An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Saint Mary’s Diocesan School
Beamore Road, Drogheda
Roll number: 63841E
Date of inspection: 25 October 2006
Date of issue of report: 21 June 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Mary’s Diocesan School, Drogheda 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 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.
The school has three Science laboratories which are well maintained with an appropriate allocation of resources. Two laboratories have an adjacent preparation and storage area while a third preparation and storage area is shared between a laboratory and the demonstration room. Storerooms observed were tidy and well organised with some of the apparatus for the mandatory Leaving Certificate Biology investigations in separate storage containers. Chemicals were stored appropriately and toxics and flammables were housed in separate lockable cabinets. This level of organisation is commendable. Appropriate health and safety apparatus was available in the laboratory and it is commendable that Rules of the Laboratory was prominently displayed both in the laboratory and in some of the student notebooks. In order to augment these health and safety features it is suggested that the schools code of conduct in the laboratory be displayed at the front of all Science notebooks.
The Science laboratories are equipped with PCs but do not have Internet access. Some members of the Science team expressed their wish to incorporate ICT into Science lessons. Management are recommended to explore the area of ICT for development within the Science department as a potential avenue to enhance the teaching and learning of Science. Advice on the use and integration of ICT may be accessed through the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE), http://www.ncte.ie
Science is currently a core subject to Junior Certificate level. Classes are arranged into two ability-dependent bands in first, second and third year with mixed ability groupings within each band. Students are arranged into these groupings on the basis of their performance in incoming assessment tests and a second test in October of first year. The careful monitoring and review of student progress is required in order to validate this system of grouping students and the potential for mixed ability groupings across the board could be considered.
Junior Certificate Science classes are allocated four class periods in each year which is appropriate and in line with NCCA guidelines. The majority of Science classes are allocated one double period per week which is good practice. However, timetabling for laboratory access is an issue and it is recommended that a more equitable division of access among the Science team be established. It was reported that management have taken steps to augment the science facilities in the school and this is commendable as it will alleviate some of the demand for the three existing laboratories. It is suggested that management strive to avoid timetabling Science for split double periods as some of the practical work cannot be left to stand and a number of experimental works must be monitored for their duration. It is commendable practice that every effort is made to retain the same teacher with a class group through the three years of Junior cycle Science and through Senior cycle.
The senior cycle in the school offers an optional Transition Year and the established Leaving Certificate. The Transition year programme contains a module of Physics, Chemistry and Biology. All three Science subjects are offered at senior cycle with Biology being the most popular. Senior cycle Biology is allocated five periods per week, which is appropriate.
Some of the science team have attended the in-service courses for the Revised Junior Certificate Science syllabus and Leaving Certificate Biology course. It is recommended that where Science teachers have missed in-service training, the appropriate support services be contacted in order to remedy this shortfall. Teachers are also encouraged to establish the practice where those who have missed courses can avail of the expertise of their colleagues and materials can be disseminated among the Science team. Further information is available on the JCSS and BSS websites.
There is good support for co- and extra-curricular Science activities in the school. Students have visited Dublin City University during Science week, teachers have brought students to W5 in Belfast and an ambulance crew were invited to the school to talk to the Transition Year students. Students are encouraged to enter for the BT Young Scientist exhibition and the Biology Olympiad. Ecology fieldtrips are carried out in Dun a Ri, the Zoo and Glendalough. These extra- and co-curricular activities are to be highly commended and the teachers involved are to be congratulated for their commitment without which the students would not benefit from such stimulating experiences.
Long-term plans were available for both Junior Certificate Science and for Leaving Certificate Biology. These collaborative plans were within SDPI guidelines and sequencing of topics was appropriate. Planning documentation made reference to aims and objectives of the courses, grouping of students, class organisation, students with special educational needs, cross-curricular activities, teaching methodologies, textbooks, materials, resources and assessment.
Co-ordination and communication among the Science team is effective and takes the form of formal and informal meetings. Formal meetings have been held in order to plan some programmes of work. This is commendable practice and a common programme is now in place for first and second year Junior Certificate Science and for fifth year Leaving Certificate Biology. Minutes of the formal meetings were available during the evaluation, which is praiseworthy practice. It is recommended that common plans be reviewed at the end of each year and any relevant adjustments made. It is further suggested that a list of topics to be completed by each year group and the associated mandatory practical work be distributed to students to allow them to plan their work.
Short term lesson plans were detailed and contained reference to aims, objectives, resources to be used, a short introduction and main body content of the lesson, concluding with homework allocation. Lessons were clear and well structured. Materials and apparatus to be used in the lessons had been prepared in advance. This attention to short term planning served to enhance the quality of teaching and learning in the lessons observed. Some good examples of structured revision worksheets and Overhead Projector (OHP) transparencies were observed. It is commendable that the Science team have begun to contribute to a folder containing a common bank of resources including worksheets and OHP transparencies. This resource is retained in the staff room and can be accessed by all of the Science team. It is suggested that as resources are added to this stock, a more fixed accommodation for communal storage be designated. There is potential to add a storage cupboard or filing cabinet to one of the storerooms which is accessible from the corridor. In order to facilitate such a development it would be necessary for all staff involved to have access to keys for the laboratories and storerooms.
Classes visited included junior cycle Science and senior cycle Biology where a range of topics were observed including photosynthesis and plant responses, plant reproduction, acids and bases, separating mixtures, the sensory system, the structure of the small intestine, the periodic table and genetics.
In the lessons visited, good use was made of a range of teaching methodologies which included group work, paired work, teacher demonstrations, use of the white board, whole class discussions, questioning and investigative practical work. Teachers made good use of a range of resources such as charts, models, OHP transparencies, laboratory apparatus, play dough, textbooks and the white board as well as worksheets containing past paper questions, crosswords and cloze tests.
Some lessons observed made good use of structured worksheets to reinforce the lesson content. This use of prepared resources to enhance the lesson is praiseworthy. Teacher movement among the students, assisting, assessing and affirming was observed in many lessons and this practice is encouraged as a method of sustaining student interest and application to work as well as a means of monitoring student performance and achievement. Lessons proceeded at a pace that was appropriate to the ability levels in classes. This differentiated teaching was evidenced in the level of attention paid to using the ‘language of Science’ during lessons, spelling of key words and noting them on the white board as well as extra attention to new words introduced during the course of the lesson. At their most effective, these differentiated teaching methodologies reflected the detailed attention to learning support in the planning documentation and this is commendable. When questioned, most students responded confidently and displayed a good level of understanding of the concepts being taught. This was further evident in the quality of interaction and discussion observed in some of the lessons visited.
Discipline was good and an atmosphere of mutual respect prevailed in each classroom visited. Correct answers were affirmed while incorrect ones were dealt with sensitively. Students were kept busy and engaged at all times, and much patient and positive support was provided by teachers. One lesson observed made good use of play dough as a visual stimulus to show the difference between Transverse section and Longitudinal section diagrams. This approach made a significant contribution to enhancing student understanding of these concepts.
Where practical activities were observed, they were investigative and students worked with due regard for health and safety regulations. Students were divided into groups of two or three, in which they worked competently and were engaged in their own learning. Each group was allocated two tasks, which through discussion with the rest of the group they would come to a consensus as to the type of energy change taking place. This good practice encourages peer learning.
A range of assessment techniques was in evidence in St Mary’s Diocesan School. End of topic tests are held on a regular basis and records of pupil attainment are recorded in the teacher diary. This provides a good source of information for feedback to parents, in assisting students in making subject choices at senior level and on the level of examination paper to choose in Certificate Examinations.
Whole school examinations are held for all students at Christmas and summer. Tests are also held in October for all first year students. Mock Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate exams are held in the second term. It is commendable that the Science department uses common testing across first, second and fifth year groups, where practicable. This good practice was introduced last year and expected to roll on to third year in due course. It is suggested that the science team review these plans on an annual basis and make adjustments as necessary. The inclusion of a coursework allocation in these common tests is recommended to augment this good assessment practice and to reflect the coursework element of the revised Junior Certificate Science syllabus. Student progress is also reported to parents/guardians at formal parent teacher meetings while parents are kept up to date with information on upcoming events through letters and the school newsletter.
Some good use of questioning, as a form of assessment, was observed. Questions ranged from the factual, which tested recall, to questions of a higher order that were more challenging and encouraged students to think at a deeper level. This also reflected the high expectations of the class teacher. The level of student engagement was generally good, students were for the most part enthusiastic and chorus answering was discouraged from the outset. Written and learning homework is assigned where appropriate and students are encouraged to note this in their diaries at the end of class.
An appropriate record of practical write-ups was evidenced in the student laboratory notebooks, activities were investigative and students were encouraged to write in their own words. This is good practice. Most notebooks observed were of a good standard and the majority showed evidence of checking and annotation, which is a good way of encouraging pupils and giving direction, and it is advised that this practice be adopted in all Science classes. It is suggested that the Science team explore the possibility of developing a departmental assessment policy to promote common marking practices across the Science team in the areas of homework, class work and practical notebooks. Good procedures involving follow-up on corrections were noted in some lessons where teachers had adopted a practice of checking corrections made and noting where write-ups had been missed or incomplete. It is suggested that the Science team look into disseminating this good practice throughout the department.
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.