An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Presentation Secondary School,
Listowel, County Kerry
Roll number: 61380H
Date of inspection: 16 November 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 February 2007
the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Presentation Secondary School, Listowel. 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. 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.
Presentation Secondary School, Listowel offers History as a core subject for Junior Certificate and an option for Leaving Certificate. This is satisfactorily in line with the Rules and Programmes for Secondary Schools in so far as they pertain to schools in the voluntary secondary sector. The school is also fortunate in having a significant number of qualified and experienced teachers of History, very capable of teaching the subject to all levels desirable.
Timetable provision for History sees first-year classes having an allocation of two single periods of the subject each week. This is low and is explained by the school’s desire to offer students a taste of as many subjects as possible prior to the selection of final subjects for the Junior Certificate before second year. While this taster system is laudable, low provision for a core subject like History does create a difficulty in terms of completing the relevant section of the course within the year. It is very important that the limited time available for first-year History be optimised, in light of this, with the recommendation that all efforts practicable be made to avoid having the two class periods timetabled on consecutive days, as currently happens, as this means that students can go for six days without class contact in History.
Timetable provision for second-year and third-year History is satisfactory, with three single periods for each class group. It would be better, however, to avoid the occasional tendency for classes to have different teachers between first and second year. Fifth-year and sixth-year history classes have the subject for a total of five periods per week, generally organised as a double period and three single periods each week. This is satisfactory.
Transition Year is an area which presents difficulty in terms of whole-school provision for History. Firstly, it is current school policy that students are asked to select likely Leaving Certificate subjects in advance of Transition Year (TY), thus denying students the possibility of making potentially more informed choices with an added year of maturity. Furthermore, the current system means that only a quarter of the TY class has any access to historical studies, which seems to contradict the broad-based educational aims of the programme nationally. For those who opt to take History in TY, the allocation of two class periods per week would normally be satisfactory, but this is subsumed into the regular fifth-year class, meaning that TY students are actually taking part in classes geared towards the Leaving Certificate. While acknowledging that such classes may well focus more on skills development than on the mere coverage of Leaving Certificate material, this is not a satisfactory situation for either TY or fifth-year students and is an added complication to teaching in the class. In addition to the points already made, the wealth of local non-Leaving Certificate material which can be tapped into, and the work of national standing in TY which has previously been done at the school, suggest that this TY provision in History is in need of considerable review at the earliest opportunity.
Subject options mechanisms, apart from the reservations previously outlined in relation to pre-TY selection, are fair and offer students an open choice of subjects from which bands are drawn up on the timetable. In both fifth-year and sixth-year, uptake levels in History are low, with the subject in each year being offered in one band along with five other subjects. Some consideration is needed towards making students as aware as possible of the positive reasons for opting for Leaving Certificate History. The additional highlighting of the relevance of the subject to both primary teaching and business careers, for example, would be worthwhile, as would the debunking of the notion that it is important to be ‘good at English’ to take Leaving Certificate History, particularly in light of the revised syllabus which has subsumed Economic History and has less emphasis on essay writing than the previous syllabus had.
General resource provision for History is satisfactory, with good access to the school’s library facilitated by a voluntary librarian, an annual budget which allows for some purchase of books or other resources as the subject department may require and a degree of access to the school’s information and communication technology (ICT) facilities. The innovation of a ‘history noticeboard’ as a means of profiling the subject and the introduction of an excellent active historian competition in the school have been considerable and very positive steps already taken. As there is a de facto history/geography room at the school, in which a number of history lessons are taught, the provision of a sign denoting the facility and the inclusion of such a facility by name in the school’s promotional literature would be additional supports to profiling the subject in the same way as other subjects and subject facilities.
It is very good to note that the school has a history departmental structure with a designated head. Considerable work has been done at departmental level, including the organisation of the noticeboard and competition as mentioned earlier. Very thorough departmental planning documentation has been examined and there is a real sense of engagement by the department with all relevant areas of teaching History. It is good to note the degree to which source-based handouts, summary notes for students and other materials have been developed and shared at departmental level, as well as the holding of termly meetings which are appropriately minuted. It is suggested that the department should merely continue its good work and retain as much focus as it can on the issues of teaching and learning, including discussion of strategies which people have found effective and ineffective. If practicable, a collaborative project aimed at locating and pooling junior cycle resources such as pictures and documents in electronic form could be another area worthy of discussion and one which would support the individual work of everyone.
The release of two teachers to attend all in-service training for the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus is another obvious support to departmental planning in History, although it is recommended that every effort be made to ensure that senior history classes are rotated among the teachers who have accessed such training. This is in the interests of ensuring optimum use of teachers’ expertise by having more than one teacher involved in senior History and sharing the considerable workload which is germane to the revised syllabus. Some of the school’s teachers are members of the local branch of the History Teachers Association of Ireland, one having held the office of Association President up to three years ago. Such a commitment is applauded. Membership of the organisation is heartily recommended to all teachers of the subject as an additional support to their work and as a fine means of remaining in touch with syllabus change, methodological developments as well as with teachers of History in other schools.
Planning and preparation at individual teacher level has generally been satisfactory. Most teachers presented files of planning documentation, handouts, question sheets and visual resources which have been developed to enhance teaching and learning. It is also noted that the topics being covered in all seven classes visited were both syllabus-relevant and appropriate to the year groups and time of the year. All teachers showed a fine awareness of the relevant syllabuses they were covering and have given considerable thought to optimum delivery strategies.
A very satisfactory level of attentiveness was observed among students in all class groups, with a nice, relaxed but purposeful atmosphere being evident in all rooms visited. A number of lessons were based in the school’s designated history and geography facility and there is no doubt that the displays of wall charts, student projects and availability of a television, DVD player and overhead projector within the room greatly facilitated the history lessons being taught there. In other rooms, teachers sometimes made very interesting use of convivial seating arrangements to find ways of engaging students in smaller class contexts. Only rarely did the shape and size of a classroom present difficulties for some students in seeing the board and engaging fully with the lesson.
In many of the lessons observed, questioning was employed as a central means of lesson development. This worked well, particularly when a leading question was written on the whiteboard in order to make students reflect upon the main objectives of the lesson ahead. Occasional recommendations have been made in relation to using visual stimuli a little more in order to develop questions around source work, such as with political maps or illustrations of artwork, and on the need to vary questioning styles in some lessons, mixing general with individually-directed questions, as well as lower-order and higher-order questions. These strategies can help to ensure that all students, and not merely the more confident ones, get involved in the answering. Some very good questioning on the background to the Reformation centred on simple interrogatives like ‘Who?’ ‘Where?’ and ‘Why?’ In another lesson, questioning of students was used very successfully to develop a board diagram which identified very clearly the main elements which students needed to know on a Reformation topic. This was very good practice and linked well with students’ note-taking.
General lesson-development strategies relied very little on the mere reading of extracts from textbooks. This is applauded. Where texts were employed they were used to stimulate or support students appropriately. A very good focus on sources, such as Cold War maps, Home Rule cartoons, accounts of Celtic life or, in one instance, student-generated pre-Celtic artwork, was useful in engaging students in the topics. Occasional variations, such as the use of a short video clip from a Luther docu-drama and overhead transparencies on Puritanism, also aided lesson development and were inserted without any unnecessary disruption to the flow of the lessons concerned. Even when not used directly, the concern of teachers with finding parallels between historical material and students’ knowledge, using references to Hollywood movies like Lord of the Rings and Saving Private Ryan, and modern political cartoons, was another effective method of assisting lesson development.
Teachers are commended on the level at which they pitched the material being taught. Older students, for example, were asked to consider the historian as propagandist, and issues of bias, caricature and propaganda. Little was taken for granted with junior students in terms of ensuring that they understood key terms, ranging from ‘nepotism’ and ‘appeasement’ to more challenging terms like ‘ideology’, ‘communism’ and ‘capitalism’ as they came up in the course of the lesson. Given the mixed-ability nature of most history classes at the school, this commitment to explanation is applauded. It is suggested that the gradual development by students of ‘history dictionaries’, perhaps in their notes copybooks, would be a useful means of ensuring retention by them of the many such terms and concepts which can form the building blocks of History, and good history-writing, at all levels. It is also noted with satisfaction that teachers in a number of instances sought to ensure a balance in the information which students were getting, such as a focus on the import of eastern Europe during World War II and an emphasis on the sophistication of prehistoric societies, not just their primitiveness.
A good emphasis on the use of visual stimuli has already been touched upon. At times, it was wonderful to see the degree to which simple but very clear use of the whiteboard was made, including uncluttered diagrams and points differentiated by coloured markers. It has been suggested on occasion that a culture of highlighting key or new words on a margin of the board, for students to make note of as lessons proceed, would be an additional reinforcement to retention as well as being a visual reinforcement of verbal messages. Laminated maps and images were also productively employed as visual resources to highlight and clarify material for students. Where overhead projector transparencies were used, they were very clear and readable or, if containing a surplus of data, were well complemented by handouts. Occasionally, teachers have been reminded that the textbooks themselves contain very valuable visual resource material which can complement and extend the other very useful materials seen in use. The use of modern political cartoons on a newspaper to parallel what students were required to do with historical cartoons was a further appropriate use of a visual stimulus observed. The significance of visual stimuli in all levels of history teaching makes it worth reiterating how valuable it would be were the department members in a position to pool such resources, perhaps on DVD, for collaborative use via a data projector in time.
Some very fine examples of the promotion of active learning have been observed during the inspection. The encouragement of a brainstorming exercise by students to gauge what they already knew about a war topic, and the creation by students of their own artwork modelled on ancient crafts are two such examples. In some lessons, an excellent commitment by the teacher to the encouragement of group work on both pictorial and documentary sources, from which some wonderfully focused student discussion ensued, was noted. Furthermore, the commitment to oral stimuli, via the reading aloud by a ‘guest speaker’ from a poetic source or the engagement by the class in the performance of a ‘Reformation rap’ song, was excellent. These were strategies designed to make the students take responsibility for their own learning in different ways and are richly applauded. On a more functional level, it has been recommended on occasion that the encouragement of students in reading aloud from source material, as opposed to the teacher doing so for the class, is a good way of encouraging students’ participation and of seeing whether the material is too difficult or not for them., It has also been suggested that, if practicable, the encouragement of students to make notes, discerning for themselves which are the key points on the board, is a good self-directed tactic which can aid students’ retention as well as engagement if the analytical skills are worked on over time, even with the youngest of students. Some very good examples of such note-making were seen in students’ copybooks, which also included excellent diagrams to aid revision. Overall, teachers are certainly commended for their efforts to encourage student participation in their classes, one of the cornerstones of good learning.
The school has been very proactive in developing both a homework policy and a draft assessment policy in recent years. These are very thorough and thoughtful documents, with charts of appropriate time allocations for homework and outline consideration given to modes and frequency of formal assessment in all subjects, including History. The whole-school approach to end-of-term examinations, progress reports being sent home and annual parent-teacher meetings is very satisfactory.
Some suggestions have been offered in relation to the allocation of time to senior History study per night, in that what has been inserted in the homework policy is somewhat beyond what is expected in similar subjects. This is more a clerical than a policy issue and, overall, the promotion of collaborative thinking on assessment is applauded. If departmental time can be found, some further consideration might be given to how common in-school examinations might be developed and also to how the current emphasis from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment on Assessment for Learning (AfL) may be factored into in-class work. The deployment of the State Examinations Commission principle of awarding marks for so-called ‘significant relevant statements’ (SRSs) is also worth considering in occasional homework correction, as a means of showing students how they are rewarded for writing good ‘history’ rather than just writing a lot. This should not require a huge increase in the amount of teacher time spent doing corrections and could certainly enhance the learning achieved by students in doing their homework. Overall, a good regime of homework assignment in History has been noted at the school, with the occasional offering of additional but optional writing tasks to senior students being an interesting idea in promoting self-directed learning. The occasional use of project work, as referred to in relation to the active historian competition, is richly applauded. Should the school revert to a more orthodox approach to Transition Year, this would fit seamlessly into the assessment of History in that context.
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 were held with the teachers of History and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Submitted by the Board of Management
Inspection Report School Response Form
Area 1 Observations on the content of the inspection report
The History Teachers welcome the report. We are delighted that the Inspector was so enthusiastic in his comments regarding the teachers, teaching methodologies, teamwork, department and general strategies.
The History teaching staff have noted the minor suggestions re: teaching strategies made by the Inspector re: visual stimuli, styles of questioning and history dictionaries. All 3rd Year history teachers will embark on a process of highlighting the benefits of choosing history as a Leaving Cert subject.
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 of Management is very pleased with the affirming report and have noted the minor recommendations
· The inclusion of a Social Ed. (Hist/Geog) room in school promotional literature - done
· The promotion of a T. Y. history module – if numbers and resources allow for same it will be done.
· Every effort will be made and is made to avoid timetabling First Year history on consecutive days.
· Rotation of staff at Senior level had been planned for 2007/2008 before the visit.
· Importance of history for certain careers included in revised subject booklet.
· Subject to adequate resourcing being provided by the Department of Education and Science and improvement in IT, provision for history especially in relation to the compilation of an electronic data resource base for Junior Cert will be seriously considered.