An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Biology
Maynooth Post-Primary School
Maynooth, Co. Kildare
Roll number: 70700A
Date of inspection: September 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 February 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Maynooth Post-Primary School. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Biology 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 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 subject teachers. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report, and the response of the board will be found in the appendix of this report.
The evaluation of Leaving Certificate Biology at Maynooth Post-Primary School was carried out over the course of two days. It commenced with a visit to a double fifth-year Biology class. This visit was followed by a meeting with the teachers of Biology. At this meeting, the objectives and procedures of the evaluation were explained. Following this, a single and a double fifth-year Biology class along with a single and two double sixth-year Biology classes were also observed.
Junior Certificate Science is a core subject for the three years of junior cycle. Following the Junior Certificate examination, students choose between Transition Year and the Leaving Certificate programme. Along with Irish, English and Mathematics, students choose four subjects from a total of twenty. Classes are arranged to cater for the maximum number of students on a “best fit” basis. The option of following the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) is available to those students with an appropriate subject combination and, indeed, some choose their subjects with this option in mind. In the sciences, Biology, Chemistry and Physics are all offered to students and uptake is very encouraging.
Biology students are allocated five periods per week, in the form of one double and three single periods or one single and two double periods. This is within syllabus guidelines. Class sizes may be adjusted, on occasion, to facilitate less able students by placing them in smaller classes with the consequent result that some other classes may be larger, exceeding 24 students at times.
There are nine teachers of science subjects in the school. Four teachers are currently teaching Biology and another teacher can take Biology classes also. Opportunities have been availed of for continuing professional development during recent and current national in-service training programmes in Biology and Junior Certificate Science. Management is commended on the commitment given to facilitate attendance at in-service training. All science teachers are members of the Irish Science Teachers’ Association and one is currently treasurer of the local branch. The school encourages active participation by students in the Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, Science Week and other science-related extra-curricular activities. The school maintains close links with NUI Maynooth and Intel and organised visits to both organisations take place each year. The work of the science teachers in providing these opportunities for their students is praiseworthy.
There are four science laboratories in the school. Three are in good condition, well equipped and adequate for their purpose. Resources available in each of these three laboratories include overhead projectors, an internet-enabled desktop computer, a television, a DVD player and a video recorder. There is a shared storage and preparation area for the three laboratories. The provision of such resources by management is to be commended. The fourth laboratory is currently unavailable for teaching as it is being renovated. There is no demonstration room at present but one will be available in the near future as a result of the current building programme. The majority of science classes are held in a laboratory and the laboratories are used almost entirely for science subjects with priority always being given to science classes. Access to a laboratory for specific classes is by arrangement among science teachers. There are appropriate paintings, charts and posters on the laboratory walls. It is recommended that some student-developed material be displayed also as this serves to stimulate and motivate students and further enhance the learning environment.
A range of health and safety equipment was observed, including first aid kits, fume cupboards, along with gas and electrical isolation switches. A high priority was given to the active management of safety issues during student practical work, as evidenced by the wearing of white laboratory coats by the students in all the classes observed. This is praiseworthy. The school has a health and safety statement that was drawn up in conjunction with Co. Kildare VEC. The statement is monitored on an ongoing basis and outside expertise is brought in to assist and advise in specific areas, such as fire safety, as required.
There is a school plan in place in Maynooth Post-Primary School including the school’s mission statement and a comprehensive range of school policies as required by legislation. There is evidence of a strong sense of collegiality among the science teachers. A formal science department is in place and there is a recognised co-ordinator. The duties of the co-ordinator include convening and chairing subject department meetings, which are held in conjunction with staff meetings and during lunch, once every month; maintaining records and advising management with regard to subject needs. There is a set agenda for meetings and minutes are kept by a secretary and copied to the principal. The science teachers share the management of issues such as laboratory maintenance, stock control and ordering of equipment under the supervision of the co-ordinator. Informal contact between the science teachers is frequent and laboratory sharing and other issues of immediate concern are dealt with. The level of co-operation between the science teachers is excellent.
The grants received by the school for the implementation of the new Junior Certificate science syllabus recently provided an opportunity to bring equipment and stock levels up to date. The capitation grants for students of Physics and Chemistry received annually from the Department of Education and Science are also passed on directly to the science department. The science department caters for a very large number of students and additional funding is needed each year in addition to the above. Management, on request and subject to resources, provides this and it has been suggested that a shortfall may be experienced at times. It is recommended that a formal budgeting system be put in place to facilitate advance planning for consumable items, capital spending and other resources.
The science department also carries out extensive curriculum planning. Common yearly plans are in place for all Junior Certificate Science and Leaving Certificate Biology courses. This allows great flexibility to teachers when classes have to be rearranged, as all students will have covered the same body of work. The focus of these planning documents is on content and it is recommended that teaching and learning methodologies should be included in these plans in order to ensure that teachers do not unwittingly restrict themselves to a preferred dominant style of teaching and so that material is taught in a manner appropriate to the material itself and to the students being taught. Further helpful advice is available on the School Development Planning Initiative website, www.sdpi.ie. In addition, there is extensive use of common assessments at Christmas and for summer tests in all years. The science teachers are to be congratulated for their work in the area of curriculum planning and assessment. It is suggested that, in order to improve the objectivity of these examinations, teachers consider correcting each other’s scripts.
In the classes observed there was evidence of short-term planning. Teachers were familiar with the subject matter of their lessons and there was a theme running through each lesson. Materials necessary for class, along with the chemicals and apparatus required for student-centred investigative work, had been prepared in advance. This preparation contributed to the quality of learning and is praiseworthy.
In all classes visited, there was a disciplined atmosphere. Rapport with students was very good and this is to be commended. Teachers were enthusiastic, warm, patient and considerate of students. Their approach to their work was professional and business-like and a good learning environment was evident in all lessons observed. Good progress was made in all lessons. The level of two-way communication in classrooms was relevant to the task at hand. Students were always attentive, interested and anxious to participate in the learning process. The topics covered in the classes observed included osmosis and diffusion, ecology, microscopy, cells and enzymes.
A range of teaching methodologies was observed, including student practical work, the use of OHP transparencies, board work, questioning, explanations, student work sheets and written work. Lessons proceeded at a suitable pace and changes in methodologies were built into lesson plans as appropriate. Students were challenged by lesson content and responded well. Continuity from previous lessons was good and new information was well linked to previous learning. There was good direction and follow through in the lessons observed. Lessons were well planned and had a clear focus. This is excellent practice. However, it is recommended that some more thought be given to the structuring of lessons. A well-structured lesson can greatly assist students in understanding and learning a topic. There should be a clear introductory phase to the lesson, a clear exposition of new material, an opportunity for students to put their new knowledge into practice and a review of what has been learned. Appropriate homework can then be given to reinforce the learning.
Some excellent use of the blackboard to highlight and emphasise information, to summarise and to illustrate concepts was observed. This is praiseworthy. Questioning of students was frequently used to check on levels of knowledge and understanding, which is to be commended. Best practice was seen where students were given time to formulate their answers and were encouraged to put up their hands before a respondent was chosen. Questions ranged from the factual, testing recall, to questions of a higher order that were more challenging and encouraged students to think at a deeper level. All teachers are encouraged to give thought to their use of questioning as a methodology in order to enhance the quality of learning opportunities for students. Occasional use of general questions, eliciting chorus answers, should be guarded against. The level of student engagement was excellent and students were enthusiastic. The use of directed questions will also help to maintain this very positive aspect of the observed classroom interaction even during more theoretical classes.
During the observed student practical work the students worked in groups of two or three. It was obvious from their behaviour that the students were accustomed to carrying out practical work and the Biology teachers are to be praised for their commitment to seeing that their students get the opportunity to do this practical work themselves. Students displayed a very good level of skills during the course of their work and were well prepared for carrying out their practical work by the excellent use of plenary sessions to review the theory and practice of each activity, before bench work started. It is important that similar plenary sessions are held when the practical activities have been completed, in order to review the work done and to emphasise what has been learned.
Teacher movement among the students, assisting, examining and encouraging, was evident in most lessons observed. Teachers were very affirming of student effort and were always encouraging and positive in correcting students with appropriate interventions. This is praiseworthy. Good practice concerning the minimal use of textbooks was apparent during the lessons observed. Reference to appropriate passages in textbooks was used to reinforce learning and to assist in homework preparation. Homework given was appropriate to the lesson content and was designed to assist students in learning and retaining the topic.
In order for students to make better progress and gain a better understanding of their course of study, it is suggested that students are made aware of the objectives of the lesson at the outset of each class period. Students may work better if they are more informed as to where a lesson is leading and where it fits into the larger picture. This can be motivating and informative as well as giving a sense of purpose and direction to classroom work. These lesson objectives should be clear, concise and achievable. They can encourage a degree of self-assessment by students within the class and help individuals to monitor their own progress.
Students demonstrated a positive attitude towards Biology as evidenced by the level of engagement and interest observed during the lessons visited. Students displayed a good level of knowledge, understanding and skills during interaction with the inspector. Formative assessment of students is carried out on an ongoing basis by questioning in class, through correction of homework and through teacher movement and observation of students during class.
Students kept laboratory notebooks up to date as evidence of practical work being carried out. This is a very important aspect of new and revised syllabuses in Science. While the quality of most of the notebooks was excellent, a few were of a lesser quality. It is recommended that laboratory notebooks and homework copies are checked and annotated on a regular basis. This is an important means of encouraging students and of pointing the way towards improvement.
First-year, second-year and fifth-year students are assessed by means of Christmas and summer examinations. As stated earlier, all students in a year group are given the same assessment. Questions on mandatory practical work are included in these examinations. In order to match assessment modes as closely as possible to the Junior Certificate examination, second-year students complete a project for which up to 25% of the marks for their summer assessment are awarded. This is excellent practice. Fifth-year students are liable to have a deduction of up to 10% of their marks applied if their laboratory notebooks are of a poor standard.
Third-year and sixth-year students are assessed in-house at Halloween and by mock examinations in the spring. Teachers assess these mock examinations. Additional testing is at the discretion of individual teachers. Records of assessment are held in teachers’ own diaries and in report books.
Results are communicated to parents by means of Christmas and summer reports, and following mock examinations. Interim reports may also be sent to parents in individual cases where there is cause for concern and parents may be invited to come to the school to discuss their children’s progress. Communication with parents is also achieved by means of parent-teacher meetings, held once per year for each class. For Junior and Leaving Certificate students, these are held at night from 7.00 pm onwards. All others are held during the school day on a half in-half out basis. In addition, the student journal that all students are required to keep is used to communicate with parents and the school operates an open door policy where parents are encouraged to make contact if they have any concerns regarding their children’s performance.
There was evidence of adequate record keeping by teachers, including areas such as student attainment and work covered. This is good practice. It is recommended that teachers keep comprehensive records in order to build up a profile of their students. Such information can form the basis of very useful evidence in communicating student progress to parents and in advising both students and parents on their choice of subjects at senior level and on what level of examination paper to choose in certificate examinations.
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 Biology at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1 Observations on the content of the inspection report
Overall the teachers involved are delighted with the report. They wish to bring to the attention of the ‘Inspectorate’ “the demand on teacher’s time in preparation and the lack of Laboratory Technicians”.