preparation of the materials, and the apparatus required for student-centred investigative work. In addition, student learning was aided through the use of a variety of resources, which included the use of textbooks, the whiteboard and of various types of handout material, which are to be commended. In addition, the individual planning material presented should also help to influence and direct the development of long-term planning for the sciences within the school. Discussion and reflection on the experiences gained through involvement with the revised syllabuses should also be a major influence of these plans. It is important to remember that any plan that is created will require regular review and should be modified to meet the students’ needs. The planning document should also highlight any further resource implications presented by the revised syllabuses and include procedures to acquire and access these resources in the future.
The classes observed had a disciplined atmosphere with a clear and fair code of behaviour. A positive teacher-student rapport was evident throughout the lessons, which is to be commended and this contributed to a constructive learning environment. Students were generally attentive, interested and anxious to participate well in the learning processes. Generally, students had a good understanding of the task in hand and displayed good teamwork skills in practical work. In general, there was an appropriate pace to the lessons observed which facilitated student learning. Food tests, hardness of water, osmosis, silage production, pollination and volume were the topics of study in these lessons.
The teaching methodologies observed included student practical work in groups, teacher demonstration, questioning, explanation, whiteboard work and the use of handouts, worksheets and textbook. Some degree of practical activity was observed in all classes. The practical work was both mandatory and non-mandatory in nature. These activities were structured, well organised, had enough time allocated to complete the task and had students actively engaged. In addition, in all instances they served to enhance the theory that was being studied by the students, which is to be commended. In the main, students conducted their practical work in groups of two or three, with some activities being carried out on an individual basis. Health and safety precautions were outlined and reinforced at all times by the teacher. In the majority of cases students were able to set up, complete and clean up after their practical activities, which would be good practice. Some instruction, demonstration and guidance occurred prior to a practical activity. Reference to actual results was in the main avoided at this time, which allowed students discover the answers for themselves. They could be asked at this time for their opinion or hypothesis in relation to what might happen. As students were completing their investigation the teacher circulated the room, gave guidance and answered student’s questions when required. This would also be an opportunity to question students to assess and probe their understanding of the topic being studied. Worksheets were used to good effect during practical activities. They gave a focus to the students which helped in the completion of the task. Some of the students observed may require more focus, especially during double lessons. Practical investigations could be organised into achievable units. This would need to be accompanied by carefully designed worksheet in which the students fill in their observations. This would allow for completion according to individual student ability and result in a sense of achievement and increased student self esteem. On completion of some of the practical activities, students were asked to share their results and conclusions under the direction and guidance of the teacher. This allowed for more active engagement in their learning and would contribute to their ability to make a record of their own investigative work. This is good practice and could also be adopted for example to summarise material delivered during a theory class.
The level of student engagement varied between the lessons observed. Theory lessons by their nature depended more on the use of teaching aids and these were used effectively to help vary the learning experience for the student. These aids included the use of the whiteboard, handouts, specimens and overhead transparencies with the integration of some teacher led demonstrations. Student participation was further enhanced for example through the drawing of diagrams, note-taking, investigation write up and looking at material in textbooks relevant to the topic. These varied approaches contributed much to the enhancement of the different learning styles of the students. The students showed willingness and confidence to participate in these activities. Teachers were affirming and constantly encouraging of all student contributions. Reference to textbooks was only used to supplement and reinforce the learning and teaching which has already been completed during the lesson. It is recommended that the use of integrated ICT programmes, which by their visual nature can effectively enhance an appreciation of scientific processes and give added emphasis to the knowledge gained, also be considered.
Approaches to enhance student understanding of scientific terminology and concepts were adopted. In all classes students has to master some concepts, which contained new terminology. It is acknowledged that this can prove a challenge especially if the student has other learning difficulties. The level of achievement varied among the students, with most students when questioned achieving an acceptable minimum level of understanding. Where a concept was first introduced appropriate questioning was used to ascertain the student’s knowledge and to make connections with previous knowledge before proceeding. Only when the concept was understood would more scientific terminology be applied, which is good practice.
Question and answer sessions were conducted at the start of most lessons with some variety in the techniques employed observed. In the main questions were directed to named students. Students were successfully drawn out in their initial and sometimes-extensive knowledge of the topics and connection was made with this previous knowledge before proceeding to new material. The use of direct and probing questioning cannot be underestimated as a method to maintain engagement and a means of assessing student understanding and should be adopted as regular practice throughout all classes. It is recommended that differentiation by questioning be employed to encourage the active participation of students who are less able and to provide a challenge for students who are more familiar with the subject matter. The use of more probing, higher order questions, with appropriate time allowed for answering, will assist the evaluation of the students’ level of understanding. Chorus answering to questioning should be discouraged as it is very difficult to know how well individual students understand the material. It is also important to ensure that all students are engaged through questioning at different points throughout the class to ensure that their learning does not become purely passive. In addition, when the expected learning outcomes and objectives for the lesson were clarified to the students, it helped to focus the student learning.
All students had laboratory notebooks or files in which they recorded all their investigative work. Some monitoring of student notebooks is noted and commended. When writing the procedures for practical work, students should be encouraged to use their own words rather than using the “recipe” in their textbooks or handout or as dictated by the teacher. Monitoring of this on a regular basis is to be encouraged to assure the quality of work presented by students and it will inform students of the need to make any required corrections to their work. Homework given was appropriate to the lesson material and was designed to assist the student in learning and retaining the topic.
The students have a good attitude towards Science, Biology and Agricultural Science as displayed by the interest and level of engagement observed during lessons. Oral assessments are integrated into all lessons. Student understanding is assessed through questioning in the classroom and homework is regularly assigned. There was evidence of monitoring and annotation of homework. This is praiseworthy. Teachers should build on this good practice to ensure re-enforcement of student learning. In general, end-of-topic assessments are employed to evaluate student learning. These tests are administered at the discretion of the teacher during class time on the completion of a topic or unit of work. The science team could formalise the number of tests that they will administer to their classes in each year group. This could be further developed to incorporate a method of continuous assessment. The inclusion of practical work in the scheme of continuous assessment is recommended, as it provides motivation for engagement by all students with the practical element of the course.
Formal assessments are held for all classes at Christmas, summer and at the end of each half term (October, February and before Easter). State examination classes have pre-examinations in the spring of their examination year. Currently the teacher marks these scripts. 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 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 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.