Subject Inspection – Science

This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Paul’s Community College. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Science, and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject 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 subject teachers. The board of management was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.

SUBJECT PROVISION AND WHOLE SCHOOL SUPPORT

While a very small percentage of current second-year students do not study Science, Junior Certificate Science is now a core subject for all first year students, including those who are participating in the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP), and it will remain so for the duration of their junior cycle. The time allocation to the subject in first year is one double lesson and one single lesson per week. This is increased in second and third year to a weekly allocation of one double lesson and two single lessons, as is recommended by the syllabus guidelines. The time reduction in first year is used to facilitate a subject-taster system that operates in the school. This arrangement should be reviewed periodically to ensure that the total time allocation over the three years of the junior cycle is sufficient to enable full coverage of the Junior Certificate science syllabus.

Students take the compulsory Transition Year (TY) programme on completion of their junior cycle. As part of this programme, students study a nine-week module in each of Biology, Physics and Chemistry. A weekly time allocation of one double lesson and one single lesson is assigned to this science programme.

For the Leaving Certificate, students can take the established Leaving Certificate, the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) or the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme. Biology, Chemistry and Physics are offered as optional science subjects for the Leaving Certificate. Classes are arranged on a mixed-ability basis. In the current school year, students in year one of the Leaving Certificate study Biology, Chemistry and Physics whereas those in year two study Biology only. The time allocation for each of the science subjects is currently one double lesson and two single lessons in both year one and year two of Leaving Certificate programme. This allocation is within syllabus guidelines. The majority of science classes are held in the science laboratories, which is good practice.

The science team in the school currently comprises three members. All are involved in the delivery of junior cycle science. Teachers are allocated to classes so as to ensure continuity from first to third year. The science facilities comprise three laboratories with a shared preparation area and chemical store. The laboratories are all designated for the teaching of junior cycle Science. While a programme of improvement for the laboratories has been discussed between the science team and management, a firm plan for this work is not yet in place. This is a concern as the preparation/storage area requires immediate attention. This area is in need of total reorganisation. It contains much obsolete material and equipment which should be removed to make way for new materials. Proper and effective storage of equipment needs to be addressed by the science team. A systematic method of chemical storage should also be implemented as a matter of urgency. It is recommended that the system put forward by the Physical Sciences Initiative be adopted. It is further recommended that each chemical be marked with the recognised colour code in order to facilitate correct storage on an ongoing basis. A list of contents of this area should be then formulated, and subsequently developed into a template for recording and re-ordering materials and equipment for stock control purposes. The science team, in consultation with management, should discuss and decide on a time frame for the completion of this work in the preparation/storage area.

On the walls in the laboratories a range of materials such as posters, models and charts is displayed. Some of this work is of student origin; this is commended and to be encouraged. The use of keyword charts and revision charts in some of the laboratories is worthy of special mention. These are of great benefit to students in the learning process and are to be encouraged also. To be fully effective, materials on display should be changed periodically to reflect what is currently being studied in the lessons and they should be actively referred to as aids in the learning process for students.

To help with the delivery of Science, the science team also has access to televisions, video resources, DVDs, CDs, data projectors, data logging equipment, the school library, computer room facilities and laptops. Some of these resources belong to the science department and this is to be commended. Management hopes that each laboratory will have its own data projector and laptop in due course. The continued use of this equipment is recommended, as is the development of additional ways in which it can be used to enhance teaching and learning.

A subject co-ordinator is in place and, in keeping with recommended practice, this role rotates among members of the team. The science team has formal meetings approximately every month, which are facilitated by management. Minutes are taken and retained, thus providing a firm record of discussions and decisions. Additional meetings, when required, can be facilitated. The team also holds informal meetings, which contribute to the smooth running of the department. An annual budget is provided by management for the purchase of any science materials and equipment deemed necessary by the staff. The constant development of resources, and not just maintenance, should be an ongoing objective of the team in this regard.

The school is currently developing an overall health and safety statement. It is being prepared in consultation with the teaching staff through the use of staff meetings and working groups. The statement will contain a section relating to the science area in the school. Timeframes for the review of this statement should be included in the final version of the document. Items of 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 are also available to the science team.

Opportunities for continuing professional development (CPD) in Science have been availed of by the teachers and are encouraged by management. In addition, the students benefit from attendance at and participation in Science Week and various quizzes. Visiting speakers are also invited into the school on a range of topics. The proximity to the Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) allows the students attend many of the different science-related events that are carried out there. The students also partake in fieldtrips, which enhance various aspects of the science curriculum. These experiences can be highly beneficial to students as means of reinforcing and enhancing their learning and it is very good that students are facilitated in participating in them where possible. Such activities are to be commended and encouraged for all science students.

PLANNING AND PREPARATION

Team planning has been developed significantly within the sciences. Common plans are present for all year groups, which is good practice. The current plans are based mainly on the identification of topics for completion in each year. These could be further expanded to include the various learning outcomes that are expected of students. The development of central tracking systems could also be established by the team. This would require that a copy of the plans is held centrally, for example in the school development planning (SDP) folder for science. Each teacher should identify work completed for each class and regularly update this to ensure that the information is current. These plans should be reviewed and updated regularly to ensure that any modifications required for a class group are indicated on the plan. In addition, to further this area of work, the team should also consider including input on student achievement, additional/alternative assessment methods and approaches to revision. Support and planning for mixed ability classes and for students with special educational needs, the in-career development needs of teachers, cross-curricular planning, homework and the integration of information and communications technology (ICT) could also be included in the future planning work of the science team.

Good short-term planning was evident in the lessons observed. This tended to be reinforced by the written documents presented and with an observed familiarity with the subject matter presented. A coherent theme was present in each of the lessons. There was also prior preparation of the materials and of the apparatus required for demonstration and student-centred investigative work. In addition, student learning was well supported through the use of a variety of resources, which included the use of models, ICT, textbooks, the whiteboard, various types of handout material and use of the overhead projector; all of this is commended. The science team should now consider planning for ways to increase student participation within lessons, when and where this is appropriate.

The individual lessons observed were planned and structured in ways that provided continuity with the previous work completed. Individual teachers kept records of work completed, attendance and assessments for each class. In addition the planned improvements for the further development of the laboratories will require a significant amount of planning by the science team. The acquisition of as much information in relation to this will be invaluable and should be done before any works are undertaken. The team, in consultation with management, could also explore the possibility that the laboratories could be offered for use to some of the local primary schools at times when not required by the school. This would help to forge links between the schools and also allow the primary students access to a real laboratory for their primary science curriculum.

TEACHING AND LEARNING

The topics for study in the lessons observed included acids and bases, forces, the digestive system and the coursework B option for the Junior Certificate. There was much evidence of good rapport between the students and the teachers. All lessons observed began with a roll call. Following this, the correction of homework took place and, in some cases, the key points covered in the previous lessons were recalled. In some instances the teacher viewed the homework completed and signed it; this is good practice. Correction of homework was done orally in the main by directing questions to named students. Following this, the recapitulation of previously completed work formed the basis of a number of lessons observed. Some skilful questioning which incorporated both recall and probing higher-order questioning was observed in the lessons visited, some of the simple recall variety and more that was probing and successfully stimulated higher-order thinking. This latter type of questioning is to be encouraged and it is recommended that its use be further developed in all lesson types.

Student attention is key to the successful learning of material and good strategies were observed to engage students in their learning process in St Paul’s Community College. The use of role play, ICT, different media, worksheets and demonstration all encouraged student engagement with the topic under investigation. Constant recapitulation and questioning by the teacher also ensured that students were active in their learning. In some instances, however, students were observed to be engaged in other activities when delivery of key points was being made. Full attention should be attained before proceeding with the material under investigation. Lesson pace was generally appropriate to the material being delivered by the teachers. Where appropriate, linkages were made with previous work completed and this aided students’ learning. To ensure students’ understanding, it is important that previous learning is consolidated before moving forward. It was noted that the teachers had clear aims and objectives for the lessons observed; consideration should be given to communicating these simply to the students at the start of the lesson.

The effective use of subject-specific keywords in relation to some topics was observed. This greatly aided students’ learning and in some instances the key words were located on charts in the science laboratory or on students’ worksheets. The development and implementation of the use of keywords for all classes should be considered by the science team. The white board and/or the overhead projector was utilised to help students visualise the material being studied; these resources also provided a source of notes for the students to record and to aid their learning. It is important always to ensure that the font size is sufficient for students to see the material. The use of different colours could also be considered, when and where appropriate. Worksheets and handouts were also well used to focus students’ learning. Where these handouts and worksheets form the basis of recording information, strategies need to be adopted to ensure the retention of these materials by the students for use in their learning. Textbooks should only be used to supplement and reinforce the learning and teaching, when this has been completed and recorded by the student during the lesson.

On completion of the majority of the observed lessons, homework was assigned. In the main, the homework assigned was intended to assist the students in learning and retaining the topic. This is good practice. In some instances different homework exercises were assigned which took into consideration the needs of the individual student. This differentiation which required extra planning was good to see as it has significant potential to help the students concerned in their learning. In general, the homework assigned involved the learning of new material and/or the answering of questions from the textbook or handout.

No student practical activities were observed but there was evidence of investigations in students’ laboratory copies. In addition, there were student investigations on display in the laboratories and it was evident that the materials for investigatory work were easily accessible to the students for use in practical activities. Teacher demonstration formed the basis of some lessons. As stated previously, some students were involved in the demonstrations observed and this is good practice. It is important that students have a focus when observing a demonstration to ensure engagement, and therefore learning. The use of questioning should not be overlooked or underestimated during these activities. Consolidation of the work completed was achieved through students’ recording of work. This is to be encouraged and should improve students’ ability to complete such tasks individually without reference to other sources of information. A plenary recall question-and-answer session should also be held on completion of the task; this would allow students to draw from their own learning experiences and help them in their recording. The science team should also consider the development of a consistent approach to the organisation of the laboratory copies. In addition it is important for the team to consider the skills they want the students to develop in relation to their laboratory work, and how this can be facilitated through the practical activities completed in class. Monitoring of students’ practical notebooks is also encouraged and should be incorporated into the scheme for assessment for all year groups.

ASSESSMENT

The school has a formal homework and assessment policy. The subject teachers monitor the implementation of the homework policy. Students’ learning is informally assessed, on a daily basis, through homework, oral questioning during the lessons, and through practical and other classroom activities. Class examinations are administered at the end of a topic at the discretion of the teacher. Students’ results for all tests completed are recorded by the teacher. Formal assessment occurs by means of tests at Christmas and in the summer term for non-examination classes. Some continuous assessment methods are also used. Students preparing for certificate examination complete an assessment in November and pre-examinations in the spring. The teachers mark the pre-examination papers of their own students, a good approach as it gives them invaluable insights into the strengths and weaknesses of individual learners.

As stated previously, the science team should discuss and consider awarding marks, to all students, for their practical copies as part of their overall grade in the subject. This would provide students with further motivation for engagement with the practical elements of the course.

Formal reports are sent to parents following Christmas, summer and pre-examinations. In addition to reports, parent-teacher meetings are held for all classes annually. The student journal, comments and marks on homework, and oral feedback are also used to inform parents of student’s progress. The science team compares the school’s certificate examination results in Science with the national norms.

SUMMARY OF MAIN FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:

• Good quality teaching and learning was observed in the science lessons observed.
• There is a professional approach to the teaching of science; this is evident from the quality of individual preparation and planning for the lessons observed and from the commitment displayed by the teachers to the students.
• The time allocation for second-year and third-year science is in line with syllabus guidelines.
• Evidence of students’ practical work, both mandatory and non-mandatory, was found in their laboratory notebooks.
• Management has facilitated planning within the sciences.
• Opportunities for continuing professional development have been availed of by the science team and this is encouraged by management.
• The school’s science facilities are maintained well and students’ work is displayed in the laboratories.
• Students have had opportunities to experience Science outside the laboratory through fieldtrips and attendance at some science events.
• ICT was integrated in some of the lessons observed.

As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:

• It is recommended that the issues outlined in this report relating to the preparation and storage area associated with the laboratories be addressed as a matter of urgency.
• Subject plans should be further developed to include learning outcomes, the approaches to be used in mixed-ability groups and the range of teaching methodologies to support the delivery of the syllabus.
• A strategy of continuous assessment of practical work should be adopted for all classes, as a means of further engaging students with the practical elements of the course.
• The science team should decide on a common mechanism for the recording of practical activities that can be used for all the science subjects.
• Teachers are urged to continue to develop and expand the integration of student participation through the use of ICT.

Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Science and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.