An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Christian Brothers School,
The Green, Tralee, County Kerry
Roll number: 61440W
Date of inspection: 26 March 2007
Date of issue of report: 4 October 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in CBS, The Green. 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 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 an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
As a secondary school, it is appropriate that CBS, the Green, offers History as a compulsory element of its junior cycle programme. Up to two years ago, most junior classes were streamed at the school. This has now been reviewed, with only third-year classes continuing to be streamed, and fully mixed-ability classes throughout junior cycle being anticipated by the start of the academic year 2007-8. Thus far, management has reported satisfaction with the move to mixed-ability classes and certainly the evidence seen during the inspection suggests that the school has adjusted well to the change.
In senior cycle, there is just one Transition Year (TY) class group at the school. However, it is commendable that this class also takes a compulsory course in History. In fifth and sixth year, History is offered as an optional subject for Leaving Certificate, which is certainly satisfactory. In this context, students are asked to select preferences from the full range of subjects available and then the option bands are decided to suit the optimum number of students. This is fair. Currently, fifth-year History stands in an option line with Chemistry, Art, Business, Biology and Technical Graphics, with the last three-named subjects offered in other bands as well. While the options vary significantly from year to year, it is good to note that subjects for which there is a particularly high demand are likely to be offered in two option slots. Coupled with the fact that French is never placed opposite History, thereby hampering students with third-level ambitions, the school is commended for its provision for students wishing to study History to the furthest level possible.
Timetable provision for History is generally satisfactory. The first-year allocation of two periods per week might be considered low but is explained by the need to accommodate a wide range of subjects as students sample and select a number of subjects after first year. On the positive side, lesson periods at the school are all of forty-five minutes’ duration. With second-year and third-year history classes all having three periods per week, the overall time allocation to junior cycle History across the three years is in line with anticipated provision in most schools. Two periods per week for TY History is satisfactory, while the provision of five single periods per week for both fifth-year and sixth-year History is very good, not least because classes are spread across all days of the week, ensuring optimum teacher-class contact. In general, classes have their History lessons spread fairly between morning and afternoon slots as well.
While there is no designated history room at the school, it is good to note that most teachers have their own room bases. This undoubtedly facilitates matters like resource storage and the display of posters, with the main senior history materials being retained in the senior teacher’s base room. It has been very noticeable that many base rooms have computers for teacher use, with data projectors, television/video and DVD systems also readily available for class use in History. Pressure of space has meant that the school’s library facility has become essentially a classroom for most of the time. However, here too, very productive use of information and communication technology (ICT) has been evident in the teaching of a history lesson. It may well be feasible to revisit the matter of a history base room, particularly once the projected extension has freed up more space. This is suggested in the context of there being more periods per week in which History is taught than there are slots on the timetable, so that even with some overlap, a base history facility would be in use much more often than not, if such a move were practicable.
Much good work has been undertaken in the area of collaborative planning in recent years at the school. A designated subject convenor has been appointed and it is reported that subject planning meetings are held approximately four times a year, in September, December, January and late May. Main topics for discussion have included general methodology, the setting of a common course to be followed in all year groups, book lists and reports from the History Teachers Association of Ireland meetings. The maintenance of some general subject planning material on CD Rom has been praised as a very good idea, allowing for changes to be made as the department may deem them necessary. The disc also contains copies of syllabuses, guidelines and circulars. A school-facilitated training day from the Special Education Support Service (SESS) in October 2006 included some history focus and is applauded as a positive support put in place to support the move to mixed-ability teaching. It is very good to note that three teachers have been released by the school to attend the most recent in-service training sessions of the Leaving Certificate History Support Service (HIST). This is important, as the present modus operandi sees just one teacher taking all Leaving Certificate classes and the school has recognised a need to up skill other teachers and thus share the workload in senior History over time. A good list of the resources which are currently available to teachers of History has also been compiled, while there is also very good awareness among teachers of the excellent facilities of the Tralee Public Library
In terms of recommendations around collaborative planning, the maintenance of minutes of planning meetings would be a good support to the development and revisiting of decisions and issues. Advice on the overall shape which a subject plan should take in time can also be availed of through the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) via their website at www.sdpi.ie or more history-specific advice can be accessed through the support service website at www.hist.ie. Minutes and a subject plan would also be valuable supports to new people joining the department in permanent or temporary capacities, which may well happen as the core group of subject teachers is not large given the size of the school. Within the confines of the annual budget, a number of possibilities have been offered in relation to the development of the subject-specific book stock, including some periodical subscriptions which can facilitate teachers and students at all levels. Some augmentation of local historical material is also worth considering in time, as this is an area which has been strongly supported in recent syllabus changes and is deserving of focus in such a historic town, with TY being an ideal opportunity for local history development. The current practice of having just one teacher attend HTAI meetings locally and then report back is probably sufficient to keep the general body of subject teachers in touch with developments. However, greater participation of History teachers in the HTAI is certainly recommended, particularly with many meetings being held quite locally. As a final suggestion in terms of departmental planning, it is worthwhile moving a little more formally in the direction of the collaborative development of resources, perhaps with ICT being used as a vehicle for the storage and dissemination of scanned images, documents, and so on.
Planning and preparation at individual level was found to be satisfactory. Most teachers had outline written plans in place, with some superbly thorough materials having been noted in use with senior classes in particular. It was also good to note that some teachers maintained thorough records of students’ achievement, which is deserving of wider implementation within the subject plan. All teachers were covering material appropriate to the particular year group, and also appropriate to the time of year. Lesson pacing, handouts and, when used, prepared ICT-based resource materials were of a very high standard.
In the lessons visited, a very good teacher-student rapport obtained. There were isolated incidents where some clearer maintenance of ground rules of behaviour or the earlier correction of inattentiveness might have been considered, but in the main very positive learning environments were evident. In all lessons observed, teachers deserved great credit for the positive and encouraging manner in which they supported students. In the main, good seating arrangements and clear sightlines to the board or screen as appropriate were maintained, adding to the sense of classrooms being conducive to students’ learning and participation. At no stage was the purpose of a lesson left unclear to students and in all instances this was built upon previously learnt material, which was appropriate. Sometimes, lesson topics consisted of a duality of new material and some revision work as well. Where this was done, the strategy was well structured and there was no evidence of confusion for students between the topics themselves.
Very good use was made by teachers of a variety of resources in the course of early lesson development. In most lessons, the board was a central tool, with lesson aims and objectives regularly identified at the beginning of lessons. A very good example of board use was noted where a central question was placed on the board at the lesson outset, with oral questioning of students being used subsequently to develop a form of mind map around this question. Variation of this theme was noted where a PowerPoint display was used, with the initial slides of the presentation being used to identify similar issues very satisfactorily. In some instances, teachers deployed handouts containing materials to be worked on during the lessons. Senior cycle handouts were particularly valuable in that they contained verbal and visual stimuli, as well as reminders for students concerning the key personalities and key concepts relevant to the syllabus. Other, question-driven handouts, maps and a short video extract were used on occasion as well. Some suggestions have also been made in relation to the desirability of placing some key words on the board as lessons proceed, and of ensuring that the volume on a video clip is audible even if the main focus is on visualisation, as it aids students’ concentration.
Given the school’s move to mixed-ability classes in recent years, a number of points may be made in relation to teaching and learning in History. Firstly, it should be pointed out that great understanding of the learning needs of students was evident even where a residual streamed context was observed. The encouragement and engagement of students from non-Irish backgrounds in such a context was also excellent. In addition, the school’s move to integrating students of varying ability and language levels in mixed-ability classes is applauded and the teaching strategies observed in History are well suited to this policy. In all lessons observed, a very good level of explanation and clarity of language was noted, with no effort spared to ensure that all students understood well. With older students, basic material was well covered via handouts, with related oral discussion of the topics being used to develop issues more relevant to higher-level study. This made very good sense, with again the emphasis on key words and key personalities in senior classes being very suited to differentiated learning targets for students.
Questioning was nicely varied across classes, with a healthy mix of lower-order and higher-order questions being asked. Isolated recommendations have been made concerning the need to lessen ‘Can anyone tell me?’ style questions a little, as these can leave out the students who find the material more challenging and therefore are reluctant to raise their hands. On another occasion, it was very good to note a teacher say: ‘Who hasn’t answered yet?’ as this epitomises a very good inclusive philosophy which is important in mixed-ability contexts also. In some lessons, more emphasis has been recommended on the use of visual stimuli, ranging from greater reliance on placing key words on the board to more focus on visual sources, including pictures from textbooks, where possible. There is no doubt that the visual reinforcement of a verbal message increases the chances of the message reaching all recipients clearly.
The quality of historical analysis evident in classes was very satisfactory. Important or difficult words were never left unexplained, whether they ranged from political concepts like partition and sovereignty, propaganda and censorship, to medieval architectural terms, social revolution or Roman clothing. Occasional suggestions have been made about the need to clarify the distinction between early and later monastic designs, and the desirability of giving students equivalents when dealing with agricultural weights and measures in numerical formats which some may not understand. Finally, the use of more local material and anecdotes is also encouraged as an additional means of heightening students’ interest and understanding. The architectural features of a local church and local World War II experiences were incorporated very effectively into some lessons and such examples offered good, simple models which might be more widely employed where practicable.
In all lessons observed, good evidence of students’ understanding and retention was found when students were questioned on lesson content towards the end by the inspector. In some instances, teachers urged students to make notes of important points, while in one senior lesson it was interesting that a culture of student note-making had developed to a point where they took notes without even being directed to by the teacher. A more widespread emphasis on student note-making has been encouraged, particularly in instances where teachers had generated some excellent board outlines of key issues relating to topics covered but these had not been retained by students in their copybooks before being rubbed from the board. Excellent handouts were distributed in some lessons, with again the need for students to retain such materials and file them correctly being worthy of additional consideration. Beyond such recommendations designed to ensure long-term retention, it is reiterated that the overall quality of learning evident was very satisfactory.
The school has very clear policies in place in relation to both assessment and homework. Regular in-class tests are held in all subjects, with all classes sitting formal Christmas examinations. State examination classes have pre-examinations in the spring and all other classes have formal examinations again prior to the summer holiday period. Each class has a parent-teacher meeting once a year. The move to mixed-ability classes offers an opportunity for the further development of assessment in the area of common examinations, where the setting of even part of an examination for a particular year group can be a valuable aid for teachers and students seeking to trace overall progress more accurately. Statistical data on students’ performance levels in state examinations is maintained at the school, with the figures for higher and ordinary level uptake in recent pre-examinations also being readily available. This is valuable. The move to mixed-ability teaching provides an additional reason for such monitoring of assessment outcomes and uptake levels and is worthy of management and departmental consideration in coming years.
Good regimes of homework assignment have been observed in the copybooks monitored in history classes. Sometimes, homework for junior students included visual tasks, such as diagram-drawing or questions based on visual stimuli. This is applauded and, again, is particularly useful in mixed-ability contexts. In the main, homework correction took place orally, with teacher-student interaction in the early moments of lessons helping to generate appropriate answers to the previous lesson’s homework. Students generally corrected their own work and this was monitored by teachers. This is quite satisfactory. As students move towards longer answers, the use of the Junior Certificate’s ‘significant relevant statement’ marking process would be a valuable support if applied, helping students to focus on what they write, rather than just how much. Some excellent in-class assessment was also noted, with students asked to complete short question-based handouts as reinforcement of learning. This worked very well, although in one instance where students had not brought their copybooks in, it is suggested they should still have been asked to do such work.
In senior lessons, a very good commitment to assigning and correcting students’ work was noted, with a deal of formative and supportive commentary evident in some answers. Strategies such as using writing frames to assist students to develop essay-style answers, and in-class brainstorming on particular question headings are applauded as excellent supports to the writing of good answers. The only suggestion made in a senior context has related to the desirability of getting students to focus on questions shaped as interrogatives rather than more general headings asking for discussion, as it is anticipated that questioning within the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus will be substantially of an interrogative style. A fine commitment to assisting students undertaking compulsory research work has also been noted, with assistance given to students both in developing their research work and in guiding them to shape the findings into structured reports.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Despite first-year History having just two periods per week, overall timetable provision in the subject across the school is very satisfactory.
· The core nature of historical study in Transition Year and the fair options mechanism for Leaving Certificate students are applauded.
· Very good ICT development and the provision of a number of teacher-based classrooms are important supports to the teaching of History at the school.
· A good departmental structure has been put in place, with management’s support for teachers’ in-service attendance being a further overall support to collaborative planning.
· History lessons observed provided very positive learning environments in which teachers used varied and interesting methods, and good rapport-building skills, to engage and stimulate students’ learning.
· Many elements of the teaching observed, such as emphases on visualisation, clarity of explanation and varied questioning, were ideally suited to the mixed-ability environment which the school has moved to in recent years.
· Good whole-school and subject-specific assessment strategies have been established at CBS, the Green, with the structured approach taken to senior question answering being particularly notable.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· A focus on augmenting the school’s stock of resources, books and periodicals for senior research study is recommended.
· Consideration of the development of a history room is worthwhile, for the reasons outlined in the body of this report.
· Future directions in collaborative planning should include a general subject plan, minute-taking at meetings and more links with the History Teachers Association of Ireland. These suggestions are made in the knowledge that the department is not large, given the school’s size.
· Within different class contexts, more focus on visualisation and the use of local examples, with renewed focus on student note-making and retention have been recommended.
Post-evaluation meetings 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.