An Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna
Department of Education and Skills
Subject Inspection of Geography
Hartstown Community School
Clonsilla, Dublin 15
Roll number: 91339F
Date of inspection: 10 February 2010
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Geography
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Hartstown Community School. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Geography 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. The board of management 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.
Hartstown Community School is a co-educational school which offers the Junior Certificate, the Leaving Certificate (Established), and the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) to the 1040 students currently enrolled. The Transition Year (TY) programme is available as an option for senior cycle students.
School management supports the delivery of the planned teaching programme for Geography effectively. Most teachers have been assigned base classrooms, storage facilities are provided for geography resources and requests for additional resources to support teaching and learning are normally granted. Information and communications technology (ICT) provision is very good and there are plans to expand this further in the near future. It is recommended that the members of the geography teaching team develop a policy in relation to the use of ICT both by teachers and students so as to take full advantage of the ICT facilities available. This policy should then be included in the subject department plan. Resources provided to teachers by the inspector during the evaluation will assist in the development of this policy. Some teachers have registered with the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE) in relation to Scoilnet Maps. All teachers should register with the NCTE and make use of this valuable resource to support teaching and learning.
An inventory of resources is included in the subject plan but there is room for a more detailed statement of resources, for example, details of Ordnance Survey (OS) maps and DVDs available. The completion of a detailed inventory would help to identify and plan for future resource needs and would be useful to new members of the geography department.
The school has engaged with the Green-Schools Programme and some students participating in the Gaisce Awards scheme carry out tasks with an environmental dimension. These co-curricular activities are praiseworthy as they give students an opportunity to demonstrate in a practical way some of the objectives of the geography syllabuses.
In the junior cycle Geography is a core subject in the school’s curriculum and in the current year is allocated three class periods per week in first year and third year while students in second year have two class periods per week. Overall, lessons are distributed well across students’ timetables. A system of banding with mixed-ability within each band is in operation in the junior cycle. However, students in all bands are encouraged to pursue the higher-level course in Geography.
At senior cycle Geography is included within the optional TY where it is allocated two single class periods per week for the duration of the school year. For the established Leaving Certificate Geography is an optional subject and is allocated three single and one double class period per week. This is in line with syllabus recommendations. The uptake of the subject for the Leaving Certificate has been increasing and is in a very healthy state. There are five class groups formed for Geography in each year of the Leaving Certificate programme. When it is deemed necessary a sixth class group in created in the Leaving Certificate year. This uptake of the subject reflects the very positive experiences of students in the junior cycle and the commitment of teachers to present the subject in an attractive way.
Students are given an open choice of subjects before option bands are generated and are supported in making subject choices in a number of ways, notably by the provision of a booklet outlining what is entailed in studying Geography for the Leaving Certificate. This reflects the commitment of teachers to supporting their students in making informed educational decisions. In the senior cycle all classes are of mixed ability.
Currently eleven teachers, all of whom are subject specialists, deliver the geography programme in Hartstown Community School. They form a clearly identifiable subject department where they provide mutual support and share their professional expertise. Teachers have availed of continuing professional development (CPD) both in relation to Geography and to whole-school issues such as developing a homework policy and Assessment for Learning.
The subject plan for Geography identifies inclusiveness and awareness of the needs of individual students as core aims of the geography department. Information on students’ needs is provided by the learning support department and to accommodation variations in students’ learning needs, some differentiated approaches are used in lessons and homework.
A spirit of collaborative planning was evident amongst the members of the geography teaching team and they have worked together to develop a subject department plan. The work of the department is very effectively co-ordinated. Minutes of department meetings show the range of discussions that have taken place. These include: planning for and review of the teaching programme, analysis of results in certificate examinations, provision of supports for newcomer students and planning for in-house examinations. It is suggested that subject department meetings should provide opportunities for teachers to share their professional expertise by discussing effective teaching strategies and resources. The planning process is supported and facilitated by school management with the provision of time to hold formal meetings twice per term. Planning is ongoing through informal discussions amongst members of the department.
A detailed subject department plan is in place. This plan outlines organisational arrangements and a long-term curriculum plan for the each year group. The subject department plan clearly illustrates that an effective plan is in place for the carrying out of the geographical investigation by Leaving Certificate students. The plan places the student at the centre of the planning process by identifying learning outcomes to be achieved as well as making a statement on curriculum content. This good practice could be further developed by including reference to resources, teaching methodologies and assessment and linking these to the learning outcomes. This would be in line with recommendations in relation to subject planning guidelines from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA).
The planned teaching programme for first-year students is appropriate in that it provides for variety in content. However, there is still a lot of emphasis on the study of physical geography in the first term. This places significant challenges on students in terms of technical vocabulary and of understanding complex geomorphic processes. It is noted that the teaching plan makes reference to the integration of geographic skills with the teaching of physical geography and this is good practice. The teaching of Ordnance Survey (OS) map and aerial photograph skills should be introduced at an early stage in first year. These key geographical skills could then be practised and developed throughout the planned teaching programme. This could be done most effectively by using large-scale maps and photographs of the local area.
The plan for the geography module within the TY contains many elements of very good practice. The range of topics covered ensures a broad curricular experience for students. Particularly noteworthy is the effort to address gaps in students’ knowledge in relation to locational geography and the European Union. The use of peer-assessment, encouraging independent learning by the use of ICT and involving students in the evaluation of the programme are praiseworthy. These good practices could be used to good effect with all students. The inclusion of a geographical investigation in the planned teaching programme for TY would enhance the development of students’ geographical skills and would support an exploratory and investigative approach to learning.
Planning and preparation by individual teachers for the lessons observed was of a very high standard. Teaching and learning were supported by the use of teacher-generated resources which enriched the learning experiences of students. Resources used included: summary notes on lessons, OS maps, photographs from Google Earth, photographs shown on the overhead projector and supplementary textual material. Where a worksheet with appropriate questions accompanied supplementary material it ensured more effective learning by students. Teachers have developed an extensive range of resources to support teaching and learning as was evident in the folders of resources made available during the evaluation. A worthwhile development would be the use of the school’s ICT facilities for the geography teaching team to share such resources.
Classroom management in all of the lessons observed was very effective. Teachers have established clear routines and these helped to create a structured environment which facilitated teaching and learning. There was a very good rapport between teachers and students who willingly participated in the planned learning activities and were affirmed for their efforts. Students were greeted by their teachers as they entered or left the classroom and this contributed to the relaxed and positive atmosphere which was evident. During lessons students sought clarification when necessary, made positive contributions to discussions and enjoyed sharing their personal experiences and insights with the class.
Students’ responses to questions indicated that they are making very good progress in the subject and are using correct terminology. They were also able to apply their geographical skills in new settings. Students were encouraged to develop higher-order thinking skills when teachers encouraged them to develop their answers and to suggest reasons for geographical distributions.
In all of the lessons observed it was evident that teachers had identified learning targets for students as part of their preparation. To enable students to identify and to respond to these learning objectives it is recommended that a number of very specific learning intentions for each lesson should be made explicit to students so as to ensure they have a clear understanding of what is to be achieved in the lesson. These could be written on the whiteboard and could be ticked off when achieved. The successful completion of these will provide students with a sense of achievement and encourage learning.
Three junior cycle and three senior cycle lessons were observed during the evaluation. High quality teaching was evident and teachers used a variety of teaching methods to engage students in the learning process. These methods included question-and-answer sessions, teacher exposition, the completion of worksheets and students transcribing notes. The introduction of pair work or small groups would make a useful addition to the teaching and learning experience.
There was a clear focus on developing students’ geographical skills in some of the lessons observed. The integration of skills into the planned teaching programme is good practice. In one classroom students were learning how to recognise coastal features on OS maps and aerial photographs. Google Earth photographs and a corresponding OS map were used very effectively to develop this skill in students. The active engagement of students was ensured as they came to the whiteboard to point out the features. There was an obvious sense of fun as students and the teacher discussed issues around the possible location of a leisure centre. Students were encouraged to suggest reasons for the location of the leisure centre and to look at possible objections. This encouraged students to develop their critical and creative thinking skills. The further use of ICT is encouraged by all teachers and would prove to be particularly effective when explaining the operation of geomorphic processes if short animations are used. In another lesson students were taught how to draw a sketch map from an aerial photograph. This was done in a very systematic way as the stages in the completion of the task were clearly illustrated using a series of overhead transparencies. As students completed each stage of the task the teacher moved around the classroom offering support and guidance to individual students as necessary. This use of differentiation is praiseworthy. It would be useful to students when beginning to develop the skill of drawing sketch maps if a completed sketch was shown so that they would have a clear idea of what they were aiming to achieve.
In a number of lessons observed teachers used the overhead projector to outline the lesson and this provided a visual presentation to support teacher exposition. Students were provided with time to copy this outline into their notes copybook towards the end of the lesson. This good practice supports learning and provides students with a record of the topic which will be useful for revision purposes. However, it would be more effective if time was provided at different stages during the lesson for students to make a copy of teacher notes or they could be provided with printed summaries. This would provide variety of activity and would give students time to assimilate smaller pieces of knowledge. While the provision of teacher-generated notes is useful students should be encouraged to become ‘note-makers’ and not just ‘note-takers’. Helping students to develop the skill of making ‘mind-maps’ would be useful in this regard.
Lessons were in most cases appropriately paced for the ability level of the students and this helped to ensure their engagement with the subject matter of the lesson. However, in some instances a significant amount of time was spent in monitoring and correcting homework which had a negative impact on the amount of tuition time remaining in the lesson. This should be kept in mind by teachers when planning lessons.
Teachers used students’ personal experiences and topical issues to introduce new subject matter. This is very good practice as it helps students to see the link between their study of Geography and the world outside the classroom. In one lesson dealing with the construction of a waste-to-energy plant in Dublin students were provided with up-to-date information and a worksheet. Following discussion between teacher and students on the issues involved the students were then required to complete the worksheet. This use of supporting materials is very good practice. As a means of establishing a link between students’ study of Geography and topical issues it is suggested that classrooms should have a GeoNews notice board where articles from the print-media and photographs could be displayed. Students could be encouraged to contribute to this and to ensure that it is kept up to date. In most classrooms maps, charts and photographs were displayed and this contributed to creating a stimulating learning environment. The display of students’ work in some classrooms was observed and its wider use is encouraged.
Students in Hartstown Community School are achieving positive learning outcomes in the certificate examinations and good numbers of students take the higher-level paper in both the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate examinations. These outcomes are used to identify trends and to inform future planning. Arrangements are in place for the distribution of examination materials issued by the State Examinations Commission (SEC) and for the secure storage of students’ completed geographical investigations.
There was ample evidence in the classes visited of the regular assignment of homework in Geography. It was interesting to note in one lesson that students were asked to watch a television programme as part of their homework assignment and in another to use the internet to research and bring information gathered to the next lesson. Crosswords and word searches were also used in setting homework. This variety in setting homework is very good practice. Students are required to record homework in their journals as part of the subject department policy. However, in the case of a small number of journals viewed some students had not recorded homework. Time allowed for homework to be recorded at the end of lessons will provide teachers with an opportunity to ensure that all students record homework set.
It was also noted that students use two copybooks, one for homework and the other to maintain a record of their work. This is good practice. In some instances students have received constructive and affirming feedback from their teacher. This is most effective where students are made aware of their strengths and where clear advice is given as to what they need to do by way of improvement. It is less effective where a student is asked to produce better work without specific advice and recommendations. A common policy on the provision of feedback on students’ work should be developed to ensure consistency of experience for all students of Geography.
In-house assessments take place midway through the first term within subject departments for all students. Formal assessments are held at Christmas for first, second and fifth year students and again at the end of the school year. Third and sixth year students sit pre-examinations during the second term. The setting of common papers is good practice and differentiation is also used to provide test material suited to the ability level of students. Reports are issued to parents at Christmas, after the pre-examinations and at the end of the school year. Student progress is also assessed through in-class questioning, homework and the holding of class tests on completion of sections of the planned teaching programme. Teachers maintain records of attendance, homework and class tests. These are used to inform discussions at formal parent-teacher meetings held annually for each year group. It is noteworthy that students’ progress in TY is assessed in a number of ways including: debates, speeches, research projects and peer and self assessment.
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:
A post-evaluation meeting was held with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published May 2010
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1: Observations on the content of the inspection report
The Board welcomes the report and thanks the Inspector for a constructive and supportive visit.
The Board is pleased to note that the report is very positive regarding planning, teaching & learning, classroom management, student-teacher rapport and learner outcomes.
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 Board welcomes the four recommendations, all of which will be implemented in the coming school year. This will further improve the quality of teaching and learning in the Geography.