An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science, Biology and Agricultural Science
Boherbue Comprehensive School
Boherbue, Mallow, County Cork
Roll number: 81009B
Date of inspection: 4 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 Boherbue Comprehensive School. 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 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. 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.
Junior Certificate Science forms part of the core curriculum in the school, with classes of mixed ability students. Students retain the same teacher for second and third year but may have a different teacher in first year. The retention of the same teacher throughout junior cycle would support continuity of student learning and could be explored. Students are encouraged to do the higher level paper for Junior Certificate, with decisions in this regard not made until third year.
The time allocation in first year is one double and one single lesson. This is increased in second year to one double lesson and two single lessons, and is further increased in third year to two double lessons and one single lesson. Curriculum guidelines recommend one double lesson and two single lessons for the duration of the course. The time allocation over the three years of the course fulfills this requirement, but currently it is not evenly spread over the duration of the course. This situation should be monitored and if progress of work, especially in first year, was affected consideration should be given to a more even balance of class contact over the three years of the course.
The school usually offers an optional Transition Year to students on completion of their Junior Certificate. Insufficient numbers of students chose this option during the current academic year, which did not allow the school to run this programme. It will continue to offer this programme to the students, but numbers will determine whether it is feasible to run it or not on a yearly basis.
On completion of the Junior Certificate, students enter the established Leaving Certificate programme and have the option of taking the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) as part of their studies. Students are given a choice of fifteen optional subjects. A “best fit” model is applied, from which option blocks are created. The school offers four senior science subjects to its students: Agricultural Science, Biology, Chemistry and Physics. These science subjects are popular in the school, with a large percentage of senior cycle students opting to study Biology and Agricultural Science. The time allocations for these science subjects are within curriculum guidelines. They are each currently allocated five classes weekly, consisting of two double lessons and one single lesson in both year one and year two of Leaving Certificate.
There are currently four teachers of the sciences in the school, with all involved in Junior Certificate Science. Two teachers are delivering the biology syllabus with another teacher delivering the agricultural science syllabus. The school has three laboratories and two demonstration rooms. Two large laboratories are located beside each other and share a preparation and storage area. This preparation and storage area requires some modernisation. It is suggested that an application for funding for this required work might be made through the department’s summer works scheme. The third laboratory is located in a newer part of the school and has its own preparation and storage area. The laboratory facilities are well maintained and are effective locations for the delivery of the sciences, which is to be commended. The majority of science classes occur within the science facilities, which is very good practice. The number of laboratories in the school has allowed teachers to have their own base laboratory and as a result they have taken on the responsibility for the organisation and maintenance of the facility. Some co-ordination in relation to the 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.
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. The laboratories would benefit from additional storage. Shelving could be designed to allow for the safe storage of materials and equipment while also making them accessible to students. Some facilities had a trolley, which was of benefit in the organisation of practical activities. Such a resource could be considered for all facilities.
The school has a health and safety statement, which is currently being reviewed. Management stated that this review involves the science teachers, 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. It is not recommended that any chemicals be stored in the laboratory. Chemicals should be stored within a ventilated chemical store and/or specific chemical press within the preparation area only. Information on the storage of chemicals can be obtained on the physical sciences website, http://www.psi-net.org/chemistry. The guidelines on safety: Safety in School Science and Safety in the School Laboratory published by the Department of Education and Science in 1996 should be consulted and can be downloaded from the internet at http://www.psi-net.org/chemistry.
Data projectors, television and video, computers and overhead projectors are available resources in the school for use in teaching and learning, which is to be commended. Some of these are permanent resources within the sciences, which is to be applauded. Management allocates a yearly budget for materials and equipment to ensure the upkeep and development of the sciences in the school. This practice is running satisfactorily.
Visual stimuli, mainly in the form of charts, diagrams and models, were observed in the science facilities, which is to be commended. Some material was of student origin, which is to be encouraged. The use of display boards, for recent science-related articles, could be considered. Regular updating of the current 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.
Students have had opportunities to experience science outside the laboratory through fieldtrips and attending a range of science events. Opportunities for continual professional development in Science and previously in Biology and the physical sciences have been availed of by the teachers and encouraged by management.
The school is engaged in the process of school development planning with work advanced and ongoing. Management has allocated three yearly formal meeting times for the science team. These occur in September, February and May. These meetings facilitate the organisational aspects within the sciences and have also allowed the science team to discuss and create common plans for first year science students in relation to the organisation of material within the syllabus. This is to be commended. The development of this planning to second-year and third-year students is to be encouraged. In addition, discussion around individual planning documents for senior cycle subjects with a view to creating more commonality should be considered, where appropriate. Management had also facilitated a meeting time for most of the science team by timetabling everyone for a free period at the same time on a Monday. This additional time should be very beneficial to help progress the work of the group. Informal team meetings are ongoing with good collaboration evident. Areas such as records of student achievement, assessment, in-career development, support and planning for mixed-ability classes, cross-curricular planning and the integration of information and communication technology (ICT) could also be considered in future planning by the team. Any plan created will require regular review and should be modified where necessary 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.
Short-term planning was evident in the lessons observed. This was reinforced by the written documents presented and with an observed familiarity with the subject matter presented. A coherent theme was also present in the lessons. There was also prior preparation of the materials and the apparatus required for demonstration and student-centered investigative work. In addition, student learning was aided through the use of a variety of resources, which included the use of models, teacher devised student kits, textbooks, the whiteboard, various types of handout material and use of the overhead projector, which are to be commended.
The observed lessons were disciplined and had effective classroom management. Teacher-student rapport was positive with students generally attentive, interested and anxious to participate well in the learning processes. In general, there was an appropriate pace to the lessons observed which facilitated student learning. The topics of study in the observed lessons were heat, magnetism, genetic engineering, osmosis, food and plant structure.
Teaching and learning in the lessons observed was of a high quality. Most lessons began with some recap of previous learning. This was done through question and answer sessions. In some of the observed lessons, a very successful discovery approach was taken. This ascertained student knowledge when a topic was being introduced for the first time. Skillful questioning was also observed in some lessons, which helped to develop student understanding and also helped to maintain a high level of student engagement in the lesson. All student responses were affirmed and on occasion students were encouraged to develop their response, which was very good to see. When more probing, higher order questions were used it assisted in the evaluation of the students’ level of understanding and is to be encouraged. Any difficulties that the students were experiencing were identified and subsequently rectified by the teacher. Scientific terminology was gradually introduced and integrated into the lessons, which helped student understanding. Lessons were carefully planned with both the learning objectives and the connection with previous learning clear to the students. The teaching methodologies observed included student practical work in groups, questioning, explanation, whiteboard work, use of handouts, acetates, worksheets, kits and the textbook. Acetates were generally clear and focused. ICT is available and its use could be integrated in the future planning and teaching of the subjects.
Some practical activity occurred in all the observed lessons and comprised both mandatory and non-mandatory activities, which is to be commended. Students worked in groups of a maximum of three students during practical work. They were very engaged in the various practical activities. When student 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. In addition, while students were working the teacher circulated around the room, giving assistance and answering questions when required, which is to be commended. This would also be an opportunity to ask the students for predictions, where applicable, on what they think might occur before completion of the tasks. They could then accept or reject their initial hypotheses on completion of their investigation. On completion of most practical activities, there was guided discussion by the teacher, which helped to consolidate student learning and 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. In most instances, sufficient time was afforded to facilitate the students to clean up after their activity, which is good practice.
The delivery of theory was reinforced by the use of the board, handouts, acetates and teacher-designed kits. These were all very effective and helped student understanding of the topic. Reinforcement of all learning was through the recording of the work by the student. However, when the amount of writing in some lessons was considerable it resulted in the students becoming very passive which, in turn, resulted in a reduction in their level of engagement with the topic. More integration of the practical with the theory would help to elevate this difficulty.
The assigned homework was appropriate to the lesson material and was designed to assist the students in learning and retaining the topic. Reference to textbooks was used to supplement and reinforce the learning and teaching, which had already been completed during the lesson.
Student learning is informally assessed daily through homework and oral questioning during the lessons. Class examinations are administered at the end of each month. Student results are recorded by the teacher for all tests completed. 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 copybooks 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.
In addition to the informal assessment, formal assessments are held for all classes at Christmas and summer. State-examination classes have pre-examinations in the spring of their examination year. Currently these scripts are marked externally. 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.