An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Junior Science
Cashel Community School
Dualla Road, Cashel, County Tipperary
Roll number: 91497A
Date of inspection: 27 -28 November 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Junior Science
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Cashel Community School. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in junior Science and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject 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 a core subject in the school’s junior cycle. It is organised on a mixed-ability basis in first year. Banding occurs in subsequent years. Students are arranged, based on the results of their summer examinations in first year, into one or other band. The highest performing students will comprise the top band of three or four class groups with the remaining students forming two or three classes in the next band. It would be important that this rigid banding structure comprises flexibility for the students who, for various reasons, may find themselves in the wrong class. It will also create the need to have specific strategies in place through the department planning process to deal with groups of students with similar abilities and needs.
Allocation of time is an issue previously outlined in a subject inspection carried out in March 2006. Currently, as was then, first year classes are allocated three single periods weekly. Curriculum guidelines recommend four classes in each year of study to include one double class. This current allocation reduces the contact time for the subject by at least thirty classes per year, which is a significant amount of time. In addition, the lack of a double class will put limitations on the type of practical work that can be completed by the students as they seek to develop their skills in this area. All second-year students and third-year students in the top band have four lessons, which include one double lesson, weekly. The remaining third-year students are allocated four single lessons weekly. Students’ attention span was stated as the rationale for this difference in time allocation. However, by this arrangement, unless the practical work is divided up into small units, some students have a double lesson to complete their practical work and other students have single lessons for the same task. Not all practical tasks can be broken up into smaller units to accommodate this time allocation. In these instances, the students’ ability to carry out the work at their own pace could be affected. This will also influence the learning experience and the development of skills in relation to practical science for the student. The science team and management are urged to review this situation.
Currently four classes in third year have three of their four weekly single lessons last class in the day. This current time slot creates difficulties for both the teaching and learning of Science. Management stated that this was a once-off occurrence this year. A reoccurrence of this should be avoided during the creation of future timetables. A smaller teacher-student ratio has been created for the lower achieving bands. Lessons run currently. This present arrangement could allow the team to explore, with management, the development of various additional teaching strategies, which could include team teaching.
The junior science team in the school currently comprises seven members. Teacher allocation to classes is on a rotational basis with continuity occurring in the main between second year and third year. The science facilities comprise four laboratories with associated shared preparation area and one demonstration room. The laboratories are designated Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Agricultural Science. They are located along one corridor, which is designated for science subjects. All the facilities viewed were well maintained and all organised for the effective delivery of junior Science, which is commended. One member of the team is assigned to each of the laboratories. This arrangement helps in the maintenance of each space. Access to the laboratories is shared among the team, with all classes having at least their double lessons in the laboratory.
The team has developed the use of science kit boxes for some of the junior science topics. This initiative should be expanded to include other areas of the science curriculum. The team has also devoted a considerable amount of time to the organisation of chemicals by colour code, which is good practice. This organisation will aid the smooth running of the sciences for all concerned, and should be maintained by the science team. To further this development, the team could consider the use of a folder in the preparation area, which will record, for example, breakages and chemical or material shortages. In this way, large stock taking can be avoided and this information can be used for the purchase of consumables. A subject convenor is appointed. Rotation of this role among the team should be considered. Management facilitates a meeting each term of the team. No budget is provided but management facilitates requests made by the team through the subject convenor. The science team are happy with this current arrangement. The constant development and not just the maintenance of resources should be an objective of the team going forward.
Some posters, models and charts were located in the laboratories. Some of which were of student origin. A print-rich environment is to be encouraged. It is important that materials on display reflect the topics being covered in the lessons and therefore help to reinforce and aid student learning. The science team also has access to televisions, video resources, DVDs, CDs, data projectors and laptops. Some of these are permanent resources within the sciences, which is to be commended. Opportunities for continuing professional development in Science and previously in Biology and the physical sciences have been availed of by the teachers and encouraged by management. In addition, the students are also benefiting from attendance at and participation in Science Week and quizzes. Such activities are to be commended and encouraged for all science students.
The school has a health and safety statement. It was prepared in consultation with in-school management, teachers and the board of management. Teachers were consulted through the use of staff meetings, working groups and individually in the preparation of this statement. Management stated that the current statement is reviewed as the need arises. Safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, safety blankets and safety glasses were observed in the laboratories. The guidelines on safety, Safety in School Science and Safety in the School Laboratory, published by the Department of Education and Science (DES) were also available to the science team.
A junior science subject plan outlines many areas, which included areas such as the organisation of the students in science, resources, health and safety, recording and reporting procedures, texts used and a common scheme of work for each year group, which is good practice. This represents a significant amount of planning by the team. In addition to the ongoing review of this current material, the team should also discuss the development of the areas of assessment, homework, practical work and laboratory copies into their plan. The department is urged to consider whether to have an element of continuous assessment, how many assessments in a term and whether students be awarded any component for their practical activities. The use of work sheets could be discussed in relation to homework. The team also need to decide on a combined approach to how students write up their practical activities. This will prevent difficulties if there is a change of teacher at junior cycle and will allow a smooth transition between junior and senior science subjects for the student. The team could also consider the establishment of a central tracking system of work completed by each class group. This could simply be a folder in which the scheme for each class group is held. Any modifications to the scheme and all work completed by the class should be indicated on the scheme. The regular review and modifications when and where appropriate for a class group will be important. This is especially salient in light of the banded nature of the junior classes. The development of resources and strategies that will meet student needs constantly require planning by the team. The use of formal and informal meetings has helped to progress this work to date, which is to be commended. The team will also need to liase with other subject departments for example the special educational needs team to further develop some aspects of their plan.
There was evidence of short-term planning in the lessons observed. This was reinforced by the written documents presented and by an observed familiarity with the subject matter presented. A coherent theme was also present in the lessons. There was also prior preparation of the materials and the apparatus required for demonstration and student-centred investigative work. In addition, student learning was aided through the use of a variety of resources, which included the use of information and communication technology (ICT), textbooks, the whiteboard, various types of handout material and use of the overhead projector, which are all to be commended. The team should also consider in its planning, ways to increase student participation within the lesson, when and where appropriate.
In the main, lessons were planned and structured in a manner which provided continuity with the previous lesson. Individual teachers kept records of work completed to date with each class. The articulation of learning outcomes was only done in some lessons. Where observed it provided a reference to the students and helped them take ownership of their learning, which is good practice. The team should consider the inclusion of learning outcomes in the planning process.
All classes commenced with students sitting in pre-assigned seats and the roll being taken. Following this, there was oral questioning to recall previous work or the correction of homework. Effectiveness of student learning was ascertained more successfully when questions were directed to named students as opposed to chorus-answering by the group. In some instances, student homework was also viewed by the teacher and signed, which is good practice.
A variety of topics were covered in lessons during the inspection, and included heat, physical and chemical changes, Ohms Law, forces and motion, biology revision and project work. A good rapport was observed between the teachers and the students in the lessons observed. Discipline was maintained and allowed for work to be completed. Effective classroom management was also aided when the teacher moved around the room. This helped to enhance student engagement and also allowed student work to be viewed and corrected by the teacher. This occurred in the majority of lessons observed and is good practice. In the main, the pace was appropriate and facilitated students’ learning. If time will not allow the completion of the lesson objectives, it may be necessary to consolidate the completed work and return to the topic in future lessons. In this way, some difficulties with student learning can be avoided.
Learning was reinforced through the use of various types of handouts and worksheets, well-constructed board work, acetates, presentations on PowerPoint, use of textbooks, teacher demonstrations and student-based investigations. Most lessons observed used a variety of methodologies, which is good practice. In the main, the material used in the lessons aided student visualisation of the topic. Mechanisms for the sharing of the various materials developed by team members are to be encouraged. Board work, acetates, PowerPoint, handouts, worksheets and teacher demonstration were utilised in the delivery of theory. Demonstration was effective when all students had a good view of the material and there was good interaction through questioning with some student participation in the task. When followed by note-taking it helped consolidate what was observed, which is good practice. A purely didactic approach resulted in poor student engagement. This was not widely observed but should be avoided, as student learning will be affected.
When a new topic was being introduced the development of links between it and previous work was observed. In addition to this, the level of student knowledge in relation to the topic could also be explored prior to the delivery of new information. This will provide a base from which to develop the new topic. The outlining of objectives or learning outcomes were observed in a number of lessons. Informing students of what is expected of them from the lesson helped focus their learning and was also very useful at the end of the lesson to aid recall of the work completed.
Recording by students of work completed in class occurred in some lessons and should be a component of all lessons. In addition, where handouts and work sheets form the basis of this information, strategies need to be adopted to ensure the retention of this material by the student for use in their learning. The development of well-constructed board work in some of the lessons was used to good effect for student note taking. The use and development of keywords during the lesson will also aid in note taking construction.
Student practical activities were observed in some of the lessons. Students demonstrated a good level of skill when carrying out their various tasks. None of the tasks were mandatory in nature but helped the students in their understanding of the topic and enhanced their practical skills, which is very positive. Observation of student practical laboratory notebooks provided evidence of further practical work completed by the students. As stated previously, the science team should consider the development of a consistent approach to the organisation of the laboratory copybooks. In addition, it would be important for the team to consider, what skills the students need to develop in relation to their lab work and how this can be facilitated. Monitoring of student practical notebooks is also encouraged and could be incorporated into the scheme for assessment for all year groups.
A mixture of questioning techniques and question types are important in all lessons. On occasion, more probing higher order questions were observed, which assisted in the evaluation of the students’ level of understanding and learning. Skilful questioning was also observed in lessons with lower-ability students, which helped to develop student understanding and also helped to maintain a high level of student engagement in the lesson. In all instances, the teacher affirmed student responses, which is commended.
Effective use of the textbook was observed when it was used to supplement and reinforce what had been completed in class, which is to be commended. However, some groups observed found it a challenge to use the textbook as their primary source of information. Alternatives to aid the student should be explored. In addition, the interface between students’ notes, the textbook, the laboratory copy and other material given to students to help their learning need to be explored by the team. Different strategies for different groups may need to be implemented following discussions by the team. Homework was assigned in the majority of lessons, which is good practice. Completion of this by students would reinforce the work in class and therefore assist their learning.
The school has a formal assessment policy but no formal homework policy in place currently. As stated previously the team should develop further both the areas of assessment and homework through their team planning. In addition, the team could consider awarding all students marks for their practical copies as part of their overall grade in the subject. This could have the effect of providing the students with further motivation for engagement with the practical elements of the course.
Daily student learning is informally assessed through homework and oral questioning during the lessons. Class examinations are administered at the end of a topic at the discretion of the teacher. Students’ results are recorded by the teacher for all tests completed. Student assessment occurs through tests at midterm, Christmas and summer. Both continual and common assessment methods are used. Examination classes also sit pre-examinations in the spring of their examination year. Formal reports are sent to parents following midterm, Christmas, summer and pre-examinations. In addition to reports, parent-teacher meetings are held for all classes annually. The student journal, comments on homework and marks on homework are also used to inform parents of student progress.
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 with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published, November 2009