An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Meánscoil Phádraig Naofa
Castleisland, County Kerry
Roll number: 61250R
Date of inspection: 23 November 2006
Date of issue of report: 26 April 2007
the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in the Meánscoil Phádraig Naofa, Castleisland. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in History 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 with the teachers, examined students’ work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and the teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and subject teachers. School 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.
Meánscoil Phádraig Naofa is a voluntary secondary school with a manager who also acts as principal. As such, the school satisfies the requirements of the Rules and Programmes for Secondary Schools by offering History as a core subject for all students in junior cycle and as an option in senior cycle. There is currently no History in sixth year but there is a class in fifth year. This is due to fluctuating demand and the school reports that History has been timetabled after Junior Certificate approximately four times in the past ten years. Given that the option blocks in senior cycle are based each year on student preferences and involve quite a degree of discussion with students and parents, this system is fair to History overall in that it allows for a class to be formed whenever there are sufficient numbers of students opting for it. Fifth year History is currently offered across from Physics and Business and is not evidently suffering from this arrangement. All junior and senior history classes at the school are of mixed ability.
An area of concern from the perspective of History lies in junior cycle timetabling. The allocation of two periods per week in first, second and third year is very low and makes it very difficult for teachers to cover the course satisfactorily. The school has explained that this is the result of its efforts to offer as wide a range of subjects as possible and its need to maximise teacher availability through an eight period day rather than one of nine periods. This is understood but is nevertheless far from satisfactory provision for junior History. It is noted also that the two periods allocated to third-year History occur on consecutive days, leaving a de facto gap of six days between lessons each week. This also needs to be avoided in future scheduling and the school is simply urged to explore what avenues it can to increase junior cycle provision in what is, after all, a core subject. Timetabling for the fifth-year history class is satisfactory, with the five periods spread fairly across the days of the week and constituting sufficient class-contact opportunities for delivery of the Leaving Certificate history syllabus. The fact that two of these periods are constituted as a double period is a support to documents or research work as required.
In terms of general resource provision, the school acknowledges that its information and communication technology (ICT) facilities are in need of upgrading, not least because the main computer room has now become a general classroom. The imminence of broadband access, and the networking of some classrooms are moves in the right direction and any modernisation of the school’s computer stock which can be achieved would be a valuable support to History, particularly to student research work in senior cycle. There is a small selection of books in the school library and some recommendations have been made in terms of expanding this further, with the fact that the subject is budgeted for as needs arise being no obstacle to such a consideration. The proximity of the Listowel branch of the Kerry County Library Service is an additional support to students of History, again to Leaving Certificate research study in particular, as are the resources provided by teachers themselves. The school has, in the past, facilitated History field trips, both locally and further afield, and the commitment of teachers to this valuable but time-consuming endeavour is applauded.
With a total of two teachers, there is less need for a formal subject department approach to planning than might obtain in a larger school. A very good spirit of informal contact and sharing of ideas and resources already obtains between the teachers. Nevertheless, it is good to note that one has been designated as a voluntary subject head and that opportunities have arisen for formal discussions in some areas. An issue which requires consideration by the teaching team and management relates to who will teach a fifth-year history class in 2007-8, should there be a viable uptake of the subject. This is pointed to now simply because there seems to be a degree of uncertainty on the matter at present. The release of the main history teacher to attend in-service training for the revised Leaving Certificate history syllabus is applauded. Given that there is a branch of the History Teachers Association of Ireland in north Kerry, membership of this branch would be an added support to both teachers of the subject at the school and is recommended, even if attendance at meetings is only possible on a rota basis.
At individual teacher level, it is noted that all classes observed in junior cycle were covering material appropriate both to the relevant year group and to the time of year. This is a considerable achievement in light of the low timetable provision already referred to. In some classes, good handout materials had also been produced by teachers to augment students’ learning to good effect. While a little more careful thought may be needed around delivery of the Leaving Certificate syllabus in terms of time allocation, some very interesting documentation has also been presented in relation to teaching strategies worth trying with history classes. These ideas might well form the basis of a future departmental meeting in History if time can be found because the real focus of any departmental planning should always be on ways of developing teaching and learning and it is encouraging to see teachers maintain this as a priority.
Although class sizes varied considerably from one history group to another, teachers are highly commended on the manner in which they had established an easy rapport with students. Misbehaviour was never an issue in any class visited and any occasion where a student was inattentive was dealt with fairly and firmly without undue fuss. Good seating arrangements, clear sightlines to the board, teacher mobility and a focused work atmosphere were characteristics of all history classes visited. However, it is fair to say that the good humour and banter which teachers engaged in with students on numerous occasions were probably the most significant elements in creating a pleasant working environment in the history classrooms.
A very important feature of both good teacher-student rapport and good history teaching which was observed in classes was the degree to which teachers sought to make the lesson content relevant to students whenever possible. On a number of occasions, students’ interest in soccer, rugby or in the Guinness Book of Records were linked by teachers to items of lesson content in order to aid engagement. Students’ experiences of visits to nearby ambush scenes and local graveyards were tapped into similarly, while at other times the origins of students’ surnames, their primary-school experiences and even whether they anticipated getting to heaven or not were very productively used to heighten interest in what were sometimes relatively heavy topics for study. Even on the occasions where students were asked to read extracts from textbooks, good questioning and teacher commentary ensured that this activity never became pedantic and always produced material for further discussion. Questioning otherwise was very productively used to gauge understanding but also to help students to relate to the topics. Teachers employed a very fine mix of lower and higher order questions and, in most classes, it was difficult to find a student who had not been questioned at some stage during a lesson.
Significant portions of the lessons observed employed a focus on visual or documentary sources. It was good to see senior students asked to read sections of the documents aloud, as this is a simple but highly effective way of gauging whether the text is comprehensible where there is a danger that language may be somewhat archaic or difficult. The deployment of a pre-ordained strategy for dissecting such documents, following the recommendations of the History In-service Team (HIST), was very useful in this regard as well. With junior students, an equally appropriate focus on documentary and visual sources, including pictures of paintings and tapestries, was seen, with students encouraged to tease out what images told them about events, or what the Latin inscriptions on a tapestry meant, relying on word parallels and etymology very successfully when possible. Very rarely were potentially difficult words left unexplored, with the clarity of explanation around terms like ‘vernacular’, ‘predestination’ and ‘remuneration’ being particularly notable. Sometimes, humour was employed to good effect, as in the distinction between a ‘gorilla’ and ‘guerilla warfare’, or the connections between ‘caball’, ‘capall’ and ‘cheval’ in the text of a medieval tapestry. Elsewhere, analysis of the manner in which historical personages posed for photographs and paintings, and a use of maps as aids to clarification, were additional features of a very successful focus by teachers on teaching through visual sources. It is important to bear in mind that not even student knowledge of where places are in Ireland should be taken for granted. It may also transpire that commonly accepted terms like ‘shillings’ and ‘pounds’ will need more clarification for junior students in time but these are extremely minor areas of recommendation in the scheme of things otherwise observed.
An area of teaching and learning where some recommendations have been made relates to reinforcement of key messages. Some very good strategies were noted in different classes, including a form of pre-teaching of key words and dates before a lesson started, and a good focus on board work to highlight terms in another lesson. It has been recommended that the simple use of the board to identify and clarify key learning targets such as words, dates and connections ought to be a feature of every lesson to some degree, in the absence of ICT or overhead projector use, as a visual reinforcement of otherwise-aural messages. In addition, as happened occasionally, the encouragement of students in making notes of such material is also deserving of wider application. In time, the possibility of students developing a form of ‘history dictionary’ of the core terms they need to know, either in alphabetical or thematic sections of their notes copybooks, might be explored without too much difficulty. Where short group-working tasks were allocated in another lesson, which is heartily encouraged, the board could have been used to identify the different tasks and avoid an element of confusion in the process. Where brief student responses to a document were sought, the placing of the core issues then identified on the board could also have aided whole-class understanding a little more than reliance on hearing oral responses alone would usually allow for. These suggestions are offered as possible means of enhancing the fine teaching and learning standards seen overall.
The school holds in-house examinations at four points each year. Halloween and spring tests take place in class with more formal examinations at Christmas and summer for non State-examination classes. Parent-teacher meetings are also held annually for each year group. State-examination classes sit pre examinations in the spring.
In History, the excellence of the in-class focus on oral questioning is an undoubted support to the assessment of students’ learning. A regime of consistent homework assignment has also been noted in students’ copybooks. In all classes observed, homework assignments were linked to the material which had been covered, which is sensible practice. The use of documents work in class as a springboard for more writing-orientated homework has been commended. In some instances, student homework has been very thoroughly corrected by the teacher, with supportive and formative comments inserted in appropriate places, while in other instances the mode of correction is more general, encouraging students to correct their own work on the basis of answers called out at the start of lessons. Some recommendations have been offered around the use of significant relevant statements (SRSs) to help students to develop the skills of writing good ‘history’ as they progress through junior cycle. An explanation of this principle is readily available in the previously published Junior Certificate marking schemes in History on www.examinations.ie. Such an approach would also be relatively manageable in terms of correction time. It has also been recommended that specific instructions in relation to homework requirements are best, such as instructing students that five clear sentences are needed rather than the more nebulous ‘half a page’ or assignments with undefined parameters. Teachers maintain good records of student progress in line with school 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 History and with the deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.