An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
College Street, Cavan
Roll number: 61080S
Date of inspection: 26 November 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
Subject inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Royal School Cavan 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 these subjects 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 headmaster and subject teachers.
Subject provision and whole school support
Science is a core subject for all students to Junior Certificate level and science classes are allocated four periods per week in each of the three years. All science classes are mixed ability. This time allocation is in line with syllabus recommendations. Currently, Junior Certificate science is delivered as two double periods for each year group. In order to provide a more equitable distribution of lessons throughout the week and to enable more frequent class contact, it is recommended that management provides two single class periods and one double period per week, where practicable, for each class group. In first year, the Junior Certificate science class is split between two teachers, each taking a double period. At present, this is reported to work well and a good level of communication and planning takes place between the teachers involved. It is recommended that this arrangement be monitored and evaluated on a year-by-year basis in order to ensure its effectiveness.
Students in the senior cycle take a compulsory Transition Year (TY) before moving to the established Leaving Certificate programme. Science in the TY is allocated three periods per week and this is appropriate. Biology, Agricultural Science and Physics/Chemistry are offered to students on the established Leaving Certificate programme. Option blocks are generated following an analysis of students’ subject preferences. It is recommended that management takes steps to ensure that all students are aware that they can study both Biology and Agricultural Science for the Leaving Certificate examination.
There is one science laboratory in the school with an adjacent chemical store. The chemicals are organised on shelves using a colour-coded sequence according to their chemical storage groups. This level of organisation is commendable. However, this type of storage is unsuitable for toxics and flammables which must be housed in appropriate lockable cupboards. It is therefore recommended that appropriate secure storage be arranged for toxic and flammable chemicals as a matter of priority. In addition, a forced ventilation system is recommended to complement the present system which is a vent in the ceiling. A range of health and safety equipment was observed in the science laboratory, including a first aid kit, fire blanket, and gas isolation switch. A list of telephone numbers for the emergency services is also prominently displayed. A list of safety precautions is displayed prominently in the laboratory and at the start of first-year student notebooks. This is all good practice. The fume cupboard in the laboratory is not operational. This limits some experimental work and thus, has the potential to impact negatively on the quality of teaching and learning. It is recommended that this be replaced. Two fire extinguishers are located outside the laboratory. In the interests of health and safety; it is recommended that these be re-located to a more accessible area within the laboratory. The school is aware of the need to refurbish the laboratory and it has made application to the Planning and Building Unit of the Department of Education and Science for funding under the Summer Works Scheme. It is recommended that the health and safety issues identified in this report be addressed by management, as a priority.
Double class periods are formally timetabled by management for laboratory access. Single period access is organised on an informal basis between the members of the science team. However, the laboratory has also been allocated as a base classroom for one teacher and this results in the teaching of non-science subjects in the room. It is recommended that, where possible, the practice of timetabling non-science subjects for the laboratory be avoided. The science team, in consultation with senior management, should explore how laboratory access for the sciences can be maximised.
Information and communications technology (ICT) provision for the sciences is very good in the school and it is being actively used to enhance teaching and learning. The laboratory is equipped with a personal computer (PC) and data projector and each science teacher has a PC in his or her classroom. The school is broadband-enabled and teachers can also have remote access using their laptops. All teachers have access to a common drive on the school ICT server where all subject areas are represented. Students can also avail of limited access to this common drive. The school is also in the process of developing a Moodle site and a number of teachers were being trained to use this resource at the time of the evaluation. The science team also has access to a range of data loggers and it is notable that one member of the team is involved with the ‘discover sensors’ programme. The school also has a computer room and access to it is organised informally.
The science team has benefited from opportunities for continuing professional development (CPD) during national in-service training. Management is to be commended for its commitment to facilitating attendance at this in-service.
The sciences are promoted in the school through visits
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Planning and preparation
Subject department planning is supported by management by the inclusion of planning time at the end of staff meetings. Minutes were available for the formal meetings which covered review of planning documentation, student progress and ordering stock. The science team also meets regularly on an informal basis and this level of communication is laudable. Co-ordination is efficiently accomplished by a subject department co-ordinator. This position is rotated on an annual basis which is good practice.
The subject department plan for Science follows the outline of the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) template and it is noteworthy that the science team has made amendments to the template to reflect the practice in the school. The long-term planning for Junior Certificate science includes a list of topics for each year group. The sequence of topics developed by the Junior Science support service has been amended and adopted. Suitable time frames have been added to each topic. To build on this, it is now appropriate to extend the shorter-term planning to include schemes of work for each year group and to list the syllabus learning outcomes linked to appropriate methodologies, the practical work to be completed and the modes of assessment. It is recommended that a common template for the schemes of work be developed by the science team. This template could then be added to the science folder of the school’s common server and would be accessible to all science teachers. Each team member could then contribute to the development of the schemes of work at their own pace. Commendably, the science team is in the process of collating worksheets, fact sheets and other resources into a common folder on the school server.
Planning documentation was also available for Transition Year Science. The plan covers the three modules in TY and includes aims and objectives, options structure in Transition Year, grouping of students, time allocation, students with special educational needs (SEN), resources, teaching methodologies, reporting and record keeping. It is praiseworthy that the assessment of TY science includes a substantial percentage of total marks for practical work and the development and presentation of a project in two of the modules.
Planning documentation for the Leaving Certificate Biology teaching programme was also based on the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) template. Cross-curricular links and links with the special educational needs (SEN) department were noted in the plans and this is praiseworthy. A draft scheme of work for Leaving Certificate Biology was provided at the time of the evaluation and it is recommended that this be elaborated upon by the team of biology teachers to reflect the good practice which is already taking place. Plans for all year groups should include an initial period at the start of the school year which is dedicated to a review of health and safety procedures that apply to practical work.
Teaching and learning
A very committed approach is taken to the learning and teaching of Science and Biology. Lessons observed were clear and well structured. In all classes visited, the good practice of the teacher sharing the learning objectives with the students from the outset of the lesson was observed.
In all classes visited, good classroom management was in evidence. Teachers moved around the classroom, questioning, monitoring and advising thus ensuring that all students were on task and engaged with the lesson content. Great efforts were made in many lessons to make lesson content relevant to students’ everyday lives. A good example of this was where household heating systems were used to explain how techniques used in the laboratory also apply in the home. Teachers were sensitive to student interests and the tasks set were purposeful and appropriate to the range of student abilities present.
Topics covered in the lessons observed included: respiration, hard water, conduction of heat, food, states of matter and the heart. A variety of teaching methodologies was used and included group-work, paired-work, questioning, brainstorming and discussions. Teachers engaged in the good practice of varying methodologies throughout the lesson and this served to ensure student attention and acted as a motivation factor for students. Teachers made use of a range of appropriate resources which included the use of a data projector, white board, worksheets and various items of laboratory apparatus. The textbook was used as a resource for reference and diagrams. It is praiseworthy that teachers avoided over-reliance on any one type of resource material or teaching methodology.
Interaction with students by the inspector indicated that they generally had a good understanding of the topics being studied. They demonstrated confidence and competence in answering questions and in carrying out experimental work. Good use of questioning by teachers was observed, either directed to individual named students or to the whole-class group. Questions ranged from direct questioning to recall facts to those which promoted higher order thinking skills. Students were encouraged to seek clarification wherever necessary. Students willingly engaged in discussion with their teachers and were knowledgeable about the lesson content.
Where practical work was observed, students displayed good routines for setting up and clearing away apparatus and this contributed to the effective pacing of the lesson. Students worked well in their groups and there was a good balance of activities shared between each partner. Students were enthusiastic and displayed clear enjoyment in the lessons observed. The atmosphere was conducive to work, respectful and purposeful.
When questioned by the inspector, the students engaged in practical work could clearly outline their task and displayed a good understanding of the topic. In most instances, while managing the learning activities teachers placed emphasis on promoting an investigative approach, and this is good practice. It is recommended that all teachers should be mindful of the investigative nature of science experiments, in particular the mandatory practical work set out in the Junior Certificate science syllabus.
Best practice was observed where students recorded group results on a grid on the white board. Discussion of the results was then encouraged by the teacher, including the validity and reliability of the results. This is good practice as it encourages critical and analytical thinking skills in students. Other examples of good practice observed included discussion of possible extensions to the practical and of possible variations in the procedures used. Visual displays were used to good effect and included PowerPoint presentations using the data projector, short video clips, posters and worksheets. In one lesson observed the teacher had weighed out quantities of margarine corresponding to the fat content of well-known fast foods. As well as providing a clear visual representation, this provoked an interesting discussion on hidden fats.
Teachers’ records made available during the evaluation provided information on student achievement in class tests as well as attendance and homework records. Communication with parents takes the form of a written report at Christmas and summer as well as the annual parent-teacher meetings. Parents are also welcome to contact the school and make an appointment to meet a teacher to discuss student progress.
Common science tests are administered at the end of the school year for junior-cycle science. Tests at Christmas and summer include a percentage of the marks for practical work. This is good practice as it reflects the coursework element of the revised Junior Certificate Science syllabus. A number of class tests are also administered during the school year, usually at the end of a topic or module. It is recommended that teachers monitor the content of the class tests in order to ensure they include sufficient differentiation to cater for the needs of all students, especially those who are challenged by the subject.
The school has developed a homework policy. Additions to this policy, specific to science, were noted in the science planning documentation. Homework was allocated at the end of all lessons observed. Students were required to note this in their student journal.
While the majority of student homework and class work exercises are corrected orally in class, a sample of students’ notebooks observed showed evidence of checking and annotation by teachers. Where exercises have been checked and commented upon by the teacher it is important that students act on these corrections in order to consolidate the learning process. It is recommended that the science team should develop procedures for follow-up on exercises that have been checked and annotated by the teacher. These could then be included in the science department’s assessment policy.
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, the science co-ordinator and with the headmaster at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published November 2009