An Roinn Oideachais agus EolaŪochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science
Terence MacSwiney Community College
Roll number: 71123Q
Date of issue of report: 26 April 2007
the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Terence MacSwiney Community College. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Science and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject 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 studentsí work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachersí 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.
Terence MacSwiney Community College, which is under the auspices of Cork City Vocational Education Committee, was built on an eleven acre site on Hollyhill, and opened to the first students in the spring of 1979. The evaluation of Junior Certificate Science was carried out over two days. Junior Certificate Science is an optional subject, Biology is provided currently as an optional subject to Leaving Certificate, with Agriculture and Horticulture taught as a component of the Leaving Certificate Applied Programme. Classes are of mixed ability and the science teachers strive to ensure that students reach their potential.
A taster system, which facilitates students in making an informed subject choice, is in operation for a short while in first year. Students study both Science and Business and subsequently make their final decisions. Management is commended on the provision of Science for all first-year students for this period of time. Consideration could be given to the provision of Science for all students in junior cycle, and the incorporation of some teaching strategies employed in the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP), such as profile statements and learning targets. Management could also investigate the inclusion of science elective modules in the Leaving Certificate Applied programme, most especially in view of its acceptance as an entry requirement for some beauty therapy courses. The schoolís commitment to developing scientific literacy within the adult community is evidenced by the provision of science modules in Post Leaving Certificate courses such as Hairdressing and Health and Safety.
It is good to note that students have an input into the creation of the subject-option blocks for Leaving Certificate. Studentsí initial choices are used to create a ďbest-fitĒ model for senior-cycle subjects. Students entering fifth year are supported in making appropriate subject choices through discussion with the subject teachers. Communication with parents is through the home-school-community liaison (HSCL) teacher.
Terence MacSwiney Community College has a good resource in its science personnel. The science teachers are committed and adopt a collegial and professional approach to their work. The time allocation for all the sciences is in line with the class-contact time recommended in the relevant syllabuses. While acknowledging the complexities of timetabling, management should endeavour to ensure that all science subjects have some early timeslots and a good spread across the week. Where possible, classes retain the same teacher throughout junior cycle. This supports continuity of student learning and is good practice.
The science teachers and management deserve credit for their hard work and ongoing commitment to the provision of the best possible facilities for the teaching of Science. This has resulted in a recently refurbished laboratory and science demonstration room. The well-stocked laboratory provides evidence of successful planning for resources. One storage and preparation area adjoins these rooms. In the main, chemicals are stored according to Department of Education and Science guidelines and best safety practice. While the large storage and preparation area is not specifically ventilated, the windows allow adequate aeration. However, should these windows be replaced, a mechanised ventilation system would have to be installed. A high level of safety equipment such as isolation switches for the gas and electricity supply, fire extinguishers safety blankets and safety glasses is available in the laboratory. Laboratory safety rules are on display. During the course of the evaluation, the principal stated that the health and safety statement is due for review this year. It is good to note that the recent appointment of one of the science teachers as a safety advisor to the principal will facilitate the involvement of the science department in this review.
The school has a substantial horticulture room and a dedicated area for growing plants. Photographs of students, an array of plants and displays of studentsí work considerably enhances this constructive learning environment. It is noteworthy that funding is available in order to put a polythene tunnel in place. It is recommended that management be proactive in procuring suitable fencing for such a tunnel.
The school allocates a specific annual budget to the science department, thus facilitating the maintenance of necessary materials and resources at an appropriate level. This is good practice. The laboratory contains an overhead projector and a PC, and a data projector and laptop are available for use. Data logging equipment has been purchased for the teaching of Science, and the laboratory has internet access. Management is to be commended on provision of these facilities. The science teachers are encouraged to utilise them to a greater extent to support the teaching and learning process.
Management is praised on the commitment given to facilitate continuing professional development. All teachers have had the opportunity to attend Department of Education and Science in-career development in the sciences. The dedication and enthusiasm of teachers themselves is also evidenced by their attendance at courses in areas such as digital media, DNA profiling and genetics, along with their involvement in initiatives such as the action research project under the auspices of the National Biology Support Service, and the completion of a Masters in Education (Science) in recent years, by one of the teachers. Over the years, the science teachers have also been involved in devising JCSP profile statements and other JCSP materials. Whole-staff development days focusing on topics such as the inclusive school have also taken place. The school ethos encourages the professional development of its teachers and the City of Cork Vocational Education Committee (VEC) provides financial support for further study when appropriate.
Students participate in a range of co-curricular and extra-curricular science activities including fieldwork, the Junior Achievement Programme and science quizzes. Links with the local third-level institutions have facilitated studentsí participation in educational programmes, such as the UCC chemistry summer camp. Students participated in the 2006 robotics competition, which was run jointly by the third-level institutions in Cork. Those involved are to be praised for their commitment to facilitating these educational and stimulating activities.
School development planning in Terence MacSwiney Community College has extended into curricular and subject planning. Planning documents were provided on the days of the inspection. The science department plan includes a common outline scheme of work for each year group in junior cycle, suggested teaching and learning strategies, including information and communication technology (ICT) and cross-curricular information. The outline scheme of work for Science could be expanded further to incorporate timeframes and resources over time. Optional assessment methods and examination preparation, as well as continual revision work could also be incorporated.
There is a good team spirit among the science teachers, which generates a collective commitment to improving studentsí learning. The sharing of subject-specific expertise, as illustrated by the willingness of the biology teacher to lead the ecology fieldwork in junior cycle, is highly commended. Folders of resources, the contents of which were generated by different teachers, provide further evidence of this collaborative philosophy within the department. School management facilitates subject department collaboration and planning by providing time for subject departments to meet. The co-ordinator convenes formal meetings, which are minuted, and has a system in place for the replenishment of materials. Ongoing informal co-operation and collaboration augment the formal communication.
It is understood that cross-curricular approaches are employed where relevant in the teaching and learning of Science. For example, when the School Completion Programme is covering topics pertaining to Science, the science department plans for the students to study this subject matter concurrently.
Planning for all lessons observed was very good. Very good advance preparation was equally apparent by the manner in which all resources and handouts were ready for use during lessons. It is particularly commendable that planning extended beyond the confines of textbooks and introduced additional material to complement the learning and add stimulus to the lessons.
A bright laboratory, enhanced by scientific models and a range of charts, provides a visually stimulating environment which clearly supports the teaching and learning of Science. An amiable and caring teacher-student rapport was observed in all lessons, reinforced by some instances of humour. The teachers sought to encourage learning at all times, and interacted frequently with their students during the course of the lessons. Teachers were relaxed with students, usually dealing with minor issues calmly and supportively. The vast majority of students were co-operative and well behaved, and in almost all instances appropriate discipline facilitated the progression of the lessons Overall, students participated actively in the learning process. With larger class groups, consideration should be given to strategies such as team teaching to successfully engage all students in the learning process, especially when they are involved in hands-on practical activities. Other suggestions were also given to teachers in relation to classroom management. Teachers are commended for the manner in which they accepted the advice. It is noteworthy that in one instance a classroom assistant helped students as they were engaged in pair work.
Lessons were well structured and began with a review of studentsí previous learning, either through oral questioning or correction of homework. At the outset, lesson objectives in lessons were clearly stated, thus allowing students to gain a sense of the direction in which the lessons were heading. Teaching for understanding was evident in all lessons. Content was communicated in a way that was understood by the students and was made relevant to studentsí everyday experiences, thus generating studentsí interest and enthusiasm. For example, the concept of force was successfully illustrated by classroom discussion on scrums in the previous Munster rugby match. The real-life applications of the material being taught were emphasised and this practice is commendable.
Assessment of studentsí understanding, and progress was ascertained through relevant questioning throughout lessons. While there was some chorus answering, teachers endeavoured to bring as many students as they could into the answering process through questioning of named students. This is good practice. Questioning was also successfully employed to aid the introduction of and subsequent broadening of a new topic throughout the lessons. It was effective in engaging students and generally worked well because it contained a mix of lower and higher order questions.
Very good use was made of the whiteboard to outline the main learning points of lessons and to illustrate visually certain aspects of the topic at hand. The excellent practice of writing all new terms on the whiteboard is commended. In a theory lesson, the overhead projector, in conjunction with magnets, was employed successfully to demonstrate the attraction and repulsion of magnets. Student demonstration assisted in engaging and motivating students in their learning and developed their understanding of the topic. This is commended. During the evaluation, it was stated that JSCP bookmarks are sometimes utilised to help students learn new terminology. Consideration should be given by all in the science department to using these very good resources.
During practical work, all students were actively engaged and worked safely. They worked collaboratively and the practical activities supported the development of their understanding and skills. As students performed the practical activities the teachers constantly circled the classroom, giving appropriate attention and support to individual needs. The lessons, which contained numerous short experimental activities, were well structured and organised. Where classroom discussion occurred after each short activity, studentsí learning was effectively consolidated and a link was provided to the next task. In some instances, the practical work was interspersed with short written assignments. This alternate use of practical activities with written and oral work is good practice and should be employed as much as possible, as it provides further reinforcement of studentsí learning and can also be a good motivational device through the variety offered. In all instances where students were involved in practical activities, their progress and learning were reviewed at the end of the lesson. This is commended.
At all times, studentsí contributions were encouraged and affirmed. Generally, lessons proceeded at a pace, which resulted in a realistic amount of work being completed in the allocated time. In oral interaction with the students as they were employed in hands-on activities, they responded well to questions, and generally indicated a fine understanding of the lesson content.
Formal school-based assessments are scheduled at Christmas and in May. The examination classes undertake pre-examinations during the spring term, which are corrected by the teachers themselves. Formative assessment, for all classes, is carried out on an ongoing basis by means of questioning in class, regularly assigned homework and short tests. From examination of studentsí copies and folders, the work given to the classes was found to be appropriate to ability levels. Written work was varied and included word searches, diagrams and standard questions. There was evidence of monitoring and some annotation of homework.
All students have laboratory notebooks in which they record their investigative work. 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 elements of the course and ensures regular monitoring of student laboratory notebooks. Such practice reflects the assessment objectives of the syllabus, and provides a more accurate indicator of a studentís ability in the subject.
School reports are sent to parents at Christmas, after the pre-examinations and in June, in order to communicate both graded results and overall progress. Parent-teacher meetings are held annually for the non-state-examination classes, and biannually for the examination classes. Contact with parents is also maintained via the student journal. Commendably, the school operates an open door policy in terms of communication with parents. Subject-specific statistical analysis of state- examination results is carried out in the school and conveyed to the board of management and the City of Cork VEC.
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 and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.