An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
Dublin Road, Swords, Co. Dublin
Roll number: 60383I
Date of inspection: 2 March 2006
Date of issue of report: 29 June 2006
This Subject Inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Choilm, Swords. 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 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 of the school was given the opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
Coláiste Choilm is an all-boys’ voluntary secondary school under the trusteeship of the Irish Christian Brothers. It has a current enrolment of 595 students. There is very good whole school support for the teaching and learning of Geography.
Geography is a compulsory subject at junior cycle and is allocated three class periods per week in each of the year groups. At this level all Geography classes are of mixed ability. In the Transition Year Programme (TYP) Geography is not currently included. It is recommended that consideration be given to the inclusion of a Geography module in this programme. Provision of such a module would provide a rich opportunity for the further development and application of skills and concepts acquired at junior cycle level. This experience would greatly enhance proficiency in key geographic skills and would help to sustain interest in the subject.
At senior cycle Geography is an optional subject within a structure where students are offered an open choice. From these initial choices option blocks are created which provide for maximum student choice within the available resources. Students and their parents are appropriately supported and advised by school personnel prior to the selection of subjects. Currently there are two class groups in each of the senior cycle years. These groups are not timetabled to run concurrently so as to facilitate greater student choice of subject. The school is commended for its work in this area. The uptake of Geography at senior cycle is encouraging. Five teaching periods, consisting of one double and three single-class periods, are allocated in each of the Leaving Certificate years. This time allocation is in accordance with syllabus requirements. All Geography classes at this level also are of mixed ability.
There are three teachers currently teaching the subject. As teachers are provided with base classrooms there is no designated Geography room. The school management has provided a wide range of resources to support teaching and learning in the subject. These include Ordnance Survey (OS) map extracts, aerial photographs, rock samples, videos, textbooks, Geographical periodicals and a range of wall maps and charts. Each of the teachers’ rooms is broadband enabled and equipped with a computer and printer. The Geography department has access to mobile laptop and digital projector units and a scanner. This level of information and communication technology (ICT) provision is highly commended. School management and staff gratefully acknowledged the role played by the parents’ council in providing financial support for resource provision. Ample space has been provided for the storage of resources. It is recommended that the Geography teaching team catalogue all resources available for the teaching of the subject in the school. This could be used as a means of identifying future resource needs, become an integral part of subject department planning and facilitate school budgeting. The department is allocated an annual budget and resources are also provided as needs arise. The school management is applauded for this high level of support and commitment to developing resources to support teaching and learning in the subject.
There was clear evidence of collaborative long-term planning by the Geography teaching team. Formal planning takes place at regular meetings throughout the year and if additional time is required the school management will facilitate this. This formal time provision for subject development is commended. The Geography teachers also hold frequent informal meetings to discuss issues relating to the subject as they arise. The appointment of a department co-ordinator, perhaps on a rotating basis, would facilitate the further development of long term planning. This would also provide an opportunity for each member of the team to acquire the expertise associated with such a role.
During the evaluation process an examination of planning documentation revealed agreed curricular programmes at junior and senior cycles. The written plan contains areas of the syllabus to be covered within term timeframes for each of the year groups and reference to the times and forms of assessment. It is recommended that teachers build on this good practice by working collaboratively to develop a more formal plan for the organisation, teaching and learning in Geography. This plan should give consideration to developing active learning methodologies, special educational needs, the integration of ICT into the teaching and learning of Geography, a fieldwork policy, curricular provision in the Transition Year programme, the introduction of a variety of assessment modes and the future development of teaching resources. In working together to develop this plan the Geography teachers will continue to benefit from sharing their individual expertise and enrich the learning experiences of their students. The ‘Guidelines for Teachers’ relating to the Revised Leaving Certificate syllabus and resource material provided during the evaluation process could provide support for the Geography team.
It was reported during the evaluation that the Geography teachers maintain contact with the Learning Support department and teachers are made aware of testing programmes and results. This good practice is commended. The team is encouraged to establish formal contacts with their Learning Support colleagues as a means of providing support for students. To further the effectiveness of this work it is recommended that the Geography teachers and the Learning Support department plan and develop differentiated teaching and learning strategies for use within the mixed ability classroom. The assistance of the Special Education Support Service at www.sess.ie would be of benefit in this process.
A review of the planning documentation indicated a very strong emphasis on the teaching of Physical Geography in first year. It is recommended that the teaching team review this focus on Physical Geography in first year as it places challenging demands on students in terms of the extensive range of terminology, geomorphic processes and landform development. The development of map and photographic skills, using the local area and the large scale 1:1000 OS maps, should be considered at this level. These skills could be practised and developed in association with some Physical Geography elements. Such an approach would allow students to participate in a more activity-based geographical experience and would accommodate the variety of learning styles that exist in the mixed ability setting. It was noted from the planning documentation that in the third term time is dedicated to revision of the year’s work. This practice is highly commended as revision and review play an essential role in consolidating learning and students are provided with a further opportunity to clarify difficulties and receive additional help as necessary.
There was clear evidence of effective individual planning for the geography lessons observed. In each class visited the learning objective was clear and stated at the outset; this gave focus and direction to the learning intention. In some of the lessons observed teachers had prepared resources for use by students. These included transparencies for use on the overhead projector and handouts to support student learning. The continued appropriate use of these resources is to be both encouraged and commended.
In classes visited the topics covered included: feedback to students on a question from the pre-examination, settlement patterns in the Dutch Polders, the concept of a region (with a focus on a cultural region) and an introduction to regions, Core Unit 2 of the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus.
The lessons observed had definite aims and the purpose of each lesson was clearly established and shared with the students from the outset. In one senior cycle lesson, the key components of study of an extensive Core Unit of the Revised Leaving Certificate syllabus were displayed on a digital overhead. At the end of the lesson a handout consisting of a summary of the work was distributed to the students. Such techniques are invaluable in assisting students to manage and organise their own learning and their use is highly commended and encouraged. In most classes a review of the material covered in previous lessons was undertaken using the methodology of global and targeted questioning to stimulate student engagement with the topic and also to check the level of recall and understanding. New materials and concepts were effectively introduced within this framework; lessons then progressed in a logical and structured manner. This is good practice as it allows for meaningful connections to be established with previous knowledge. It was reported that students had undertaken a comparative study in Fluvial Geomorphology in Wicklow in fulfilment of the Geographical Investigation requirement for the Leaving Certificate examination.
A variety of teaching methodologies ranging from a traditional didactic method to methods that actively engaged students in their own learning were employed in the lessons observed. In some classrooms visited teacher or student reading from the textbook was accompanied by comprehensive explanation of the material by the teacher. Strategic questions were asked to elicit student knowledge and to encourage analytical enquiry and reflection on issues. Students were challenged to reflect on their knowledge and were encouraged to develop higher order thinking skills. To build on this good practice it is recommended, particularly in the case of expansive topics, that key points be outlined on the board and students then be instructed to enter these into their notes. The use of ‘Mind Maps’ could be particularly effective in summarising a large unit of work and could help students appreciate the interconnections between sub-sections of a topic. This approach would greatly benefit students of mixed abilities in that it would provide an effective summary for use in learning and revision while at the same time allowing for a ‘quiet time’ for students to reflect on new subject matter. It is recommended that the development of active and visual learning strategies be undertaken. Such strategies would include the provision of worksheets, the creation of mind maps, pair or small group work and project work. These would more actively engage students in their own learning and cater more effectively for mixed ability student groups. Opportunities provided by the introduction of Broadband Technology should be used to provide extra materials to support student learning.
There was excellent reference to Place Geography and the local environment and teachers are to be commended for this work. This approach provided students with excellent insights on the practical application and implementation of geographic concepts in the real world and greatly facilitated their understanding and appreciation of the complex dynamics operating in the organisation and management of regions. In building on this good practice of linking Geography to the real world it is suggested that consideration be given to the creation of a GeoNews notice board in classrooms. Newspaper articles, photographs and other materials related to the world of Geography could be displayed there. This would provide a rich, stimulating and relevant learning resource for students. In all lessons there was appropriate attention paid to the language of Geography with questioning on key terms as they were encountered. In one lesson observed diagrams drawn on the board were used very effectively to illustrate the relative levels of land and sea in the Netherlands and the effects of land reclamation. This integration of visual aids to support student learning is commended and its wider use is recommended and encouraged.
There was an appropriate focus on examination technique for classes preparing for the certificate examinations. Students were thoroughly advised on presenting their information in line with marking scheme requirement. The correct format for answering questions was modelled on the whiteboard, using the pre-examination paper that students had just completed. The students were required to provide the information and they had excellent opportunity to identify their own mistakes and learn from them. The exercise also allowed for careful revision of key skills such as map analysis and interpretation of statistical information. This good practice of assisting students to obtain maximum examination success is applauded. To further advance this work it is suggested that student marking of a model answer, either individually or in pairs, be undertaken and that this be followed by full-class discussion.
The classroom atmosphere in all lessons was inclusive and pleasant and students were addressed by their first name. There was very good rapport between students and their teachers in a secure and work-oriented environment. Students were affirmed for all their efforts and their ease of interaction with the teachers was reflected in their participation in class discussions. Students were impressive in their knowledge of previously taught subject matter. Excellent discipline was inherent in classes and students were at all times courteous and on task.
First, second and Leaving Cert 1 students sit formal assessments at Christmas and in the summer. Certificate examination classes have a formal October examination and sit mock examinations in the second term. Students are provided with feedback on their performance in these examinations. In the event of students not attaining a level of achievement relative to their abilities, parents and student are requested to attend a meeting to discuss the student’s work. This inclusion of parents in their son’s education is to be commended. The results of all formal assessments are reported to parents through written school reports and at formal parent teacher meetings.
Students’ learning is assessed on an ongoing basis within the Geography lessons through teacher questioning and the correction of homework. Global and directed questions were used frequently in all classes to establish the level of knowledge and understanding. Homework is routinely assigned and corrected. In some cases the teacher had commented on this work in copybooks. This practice is commended as students are informed on their progress, affirmed on their strengths and attention is drawn to ways of improving the quality of their work. This feedback encourages and supports students in their learning and provides clear guidelines and direction on raising the standard of their work. Teachers are encouraged to further develop their methods of assessment particularly with reference to ‘Assessment for Learning’ principles. The documentation on this topic provided during the evaluation and accessing the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment at www.ncca.ie will assist teachers in developing their assessment procedures. The work observed in student copies, both written and diagrams was of a generally high standard and is to be commended.
The Geography teachers engage in planning for common end of term assessments in first and fifth year. It is suggested that this good practice be extended to all year groups. While teachers encourage students to take courses at higher level it is recommended that a review of students taking ordinary level papers in the Junior Certificate be undertaken.
The following are the main strengths and areas for development 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 principal and with the teachers of Geography at the conclusion of the evaluation at which the draft findings and recommendations were presented and discussed.