An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Biology
Blackrock, County Dublin
Roll number: 60092U
Date of inspection: 28 April 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Clonkeen College. 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 the subject 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, 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 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.
There is optimal access to Biology as students are asked to choose their preferences without restriction from the full set of subjects offered for Leaving Certificate. Equity of access is further supported by the fact that all students study Science as a core subject for Junior Certificate. Best possible provision is made on the timetable for Biology. Five periods per week, including one double period, are allocated in Leaving Certificate and lesson periods are either forty or forty-five minutes in duration. Chemistry and Physics are also provided for Leaving Certificate. Students are given advice on Leaving Certificate subject options by the guidance counsellor during the school’s compulsory Transition Year (TY) programme.
Biology is provided in TY as a modular part of the year-long programme in TY Science. This allows all students to sample aspects of the subject at senior cycle before making choices for Leaving Certificate. Timetable provision for TY Biology comprises two single lessons per week. It would be useful if these lessons could be provided as one double lesson in future to facilitate the introduction of more practical work into the module.
Consistently, two class groups study Biology in both fifth and sixth year. Fifth-year biology students are arranged into mixed-ability class groups, and at the end of fifth year the groups are divided into a higher-level group and another group that contains a mixture of ordinary-level and higher-level students. Students are assigned to these groups on the basis of teachers’ judgment of their past performance and on the outcome of the common assessments given to the groups at Christmas and summer. The sixth-year groups are blocked on the timetable but in practice there is little student movement between them. Teachers rotate the teaching of the higher-level group and the mixed group in sixth year. While such rotation is generally recommended, it should be kept under annual review in this instance as it may result in students having different teachers in each year of senior cycle.
The management of the school provides very good support for the sciences and science teachers. The board of management has invested significant funding in the laboratories in recent years and senior management meets the budgetary requirements for the subject. In addition, senior management takes all possible steps to moderate the number of students in class groups for Biology and the other sciences. However, management has so far been unable to achieve this for TY and in this situation the larger class size is presenting difficulties for teachers in conducting student practical work. The school’s TY science programme contains very little student practical work. It is recommended that student numbers in TY be addressed as a whole-school issue so that they are brought into line with best practice and reflect the spirit of the TY programme.
Laboratory access for biology lessons is very good as all double lessons and many of the single lessons are held in a laboratory. There are three science laboratories in the college, designated as Biology, Physics and Chemistry and they are fully resourced for these subjects as well as for junior Science. It was reported that biology teachers rotate access to the biology laboratory for lessons in the subject. The biology laboratory and adjoining preparation room are fully resourced for the subject with a very good level of organisation and high accessibility of resources for teachers. All laboratories are very well maintained and they are fitted with proper safety equipment and good safety signage. They presented as very attractive learning environments with modern charts and some interesting samples of students’ work on display.
Each laboratory is fully fitted with modern teaching facilities including information and communication technology (ICT) equipment for teachers to make presentations during lessons. Broadband is available throughout the building. All computers in the school are networked so teaching and learning resources are accessible from many locations, including the preparation room. A printer is in use in the biology laboratory to instantly print electronic resources or class sets of notes generated during lessons.
A health and safety policy statement has been drawn up for the school and includes the laboratory areas. The statement was drawn up in consultation with staff of the college and the board of management.
There are three biology teachers in the college, one of whom teaches the subject to TY level. Continuing professional development (CPD) is supported by senior management and teachers have been facilitated in attending in-service for the revised syllabus and other events organised by the Biology Support Service (BSS). Other in-school training events were held in the areas of assessment for learning (AfL) and school development planning. The board of management encourages professional development and supports teachers with funding where possible. The school also pays membership fees for the Irish Science Teachers Association.
Teachers work collaboratively as subject departments and regularly meet together to plan their work. Subject department planning is organised once per term and the science department meets on these occasions. Minutes are kept of meetings along with decisions made and actions to be taken for the next meeting. There is a subject co-ordinator for the science department who chairs meetings and facilitates planning. Subject department meetings focus on important matters such as setting yearly curriculum plans and common assessments, restocking equipment, co-curricular activities and the development of agreed policies, such as the homework policy. The subject plan for science contains commendable short, medium and long-term goals for development.
Separate planning meetings take place between the biology teachers, for example when teachers plan the annual curriculum for each year group. It is commendable that biology teachers have agreed an assessment policy and a homework policy for Biology and that common assessment tests are scheduled whenever possible. In these ways planning reflects the school plan and is rooted in collaborative practice.
The planning documentation for Biology gives a broad outline of the topics to be completed in each year together with the two policies already referred to. The curriculum plan should be developed so that it contains details of effective teaching and learning methodologies, assessment techniques and resource inventories that are integrated with the topics listed, in a manner similar to the curriculum plan for junior Science.
The plans for students with special educational needs (SEN), within the science plan, propose strategies for helping students and these include the differentiation of course work and assessments, the use of a science dictionary and the opportunity for open-book examinations. It is suggested that the use of key word posters for topics be included in the list. It was reported that teachers use recent publications from the Special Education Support Service in planning lessons.
Excellent use is made of the school’s ICT facilities to support collaborative planning, to prepare for lessons and to keep files of all teaching and learning resources for Biology. The subject plan, policy documents, laboratory timetable and meeting records are kept in folders on the school’s intranet along with resources for topics. A very wide range of electronic resources is kept in topic-specific folders on the computer system and these include animations, PowerPoint presentations, useful website links and a series of past state examinations questions. These can be accessed by teachers from many locations and in each laboratory. Development of resources is exemplary as teachers continually add items to the resource folders and update them regularly. The very good range is indicative of the collaboration that takes place.
The current TY plan for Biology comprises one module entitled food and nutrition. The module is well planned in a module descriptor with well-designed student worksheets that match the teacher’s presentations. The module is commended for the inclusion of aspects that make science relevant to everyday life and for the student project work. The scope for the addition of more modules in the TY science programme is recognised by biology teachers and many commendable ideas have been put forward. These should be added as soon as possible, particularly those that are interdisciplinary in nature. In addition, because very little practical work currently takes place in TY Biology, the programme should be revised so that teaching and learning activities promote student activity. In particular, practical work should be incorporated and it should be more investigatory than the Leaving Certificate sciences. Planning for TY should be in accordance with the Transition Year Programme Guidelines for schools.
Co-curricular activities are organised with a good level of participation by students. The Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, in particular, is actively promoted by teachers, and students of the school have been winners of the competition.
All lessons observed during the course of the evaluation were theoretical in nature. Many lessons incorporated an element of revision as might be expected in the third term. The lessons observed were stimulating with a good level of inherent challenge for the student. Lessons were structured so that the methodology was varied during each lesson and this is commended. Among the teaching and learning methods observed were teacher instruction, a range of questioning strategies, pair work, discussion, worksheets, student note-taking and ICT presentations.
Good practice was noted in some lessons when the intended learning outcomes of the lesson was shared with students at the start of the lesson, and then at the end of the lesson students were reminded of what was covered and the teacher checked with the students if they had achieved what they set out to do. It is recommended that this good practice be extended.
Instruction was clear and concise with appropriate attention given to new terminology, and new concepts were very well explained. In all instances, the topic was made relevant to everyday life experiences so that students could connect with the subject matter. For example, when studying the structure of the eye students were engaged in an activity to find their blind spot and in discussing practical examples of how the eye works. In another lesson, sources of vitamins were discussed in a manner that was easy for students to recollect. In addition, the continual cross-referencing between topics, noted in many lessons, meant students were developing a good overview of the whole subject. There were some very good examples of productive teacher circulation during lessons to check the progress of each individual and to affirm students’ efforts. There were also some good instances of teachers expressing strong enthusiasm for the subject. This is commended as it adds to a stimulating learning environment.
Very good use was made of well-designed supplementary resources to support teaching and learning. In particular, ICT presentations were used throughout all lessons as an aid to teacher instruction providing a valuable reference point for learning and good visuals for the topic. The data projector was used to show a fifth-year group studying the nervous system impressive animation clips of the complex process of nervous transmission. PowerPoint slides were used effectively to record student contributions so that a set of bulleted notes on a topic was developed in collaboration between teacher and the class group. These notes were then printed for the students to keep in their copies. Later in the same lesson, the teacher wrote collated student contributions on the board, requiring students to take notes and in this way effective variety was added to the lesson structure. In another lesson, a supplementary student worksheet had been designed so that students could fill it in as the lesson progressed and the worksheet was then collected by the teacher for assessment. This strategy ensured that the students concentrated throughout the entire lesson and proved effective.
There were very good examples where differentiation in methodology was evident in teaching students with SEN. For example, in one lesson accommodation of a student with a specific learning difficulty was facilitated through the adaptation of the particular homework assignment.
The teaching style adopted in some lessons facilitated the development of good communication skills and the vocalisation by students of their knowledge about a topic. For example, during a lesson on plant transport, the teacher set students the task of finding the answer to a question posed to the group. This was written on the board. Students were observed to be using their text books to search for information, thinking about the question, making rough work answers before making verbal contributions. The dialogue of the lesson was impressive and it led to collaboration on the part of the class group until a complete answer to the question was satisfactorily achieved. This was an excellent example of student-centred learning where the teacher had high expectations of student performance and students showed strong satisfaction with their own work. It is recommended that methodologies that expand the use of open-ended questioning, where students are continually challenged in recall and application of their knowledge, be utilised by all teachers and with all students.
Student participation in lessons was supported and encouraged and teachers are commended for their efforts in this regard. The vast majority of students were sincere, focused on learning, showed initiative and made competent contributions to their lessons. However, some variations in student attitude were noted during the evaluation. In some instances student were reticent. In another students were momentarily discourteous to the teacher but the classroom management techniques employed were effective and the lesson progressed. It is recommended that the issue of student attitudes be discussed and addressed by biology teachers and perhaps in a whole-school context.
A fairly good standard of learning was observed and some student responses demonstrated a high quality of understanding. Examples of good work and good standards of presentation were seen in the written work inspected. In addition, Leaving Certificate results in Biology in the state examinations for the past number of years are very good with a good uptake of higher level. Students, however, responded unevenly to questions posed by their teacher and by the inspector during lessons. Some students, including those in sixth year, needed much prompting during questioning on previously studied topics. It may be that a more strategic approach needs to be taken to revision in sixth year so that all students in all class groups are frequently challenged in recall and their communication skills are developed. It is recommended that the issue of student learning be also placed on the agenda for meetings of biology teachers and strategies that support student learning be explored and implemented across the whole department.
Student laboratory copies provided evidence that the full set of student practical laboratory work is being implemented. The quality of these was good in most instances with many examples of comprehensive and well-presented laboratory notebooks. However, there were some instances when the laboratory records were dispersed among class notes in students’ copybooks making it difficult to ascertain if the full set had been completed by each student. It is recommended that students be requested to index their laboratory records and that these be kept separately from other written work. A pro-forma template for laboratory reports is being considered and this development may facilitate the aforementioned recommendation.
There is an agreed homework policy and assessment policy for Biology which set out practices for the types and timing of each. Fifth-year biology class groups receive common tests at Christmas and summer and sixth-year groups receive a common Christmas test and ‘mock’ examination. Parents receive formal school reports on their child’s progress after each of these examinations. A parent-teacher meeting is held annually for each year group. In the assessment policy, teachers propose to shortly begin allocating a percentage of the marks given in the formal examinations for practical laboratory notebooks and this is to be encouraged. End-of-topic and class tests are given regularly in fifth and sixth year. TY students are assessed on the basis of a modular assignment.
Homework is allocated frequently and teachers write it on the board. Excellent practice was observed in one instance where the teacher went carefully through each homework question so the students had a clear understanding of what was expected of them. Homework is made up of a combination of the revision of the day’s class work and written questions. Sixth-year students are frequently allocated questions from past examination papers on topics. Written work is usually given to Leaving Certificate biology students on four evenings a week. The work set in the lessons observed was appropriate to the ability of the group and the challenges of Leaving Certificate.
Students’ written work is collected periodically. The frequency of collection should increase in some instances as students mainly corrected work themselves in a plenary session. In some class groups, there was evidence that some developmental feedback was given in the form of affirming written comments added to improve learning. It is recommended that the recent training in AfL be propagated with the intention that the intrinsic strategies be implemented consistently with all groups. This should also be written into the agreed assessment policy.
Attendance, test results and homework completion are recorded by teachers. A review of teacher records revealed that attendance rates for lessons are very good with very few absences noted.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation of Biology:
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The curriculum plan for Biology should be developed so that details on teaching and learning methodologies, assessment and resources are integrated with the list of topics.
· The current TY programme for Biology needs to be revised; more modules should be added, especially those that are interdisciplinary, and teaching and learning activities that promote student activity, especially investigative practical work, should be incorporated.
· Students should index their existing laboratory records and in future these records should be kept separately from other written work.
· In some instances, it is necessary to expand on the use of questioning so that all students are frequently challenged in recall and the application of their knowledge.
· A more strategic approach needs to be taken to revision in sixth year.
· The two issues of learning in Biology and students’ attitude to learning should be placed on the agenda for subject department meetings and appropriate action taken.
· Teachers should agree a policy on the frequency and type of correction of students’ written work and include this is in the assessment policy for Biology.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of 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 February 2010
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1 Observations on the content of the inspection report
The BOM would like to make the following observations on the content of the Inspection Report:
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 BOM would like to outline the follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection.