An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Sandford Park School
Ranelagh, Dublin 6
Roll number: 60640C
Date of inspection: 24 January 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Sandford Park School, 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 Biology and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of the subjects 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 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.
The science subjects feature significantly on the school curriculum; Science is a core subject in both Junior Certificate and the school’s compulsory Transition Year (TY) programme, and three senior science subjects, Biology, Physics and Chemistry, are available as subjects for Leaving Certificate. The uptake of each of these subjects in senior cycle is very high.
Junior Certificate Science is timetabled for four single lesson periods per week. This meets syllabus recommendations and is the preferred timetabling arrangement of teachers in the school, over the more usual combination of one double and two single periods per week. Teachers prefer to meet students on four occasions per week, thus foregoing the double lesson. This does at times, however, result in rushed practical work for some investigations as students must complete the activity in one forty-minute lesson. This is especially the case for Coursework B investigations. It is recommended that two class periods be timetabled together according to syllabus recommendations for the subject, at the very least for one of the three years of junior cycle.
Science is allocated one double lesson period and two single periods within the TY programme and this represents a good commitment to the sciences. The TY programme for Science has two components, the first of which is a fifteen-week course in problem solving, followed by a series of three-week modules in the Biology, Physics and Chemistry disciplines. Students have a choice of modules and can try all three disciplines. This gives students a valuable opportunity to sample the subjects at senior cycle. However, students have to make choices for Leaving Certificate before the completion of the sampling of modules and this should be addressed.
When students have to make a choice between subjects for Leaving Certificate, the subjects are offered on the basis of a system of free choice. It is possible for students to study up to three senior science subjects for Leaving Certificate. The students are presented with information on each subject by their teachers and are also given advice by the school’s guidance service. Biology is timetabled for one double and three single lesson periods per week, as appropriate.
There are two laboratories in the school and the vast majority of lessons in the sciences are timetabled in these. The laboratories are fitted with benches for practical work to the side and back, with seating for students in the centre. Each laboratory has its own storage and preparation area with ample resources for practical work in all of the science subjects in evidence. Resources for student practical work have been sourced in sets of ten or twelve allowing students to conduct practicals in pairs, as appropriate. Most chemicals are stored in the chemistry preparation room. Science teachers should check their current system of chemical storage against the recommendations on the website of the chemistry support service http://chemistry.slss.ie. Until recently, a part-time laboratory technician supported laboratory organisation and the planning and set-up of student practical work in each subject. This post is currently undergoing a change in personnel and, it is hoped, that it will be filled shortly.
The laboratories have been enhanced with modern science charts and numerous displays of student project work. This is commended as the learning environment is both stimulating and scientific. The laboratories are fitted with modern teaching equipment including good quality boards, a teacher’s computer, data projectors, Internet connection, screen and audiovisual facilities. The school’s computers are networked, allowing teachers to access electronic files from either laboratory and from the teachers’ work area. A very good range of electronic resources to support teaching and learning in the sciences is available in shared files on the school’s intranet. Maximum use is made of the Information Communication Technology (ICT) facilities and Power Point presentations and live links to science websites are used from time to time during lessons as a teaching and learning tool with a range of topics. This is commended.
There are four science teachers in the school and they are assigned to teach the senior cycle class groups according to their specialist subject. Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is well supported and all teachers have attended in-service in the revised science and biology syllabuses. In addition, there has been active participation in a number of other events, such as the Irish Science Teachers’ Association (ISTA) annual conference, a biology posters course, a forensic science course and Chem-Ed. Such participation is commended. Teachers are progressive, up-to-date and committed in their work and in the facilitation of co-curricular science activities.
A significant number of co-curricular activities pertaining to the sciences is organised, including the school’s own ‘Young Scientist’ competition. The projects demonstrate that students have a good knowledge of the scientific method. TY students undertake sizeable science projects and display a presentation of the project on TY day. During the school’s open day the school laboratories are used to hold science activities and to display science projects. Students are taken to visit the Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition and entries into this competition are frequent. There is a science club for first years in the school. Science week is celebrated with fun quizzes and prizes offered. The posters produced for this competition are also displayed in the laboratories. Each year group goes on an annual ecology field trip with a different ecosystem explored each year. Many of the curricular field ecology activities are merged with extra-curricular outdoor pursuit activities and there is significant focus on developing students’ appreciation of their natural environment. This is highly commended.
Science teachers meet formally as a science department once per term, and informally at numerous other times. An aim is established for each subject department meeting and minutes are clearly recorded. Teachers also meet in pairs once per week with the specific aim of sharing expertise. For example, teachers who are teaching TY Science or preparing students for Coursework B for the first time meet on a one-to-one basis with a teacher who has had this experience. This is highly commended and will contribute to overall teacher development. Teachers also regularly share worksheets, assessment instruments and ICT tools for various topics, in line with best practice. A considerable ‘bank’ of resources has been built up for each topic.
One member of the science department undertakes co-ordination of the subject, which includes overseeing the department plan, development of laboratory resources, compilation of common revision programmes, compilation of common formal school assessments and the co-ordination of co-curricular activities. This role is undertaken with dedication. However, it is recommended that the role be rotated periodically to enable all involved to share the responsibility and to experience this role.
An exemplary subject department plan has been developed for Science and Biology. The construction of the plan was overseen by the subject co-ordinator and all science teachers reported that they have contributed to the plan and that it has evolved over time into the current comprehensive document. The plan includes worthy aims and objectives for science education in the school, together with many details of the organisation of the subjects and procedures for homework, assessment, record keeping and reporting. This is highly commended as it ensures consistency of practice and the promotion of high standards, while also supporting newly appointed teachers to the department. In particular, the curriculum schedules for both Science and Biology list suitable teaching and learning methodologies, the suggested number of class periods one should dedicate to each topic and suitable homework for every topic. Revision time is integrated throughout the schedules, particularly before school examinations and the final state examination in the subject. Teachers have flexibility within the curriculum schedules to incorporate topical issues and to facilitate field work. The variety of teaching and learning methodologies and resources evident in the schedules is highly commended. Also worthy of commendation is the scheduling of time for ‘investigation’ work throughout. Some time is also allowed for the implementation of an innovative school-designed module which aims to develop students’ investigative skills and science process skills.
The plan for TY Science was developed by one of the science teachers and is implemented by the teachers assigned to teach the programme for the year. The plan is to be commended as it provides for the further development of investigative skills, critical thinking and communication among students, as well as giving them some insight into Biology, Physics and Chemistry. The topics listed in the two Biology modules incorporate some contemporary areas such as ‘designer babies’ and genetic screening. It is recommended, however, that the modules be revised to focus on areas of biology from outside the Leaving Certificate syllabus. Furthermore, it is recommended that all teachers take a greater role in designing the TY science programme.
Student evaluation sheets are distributed to students of fifth and sixth year at the end of year asking them to reflect on their learning experience of the sciences for that year. An annual analysis of the State Examinations Commission results is also conducted. Teachers reported that they utilise the outcome of both the student evaluation and the analysis of results to refine their planning and assessment practices for the following year and this is highly commended.
In general, a very good level of preparation was undertaken for each lesson observed; visual presentations, resource materials, worksheets and materials for practical work were ready in advance of each lesson and matched the purpose of the lesson, supporting student learning. In general, lessons were very well structured. In a small number of cases, however, the sets of resources for the student practical should have been laid out on the laboratory benches from the start, because of the risks associated with particular investigations. A more organised environment would have minimised the level of student movement and resulted in a more efficient commencement of the investigations.
All class groupings for the sciences are mixed ability in nature. Teachers work with the higher-level programme with their class groups and differentiate for tests and assessments where necessary, keeping the group moving together for as long as possible. This is commended.
Good teaching methods were employed throughout. Instruction was clear and concise and never overly dominated the lesson. Students were given varied opportunities to practise their learning, including worksheets, short tests of application, verbal questioning, practical work, and regularly administered class tests. Students were eager to answer questions and demonstrated a good level of knowledge and competence in both Science and Biology.
Best practice was seen in one lesson where the purpose of the lesson was shared with students at the outset and they were clear what was expected of them. This good practice should be extended to all lessons. In all lessons, the text book was used only for reference purposes and good use was made of the whiteboard, particularly to collate key points. In general, teachers were firm in classroom management keeping the students focused and on task during instruction and during group practical work. In most cases, all students were kept engaged with the topic through appropriate pacing of the lesson, challenging questioning and varied activities.
Lesson topics were made as real as possible through the use of practical work or through the presentation of good visual images using the ICT equipment. Illustrations in student handouts and concept maps also helped in supporting learning. Interesting facts and topical issues were integrated in lessons and in some cases newspaper cuttings were distributed for the students to read for homework.
Students were gaining a practical experience of Science and Biology with an investigative approach advocated wherever possible. The concept of fair test was emphasised in all investigations. Student practical skill attainment was observed to be very good. During practical work, the students worked purposefully in their groups, communicating effectively. Teachers circulated at all times paying excellent attention to the needs of all students and motivating students in their work. Students clearly enjoyed practical work. During a TY science lesson, students were actively engaged in conducting group projects of their own design and this lesson was particularly innovative, enjoyable and effective with true scientific investigation at its core. Also it was noted that students spoke with enthusiasm about their ecology fieldtrips and demonstrated good recall of the key principles and inter-relationships observed in the habitat.
A wide range of abilities was present in each class group. Teachers were aware of students with special educational needs (SEN). The school’s learning-support teacher has presented to all staff on key strategies for dealing with specific SEN among students, and form teachers are working with their groups on determining each individual’s learning style. This is commended. Inspection of student copies, including those of students with dyslexia, revealed good written work for the subject with neat presentation and a significant amount of work covered. In most cases, students keep a class copy and a homework copy.
Some very good means of supporting learning among students who experience difficulty with the subjects have been developed in the school; for example, a ‘Happy Biology’ booklet containing a one-page synopsis of the ten most essential points to remember for each topic in the biology syllabus. Students found this a valuable resource and often referred to it during lessons. In another booklet, the various stages of every practical in Biology were integrated with key questions. This assists recall and allows students to practise answering questions in this area.
Student attainment in the state examinations is very good with a high proportion of students taking the higher-level paper in both Science and Biology.
Highly commendable and varied assessment practices are employed. The school’s assessment guidelines and homework policy and the science department’s assessment procedures are well established. Very good methods of providing formative feedback to students and parents on individual student progress are in place. Homework is regularly assigned and is differentiated for the higher-level and ordinary-level students. Questions from past examination papers are allocated to the third-year and sixth-year groups to help prepare them for the state examinations. For all year groups studying Science and Biology, class tests are administered at the end of each topic and short application tests are also often given during lessons. Teachers correct all class tests and questions from past examination papers according to a transparent marking scheme. This enables students to see exactly where they need to improve their answers or revisit topics. This is commended. Student work was very well monitored with an excellent level of written feedback given in copies and on tests. Student copies are frequently collected and monitored. The combination of frequent class tests and daily formative assessment practices is highly commended as it provides many opportunities for students to recall their learning and to receive constructive feedback on their individual progress.
Student laboratory records are written on pro-forma sheets, designed within the department, and kept in folders in the laboratory. These were well written up with a good level of monitoring by teachers. It is recommended that credit be given for the completion of laboratory and field work and the associated report as part of the overall grade in the formal school reports. This will reward students for the skills demonstrated and also reflects the allocation of marks in the state examinations assessment of Science.
In addition to regular class tests, formal school-based examinations are held at the end of the autumn and summer terms. In general, common Christmas and summer tests are administered to all class groups in the same year for both Science and Biology. This is good practice. Third-year and sixth-year students sit ‘mock’ examinations in February. Results from the formal school examinations are sent home to parents in formal school reports. In addition to these, a written progress report is written for each student at the end of each term. A parent-teacher meeting is held annually for each year group.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation of Science and Biology:
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The timetabling arrangements for junior Science should be reviewed.
· The current system of chemical storage should be checked against the recommendations on the website of the chemistry support service.
· The role of subject co-ordinator for the sciences should be rotated periodically to enable all involved to share the responsibility and to experience the role.
· The biology modules within the TY science programme should be revised to apply greater focus on areas of biology from outside the Leaving Certificate syllabus. All teachers should take a role in designing the TY science programme.
· Consideration should be given to allocating credit in end-of-year assessments for the completion of laboratory work and the associated report.
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 September 2008