An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Castledermot, Co. Kildare
Roll number: 70670R
Date of inspection: 23 September 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Lorcáin, Castledermot, Co. Kildare. 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 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 was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
Coláiste Lorcáin is co-educational, with a current enrolment of 371 students. The school provides the Junior Certificate (JC) programme for junior cycle students. Senior cycle students are offered an optional Transition Year (TY) programme before moving on to the Leaving Certificate programmes. Two Leaving Certificate programmes are offered to students, the Leaving Certificate (Established) (LC) and the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP). Students who choose to follow the LC are also encouraged to enrol in the LCVP if their subject combinations are appropriate.
Science is a core subject for Junior Certificate students and this is to be commended. There are three mixed-ability class groups in each year of the junior cycle. These classes are allocated four periods per week, including a double period, which is in line with syllabus recommendations. First-year classes are timetabled concurrently, which facilitates the movement of students between classes, should this be desirable. In most cases, classes are appropriately distributed throughout the week. Strong efforts should be made to avoid timetabling a class group for two separate time slots on the same day, particularly a double period and a single period.
TY students follow two year-long courses in science, one in Biology and a second in Physics and Chemistry. Both these courses are allocated three single periods each week. Each course comprises an appropriate variety of modules which are student centred and activity based, in keeping with the ethos of the TY programme.
Biology, Chemistry and Physics are offered as optional subjects to fifth-year students. It is demonstrative of commendable commitment to the sciences that all three subjects are continued to senior level in Coláiste Lorcáin. Each Biology class is allocated two double periods and one single period per week, a time allocation which is in line with syllabus recommendations. These classes are distributed appropriately across the week.
There are currently three teachers of science subjects in the school and they are all deployed in line with their qualifications. Teachers retain the same class groups from first to third year and from fifth to sixth year. This is very good practice as it facilitates long-term planning and ensures continuity in both teaching and learning. All three teachers are members of the Irish Science Teachers Association (ISTA), and are to be commended for this. School management actively supports the attendance of science teachers at relevant continuous professional development (CPD) courses. It is very praiseworthy to see such commitment to the up-skilling of staff.
The science department, with management support, actively encourages involvement by students in co-curricular and extracurricular activities. These activities range from participation in the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition to involvement in the ISTA Quiz, SciFest and Science Week. Other activities facilitated by the science department are the organisation of visiting speakers to classes, visits to industry, ecology trips and trips to Dublin City University laboratory revision days. The science teachers are to be praised for their work in these areas as it contributes to making science a more stimulating, exciting and interesting subject for students.
There are two recently refurbished laboratories in the school which are linked by a storage and preparation area. The laboratories are well equipped and adequate for their purpose. Access to the laboratories for science classes is maximised when timetables are being prepared and further arrangements may also be made between the science teachers if necessary. This is good practice. The storage and preparation room is well stocked and neatly ordered. A chemical store opens into the preparation area and it is recommended that the storage of chemicals be reviewed and brought into line with best practice. Relevant information is available on the website of the physical sciences initiative at http://chemistry.slss.ie/ch_safetydocs.html. It is noted that work is ongoing in the organisation of the laboratories and the storage and preparation areas following provision of the refurbished laboratories.
All teachers have an individual laptop computer for connection to either the interactive white board or the data projector in each laboratory. Furthermore, one laboratory is equipped with six broadband enabled PCs, for student use. An additional bank of laptops can be accessed by either laboratory as the need arises. The strong support from management in the provision of these resources is to be commended.
Interesting and stimulating environments are created in both laboratories by displaying charts and posters on the walls. It is commendable that student project work forms an integral part of these displays. The fact that much of the wall space at eye level is taken up by storage presses means that many of these posters and charts are displayed above the presses and are really too high to be read properly. It is recommended that the wall space in the corridor outside the laboratories be used to display science related posters, charts, career information, current events in the world of science and other material. This would serve to highlight the sciences within the whole school and would help motivate students.
Good attention to health and safety issues was observed in all classes during the inspection. A range of safety equipment was seen in the laboratories, including first aid kits, gas and electricity isolation switches, fire extinguishers and appropriate safety notices. Reference is made to health and safety in science planning documentation, which is good practice. The school also has an over-arching health and safety statement which was drawn up with appropriate consultation. This statement is reviewed annually.
A high level of collegiality and mutual support was evident within the science department. The position of co-ordinator is rotated among the teachers and co-ordination is effectively carried out. The science teachers meet regularly and frequently, both formally and informally. Curriculum planning has progressed significantly over the past year, following the improved laboratory provision. Prior to this, planning was necessarily focussed on managing the day-to-day arrangements of a situation where the laboratories were some distance apart and in separate buildings.
The comprehensive science department folder contains a composite plan for the three years of the Junior Certificate science course. This plan includes an agreed list of topics to be taught in each year and, commendably, includes references to both the science syllabus and the textbook in use. In order to develop this plan further, it is recommended that the list be rewritten in terms of learning outcomes for students and that it be subdivided into topics for completion in each half-term for the duration of the course. The learning outcomes should then be used as an aid in drawing up assessment criteria, thus improving the alignment of what is taught and learned with what is examined and assessed, thereby assisting in deciding on the most appropriate means of assessing student progress. Scheduling the teaching of topics will help to ensure that all material is covered in a timely manner and will allow provision to be made for unexpected interruptions. It is recommended that practical work be similarly scheduled, in order to facilitate the sourcing and preparation of the necessary resources.
The plan for Leaving Certificate Biology consists of a scheduled list of topics. It is recommended that it be developed in a similar manner to the Junior Certificate plan.
Very good plans are in place for both the TY Biology course and the Physics and Chemistry course. These plans outline a variety of modules, most of which are outside the scope of the respective Leaving Certificate syllabuses. Module content is described in terms of desired learning outcomes and is listed on a weekly basis. References to resources and methodologies are also included. The science department are commended for the level of detail in these plans which serve as a model for many aspects of the further development of the science and biology plans.
It was evident that the science department had carried out considerable advance preparation for the inspection and lesson plans were presented for all the lessons observed. Teachers were familiar with the topics taught and prior preparation of the resources, materials and apparatus required for demonstration and student-centred investigative work was also evident. Such short-term planning and preparation is commendable and contributed to the quality of both the teaching and learning that was observed.
Teachers worked carefully to maintain a supportive, student-centred atmosphere in the lessons observed. These lessons were characterised by a high level of interaction, where student input was sought and valued, thus affirming students and, in a number of instances, promoting an investigative approach to the teaching of Science and Biology. Teaching was carried out with enthusiasm. Lessons were well paced and purposeful and good progress was made in all cases. Teachers demonstrated good classroom management skills and ensured that all students were included in the teaching and learning process. Students were challenged by lesson content and they responded well. Their behaviour was excellent and a high level of participation and engagement was evident. The quality of rapport between teachers and students was very good.
Lessons were well structured and generally began with a review of previous learning, followed by outlining the learning outcomes of the present lesson. Students’ everyday experiences and prior learning were used as the basis for unfolding new material. This is good practice. The material covered in the lessons observed was appropriate to the curriculum and was in keeping with subject department plans. Lesson topics included microbiology, microscopy and aspects of plant biology. Lesson content was generally reviewed at the close of lessons. It is suggested that this review be carried out with reference to the learning outcomes already given to students.
Reference to appropriate passages in textbooks was used to reinforce learning. Otherwise, textbook use was minimal and consistent with good practice. Students were assigned homework at the conclusion of all lessons and were encouraged to note work given in their journals. This homework was appropriate to the lesson content, was varied, and was chosen to reinforce the learning and provide opportunities for students to put their learning into practice.
Methodologies appropriate to lesson content were used in all lessons observed. These methodologies included teacher explanations, discussions, student writing and practical activity, the use of worksheets and handouts, and questioning of students. There was a good balance between teacher-led and student-focused phases in lessons. Emphasis was placed on the use of subject-specific terminology wherever possible. The level of individual attention given to students facilitated a differentiated approach to teaching. This was evidenced by the manner in which teachers moved around the classrooms assessing students, assisting and supporting them, and encouraging them to perform to the best of their abilities.
Very effective use of available information and communications technology (ICT) equipment was observed in a number of lessons. However, it is recommended that the positioning of laptop computers, when connected to the data projector in either laboratory, be reviewed in order to facilitate their more convenient use during class.
Questioning of students was used extensively and effectively, to establish levels of prior knowledge, to assess the quality of learning on an ongoing basis and to assist in the exposition of new material. Lower order questions were used to test recall and in the review of prior learning at the beginning of lessons. More challenging higher order questioning was used, at various stages in lessons, to encourage students to think more deeply and solve more difficult problems. Questions were directed to individual named students and, in almost all cases, all students were included. This is good practice.
Practical work was well managed and was carried out efficiently and safely. Students demonstrated a good level of skill when carrying out their various tasks and they displayed a mature approach to their work. Bench work was preceded by plenary sessions when teachers ensured that students were fully briefed on the work to be carried out. This work was followed, in most cases, by a second plenary session at which the students were given an opportunity to review what they had done and rationalise their findings. In order to promote an investigative approach to science, it is important that students commence writing practical reports only after the laboratory work has been completed.
Health and safety issues were well managed at all times. Students wore white laboratory coats while engaged in practical work. The wearing of eye protection was also observed in one practical class. This attention to health and safety is commendable. It is also commendable that teachers led by example in the wearing of protective clothing. In order to make them more conveniently available, it is recommended that consideration be given to finding a means of storing laboratory coats within the laboratories.
Arrangements for assessing and monitoring student progress and achievement in Coláiste Lorcáin are very good. Ongoing assessment by teachers of the level of student understanding is carried out through questioning, examination of homework and general observation of students, as observed in class by the inspector. Students demonstrated a positive attitude towards Science and Biology as evidenced by the level of engagement and interest observed during the lessons. The quality of student learning was good. They successfully carried out the different tasks assigned to them during the lessons and they displayed a good level of knowledge and understanding during the course of lessons and during interaction with the inspector.
Students were frequently affirmed for their efforts during the course of in-class interactions with teachers and they responded to this in a positive manner. However, it is equally important that they are affirmed and encouraged in relation to written work. Therefore, it is recommended that teachers positively annotate students laboratory notebooks, workbooks and other written work on a regular basis and advise students on how their work may be improved, where necessary.
A comprehensive system of formal assessment and reporting is used in Coláiste Lorcáin. First-year and second-year students are formally assessed at Christmas and prior to the summer break and a progress report is sent to their parents on both occasions. Additional reports are provided for parents of third-year students at Halloween and February mid-terms. Fifth-year students are given monthly progress reports in addition to Christmas and summer examinations and reports while sixth-year students are provided with monthly progress reports and Christmas and mock examinations and reports. TY students are assessed on the basis of completed assignments and project work at Christmas and prior to the summer break and reports are sent to parents also.
Good practice by teachers in relation to monitoring and recording student attendance and attainment was evident. Sufficient information was recorded to facilitate teachers in building up a profile of each student.
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, January 2010