An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
St Oran’s Road
Buncrana Co Donegal
Roll number: 62770C
Date of inspection: 7 February 2007
Date of issue of report: 4 October 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Geography
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Scoil Mhuire. 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 an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
Scoil Mhuire is a co-educational voluntary secondary school under the trusteeship of Catholic Education - an Irish Schools Trust (CEIST). It has a current enrolment of 623 students, 319 girls and 304 boys. There is very good provision and whole school support by management for teaching and learning in Geography with the allocation of a dedicated geography room, a wide range of resources and the recent acquisition of a laptop computer. Resources provided include: a selection of Ordnance Survey (OS) maps, aerial photographs, slides, videos, digital camera, weather instruments and rock samples. An inventory of these resources is included in the subject department plan. The geography teachers are commended for extending the experience of students beyond the confines of the syllabuses by their engagement with the Green-Schools Programme and the third world charity Bóthar. This engagement gives a practical expression to some of the aims outlined in syllabus documents.
In the junior cycle Geography is a compulsory subject for all first year students and is allocated three class periods per week in each of the junior cycle years. In first year classes are of mixed ability and a banding arrangement is operated in second and third year. The school also avails of the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP). Students involved in this programme currently form a distinct group and it was reported that this arrangement is subject to review. JCSP students in second and third year study Environmental and Social Studies (ESS) while those students in first year study Geography and History as separate subjects. The school is commended for the processes involved in the selection of students for JCSP and especially for the involvement of parents in the process. These processes were outlined during the evaluation visit. It is recommended that learning targets and student profiles be maintained within the JCSP. This would be facilitated by regular meetings of the JCSP teaching team.
The planned re-introduction of the Transition Year Programme (TY) in September 2007 is a welcome development and will include a module in Geography. The members of the geography department are encouraged to work collaboratively to design the geography module and to consider the inclusion of a geographical investigation as a means of fostering an investigative approach to the study of the subject. For the Established Leaving Certificate (ELC) Geography is an optional subject and the uptake of the subject is in a reasonably healthy state. The school supports students and parents in programme and subject choice: An information evening is held for both students and parents, subject teachers meet with the student body, a subject choice week is provided when students are encouraged to discuss their options with individual subject teachers and a booklet on subject choice is provided. The school is commended for these good practices as they facilitate more effective education and career planning by students. Six class periods per week are allocated to Geography in the senior cycle, consisting of a combination of single and double class periods. This time allocation is commended as it conforms to syllabus recommendations. Classes at this level are of mixed ability.
It was reported that there is very good liaison between the geography teachers and the learning support department. Teachers are made aware of the needs of students and strategies are arrived at to support the learning of individual students. Commendably, both students with educational difficulties and those who are exceptionally able are considered in this regard.
There are currently three geography teachers in Scoil Mhuire and they form a clearly identifiable subject department, with one teacher acting as subject co-ordinator. Teachers have been involved in continuing professional development and have attended in-service provided to support the introduction of the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus.
Subject department planning is well advanced in Scoil Mhuire and a very comprehensive subject department plan is in place. A copy of the subject department plan was made available during the evaluation visit. The planning process is facilitated by the provision of time for meetings by school management and by the appointment of a subject co-ordinator. Teachers have worked collaboratively to produce the plan for the geography department and this good practice is commended. Planning has also taken place for the Geography and ESS modules within the JCSP. Curriculum plans for each year group within given time frames, a list of teaching strategies, provision for students with special needs, procedures for assessment, recording and reporting on student progress along with the minutes of meetings are all included in the department plan. Planning has also taken place for the completion of the geographical investigation which is part of the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus and for fieldwork and projects. It was reported that there is provision in place to review the plan and this is good practice. A welcome development from this review process is the decision to reduce the focus on physical geography for first year students in the next school year to allow greater opportunities for building map and photograph skills.
Teachers and students have begun to use information and communication technology (ICT) and this will be further facilitated by the recent acquisition of a laptop computer. Students in a JCSP class visited had researched a project using the Internet and were using their word processing skills to write up their work. In discussions with students they indicated that they had used Microsoft Word and Excel in processing their project. This integration of ICT into the learning process is very highly commended. Teachers had also used the Internet to provide supplementary learning materials for students and to prepare worksheets. These good practices are very highly commended. It is recommended that policy and procedures should be developed to facilitate the greater integration of ICT into teaching and learning and to exploit fully the educational potential of this technology. These could then be integrated into the subject department plan.
All individual lessons observed were meticulously planned and an extensive range of resources has been developed by teachers to support teaching and learning. In some cases written individual lesson plans were made available. All lessons had clear learning objectives and the good practice of sharing these with students was evident. This provided a clear focus for students’ attention and helped to provide continuity with previous lessons. Teacher planning and preparation for lessons included the provision of resources to support teaching and learning. These resources included: summaries of lessons, lists of key words, supplementary textual material, OS maps, transparencies for the overhead projector, a video clip, and a variety of homework materials including crosswords and word searches. Teachers also made available an extensive range of other resources developed to enrich the learning experiences of their students. The production of such resources which reflects the commitment of teachers to their students and their interest in Geography deserves to be acknowledged.
All of the classrooms visited provided a map-rich and print-rich environment in which student interest was aroused and learning supported. This was particularly evident in the dedicated geography room. Maps, charts and photographs were displayed. Lists of key words available to reinforce student learning and a ‘media watch’ notice board helped to provide a link between the study of Geography and the world outside the classroom. Student project and fieldwork were displayed and this is an important way to celebrate and acknowledge student effort and achievement. Rock samples and weather instruments were visible and had appropriate labels added to reinforce student knowledge. All these good practices are very highly commended.
Very high quality teaching and learning were evident in almost all of the lessons observed. Topics taught during the lessons observed included: population studies, marine processes, changing urban functions of Buncrana, rainforest vegetation and the processing by students of a project for JCSP. A variety of teaching methodologies was used to stimulate interest and to provide students with opportunities to learn from each other and to be actively engaged in their own learning. A commendable balance was struck between teacher exposition and student activity. Where students were engaged in a well-structured learning activity the teacher moved around the classroom offering support and ensuring all students remained on task. In one lesson observed the concepts of high and low population density were explained by placing some students in groups around the classroom. This made clear to students these concepts in a real and understandable manner and also added some fun to the lesson. This visual approach to teaching geographic concepts is highly commended. When group work had been completed whole class teaching was used to take feedback and to record students’ deliberations on the white board using a mind map. In one lesson observed a student recorded the main points of the lesson on overhead projector acetate and this was used to provide a summary of the lesson for all students. This practice is commended at it enables students to synthesise the results of their work in a meaningful way. Student learning was often reinforced with a further activity such as the completion of a crossword, a word search or copying notes into their copybooks. The use of such an activity which provides students with a ‘quite time’ to reflect on and to assimilate new subject matter is good practice.
Teachers have adopted a visual approach to the teaching of Geography. Resources prepared for use on the overhead projector were a feature of most lessons. References to photographs in textbooks, the display of laminated key words and the planned use of a video clip all contributed to student interest and learning. There is a very good focus on teaching the language of Geography in the use and display of key words. This is particularly effective when large and coloured cards with keywords, which had been laminated, are introduced at appropriate stages and then displayed beside the white board as happened in one lesson observed. Student understanding is further facilitated by the many references to examples of geographic phenomena and concepts drawn from the local environment. In one lesson students had to enquire from local people about the past functions of Buncrana. These good practices are commended. There is also an appropriate focus on developing skills as evidenced by the integration into lesson plans of OS maps, photographs, statistical diagrams and the drawing of diagrams. In a number of the lessons observed there was very good use of questioning by teachers as students were challenged to offer explanations and not just simply provide descriptions. This effectively developed higher order thinking skills and is commended.
Classroom management was very effective and a mutually respectful atmosphere was evident between teachers and their students. Clearly established classroom routines had been established in all of the lessons observed in Scoil Mhuire. Lessons began with a roll call, homework was monitored and corrected, the aim of the lesson was made clear and the lesson concluded with homework being assigned. Teachers are commended for the creative nature of homework assigned during the classes observed, particularly the use of crosswords and word searches as these provide an opportunity for students to test their new knowledge and enjoy a variety of activity. Some of the homework was designed to challenge and to cater for the more able student. It is suggested that the geography teaching team consider how to extend more fully differentiation across the teaching and learning processes. Students willingly engaged in the planned learning activities, with the inspector and were knowledgeable about their courses.
Teachers use a variety of forms of assessment in Scoil Mhuire. Formal examinations are held for all students at the end of the first term, pre-examinations take place in the second term for students taking the Certificate Examinations in that year and other students sit a formal assessment at the end of the school year. Reports are issued to parents after each formal assessment. Student progress is also reported on at formal parent teacher meetings. The practice of setting common tests and common marking schemes which is in place for all year groups is commended. It was reported that in setting tests an effort is made to ensure some success for all students while at the same time providing sufficient challenge for more able students. In the subject department plan it was noted that an analysis of the results of the Certificate Examinations takes place and this is commended. There is scope for the school to review the levels taken by students in the Junior Certificate examination, and in so doing more students should be encouraged to attempt the high level paper.
An examination of students’ copy books indicated high quality written work, with neat presentation, including headings underlined and accurately drawn and coloured maps and diagrams. This is commended as it provides students with a sense of achievement and reflects the high expectations teachers have for their students. In some instances students had a separate folder for handouts and worksheets. Student work was monitored by teachers who had written constructive and affirming comments in copy books and this is commended. On-going assessment took place during lessons as teachers frequently checked student understanding by questions directed generally to named individual students. Class tests are held when sections of the course have been completed and teachers record the results of these, together with attendance and homework, in their diaries. It is recommended that the range of assessment approaches be extended and consideration could be given to ‘comment only’ marking where appropriate. Further information on assessment for learning can be accessed on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) website, www.ncca.ie and from resources provided during the evaluation visit.
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 teachers of Geography and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.