An Roinn Oideachais agus EolaŪochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Greenside, Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary
Roll number: 72400V
Date of inspection: 21 November 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Comeragh College. 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 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 was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
Comeragh College has both a junior school and a senior school. Currently they are on two different campuses a short distance apart. Management has tried to organise teacher time in each school in defined blocks, with longer breaks between lessons being used to travel between each location. This is working well to date with the good will of all concerned acknowledged.
Junior Science forms part of the core curriculum. Students are currently receiving one double lesson and three single science lessons in years one, two and three of junior cycle. This time allocation exceeds the recommendations in the curriculum guidelines and is to be commended. Currently classes are set, with three bands created in each year group of junior cycle. Close attention should be paid to this arrangement to ensure it fulfils the learning needs of all the students going forward.
The Transition Year (TY) programme is not provided in the school. However following junior cycle, students can either follow the established Leaving Certificate or enter the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme. As part of the LCA programme, students can study the vocational specialism, Agriculture/Horticulture. In year one of the programme this subject is currently allocated two double lessons. A satisfactory time allocation of one single and one double lesson is provided in year two.
Leaving Certificate subject options begin with an open choice survey. This occurs towards the end of third year following information sessions for students and parents and Differential Aptitude Test (DAT) analysis of studentsí strengths and weaknesses. The guidance counsellor and senior management analyse the results and design the subject bands. Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Physics/Chemistry and Agricultural Science are optional science subjects for the students at Leaving Certificate. Both Chemistry and Physics are currently being taught in year one of Leaving Certificate with the combined course only in year two of Leaving Certificate. Agricultural Science was introduced two years ago and there is a good sized cohort of students in years one and two of Leaving Certificate studying this subject. A good proportion of students are also studying Biology in the school, which is positive. The time allocation for these subjects is currently two double lessons and one single lesson in year one of Leaving Certificate and one double lesson and three single lessons in year two of Leaving Certificate. This allocation is within curriculum guidelines. Leaving Certificate science classes are of mixed ability students.
The science team in the school currently comprises five members. All are involved in the delivery of junior Science with two teachers responsible for the delivery of Biology. Teacher allocation to classes is on a continuity or rota basis from first to third year. The science facilities comprise two laboratories, with one laboratory in each of the two campuses. Preparation and storage facilities are part of the laboratory in the junior school. The senior school laboratory has recently been refurbished and has a separate preparation and chemical store. Sharing of resources is not feasible between the two facilities. As a result both laboratories have been set up as either a junior or senior laboratory. The junior facility would benefit from some refurbishment. The installation of more electrical sockets would facilitate studentsí laboratory work and the use of hot plates. The science team should audit the viability of the old generator in the laboratory. Its decommissioning and removal could provide more space for storage in the laboratory.
The laboratories on occasion are used for the delivery of non-science classes. This should be avoided or confined to science teachers teaching another subject. The majority of science classes occur within the science facilities, which is good practice. All classes have access to the laboratories. However, all science lessons cannot take place in the laboratory. The team members operate a rota for additional laboratory access, with collaboration between members of the team for further access, which is to be commended.
Materials such as posters, models and charts were present in the laboratories. Some of these were of student origin, which is good to see. There were notice boards present, which contained science information for the students to access. Visual stimuli can help to enhance student learning and are especially effective when the material displayed reflects current topics being covered in the lessons.
To help with the delivery of science there is a data projector in each laboratory. There are also two laptops available for teacher use and both science facilities have access to wireless broadband. In addition the team also have access to subject-specific information and communication technology (ICT) resources, for example data-logging equipment. Continued use and development in this area is recommended.
The school has a health and safety statement. It was prepared in consultation with the teachers. Management stated that the current statement is annually reviewed, with the last review six months ago. Safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, safety blankets and safety glasses were observed 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, were also available to the science team.
Opportunities for continuing professional development in Science and previously in Biology and the physical sciences have been availed of by the teachers and encouraged by management. In addition teachers have been involved in Intel: Teach to the Future, data logging and I-Test (use of ICT in science) in-service, which is to be commended. All teachers are also members of the Irish Science Teachers Association (ISTA). In addition, the students also benefit from attendance at and participation in the Science Week, field trips, the national ploughing championships, Waterford Institute of Technology, Kildalton College, and having visiting speakers to the school. The benefit of these experiences to the students must not be underestimated as a means of reinforcing and enhancing their learning. Such activities are to be commended and encouraged for all science students.
Common plans are present for all year groups, which is good practice. The science team review and amend their plans when necessary to meet student needs, which is good practice. As part of future reviews and developments in science planning, the team could also consider the inclusion of learning outcomes into their plans. In addition, the insertion of information in relation to practical and project work and assessment practices for the students in each year of the course into the current planning material could also be considered.
A subject co-ordinator has been appointed. The team nominated the current co-ordinator a number of years ago. Consideration could be given to having this role on a rotating basis where all team members gain experience in the role. The main role, currently, of the co-ordinator is liasing regarding equipment between the science team and school management. It was stated by management that the science team holds a department meeting each term. Minutes are recorded as part of this process, which is good practice. In addition it is acknowledged that many informal meetings are ongoing between members of the team, which facilitates the smooth running of the department. No fixed budget is provided but management facilitates requests made by the teachers and the team. The constant development and not just the maintenance of resources should be an objective of the team going forward.
Short-term planning was evident as the lessons observed were well prepared. The planning reflected the requirements of the syllabuses. In some instances, written documentation was also presented. The teachers also maintained records of work and assessments completed to date for the different class groups. Materials required for the lessons were also available and ready for use. In addition, other resources planned for within the lessons observed included the use of ICT, whiteboard, textbook and various types of handout material. A constant factor for team planning into the future should be in the development of ways to increase student participation within the lesson when and where appropriate. This will help to encourage the development of student responsibility for learning.
The majority of lessons observed began with the roll being taken. The topics being studied in the lessons observed were genetics, germination, respiration, osmosis and heat. 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. The pace of the lessons observed was generally appropriate to the material being delivered by the teachers. A high quality of teaching and learning was evident in the majority of lessons observed.
Students settled down well to work, with all lessons having some form of recall of previous learning. This was achieved in the main through questioning, with all responses affirmed by the teacher. There was also a significant level of questioning observed during the lessons. This helped to ascertain studentsí level of achievement in the lessons. Recall-type questions were mainly used, with some probing and higher-order questions used on occasion. The use of various types of questioning is encouraged during a lesson, with all students engaged at some point in this activity. It is important that when a student fails to answer a question or furnishes the incorrect answer to a question that the correct information is then provided either by a student or the teacher. It would be important for the teacher to check the studentís understanding at a later stage in the lesson by, for example, additional questioning, to ensure that the student can correctly provide the answer. In addition, students should be encouraged to close all books before questioning to ensure that the studentsí 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 students 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.
Teachers had clear aims and objectives for the lessons. Student learning was enhanced when these were communicated to the students at the start of the lesson. This is to be encouraged. During the lessons, when new work progressed, good linkages were established with previous learning, which is good practice. Well-constructed board work served to help students visualise the material being studied, display the keywords of the topic and also as a source of notes for the students to record, to aid their learning. The use of more colours in some instances could be considered. When a new topic is being introduced it would be worthwhile finding out studentsí prior knowledge prior to the delivery of the new material. This could be done through questioning, brainstorming and well constructed board work. Studentsí learning was also enhanced by the use of ICT. A lot of time has been spent in the development of material for use in this area and this is to be commended. This is a very good resource, which will benefit the whole science team. When ICT was used in conjunction with other methodologies it aided studentsí understanding of the topic being studied.† Overuse of any one methodology in a lesson can reduce its effectiveness and also reduce studentsí engagement, learning and therefore levels of achievement and should be avoided.
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. In some instances the teacher set up workstations around the laboratory in advance. Students made their way to the stations in pre-determined groups. Students were very engaged in their various practical activities. Worksheets were provided in most cases for students to follow and also provided a focus for their work. Other practical activities involved the students setting up the equipment for themselves. Materials and equipment were available and worksheets provided. In advance of all types of activity, the teachers gave students guidance. While students were working, the teachers circulated giving assistance and answering questions when required, which is to be commended. This would also be an opportunity to ask the students questions and for their predictions, where applicable, on what they think might occur before completion of the tasks. They could then accept or reject their initial hypotheses when they finished the investigation. Good organisation allowed the activities to run smoothly. On completion of the activities, students cleaned up. This is good practice. Students were then asked to share their results and conclusions under the direction and guidance of the teacher. This helped to consolidate the learning and contributed to the studentsí 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 science team should discuss the organisation of the laboratory copies and decide on a common approach across all year groups. In doing so, the team should consider what skills they want the students to develop each year and how can they facilitate this through their planning. The assessment component of all practical activities also needs consensus by the team. In addition, monitoring of studentsí practical notebooks is also encouraged and could be incorporated into the scheme for assessment for all year groups. Observation of student practical copies indicated the completion of a significant amount of practical activities, which is to be commended. The team also need to consider, where handouts and work sheets form the basis of recording information, what 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.
The school has both formal homework and assessment policies, which is to be commended. The teachers on a daily basis monitor the implementation of the homework policy. Informal assessment of studentsí learning also occurs daily. This is achieved through homework and oral questioning at the start of 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.
Formal student assessment occurs through tests at midterm, Christmas and summer. Some common assessment methods are used. Examination classes also sit pre-examinations in the spring of their examination year. Formal reports are issued on completion of these assessments. In addition, State examination classes also sit pre-examinations in the spring of their examination year. Parent-teacher meetings are held for all classes annually. The student journal, comments on homework and marks on homework are also used to inform parents of student progress. In addition, the science team could consider awarding all students marks for their practical copies 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.
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 Biology and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published, November 2009