An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Lanesboro Community College
Roll number: 71720L
Date of inspection: 19 November 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Lanesboro Community College. 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 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, deputy principal and 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.
Lanesboro Community College is a school within the Co. Longford vocational education scheme. Lanesboro Vocational School opened in 1960 and amalgamated with St Joseph’s Convent to form a designated Community College in September 1989. The school currently caters for 144 students. The school provides the Junior Certificate and Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) in the junior cycle. In senior cycle, most students follow the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) and the remainder follow the Leaving Certificate (Established) programme. The school has recently been included in the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in our Schools (DEIS) programme of the Department of Education and Science.
Science is a core subject for all junior cycle students. Most classes studying for the Junior Certificate science examination are allocated one double and one single period per week. One class group, however, receives three single periods each week. It is recommended that the time allocation be increased to four periods per week, to include a double period, for all classes, in line with syllabus recommendations. All classes are mixed ability.
Most students entering senior cycle follow the LCVP, with a small number following the Leaving Certificate (Established) programme. Currently, Biology is the most popular science subject at senior cycle. Agricultural Science is also provided and Physics is offered, although there are no students taking it at present. All senior biology classes are allocated five periods each week, including at least one double period. This is in line with syllabus recommendations.
There are three teachers of science subjects in the school, one of whom is shared with another school in the Co. Longford vocational education scheme, and they are deployed in line with their qualifications. Teachers retain the same class groups throughout each programme. This is very good practice as it facilitates long-term planning and provides continuity for students. Management actively supports teacher attendance at relevant continuing professional development (CPD) courses.
The science department, with management support, actively encourages involvement by students in co-curricular and extracurricular activities. These activities include participation in the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, participation in Science Week and SciFest activities, science quizzes and the Young Environmentalist awards. Additional activities facilitated by the science department include the organisation of visiting speakers, ecology trips and trips to NUI Maynooth for laboratory revision days. Senior biology students have participated in the “Walk in the Woods” ecology training programme. 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 is one science laboratory in the school. This laboratory is very well equipped and suitable for its purpose. It is adjacent to a well organised and neatly arranged preparation area and chemical store. Chemicals are stored on open shelves in the chemical store and are arranged in accordance with best practice, using a colour-coded scheme.
Timetabling is managed in order to maximise laboratory access. All Science and Biology class groups have weekly access to a laboratory and a flexible access rota is in place for those few occasions where a laboratory is not available. On occasion, due to limitations in the availability of classrooms, the laboratory may have to be used for non-science classes and on such occasions, classes taught by science teachers are allocated to a laboratory in the first instance. This is good practice.
Charts and posters are displayed in the laboratory, helping to create an attractive and stimulating learning environment. These displays should be changed, periodically, in line with topics being taught to maintain their attractiveness. It is suggested that a greater amount of student-produced work be included in these displays as an aid to student motivation.
A range of health and safety equipment was observed in the laboratory, including a first-aid kit, gas and electricity isolation switches and fire extinguishers. Displaying simple and direct laboratory rules in a more prominent manner should enhance this good attention to safety. The school has a health and safety statement that was drawn up with appropriate consultation. In keeping with best practice, it is reviewed annually.
A science department is in place and a co-ordinator has been appointed. A good level of collegiality and mutual support was evident amongst the science teachers. They meet formally on three occasions during the school year and frequent informal meetings occur on an ongoing basis. The co-ordinator oversees the science budget and manages all stocktaking and ordering of equipment and consumables on behalf of the science teachers.
One teacher takes all senior biology classes and has compiled a biology folder. This comprehensive document contains a list of topics to be taught each term for the duration of the course, along with further details of the topics, as listed in the biology syllabus, and adapted to the context of the school. Some sections are set out in terms of desired learning outcomes. This is commendable as it emphasises what students are expected to know. Procedures in relation to homework and assessment are also listed, as are details of how assessment of and for learning may be employed to support both learning and teaching. This is demonstrative of a very encouraging level of reflective practice. In addition, an analysis of student outcomes in the Leaving Certificate examination, as compared with national norms, is also included in the folder. This is excellent practice.
A second teacher, in a similar manner, manages planning for Junior Certificate Science and has compiled a science folder. This folder is equally comprehensive and the schedules contained therein are followed by both junior cycle science teachers. In addition to schedules for the delivery of the Junior Certificate science course, references are included in this folder to cross-curricular links with a number of subject areas, to appropriate teaching methodologies and to a range of co-curricular activities. Once again, this folder is evidence of an encouraging level of reflective practice.
In order to advance this good planning further over time, it is recommended that, where it has not yet been done, topic lists be expressed in terms of learning outcomes, based on the relevant syllabus document. These learning outcomes can 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. Delivery schedules should ideally be shortened to reflect work to be covered in each half term, with mandatory practical activities highlighted in order to provide sufficient notice for the sourcing and preparation of necessary resources. Reference to specific differentiation and interventions in relation to JCSP students, students for whom English is an additional language and those with additional needs, should also be included to assist in providing the most appropriate support for these students.
Short-term planning was evident in all of 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 was instrumental in ensuring that lessons were of high quality.
The content of all lessons observed was in line with syllabus requirements and with planning documents and was designed to build on previous student learning. Links with students’ experiences were also used in some instances to put new material in a familiar context for students. This is good practice. The topics covered included plant cell microscopy, the properties of metals and non-metals, covalent bonding and measurement.
A wide range of methodologies was well chosen to suit the topics being taught and to encourage student involvement. These methodologies included questioning of students, student practical activity, use of information and communication technology (ICT), teacher talk, discussion, use of handouts, work sheets and models, role play, demonstrations and student writing. There was a good balance between teacher-led and student-centred phases in all lessons obserdved, with all lessons having an appropriate level of student activity built in.
The use of scientific terminology was good in all lessons observed and, in some lessons, very good use was made of the classroom whiteboard to emphasise keywords. Reference was made, on occasion, to appropriate passages in textbooks and was used to reinforce learning. Otherwise, textbook use was minimal and consistent with good practice.
A differentiated approach to teaching was observed through the level of individual attention afforded to students. In all instances, teachers moved around the classrooms assisting and supporting students as necessary and all students were encouraged to perform to the best of their abilities.
Lessons were characterised by a high level of interaction, with student input being sought, valued and affirmed. 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.
The quality of lesson structure was uneven. In some instances, lessons opened with a review of previously learned material, followed by the introduction of new material. Opportunities were then provided for students to put their learning into practice. This is good practice. However, it is recommended that the practice of sharing lesson objectives with students at an early stage in the lesson, as was observed in some instances, be adopted by all teachers and that, similarly, the lesson be reviewed, in terms of these objectives towards the end. This practice will give direction to students and facilitate them in monitoring progress and will also provide an opportunity to assess their learning at the close of the lesson. Homework, designed to reinforce learning, was assigned in all lessons.
Questioning of students was used extensively to establish levels of prior knowledge, to assess the quality of students’ learning and understanding. Lower order questions were used to test recall and to review prior learning. More challenging higher order questions were used, at various stages in lessons, to encourage students to think more deeply and solve more difficult problems. Some excellent examples of the use of directed questions were observed, where students were given time to formulate their answers and were encouraged to put up their hands before a respondent was chosen. In a number of lessons, expert and incisive use of well-phrased questions directed students’ responses in a manner that led to the exposition of the new material at the core of the lesson. This type of questioning, which promotes an investigative approach to Science and which gives students greater ownership of their learning is highly commended. It is recommended that science department meetings be used to share such good practice.
Students carried out practical work in two of the lessons observed. This work was well managed and was carried out efficiently and safely. Students demonstrated a good level of skill when carrying out their various tasks. Best practice was seen where bench work was preceded by a plenary session during which teachers ensured that students were fully briefed on the work to be carried out. It is recommended that the good practice of facilitating a second plenary session, following the main activity, is also carried out, in order to give students an opportunity to review their work and rationalise their findings.
Ongoing assessment by teachers of the level of student learning and understanding is carried out through questioning, examination of homework and general observation of students, as observed in class by the inspector. Use of Assessment for Learning (AfL) techniques was apparent in some lessons observed and it is recommended that such an approach be researched further and existing expertise shared at science department meetings, with a view to implementing these practices to a greater extent. There was evidence of good learning on the part of students. 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 well affirmed for the quality of their oral work and general performance during lessons. It is important that good quality written work, both homework and reports on practical work, is similarly affirmed. An examination of student written work indicated that the quality of much of the students’ work was good, but that, overall, there was some variation. The quality of work showed no progressive improvement in a number of cases. It is recommended that students’ written work is regularly monitored and teachers are encouraged to give feedback to students that, as well as commenting on their work, indicates what they should do in order to improve.
A good system is in place to assess student progress and to report to parents on students’ progress. All students sit formal assessments at Christmas, following which progress reports are issued to parents. First, second and fourth years are also formally assessed prior to the end of the school year and, once again, reports are issued. Mock examinations are administered to certificate examination classes in the spring and reports are also issued at this stage. A variety of other appropriate means for communicating with parents are in place, including the students’ journals and parent-teacher meetings.
Some good practice in relation to recording student attainment and attendance by teachers was evident. Roll call was taken at the beginning of class and recorded in the teachers’ diaries. In addition, some teachers’ diaries contained records of the performance of students in class and details of work covered. It is recommended that all teachers keep such records as are necessary for the purpose of building up a complete 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 and deputy principal, at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published, March 2010