An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Chemistry
Sexton Street, Limerick
Roll number: 64200R
Date of inspection: 25 September 2007
Date of issue of report: 22 May 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Chemistry
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Mhichíl, Sexton Street, Limerick carried out as part of a whole school evaluation. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Science and in Chemistry 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 and the subject teachers.
The science subjects in this school are Junior Certificate Science, Transition Year (TY) Biology, TY Chemistry, TY Physics, Leaving Certificate (LC) Biology, LC Chemistry, LC Physics, and the single subject LC Physics and Chemistry. This is a very broad range of science subjects and shows good support by the school for including science subjects on its curriculum.
That science subjects are included in the TY programme is to be commended as exposure to these subjects can help to better inform students when making their senior-cycle subject choices. The school allocates nine class periods weekly for science subjects during Transition Year and this is a very significant proportion of the overall weekly timetable.
During the evaluation it was reported by teachers that a significant number of students do not study Science at junior cycle and that this arises from students presenting with learning difficulties and behavioural difficulties. While the school facilitates some movement of students among class groups, there is a defined streaming structure in place. For example, in first year the top three class groups study Science and the remaining two class groups do not. Science at junior cycle involves developing students’ psychomotor skills, practical skills and teamwork as well as their scientific knowledge, literacy, and problem solving. Given that a student’s experience of Science encompasses academic and practical skills, it is advised that Science can provide a valuable and adaptable subject to interest students and to meet the needs of diverse learners. In this context, it is recommended that the school review the provision of Science and seek to provide Science to all of its students.
The science syllabus seeks to promote students’ independent learning and learning from peers. The use of mixed-ability groupings can support students in learning from their peers and can help to increase students’ and teachers’ expectations of students’ levels of attainment. Thus, it is recommended that the school explore the use of mixed-ability groupings for all science class groups.
The time allocation for Science consists of four class periods per week for all class groups except for one first-year class group where the allocation is five class periods weekly. The syllabus recommends four class periods per week. Thus, the time allocated by the school fully meets the recommendations of the syllabus. In the current academic year, the time allocation for Chemistry consists of four class periods in fifth year and five class periods in sixth year. The syllabus recommends a time allocation equivalent to five class periods in each year. Senior school management stated that it will increase the time allocation next year to ensure that there is no shortfall in the total time allocated to Chemistry and this is to be encouraged.
There are four laboratories and one demonstration room in the school. These facilities are in good repair and are sufficient to meet the laboratory requirements for the teaching and learning of the science subjects offered by the school. There is ample storage in the preparation area and the teachers have done good work in organising the equipment and materials stored there. Chemicals are colour coded and stored in accordance with Department of Education and Science guidelines and this is appropriate.
The information and communications technologies (ICT) resources available to the science teachers include a computer and data projector. Broadband internet access is also available and it was reported that further ICT hardware is being acquired. These developments are to be encouraged as the integration of ICT in the teaching of science subjects can help to enhance students’ motivation and aid their learning. Some support for teachers in developing the integration of ICT may be accessed through the ICT advisory service attached to Limerick education centre and online at www.ncte.ie.
There is good support for the science teachers’ continuing professional development and nearly all of the science teachers have attended the Junior Science Support Service (JSSS) in-service courses. The JSSS website also provides a repository of resources that were disseminated at previous in-service courses and these resources might be of use in supporting teachers who did not attend or missed a particular in-service course. It is advised that the JSSS is providing courses in the current academic year that support teachers who have not previously been in a position to attend in-service courses and details of these courses are available at http://www.juniorscience.ie/jsss/Main/Home_2.htm.
The science teachers work well together in a collegial manner and this supports their work in planning for the teaching and learning of science subjects. They meet frequently, formally and informally, to plan and prepare for the teaching of their subjects. Minutes of formal meetings are kept and this is good practice as it helps to ensure continuity of planning and enables the teachers to highlight key issues and to work towards resolving them.
Teachers each have an individual plan for their class groups and they endeavour to follow a common content sequence. The individual plans that were viewed included syllabus aims, a content list, details of textbooks to be used, a description of assessment modes, and an outline of the teaching requirements for the academic year. The work done by the science teachers in developing their individual subject plans is to be commended. In building on this good work it is recommended that it be extended by developing a formal, collaborative subject plan that highlights the key issues relating to the teaching and learning of science subjects and suggests strategies to address these issues. Developing teaching methodologies for use with diverse learners and devising strategies to encourage regular attendance were among the issues highlighted by the science teachers during the inspection and these issues should be included as priorities in the plan.
Good practice was observed where a detailed short-term plan that outlined the work to be done with students over a number of lessons was presented for inspection. This document outlined the lesson topics, the methodologies to be used, and the resources that would be required. The plan beneficially informed the teaching and learning of the subject and the very good work done in drawing up the plan is to be commended.
A copy of the TY chemistry plan was viewed. The plan described the aims of TY Chemistry and contained details of the topics to be covered with students. While many of the topics feature as part of the Leaving Certificate Chemistry syllabus, it is commendable that a number of them develop the inter-disciplinary nature of Science by combining elements of Chemistry with Physics, Biology, and Geography. It is notable that the topics outlined in the plan relate to students’ everyday experiences and this is good practice as such linkage can support students’ learning. In building on these good practices, it is recommended that future revision of the TY chemistry plan seek to develop students’ scientific skills by balancing the use of leaving certificate material with greater use of alternative science topics.
All lessons observed were appropriate to the relevant syllabus. Lessons had been appropriately planned and prepared in advance. This planning and preparation was evident from teachers’ high levels of subject matter expertise and the fact that all requisite materials were to hand.
Directed questioning was the main questioning style that was used and it was effective in enabling teachers to gather feedback on students’ learning and in engaging students in the lesson topic. Best practice was observed where question types included recall-based and higher-order questions. A mixture of question types enables teachers to anchor students’ learning in the scientific facts of the topic under study while challenging students to deepen their understanding and to explore the concepts being studied. Best practice was observed where teachers used questioning to involve and engage all students in the lesson.
In a number of lessons, recap and reinforcement of the main learning points were a notable feature. Regular recap and reinforcement help to ensure that students have a secure understanding of the key lesson objectives and it is recommended that greater use be made of recap and reinforcement in all lessons.
Teachers made good use of the board to highlight key learning points and to enable students to note these points. The use of ICT presentations was effective in aiding students’ learning as the diagrams used were clear and colourful. Good practice was observed where models were used to support teaching and learning. The use of models engages students’ senses of sight and touch and is supportive of working with learners with diverse learning styles.
In a small number of lessons, short, written exercises were used to reinforce students’ learning and this is good practice. In enabling students to learn from their peers and in developing teamwork among students it might be of use to consider how such exercises could be undertaken in a group setting and how differentiation of the exercises might support students with specific learning needs.
Where practical work was observed it was focused, purposeful and completed safely. Students were engaged in their work. Some students worked faster than others and completed their assigned tasks before other students. In such cases, it is advisable that the assigned tasks contain sufficient level of variety and challenge for all students. The use of differentiated tasks would be of assistance in this regard. Good practice was observed where students’ results were discussed during a plenary session at the end of the lesson and this enabled students to learn from each other.
In a majority of lessons, students showed good levels of knowledge of and interest in the lesson topics. In some lessons, there was variety in students’ levels of knowledge of and interest in the lesson topics. In supporting students’ diverse learning needs it is recommended that differentiated tasks and regular recap and reinforcement be used more extensively to motivate students’ interest, reinforce their learning, and develop their knowledge of the topics under study.
In all lessons observed discipline was maintained and the atmosphere was one of mutual respect among teachers and students. Students were secure in asking questions and in volunteering answers. Frequent use of affirmation of students’ efforts and responses was a notable feature of lessons and this is to be commended.
Students’ progress is assessed regularly and reports are sent home periodically. These practices are appropriate. There are good structures in place that support communication between the school and students’ parents and these include use of parent-teacher meetings, students’ journals, and formal reports.
A sample of students’ copybooks was viewed. It was evident that homework is a regular feature of students’ learning and this is good practice. Best practice was noted where there was evidence of regular monitoring of students’ work by their teachers and where teachers provided affirming comments and guidance to students on how to improve their work.
The science teachers reflect on the results attained by their students in the State examinations and this is good practice as analysis of students’ results in combination with use of chief examiners’ reports, examination papers, and marking schemes can help to inform and develop subject planning.
The write up of experiments is done by students and monitored by their teachers and this is good practice. In general, teachers give oral feedback to students on their experimental work while the students are working. In addition, teachers described that they assess students’ experimental skills in written examinations. In Chemistry, students gain marks as part of their Christmas examination for the successful write up of their experimental work and this is good practice as it tangibly rewards students for their experimental work. In building on these good practices it would be beneficial to also award marks to junior cycle students as part of their end-of-term examinations for the experimental work they have completed and the practical skills they have gained. In addition, the inclusion of credit for the completion of homework and for the standard of students’ homework can serve to motivate students in their learning and act as a positive reinforcement.
The science teachers are active in supporting students’ participation in a range of extra-curricular and co-curricular science-related activities. Students’ participation in these activities enhances their experience of Science and helps to develop their scientific skills and understanding. The very good work done by the science teachers in enabling students’ participation in these activities is acknowledged and is to be commended.
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 Chemistry and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.