An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Old Bawn Community School
Old Bawn, Tallaght, Dublin 24
Roll number: 91336W
Date of inspection: 30 September and 1 October 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Old Bawn Community School. 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 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 principal and 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 Junior Certificate Science at Old Bawn Community School was carried out over two days. It began with a visit to a double second-year science class, followed by a visit to a fifth-year biology class. These visits were followed by a meeting with the science teachers at which the objectives and procedures of the evaluation were explained, and then by a meeting with the principal to discuss whole-school support. Subsequently, first-year and third-year science classes were observed, along with both fifth-year and sixth-year biology classes.
Junior Certificate Science is a core subject for all junior cycle students. The organisation of class groups is primarily based on streaming, with some banding also due to timetabling constraints. All Junior Certificate science classes are allocated two double periods for science each week. This allocation is within syllabus guidelines. Commendably, class sizes for the weaker streams are smaller than for more able groups, which contain up to twenty-four students. It is recommended that streaming, as a means of organising classes, be kept under review. This is in order to ensure that weaker students are not disadvantaged, and that they receive the necessary supports to enable them to achieve to their potential without compromising their self-esteem.
Following the Junior Certificate examination, students choose between Transition Year (TY) and the Leaving Certificate programme. Students who opt for TY receive one double period of Science each week and they study modules related to Biology, Chemistry and Physics. The subject of these modules changes from year to year in accordance with staffing changes. This is commendable, as it allows teachers to work to their strengths and pass on their enthusiasm for their subject to students. There is a focus on practical and project work in the TY curriculum, and active learning methodologies are emphasised. This is good practice.
Students following the Leaving Certificate programme are offered Biology, Chemistry and Physics as optional subjects. Following consultation with the guidance counsellor, year heads, and with parents, students are provided with opportunities to choose their own subjects. These choices are then used to create subject-option lists which accommodate as many students as possible. Biology is the most popular of the three science-related subjects and the proportion of students choosing it is very encouraging. A limited form of streaming operates in senior cycle. When two or more class groups are timetabled simultaneously for Biology, the groups are streamed. When only one class group is formed, the class is mixed ability. Class sizes are limited to a maximum of twenty-four students. All biology classes are allocated five periods per week, in the form of one single and two double periods. This is within syllabus guidelines. The Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme is also available to students. Science is an important component of this course and students follow all four science modules over the two years of their studies.
Currently, there are eight teachers of Science in the school and five of these are teachers of Biology. Opportunities for continuing professional development have been availed of during recent and current national in-service training programmes in the physical sciences, Biology and Junior Certificate Science. Management is commended on the commitment given to facilitating attendance at in-service training. In addition, some team-members are involved in additional professional development, for example in laboratory safety. This is commendable. Links are maintained with the Irish Science Teachers Association (ISTA) and all teachers are encouraged to join this professional body.
The science and biology teachers, with the support of school management, are involved in a wide range of extra-curricular and co-curricular activities. These activities are used as a means of stimulating interest in and supporting the sciences in the school. Activities include encouraging and supporting students to enter the BT Young Scientist and Technology exhibition, running an after-school science club, involvement in Science Week activities and science quizzes, inviting speakers to address students on issues relevant to science and undertaking industrial visits. The work of the science and biology teachers in this regard is praiseworthy.
There are five fully equipped laboratories in the school. All are in good condition and adequate for their purpose, with three having been refurbished recently. Information and communications technology (ICT) facilities are excellent, with all the laboratories containing a networked PC and a data projector. Three of the laboratories are also fitted with an interactive whiteboard. A variety of excellent posters and charts was observed on the laboratory walls, including much student-generated work, thus creating attractive and stimulating learning environments. It is suggested that these displays be changed, occasionally, in line with the work being done, to highlight students’ project work. All laboratories are broadband enabled and the provision of such resources by management is commended. In addition, a tiered demonstration room is available to the science teachers. All science classes have weekly access to a laboratory although, due to the number of classes requiring access, not all science classes are held in a laboratory. Laboratory access for specific classes is timetabled in advance but, to increase flexibility and manage immediate needs, teachers may also make separate arrangements with one another in this regard.
A large storage and preparation area connects all the laboratories. In addition, there are a number of small storage rooms available, including one which is used as a chemical store. The storage areas are well stocked, well maintained and well ordered. Under the direction of the science co-ordinator, a project to reorganise the chemical store is underway. As part of this project, it is intended to complete the colour coding of chemicals in order to facilitate their storage in appropriate groups.
A range of health and safety equipment was observed, including first-aid kits, gas and electricity isolation switches, eyewash bottles, fire extinguishers, and fire blankets. Good practice in relation to the active management of safety issues during student practical work was evident in some of the lessons observed, where students wore eye protection and plastic gloves. Displaying simple and direct laboratory rules in a more prominent manner should enhance this praiseworthy attention to safety. The school has a health and safety statement in place. This statement is reviewed regularly and the science teachers are involved, as appropriate.
A strong and commendable sense of collegiality among the science teachers was apparent and the sharing of resources was evident, as was a high level of mutual support. There is a formal science department in place and a recognised co-ordinator has been appointed, as part of a post of responsibility. The duties of the co-ordinator include: convening subject department meetings, managing ICT systems, distributing information to colleagues, co-ordinating the use of facilities and equipment, stock control and ordering of equipment, leading planning for the development of the sciences, managing health and safety issues and procedures, and maintaining the comprehensive science department folder. This excellent folder contains all the background information relevant to the smooth running of the science department, including the aims and objectives of the courses being taught. Reference to students with special educational needs, to planning for a culturally diverse society, to cross-curricular planning, health and safety, homework procedures, and teacher in-career development are also included. This is very good practice. The co-ordinator is also the main link between the science department and management. The science teachers readily assist the co-ordinator in the running of the science department.
The members of the science department meet regularly on a formal basis. Minutes of these meetings are recorded. Frequent informal and casual meetings also take place. A variety of issues ia discussed at these meetings, including the science plan, textbooks, student access to the laboratories, ICT infrastructure, and the purchase of equipment. School management provides funds for equipment and consumable materials on request and the science teachers have expressed satisfaction with the level of support provided.
Common curricular plans for the three years of the Junior Certificate science course and the Leaving Certificate biology course were presented during the inspection. The focus of these planning documents is on content and reference to relevant chapters in textbooks is included. A list of topics to be covered by the end of each term has been drawn up. Individual teachers, making allowance for the availability of equipment and laboratory time, decide the order in which the material is taught. Common assessments are then administered at the end of term. The topics being taught in the lessons observed were in line with the planning documents. The science teachers are to be congratulated for their work in the area of curriculum planning.
It is recommended however, that planning be enhanced by the inclusion, to a greater degree, of reference to the syllabus documents, as these are the primary documents that describe the objectives, content and learning outcomes of the courses being followed. It is also recommended that targets be stated in terms of desired learning outcomes, rather than content to be covered. It is recommended also that reference to mandatory practical work be included in the planning documents, to facilitate the sourcing and preparation of resources and to encourage the sharing of best practice among the science teaching team. The inclusion of methodologies in the plans would also be helpful, in order to ensure that teachers do not unwittingly restrict themselves to a preferred dominant style of teaching, and to ensure that material is always taught in a manner appropriate to the material itself and to the students being taught. In addition, planning should be expanded to take into consideration the use of ICT as, commendably, the science teachers are now using it extensively.
In the lessons observed there was strong evidence of short-term planning. In a number of instances, the teachers presented lesson plans and the inspector was provided with copies of handouts and other resources being used in the lessons. Teachers were familiar with the subject matter of their lessons and there was an identifiable theme running through each lesson. Materials and resources 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 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 attentive, interested and anxious to participate in the learning process. The topics covered in the classes observed included light, cells, density, human reproduction, cell division and DNA.
There was a good balance between active learning methodologies and teacher-centred presentations in most lessons. There was some evidence of differentiation in the manner in which lessons were conducted, and students were given opportunities to achieve according to their abilities. The teachers had high expectations of their students and were very affirming of their efforts. Teachers were very knowledgeable about their subject matter and there was good use of scientific terminology in most lessons observed. Students were challenged by lesson content and responded well. Continuity from previous lessons was good and new information was well linked to previous learning. Lessons had a clear focus. This is excellent practice.
A range of well-chosen and stimulating teaching methodologies was observed. These included teacher demonstrations, teacher talk, presentations, questioning of students, discussion, student writing and student practical activity. Teachers made appropriate use of handouts and student worksheets. Lessons proceeded at a suitable pace and changes in methodologies were built into lesson plans, as appropriate. Of particular note was the extensive use of ICT equipment and resources in all lessons observed. A wide range of prepared slides was used in the teaching process and to reinforce learning. In addition, excellent material from a number of websites was well used to illustrate concepts and to support other teaching methodologies. The extent to which ICT has come into use as a mainstream methodology in the science department is commendable, and the teachers are to be praised for the work they have carried out in researching and preparing the necessary resources.
Lessons were well structured in most cases and students were kept busy and actively engaged at all times. Best practice was seen where previous learning was reviewed, in order to set the stage for moving on. This review was followed by the presentation of new material though the use of appropriate methodologies. Students were then provided with opportunities to put the new learning into practice, before a final summarising of the lesson and the assignment of homework.
In most of the lessons observed, there was a good balance between global and student-specific questioning. Questioning was used not only to inform the teacher of students’ understanding and knowledge, but also as a means to control the pace of the lesson and encourage students’ participation. This is good practice. The use of both closed questions, which elicited factual responses, and more open questions, which facilitated higher-order thinking was also evident. 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. In order to foster an investigative approach to the learning of Science and Biology, it is important that students are encouraged to hypothesize, to speculate and to explain their reasoning when answering. 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.
The practical work that was undertaken was efficiently organized and implemented. The students worked singly or in small groups and they demonstrated a mature approach to their work. Best practice was observed where teachers facilitated plenary sessions before and after the experiment, thus ensuring that the students clearly understood the purpose of the practical work, the procedures to be followed and all relevant health and safety considerations, and had an opportunity to discuss and rationalize their findings afterwards. This is laudable.
Teacher circulation, in order to assist, examine and encourage students was evident in most lessons, especially when students were carrying out practical work. It was less apparent during the more teacher-led phases of lessons. The tendency to be tied to one place, for example when carrying out an ICT-based presentation, must be avoided as far as possible. This is important so that students are kept on task and the teacher can continue to monitor students’ performance. It is recommended that the approach of Assessment for learning (AfL) be examined and adopted as a means of enhancing teachers’ capacity in monitoring student performance and responding to their needs. Further information on AfL can be found on the website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment at www.ncca.ie.
Good practice concerning the minimal use of textbooks was apparent during all lessons observed. Students were assigned homework at the conclusion of all lessons. This homework was appropriate to the lesson content, was varied, and was designed to assist each student in learning and understanding the topic in question. It is recommended that assigning homework be integrated into lessons, thus encouraging students to see homework as an intrinsic aspect of the learning process. Homework was reviewed and corrected in some of the classes visited. It is important that all teachers do this regularly, in accordance with the school’s homework policy, and that homework checks become a regular part of classroom routines.
Clear learning goals were outlined to students at the outset of one lesson. These goals were concise and achievable. In order to put class work in context, it is suggested that this excellent procedure be used in all lessons. Expressing these goals in the form of learning outcomes can encourage a degree of self-assessment by students within the class and help individuals to monitor their own progress. Learning outcomes also provide a basis upon which teachers can summarise the lesson content at relevant stages during lessons, and again at the end of lessons, and upon which homework can be given.
Students demonstrated a positive attitude towards Science 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 the teachers’ movement and observation of students during class as noted by the inspector.
Students kept laboratory activity workbooks up-to-date as evidence of practical work being carried out. This is a very important aspect of new and revised syllabi in the science area. While the quality of some of the work was good, others were of a lesser quality, and overall there was a large degree of variation. It is recommended that all teachers check and annotate laboratory workbooks on a regular basis, with particular attention being paid to students entering the results of each activity and drawing appropriate conclusions. This is an excellent means of encouraging students and of pointing the way towards improvement.
All non-certificate examination classes are assessed by means of formal examinations at Christmas and at the end of the school year. October and Easter assessments, based on a minimum of three pieces of class work, are also held. Sixth-year and third-year students are assessed in November and at Christmas, respectively, and by means of mock examinations in February. Parents receive progress reports and results, following each of these assessments. Common assessments are used at all possible opportunities for in-house examinations. Additional testing is carried out at the discretion of individual teachers.
Communication with parents is also achieved by means of parent-teacher meetings, held once per year for each class. In addition, the student journal that all students are required to keep is used to communicate with parents. The school operates an open-door policy and parents are encouraged to contact the school if they have any concerns regarding their children’s performance.
There was evidence of record keeping by teachers, covering students’ attendance and assessment results. In addition, other teachers variously included the quality and frequency of homework completed by students, records in relation to practical work completed and planned, student behaviour and topics completed. It is recommended that sufficient records be maintained by all teachers to build up a complete profile of each student. Such recorded information can form the basis of very useful evidence when communicating student’s progress to parents and in advising both students and parents on the choice of subjects for senior level and the appropriate level at which each subject should be taken.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· A professional approach is taken to the teaching of Science and Biology in Old Bawn Community School.
· Science and Biology are well supported within the school, with good provision of resources. Science is a core subject at junior cycle.
· There is excellent provision of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities related to Science and Biology.
· Opportunities for professional development have been encouraged by management and availed of by teachers.
· Effective planning is being carried out to enhance the teaching of Science and Biology.
· Lessons observed were planned to ensure continuity and progression. Careful advance preparation of the necessary resource material was evident
· There is good rapport between teachers and students. A positive atmosphere was observed in all the classes visited. Students were motivated and eager to engage in learning.
· A range of carefully considered teaching methodologies was used to good effect. This stimulated interest and helped to motivate students.
· Excellent use was made of the ICT facilities available to the science department.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· It is recommended that planning be enhanced by the inclusion, to a greater degree, of reference to the syllabus documents, that targets be stated in terms of desired learning outcomes, that reference to mandatory practical work be included in planning documents, that reference to methodologies be included in plans, and that planning be expanded to include the use of ICT.
· It is recommended that the approach of Assessment for learning (AfL) be examined and adopted as a means of enhancing teachers’ capacity in monitoring student performance and responding to their needs.
· It is recommended that the assigning of homework be integrated into lessons, and that homework be reviewed and corrected regularly, in accordance with the school’s homework policy.
· It is recommended that all teachers check and annotate laboratory workbooks on a regular basis.
· It is recommended that sufficient records be maintained by all teachers to build up a complete profile of each student.
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 January 2009
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1 Observations on the content of the inspection report
The Board would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and congratulate all those involved with the excellent nature of this subject inspection report. The content of the report is testament to the excellent work of the dedicated team of hard working teachers and pupils and also the commitment over the last number of years that has resulted in the upgrading of the facilities in the Science area.
Area 2 Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection
The Board note from the report, the comment made in relation to Assessment for Learning (AfL). Indeed the Board accept that the whole school would benefit from exploring AFL as a teaching tool and intend to recommend AfL to be developed as a form of assessment at a whole school level.
In addition other minor recommendations specific to Science / Biology will be taken on board by the subject team through leadership from the subject co-ordinator. The issues outlined in the report will give a clear focus to improve on the excellent delivery of the Science / Biology curriculum in Old Bawn Community School.