An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta

Department of Education and Science

 

 Subject Inspection of Science and Biology

REPORT

 

Coláiste Muire

Bishop’s Street, Cobh

County Cork

Roll number: 62180E

 

 

Date of inspection: 11 May 2007

Date of issue of report: 6 December 2007

 

Subject inspection report

Subject provision and whole school support

Planning and preparation

Teaching and learning

Assessment

Summary of main findings and recommendations

 

 

 

Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and biology

 

Subject inspection report

 

This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Muire, Cobh. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Science and Biology 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 and the teachers of these subjects.  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.

 

Subject provision and whole school support

 

The study of Junior Certificate Science is compulsory in the school. In first year, students are allocated one double and one single lesson weekly. This is increased to one double and two single lessons for second-year and third-year students. The time allocation in second and third year is consistent with what is recommended by the curriculum guidelines. An increase in time allocation could be considered for first-year students. Classes are arranged on a mixed-ability basis with students generally retaining the same teacher for the duration of their junior science programme. Three teachers are involved currently in the delivery of junior Science in the school. Two teachers share a first-year class this year. This is not the ideal situation but to ensure continuity of student learning, a high level of planning, organisation and communication is required among those concerned. This should be addressed as part of the department’s planning process. The timetabling of all science lessons on one day for a class group, as has occurred this year, should be avoided. In addition, double lessons in some instances are timetabled across school breaks. This arrangement could pose difficulties for the conduction of practical work and should also be avoided.

 

On completion of Junior Certificate, students can enter the optional Transition Year (TY) programme. The students study Biology, Physics and Chemistry as part of TY. A written programme was available for each subject area. Four teachers are involved in the delivery of these programmes with three teachers delivering the biology component. Individual plans are currently being used for Biology with some commonality between plans noted. TY science classes are either allocated one double lesson or two single lessons weekly. The science team could discuss which time allocation operates best for the delivery of the programmes and request from management that there is consistency of timetabling for all science classes.

 

At senior cycle, the established Leaving Certificate programme and the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) are offered in the school. Students in the school have a choice of three senior science subjects, Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Over half of the student cohort has opted to study Biology, with a quarter each of senior students choosing Physics and Chemistry. Students have an open choice of all optional subjects. A “best fit” model is applied and option blocks created. The option blocks created for both years one and two Leaving Certificate students will facilitate students’ study of all three science subjects if desired. All senior science subjects have an allocation of one double lesson and three single lessons in both year one and year two of Leaving Certificate, which is within curriculum guidelines. Three staff members are involved in the delivery of the senior biology programme in the school.

 

The school has three laboratories and one demonstration room. Two laboratories and the demonstration room are beside each other. These laboratories share the same preparation and storage area and are designated the physics and chemistry laboratories. The main chemical store is positioned within the chemistry laboratory. The demonstration room is not used exclusively for science subjects in the school. The third laboratory is located in the older part of the school and is designated the biology laboratory. There is no preparation/storage area attached to this space. Good use is made of steel presses for the storage of material and equipment, which is to be commended. The science team, with management, could explore the utilisation of some additional space near this laboratory as a preparation/storage area. All laboratories are also designated for junior Science. While the laboratories are well maintained, they will require some modernisation. All double lessons occur in the laboratories, with as many of the other lessons as possible also occurring in the laboratories, which is to be commended. There is also collaboration and rotation between the science team for laboratory access, which is commendable. Management stated that the science facilities are not used for non-science lessons, which is good practice. Storage areas were present in all laboratories, with both shelving and storage presses present. A system of organisation and storage of material and equipment was being implemented by the team. This is being progressed, with junior Science used as a basis for such progression and with further development of this system into senior science subjects.

 

Management stated that the science team completes a budget form, which is subsequently sanctioned by the finance sub-committee of the board of management for the upkeep of the sciences in the school. The laboratories had some posters on the walls, some of which were of student origin. Internet access is available in the laboratories. The science team has access to a shared data-projector and laptop computer. The school’s computer room may also be booked when required for lessons. In addition, overhead projectors, television, video and DVD players are available for use in the laboratories.

 

The school has a health and safety statement, which was reviewed in 2007. The science staff has been involved in the review process. Safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, safety blankets, safety glasses and laboratory coats were observed in the laboratory. Safety signage was also on display 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, can be consulted and can be downloaded from the internet at http://www.psi-net.org/chemistry.

 

Students have had opportunities to experience science outside the laboratory through ecological fieldtrips, attendance at the Young Scientist and Technology exhibition, participation at science quizzes and attendance at science events at UCC. Such activities are to be encouraged. In addition, the teachers have availed of opportunities for continuing professional development in Biology and junior Science. The school’s board of management also subsidises relevant study by teachers, which will benefit the teacher and the school.

 

Planning and preparation

 

The process of school development planning is ongoing in the school. Many policies have been devised. The last number of years has seen an emphasis in the area of subject planning within the school. To facilitate this process, management stated that each subject department has been allowed one formal planning meeting per term. In addition, the subject department also has a monthly meeting. This is to be commended and will help the team to further this process. Minutes of all meetings are recorded by the designated co-ordinator for the sciences. The co-ordinator also chairs the meetings, co-ordinates budgets and liases with school management. In addition to the formal meeting structure, it is acknowledged that there are informal meetings between members of the team on an ongoing basis. 

 

The science team has put into place common curricular plans for junior Science and senior Biology, which is good practice. In order to continually meet the needs of the students, a review of all plans developed will be required with possible modifications made on occasion. The school has recently devised a policy on homework, in which all junior classes are to be set homework every night, which will have to be adopted by all subject departments in the school. The science team members, as part of their continual planning and development, could consider the area of student achievement, resources in the laboratories, revision work, support and planning for mixed-ability classes, support and planning for students with special educational needs, in-career development, cross-curricular planning, and the further integration of Information, Communication and Technology (ICT). Syllabuses and the relevant guidelines for teachers should be useful in this work. In addition, websites such as www.bsstralee.ie, www.juniorscience.ie, www.sdpi.ie and www.slss.ie could also be of assistance with further links to other relevant information sites.

 

There was evidence of significant levels of preparation in the lessons observed. This included the preparation of handouts for class assignments and homework, PowerPoint presentations and acetates to aid student learning and visualisation of a topic, equipment for student-centred investigative work and organised board work which aided students in their note taking. The team could consider strategies for the sharing and where possible the re-using of resources that have been prepared individually and found to be effective in the teaching of certain topics. This would be very good practice.

 

Teaching and learning

 

The topics being studied in the lessons observed were the heart, electricity, separation techniques, plant hormones and the flowering plant. In the main, lessons started promptly with students sitting at pre-assigned seats. A good rapport between the students and the teachers was observed, which facilitated a good learning environment. Discipline was sensitively maintained with effective classroom management also evident. Some of the observed lessons began with some oral questioning on previous work completed. This was done mainly through recall type questioning. In addition, all lessons had some form of questioning to named students, which mainly concentrated on recall. The use of more probing and higher order questioning was observed on occasion and is to be encouraged during all lesson types. In addition, students should close all books before questioning to ensure student learning is being ascertained.

 

The correction of previous homework formed part of some lessons. This was done orally in class with students invited to contribute their answers. On completion of the majority of the observed lessons, homework was assigned. This involved the student learning new material and or answering questions from their textbooks or handouts. In the main, the homework assigned was designed to assist the students in learning and retaining the topic, which is good practice.

 

The pace of the lessons observed was appropriate to the material being delivered by the teachers. Student engagement and learning was enhanced through the use of ICT, practical activities and demonstrations. In addition, well-constructed board work served to help students visualise the material being studied and also provided a source of notes for the students to record to aid their learning. The use of more colours in some instances could be considered. Worksheets and handouts were also used to focus student learning, especially when engaged in mandatory and non-mandatory practical activities, which was good to observe. Where these handouts and work sheets form the basis of recording information, strategies need to be adopted to ensure the retention of this material by the students for use in their learning. Reference to textbooks was used to supplement and reinforce the learning and teaching, which had already been completed during the lesson, which is to be commended.

 

Theory delivery was observed in most of the lessons. Linkages were established with previous learning, which is good practice. When different methodologies were used to enhance the oral delivery, it served to aid students’ understanding and improved their engagement with the material being delivered.

 

The student practical activities observed were very well organised. Students were assigned to groups and workstations. The materials and equipment were available and organised, and students completed their tasks in groups of a maximum of three students. Prior to any activity, the safety aspects were discussed and students wore laboratory coats and glasses during the majority of activities. Students were able to complete their tasks with help and guidance provided by the teacher when required. In all lessons the teacher circulated the room, monitoring student progress and keeping them on task, which was very good practice. On occasion, students were asked questions by the teacher in relation to what they were doing which was a good method of ascertaining student learning. In the main, students were afforded sufficient time to complete the relevant tasks. In some instances it might be worth reducing the number of tasks in order to have time to consolidate the learning through a question-and-answer session at the end of the lesson. Some in-class student write-up of practical work was observed. The use of textbooks and handouts in this activity was observed. Students’ own experience should be drawn on more for the write-up, with a plenary recall session used to help students develop and order their experience to facilitate their write-ups. Monitoring of student practical notebooks is encouraged and could be incorporated into the scheme for assessment. Currently, several different approaches to the recording of student practical work have been observed. A decision on a common approach should be discussed among the team members as part of their planning. In addition, observation of student practical copies indicated the completion of a significant amount of practical activities, which is to be commended.

 

All lessons observed involved students of mixed ability. Some differentiation was observed which aided student learning. Its use needs to form part of the planning as mentioned previously in the report. The laboratories also had some posters, models and equipment on display. These helped to enhance the learning environment for the students. The displays within the laboratories should try to reflect the topics being studied at any given time. In addition, the use of notice boards near some of the facilities to display science-related material is noted and is to be encouraged.

 

Assessment

 

The school has a formal assessment policy. Formal school examinations occur at Christmas and summer, with state-examination classes also sitting pre-examinations in February of their examination year. Currently, an external examiner corrects the pre-examination scripts. Following these, formal examinations reports are sent to parents. In addition to reports, parent-teacher meetings are held for all classes annually. The student journal is also used as a means of communication, with a section for teacher/parent comments present.

 

Informal assessment of students’ learning is conducted daily. This is achieved through homework and oral questioning at the start and during the lessons. This was observed in the lessons viewed. Continuous assessment also occurs, with class tests administered by the teacher on completion of a unit of work or a topic. The teacher retains records of all tests completed. In addition, common tests are given to junior science students with common marking, which reflects the teams’ common approach to planning. In addition, the science team should consider awarding all students marks for their practical notebooks 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. Further details of Assessment for Learning (AfL) methodologies to enhance the impact of formative assessment on students’ learning are available on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) website www.ncca.ie.

 

Summary of main findings and recommendations

 

The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:

  • Teaching and learning was of a high standard in the majority of lessons observed.
  • There is a professional approach to teaching, which is evident from the level of individual preparation and planning for the lessons observed, and the commitment displayed to the students.
  • Evidence of student practical work, both mandatory and non-mandatory, was to be found in the students’ laboratory notebooks. Monitoring and annotation of this work is to be encouraged.
  • There was a disciplined atmosphere in classrooms, with good teacher-student rapport observed.
  • Management has facilitated formal planning meeting times within the sciences, with further regular meetings held by the science team.
  • Most students were motivated and eager to engage in the learning processes.
  • Opportunities for continuing professional development have been availed of by teachers and encouraged by management.
  • Students have had opportunities to experience science outside the laboratory through fieldtrips and attending a range of science events.

 

As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:

  • The planning work completed to date is to be commended. However, future items for consideration could include a policy regarding practical work, the use and monitoring of practical laboratory notebooks, assessment, approaches to mixed ability groups and use of different methodologies.
  • The timetabling difficulties outlined should be addressed through future planning of the timetable.
  • Teachers are urged to continue the development and expand the integration of ICT into the subjects.
  • The current organisation of materials and equipment by topic should continue with a strategy devised for recording new or replacement material and equipment needs within all the facilities.

 

A post-evaluation meeting was held with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.