An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Mullingar, County Westmeath
Roll number: 63290Q
Date of inspection: 31 January and 1 February 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Loreto College, Mullingar. 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 board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report, and the response of the board will be found in the appendix of this report.
The evaluation of Junior Certificate Science and Leaving Certificate Biology at Loreto College, was carried out over two days. It began with a meeting with the science and biology teachers at which the objectives and procedures of the evaluation were explained. Following this, single and double first-year and double second-year science classes were observed, along with single and double fifth-year biology classes. In addition, a meeting was held with the school principal to discuss whole-school support for Science and Biology.
Junior Certificate Science is a core subject for all junior cycle students. While classes are generally of mixed ability, timetabling allows for the separation of higher-level and ordinary-level classes in second and third year. Four class periods, in the form of one double and two single periods, are allocated to all Junior Certificate science classes. This is within syllabus guidelines. There is a maximum class size of twenty-four students in junior cycle science and classes are usually smaller than this.
Following the Junior Certificate examination, students choose between Transition Year (TY), the Leaving Certificate (LC) programme and the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme. Students who opt for TY receive double periods for Science (including Biology and Chemistry), Physics and Horticulture each week. Modules in Forensic Science, Cosmetic Science and Sports Science are provided as part of the science course. There is a focus on practical and project work, and active learning methodologies are emphasised. This is good practice. Students following the LCA programme study a module in Science and Health.
Students following the LC programme are offered Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Agricultural Science as optional subjects. Following consultation with the guidance counsellor, year heads, and with parents, students are provided with the opportunity to choose their own subjects. These choices are then used to create a “best-fit” model of subject options, accommodating as many students as possible. Biology is the most popular of the four science-related subjects and the proportion of students choosing it is very encouraging. Biology classes are of mixed ability and students are allocated one double period and three single periods each week. This is within syllabus guidelines. Once again, a maximum class-size policy of twenty-four students operates.
It is noted that, in a number of instances, due to job-sharing arrangements, classes are shared between two teachers. This occurs at both junior and senior level. While good planning for these classes was in evidence, it is recommended that this practice be re-examined and eliminated where possible.
Currently, there are eight teachers of Science in the school and six of these are teachers of Biology. Opportunities have been availed of for continuing professional development during recent and current national in-service training programmes in the physical sciences, Biology and Junior Certificate Science. Management is commended on the commitment given to facilitate attendance at in-service training. Links are maintained with the Irish Science Teachers Association (ISTA) and management is also willing to support membership of the ISTA for all science teachers by paying their annual membership subscription. This is a positive and encouraging action. In addition, the school encourages and facilitates active participation by students in science quizzes and a variety of science-related extra-curricular activities including visits to a water treatment facility and ecology visits. This is laudable.
There are three laboratories in the school at present. They are in separate sections of the school buildings. Two of the laboratories are old and in need of modernisation. The third laboratory was recently adapted from existing accommodation, as a temporary measure. The school is currently awaiting final approval to proceed with a major building and refurbishment programme, which includes the provision of new laboratory accommodation. Two of the laboratories have associated storage and preparation areas. These areas are well stocked. The laboratories are well ordered and best use is being made of them. Resources available to science and biology teachers include overhead projectors, two personal computers and a data projector in one laboratory. Further deployment of computer equipment, throughout the school, has been held up in anticipation of the refurbishment programme. However broadband infrastructure has been installed in those areas of the school building where it is anticipated that construction work will be minimal.
All class groups have weekly timetabled access to a laboratory and the laboratories are used exclusively for science subjects. There are appropriate charts and posters on the laboratory walls, including student work in some cases, helping to create an appropriate learning environment. This is especially apparent in the corridor outside the most recent laboratories, creating an attractive area devoted to the promotion of the sciences. The science teachers are to be commended for this. These displays should be changed, occasionally, in line with the work being done, to highlight students’ project work and to provide information on careers in the sciences.
A range of health and safety equipment was observed, including first aid kits, fire extinguishers, and fire blankets. A high priority was given to the active management of safety issues during student practical work, as evidenced by the wearing of white coats and eye protection during practical work observed. Displaying laboratory rules in a more prominent manner should enhance this praiseworthy attention to safety. The school has a health and safety statement that was drawn up in 2002. This statement is reviewed regularly and the science teachers are involved as appropriate.
There is evidence of a strong sense of collegiality among the science teachers and the level of co-operation is very high. A formal science department is in place and there is a recognised convenor. This position rotates on an annual basis, affording all the science teachers an opportunity to exercise leadership. Management generously provides the convenor with time to carry out specified duties. The duties of the convenor include making up a supply of bench chemicals for all laboratories, stock control and ordering of equipment, budgeting, convening subject department meetings and preparing the agenda for these, and maintaining the comprehensive science department folder. This excellent folder contains all the background information relevant to the smooth running of the science department. The convenor is also the main link between the science department and management. Formal department meetings are held twice each term, one meeting being timetabled and the other during lunchtime. Minutes of these meetings are recorded. Informal contact between the science teachers is frequent and laboratory sharing and other issues of immediate concern are dealt with.
Common curricular plans for Junior Certificate Science and Leaving Certificate Biology were presented. The focus of these planning documents is on content, in sequence, and there is extensive reference to textbooks. It is recommended that reference to the syllabus documents also be included in the plans as these are the primary documents that describe the objectives, content and learning outcomes of the courses being followed. The topics observed being taught in the classrooms were in line with the planning documents. Written plans were also presented in relation to the LCA science course and to all the TY science modules. The science teachers are to be congratulated for their work in the area of curriculum planning and assessment. It is recommended that reference to mandatory practical work be included in the planning documents, to facilitate the sourcing and preparation of resources and to encourage the sharing of best practice among the science teaching team. The inclusion of methodologies in the plans would also be helpful in order to ensure that teachers do not unwittingly restrict themselves to a preferred dominant style of teaching and to ensure that material is always taught in a manner appropriate to the material itself and to the students being taught.
In the lessons observed there was strong evidence of short-term planning. In most cases, individual teachers presented lesson plans and provided the inspector with copies of handouts and other resources that were made use of in the lessons. Teachers were familiar with the subject matter of their lessons and there was a theme running through each lesson. Materials and resources necessary for class, along with the chemicals and apparatus required for student centred investigative work, had been prepared in advance. This preparation contributed to the quality of learning and is praiseworthy.
In all classes visited, there was a disciplined atmosphere. Rapport with students was good and this is to be commended. Teachers were enthusiastic, warm, patient and considerate of students. Their approach to their work was professional and business-like and a good learning environment was evident in all lessons observed. Good progress was made in all lessons. The level of two-way communication in classrooms was relevant to the task at hand. Students were attentive, interested and anxious to participate in the learning process. The topics covered in the classes observed included viruses, amoeba, photosynthesis, osmosis, heat transfer and the skeleton.
A range of teaching methodologies was observed, including questioning of students, discussion, demonstrations, pair work, student practical activity, and the use of the overhead projector. There was appropriate use of handouts and student worksheets. Lessons were generally well structured and students were kept busy and actively engaged at all times. Best practice was seen where previous learning was reviewed, in order to set the stage for moving on. This review was followed by the presentation of new material, using appropriate methodologies, and students were provided with opportunities to put the new learning into practice, before a final summarising of the lesson and assignment of homework. There was a good balance between active learning methodologies and teacher-centred presentations in most lessons. There was evidence of differentiation in the manner in which lessons were conducted, and all students were given an opportunity to achieve according to their abilities.
Lessons proceeded at a suitable pace and changes in methodologies were built into lesson plans as appropriate. Teachers were very knowledgeable about their subject matter and there was good use of scientific terminology in the lessons observed. Students were challenged by lesson content and responded well. Continuity from previous lessons was good and new information was well linked to previous learning. Lessons had a clear focus. This is excellent practice.
The teachers circulated through the classroom assisting, examining and encouraging the students. The teachers’ questions elicited factual responses and also facilitated higher order thinking. Best practice was seen where students were given time to formulate their answers and were encouraged to put up their hands before a respondent was chosen. In most of the lessons observed, there was a good balance between global and student-specific questioning. This is good practice. All teachers are encouraged to give thought to their use of questioning as a methodology in order to enhance the quality of learning opportunities for students.
The practical work that was undertaken was efficiently organized and implemented. The students worked in groups of two or three and demonstrated a mature approach to their work. It is important that students are briefed thoroughly before the practical work begins. Best practice was observed where teachers facilitated plenary sessions before and after the experiment, thus ensuring that the students clearly understood the purpose of the practical work and had an opportunity to discuss and rationalize their findings afterwards. This is laudable.
Good practice concerning the minimal use of textbooks was apparent during the lessons. The homework given was appropriate to the lesson content, was varied as to type and was designed to assist the student in learning and understanding the topic in question. It is important to ensure that the assigning of homework is integrated into the lesson, thus encouraging students to see homework as an intrinsic aspect of the learning process.
In order for students to make better progress and to put class work in context, it is suggested that the learning goals be clearly outlined to students at the outset of each lesson. These goals should be concise and achievable. They can encourage a degree of self-assessment by students within the class and help individuals to monitor their own progress. They also provide a basis upon which the teacher can summarise the lesson content at relevant stages during the lesson, and again at the end of the lesson, and upon which homework can be given.
Students demonstrated a positive attitude towards Science and Biology as evidenced by the level of engagement and interest observed during the lessons visited. Students displayed a very good level of knowledge, understanding and skills during interaction with the inspector. Formative assessment of students is carried out on an ongoing basis by questioning in class, through correction of homework and through the excellent level of teacher movement and observation of students during class that was noted by the inspector.
Students kept laboratory notebooks up to date as evidence of practical work being carried out. This is a very important aspect of new and revised syllabuses in the science area. The quality of the notebooks examined by the inspector was excellent due to the extent of attention paid by the teachers to them, with particular attention being paid to entering the results of each activity and drawing appropriate conclusions. This is excellent practice. The use of positive and affirming comments by teachers when correcting the laboratory notebooks is commendable.
All non-certificate examination classes are assessed by means of Christmas and summer examinations. Questions on mandatory practical work are included in these examinations and up to ten percent of marks are awarded for junior cycle students’ practical laboratory notebooks. Certificate examination classes are assessed at the end of November and also sit mock examinations in the spring. The students’ scripts are assessed externally. Common assessments are used for all junior cycle classes. Additional testing is at the discretion of individual teachers. Records of assessment are held in teachers’ own diaries and in report books in the school office.
Results of assessments and progress reports are communicated to parents by means of Christmas and summer reports for non-certificate examination classes, and November and spring reports for the certificate examination classes. Additional progress reports are issued if parents or teachers request them. Communication with parents is also achieved by means of parent-teacher meetings, held once per year for each class. In addition, the student journal that all students are required to keep is used to communicate with parents. The school operates an open door policy and parents are encouraged to contact the school if they have any concerns regarding their children’s performance.
There was evidence of record keeping by teachers, covering student attendance and assessment results. In addition, some teachers also kept note of comments made in reports, topics covered and homework. This is good practice. It is recommended that record keeping be expanded to include student behaviour and the quality and frequency of homework done. The recorded information can be used to build up student profiles and can form the basis of very useful evidence in communicating student progress to parents and in advising both students and parents on choice of subjects at senior level and the level of examination paper to choose in certificate examinations.
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 September 2008
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1 Observations on the content of the inspection report
Condition of Laboratories
· The Board of Management and the Science Teachers are concerned about the condition of the laboratories and are disappointed that the delayed building project (stages 3 & 4 are complete, awaiting direction on stage 5) has resulted in the failure to provide two new laboratories.
· The wall displays are changed on a regular basis.
· The laboratory rules are behind or to the side of the door in each laboratory. Due to the geography of the rooms it is difficult to display the rules anywhere else. However, laboratory rules are regularly emphasised or reinforced verbally in class. The laboratory rules are also written in the students' laboratory copy, on the cover of the students' experiment copy and in the text book.
Recording behaviour / homework
· There are separate ways of recording behaviour and homework such as the referral system through the Incident Report form.
Area 2 Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection
activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection.
• The practice of sharing classes is being monitored and examined.
The Science Teachers and Board of Management are happy with the Science Evaluation - the process and the report. The recommendations have been welcomed and taken on board.