An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Physics
Ballsbridge, Dublin 4
Roll number: 60500J
Date of inspection: 25 and 26 October 2007
Date of issue of report: 22 May 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Physics
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Marian College, Dublin conducted as part of a whole school evaluation. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Science and Physics 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 teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and subject teachers.
Science is offered as a core subject at Marian College. All science class groups have a maximum of twenty-four students in line with school policy. Classes are of mixed ability and generally retain the same teacher in second year and third year.
Physics, Chemistry and Biology are offered as modules in the optional Transition Year, (TY) programme. Biology is offered for half of the year with Physics and Chemistry provided for the other half. Two teachers share the teaching of TY science. In the current year, there are two TY class groups. Time allocation to TY science subjects is good at three class periods per week.
Senior cycle science provision is comprehensive with Physics, Chemistry and Biology offered as Leaving Certificate subjects. Very good support is provided to students in making an informed choice of subjects for Leaving Certificate. There is one class group in both Physics and Chemistry and there are two class groups in Biology in the current year. It is encouraging that numbers choosing Physics have increased substantially in the current year.
Time allocation to Science at junior cycle and Physics at senior cycle is in line with syllabus requirements. However, not all science class groups are allocated a double class period in line with syllabus recommendations; all third year class groups are allocated single lesson periods and one first year class group has four single class periods. Therefore, it is recommended that all classes be allocated a double lesson period so that there is sufficient time to carry out investigative practical work. In addition, it is recommended that all double lessons take place in one of the three laboratories. It is of great importance that students carry out the required investigations themselves in line with syllabus requirements rather than having these activities demonstrated.
There are seven teachers in the science department at Marian College. There is a good induction process in place for new teachers with school policies and procedures discussed with school management. Junior and senior science inservice courses have been attended by members of the science department over recent years and school management is commended in facilitating this process. It is commendable that some members have given of their own time to attend additional inservice courses. Further junior science inservice has been booked in the current year. In addition, the school provides financial support to teachers who wish to take up membership of a relevant professional body or subject association.
Science facilities include three laboratories and a science room. The layout and design of these facilities is no longer suitable to the teaching of the revised science syllabus which promotes a ‘hands on’ approach to learning and investigation. Furthermore, there are no laboratory preparation or storage rooms adjoining the laboratories. Teachers are commended for their innovative use of storage cabinets and storage boxes, and for the neat and tidy condition of the laboratories and science room. The school was encouraged to pursue with the Department of Education and Science the refurbishment of each laboratory to modern standards in the previous inspectorate science evaluation. There has been no progress on laboratory refurbishment to date as the school management prioritised urgent work on other facilities. A science-focused application to the Department’s Summer Works Scheme has been planned for 2009.
The school’s health and safety statement was drawn up a number of years ago and is currently under review. It is commendable that a draft safety booklet was drawn up in August 2007 with input from the science department and was circulated for consideration by science teachers. The laboratories have, in general, appropriate safety equipment and there were good safety practices in place during the lessons visited. However, some issues need urgent attention. There is no proper facility for chemical storage in line with best practice. Currently, chemicals are stored in the laboratories, in presses and in some cases in fume cabinets. In addition, in one instance bottled gas was stored under a bench. Therefore, it is strongly recommended that measures are put in place by school management to reduce obvious laboratory hazards and to bring the storage of chemicals in line with modern safety practice.
ICT resources and facilities in the science department are limited. Some teachers have access to laptops and data projectors but their use in practice is very limited. The laboratories are wired for broadband and school management is commended for their commitment to providing laptops to all teachers over the next three years. Data logging equipment is available. The school is encouraged to continue to upgrade ICT facilities in the science laboratories and science room. Teachers are encouraged to continue to pursue suitable ICT courses to broaden their skills which will enhance their teaching and students’ learning.
Students have participated in many extra-curricular and out-of-school activities. These include student participation in the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, science quizzes and attendance at Science-related lectures at the RDS and in third-level institutions.
The science department meet as a team at the beginning of the school year; however, further opportunities for planning meetings should be made available by school management. Currently, many science teachers carry out individual planning tasks, for example, one staff member has agreed to be the central purchaser of equipment for the science department. The school does not have a science coordinator. Therefore, in order to streamline the science department planning process, it is recommended that an annually rotating science coordinator be nominated. This position would help to facilitate the planning process across the science department and to focus the science department on its developmental and other priorities. These identified priorities should include consultation with management on proposed upgrading of facilities, health and safety measures and integration of ICT into teaching and learning. School management has provided an annual budget for Science and adequate teaching resources are provided on request.
Science teachers have taken a collaborative approach to the development of a science plan for first year at Marian College. This plan has been drawn up with a focus on the syllabus learning outcomes in first year. This is to be commended. There was evidence of individual planning in second and third year which is also commendable. The science plan, however, is in need of further development. It is recommended that a collaborative plan be drawn up by the whole science department for junior science. This theme was highlighted in the previous science evaluation report. The plan should encompass not just the topics to be covered over the course of the year but also a section on assessment including common assessment, resources, methodologies including ICT, practical work, continuous professional development, sharing of best practice and future priorities for the science department. A detailed physics plan is in place which includes a comprehensive description of each topic to be covered each term and the duration of each topic. It is commendable that assessment practice is incorporated into this plan. It is recommended that senior science planning should be incorporated into the overall science plan and that issues such as the uptake of senior science subjects and the support for students in choosing these subjects be addressed.
A current TY science plan is in place. This plan incorporates many applied aspects of Physics, Chemistry and Biology and this is commended. However, it does not incorporate similar treatment or time allocation to each of the senior science subjects, nor does it follow the common template used in the school TY plan. It is important that a single, detailed subject department plan for TY exists and that this plan matches the current school TY plan. Therefore it is recommended that the science department draw up such a plan and that it be reviewed on a yearly basis.
Teachers were very well prepared for the lessons observed. Teaching resources and practical equipment were ready in advance. Lesson content was well planned and as a consequence lessons had a good structure with generally very successful outcomes.
Lesson material was well organised and presented with clarity. Teachers are commended in making Science relevant to the everyday lives of students. Teachers varied their teaching styles during lessons in order to support all students in the mixed ability settings. Students were affirmed, felt valued and supported and responded positively. Teachers are commended for the clarity with which Science and Physics concepts were explained. Students’ motivation and enthusiasm for their lessons, clearly demonstrated in the lessons observed, greatly enhanced the learning process.
Methodologies and resources deployed were varied in the lessons evaluated. The overhead projector and whiteboard were frequently used to effectively present lesson content and as an aid to sum up material taught. For example, the whiteboard was used well as an aid to mathematical problem-solving during physics lessons evaluated. Students were generally very active in learning and were invited to participate in many lesson activities. There was an example where the lesson content was focused on the properties of solids, liquids and gases. A good investigative approach was adopted. Students were instilled with a sense of wonder and excitement about Science as they worked. They demonstrated a clear understanding of the concepts under investigation.
The use of ICT would have enhanced the presentation of material and the building of concepts in some lessons and it is recommended that teachers give consideration to its further effective use in lessons.
Lessons took place in a science laboratory or in the science room and the majority of lessons evaluated incorporated practical activities. Very good safety practices were in place with students wearing safety goggles and laboratory coats when needed. Students worked in small groups in an orderly and disciplined environment. Teachers not only gave clear instructions to the entire class but also visited each group and gave individual help and support as necessary. This is particularly commended given the wide variation in abilities within the class groups observed. There was an example where students were assigned to measure the focal length of a concave mirror. Following a very good preliminary discussion around the use of the formula and graph, and following probing questions, students worked collaboratively in small groups with teacher help and support as needed. Students exhibited very good practical and problem-solving skills during the course of the investigation. They were sufficiently challenged, affirmed and encouraged and showed a very good knowledge and understanding of the material under investigation.
There was generally a very good emphasis on ‘hands on’ student investigative activities in the junior science lessons observed. Students enjoyed the well-organised activities and this enhanced the student learning experience. There was an example where students were investigating the separation of mixtures using various separation techniques. Students performed many activities including filtration, chromatography and evaporation and also observed and discussed teacher-led activities such as distillation. The written account of these activities was assigned as a homework exercise. As highlighted earlier, the current layout of the laboratories inhibits student movement and makes the organisation of ‘hands on’ student investigations more difficult compared to modern facilities. Teachers are commended in making maximum use of available space and on generally keeping the emphasis on student-based learning. In addition, the equipment in the laboratories was very well organised and was readily available when needed. In the few instances where teacher demonstration was the focus of the lesson rather than student investigative activity, it is recommended that syllabus requirements be revisited and that students get appropriate ‘hands on’ experience of practical investigations. In addition, consideration should be given to having all practical activities in a laboratory.
Questioning was used effectively in the majority of lessons observed. In general, questions were probing and sufficiently challenging and had the effect of promoting student learning. Teachers used questions skilfully as an aid to stimulate interest in the material being taught and to build on students’ knowledge and understanding. Participation levels were very good in most lessons. However, it is important that efforts are made by teachers to enable all students to interact more fully in some lessons. While solutions to problems and questions posed were forthcoming from students in the vast majority of lessons, it is important that this good practice be extended to all lessons.
Students were generally very confident at answering questions on their work during the course of the evaluation. They generally demonstrated good problem-solving abilities and good practical skills. They applied themselves diligently, and generally achieved good standards in their work.
Regular class tests are a feature of the good assessment practice in evidence in Science and Physics. Student progress is monitored on an ongoing basis and students receive feedback following tests, as was in evidence during the evaluation. Students received marked and annotated tests and a solution sheet to assigned problems. This is commended. It is also commendable that the uptake of Science at higher-level has increased since the previous science evaluation, which was carried out in 2005.
School examinations take place at Christmas and summer with mock examinations for third-year and sixth-year students in March. Generally, the teaching staff mark these papers and the results in these examinations generally determine the level students will take in the Certificate examinations. Transition Year students undergo continuous assessment over the year. Reports are sent to parents following examinations and parent-teacher meetings ensure that parents are kept up to date with student progress.
There are common examinations for first year science students and it is planned that this practice will follow through into second and third year. Teachers keep good records of students’ attendance, achievement and performance and these are communicated to parents.
A school homework policy and assessment policy are in place. Students are encouraged to develop a habit of regular revision. Homework was checked at the beginning and assigned at the conclusion of many lessons evaluated. The homework examined was generally completed to a good standard with frequent teacher monitoring and annotation.
Records of students’ practical work were maintained to a good standard by many students. However, the standard and quality of work recorded by some students needs improvement. For example, some students had incomplete written accounts of investigations, with incomplete diagrams, graphs and results. It is recommended that the good practice of annotating practical notebooks be extended across the science department and in addition, that there is follow-up on corrections completed by students. In addition, the good practice of allocating a portion of the marks in school examinations for practical work completed and recorded should also be extended to all in an effort to improve the overall quality of documented work.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Senior cycle science provision is good with Physics, Chemistry and Biology offered as Leaving Certificate subjects. Very good support is provided to students in making an informed choice of subjects for Leaving Certificate.
· Lesson material was well organised and presented with clarity. Students exhibited a good sense of motivation, enthusiasm and interest in the lessons and this greatly enhanced the learning process. Teachers are commended in making Science relevant to the everyday lives of students.
· Differentiated teaching was generally in evidence with teachers catering for the whole class group while giving individual support to groups and individuals. Students were affirmed, felt valued and supported and responded positively.
· Teachers are commended for the clarity with which Science and Physics concepts were explained.
· There was generally a very good emphasis on ‘hands on’ student investigative activities in junior science lessons observed. Students enjoyed the well organised activities and this enhanced the student learning experience.
· The homework examined was generally completed to a good standard with frequent teacher monitoring and annotation.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· All classes should be allocated a double lesson period and it is recommended that all double lessons should take place in one of the three laboratories.
· The school should continue to pursue as a matter of urgency the upgrading of the school’s outdated science facilities.
· School management should put measures in place to reduce obvious laboratory hazards and to bring the storage of chemicals in line with modern practice.
· Further opportunities for planning meetings should be made available by school management.
· An annually rotating science coordinator should be appointed in order to streamline the science department planning process.
· It is recommended that a collaborative plan be drawn up by the whole science department for junior science. Senior science planning should be incorporated into the overall science plan. The science department should draw up a single, detailed subject department plan for TY.
· The good practice of annotating practical notebooks should be extended across the science department and in addition there should be follow-up on corrections completed by students. In addition, the good practice of allocating a portion of the marks in school examinations for practical work completed and recorded should also be extended.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Science and Physics, together with the principal, at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.