An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
St. Raphael’s College
Loughrea, County Galway
Roll number: 63070C
Date of inspection: 13 December 2006
Date of issue of report: 26 April 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Geography
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St. Raphael’s College. 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 was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
St. Raphael’s College, is a co-educational school with a total enrolment of 337 students. Geography is a compulsory subject at junior cycle and at this level classes are mixed ability in nature. There are three class groups in each of the junior cycle years. Each class is allocated three teaching periods per week in Geography.
Geography becomes an optional subject for the Established Leaving Certificate. Students are provided with an open choice of subjects at senior cycle. Based on their initial choices options bands are designed to provide for maximum choice to students within the resources available. The school is commended for the level of preparation and advice offered to students in relation to career planning, and the selection of subjects and programmes. The career guidance counsellor plays a central role in this process and works with students for an eight week period in both second and third years. Parents and students are well supported through having the opportunity to discuss the various options on offer with the programme co-ordinators and guidance counsellor. Subject teachers also discuss with students their respective subjects and what these entail at senior cycle. This work is lauded as it enables students to make more informed career decisions.
There is one mixed-ability class group in each of the senior cycle years. The current uptake in the subject is significantly below the national norm. It is recommended that school management and staff explore ways to increase participation rates in senior cycle Geography. If the Transition Year (TY) programme is on offer in the next academic year it is suggested that consideration be given to the inclusion of a Geography module. This provision could be used as an opportunity to reinforce and further develop the skills learned at junior cycle in novel and practical ways. The incorporation of fieldwork and geographical investigations of the local environment would enable students to exercise concrete application of geographical skills in the real world. Increased exposure to project work during this year would allow for a more activity-based experience of the subject as well as developing students as independent learners. Such a programme would serve to enhance the attractiveness of Geography as a senior cycle subject and also constitute an appropriate taster of what the subject entails at this level. The time allocation of five weekly class periods in sixth year is in line with syllabus requirements. The generous provision of six teaching periods in fifth year may serve to facilitate increased uptake of the subject in the future.
School management is commended for the resources provided to support teaching and learning in Geography. These resources include Ordnance Survey (OS) map extracts of varying scale, aerial photographs, wall maps and charts, fieldwork instruments, soil test set, digital camera and a range of subject related videos and CDs. These resources are centrally stored which facilitates easy access. It is recommended that all of the available resources are catalogued in the subject plan as a means of assessing and planning for future resource needs. There are good information and communication technologies (ICT) facilities available to the Geography department. Teachers have access to the computer room via a booking schedule and to two mobile laptop and data projector units. Whilst there was some evidence of ICT being used it is recommended that the Geography teachers prioritise its increased integration in order to obtain full advantage from the stock of resources provided by the Geography Support Service for the implementation of the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus. It is recommended that the school obtain its quota of OSi Trail Master (Ordnance Survey Ireland) licences and install this software on its computer network. This interactive mapping application will greatly facilitate the development of map and photographic skills. Some of the resources are relevant and applicable to the junior-cycle syllabus and in the context of future planning their use should be considered to enhance and enrich the teaching of Geography at this level.
It was reported that Geography students in receipt of learning support also receive supplementary tuition of approximately one period per week on average in Geography. It was evident in one class that the differentiated needs of students were taken into account in the homework assigned. One of the Geography teachers is also a qualified learning support teacher. It is recommended that this expertise is shared with the other members of the Geography teaching team in developing and implementing strategies to cater for the wide variety of needs, including those with special educational needs (SEN) found within the mixed ability classroom setting. It is also recommended that this provision would be formalised through the development of a learning support policy for the Geography department.
The Geography teachers operate as a subject department and one teacher has been acting as co-ordinator for a number of years. It is recommended that this position is assigned on a rotational basis so that the leadership skills attached to the role can be experienced by all members. Formal department meetings take place three to four times a year. It is recommended that the minutes of such meetings and agreed action plans are documented as these recordings support continuity of planning. It is also recommended that a review section is included, outlining reflections on the success and progress of implemented plans and detailing any improvements or changes that may be required. There is also regular informal collaboration among the teachers to discuss subject related issues.
A subject plan has been formulated which indicated topics to be covered within month and term timeframes for each year group. It is commended that a common programme of coursework and end-of-term assessments has been implemented for first and second year students. To build on the work achieved to date it is recommended that the plan be further developed and extended in a number of areas. The curricular plans for all year groups should detail the specific methodologies and resources to be used in the delivery of the various units of the syllabus. Consideration should also be given to a statement of the expected learning outcomes for each year group, the increased integration of ICT and the development of an assessment policy. Further dialogue among the teachers in this regard will facilitate productive and beneficial sharing of ideas and good practice and enrich the quality of curricular provision. Advice on subject planning and templates to aid the planning process can be accessed on www.sdpi.ie, the website of the School Development Planning Initiative.
A geographical investigation is a compulsory component of the revised leaving certificate Geography syllabus. It is recommended that a fieldwork policy be drafted which would include procedures for fieldtrips and school regulations in relation to the completion of practical coursework. The relevant circulars issued by the State Examinations Commission (SEC) will provide guidelines for the development of such a policy.
It was evident from the first-year curricular programme that a substantial proportion of physical Geography including geomorphology, meteorology and climate is taught in first year. These areas of the syllabus are theoretically challenging due to the vast range of new technical terminology and complex processes. In view of this, it is recommended that these topics are covered in a general manner in first year and further developed in line with syllabus requirements in second or third year. The resource material provided by the inspector will provide some ideas on developing a programme for junior-cycle Geography. It is commended that students have a practical introduction to the subject through the development of map skills. It is recommended that consideration be also given to the development of photographic skills in conjunction with the latter. Use of large-scale OS maps (1:1000) and aerial photographs of Loughrea would provide for a familiar and interesting launch of the subject.
There was clear evidence of planning for individual lessons. In all of the lessons observed classroom activities were conducted in a coherent and structured manner reflecting a logical movement through the syllabuses. All classes commenced with a recap of the previous lesson, followed by instruction on new material and concluded with appropriate homework being set on the lesson content. This structured approach was complemented by the implementation of a range of methodologies and the use of supplementary resource materials to deliver course material and effectively involve students in the learning process. Individual teachers had compiled folders of resources. These included notes and diagrams on various topics, many of which were outlined on overhead transparencies and some assessments. This level of planning and preparation is highly commended and makes an invaluable contribution to good quality teaching.
In the classes evaluated good quality teaching was in evidence. The lesson topics included tertiary economic activities in Andalusia, traffic congestion, coastal processes and unfair trade.
Continuity in lesson content was well catered for through revision of previously learned related material. This approach also effectively served to activate student engagement with the topic and to reinforce key concepts. A series of targeted questions was employed to span and review material and students were challenged to explain points and recall information. Students’ responses and contributions generally demonstrated a good level of knowledge and understanding of the topics under study.
In most classes the dominant methodologies utilised included teacher explanations accompanied by the presentation of material on overhead projector transparencies. In all cases explanations were clear and informative and teachers are commended for this thorough preparation. This approach was sometimes followed by reading the corresponding information from the textbook without over-reliance on its use. To build on this practice it is recommended that key sentences and learning points are underlined in order to direct student attention to the most important elements. This would facilitate future access to the textbook and assist students in their study.
Students were instructed to record the overhead notes. In some cases these notes were most useful in that they provided relevant and important supplementary information to the textbook. It is recommended that notes should be restricted to main points and definitions. This approach would provide students with a beneficial summary of the topic and assist them in managing and revising their own study in an independent setting. Students could then be challenged to write up on the topic based on this provision. Alternatively a worksheet based on the lesson could be administered to students, requiring them to peruse the textbook to glean the relevant information. This latter method would facilitate more active student involvement in the learning activity. In one class a brainstorming session was carried out on the topic. Using this strategy, students were actively engaged and their contributions were recorded on the board. Within minutes a rich visual aid in the form of a spray diagram was created which illustrated a comprehensive range of main points. It is suggested that this approach be more widely employed for the presentation of course material.
In one class a series of digital photographs was used to develop the concepts of coastal erosion processes and to simultaneously reinforce the associated geographical terminology. Students were required to describe two contrasting wave types as they approached the coastline. A list of key terms was outlined on the board and they were repeatedly reinforced throughout the lesson. This work makes an important contribution to students’ understanding of the language of Geography and their ability to integrate its use into written work. Given the mixed ability structure of all classes it is recommended that key word lists be compiled on different sections of the syllabuses and displayed in classrooms as these topics are being taught. This provision would assist the development of subject specific language and enhance student accessibility to Geography.
Photographs of coastal features and the extent of erosion created a rich and visual learning context for students. This work was further supported by the use of atlases to carry out a comparison of the west and east coastline of Ireland. The provision of these visual stimuli is commended and acknowledged. The extended use of such learning aids is advocated as a means of supporting students’ understanding of topics and creating a stimulating learning experience.
There was excellent reference to the local environment to progress lesson content and to deepen understanding of concepts being studied. Students engaged in lively debate and discussion on traffic flows and congestion problems in their local town. They showed a high degree of awareness and understanding of the main issues involved and enthusiastically provided possible solutions to address these problems. These links to the students’ direct experience are highly commended as they create a meaningful learning context to which students can readily relate. It is encouraged that links to the local environment and the use of local examples be incorporated into lessons as much as possible.
A positive and co-operative atmosphere was evident in all classes evaluated. There was a caring relationship between teachers and students and all interactions were marked by mutual respect. Teachers praised students for all of their efforts and they in turn were confident and comfortable in asking questions and contributing to class discussions. In almost all classes students were motivated and interested in their work and engaged in classroom activities with diligence. They displayed a good knowledge of topics and in most classes had achieved appropriate coverage of their courses relative to their year group and abilities. In the lessons observed on the day of the evaluation it was obvious that high expectation for learning and behaviour are being continuously fostered and promoted. Given the breadth of syllabuses it is recommended that in some classes careful attention is paid to coverage of course material within appropriate timeframes to ensure that students are adequately prepared for Certificate examinations.
Continuous informal assessment is carried out in class to assess students’ competence in the subject. A variety of global and directed questioning strategies was employed to check student learning and engagement with the work in hand. Individual students were challenged to recall factual information and this strategy proved useful in reviewing material and reinforcing key learning points. Higher order questions encouraged students to reflect and were skilfully used in assisting students to apply geographical concepts and analyse situations. In one class a worksheet based on the lesson content was administered to students. As they completed this task the teacher circulated among the students checking their progress and providing advice and help as needed. This was followed by correction of the work which enabled students to immediately evaluate their performance. This good practice is commended and the wider use of such short and focused in-class assignments is encouraged to reinforce learning and increase student engagement for all lessons.
In developing an assessment policy for the Geography department it is recommended that the following elements be included; an agreed practice in relation to the setting and correction of homework, the further development of ‘Assessment for Learning’ principles and the increased use and display of small-scale project work. An examination of a sample of students’ copybooks and workbooks revealed that homework is regularly set. This practice is commended and encouraged as homework is an integral part of the learning process. In line with the setting of homework it is also recommended that it is consistently corrected if its full potential as a learning and assessment tool is to be realised. There were short comments on standard of work and efforts of students in evidence on corrected homework. It is recommended that such commenting be further developed and that the principles of ‘Assessment for Learning’ be utilised to provide more informative feedback to students on their work. This feedback should in addition to acknowledging strengths, highlight aspects of answers that require further development and outline specific ways in which this could be achieved. This information would enable students to learn from their mistakes and provide guidelines to improve the quality of their work. The website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment www.ncca.ie offers direction and ideas for the implementation of ‘AfL’ principles.
Formal assessment includes continuous assessment on a six weekly basis for first and second year students. The results of all these assessments are communicated to parents. Parents have a significant motivational influence on their children’s work ethic and this intensive liaison with parents in the early stages of the student’s post-primary education is praiseworthy. They also undertake projects related to their course work which are graded and form part of their Christmas results. The participation in project work is lauded as it provides for a practical encounter with the subject which students invariably enjoy and it also promotes the use of ICT. It is recommended that completed projects be displayed in classrooms as a means of creating a print rich and geographical learning environment in addition to acknowledging student work and achievement. While there was evidence of some student work on view there is potential to expand on this and increase the visible presence of the subject.
Formal assessment for other year groups consists of regular class tests and house examinations at Christmas. Fifth year students take formal exams in summer and students preparing for Certificate Examination take mocks in spring. The results of these assessments are recorded by all teachers and this practice is commended in that these records can be used to identify trends in individual achievement. Parents are notified of students’ progress by means of school reports issued after all examinations. School management has organised annual parent-teacher meetings for non-examination classes and two for other year groups, one which takes place in the first term and the other after the mock examinations. At these meetings parents have the opportunity to discuss their child’s performance and are also appropriately informed and involved in decisions relating to level of uptake for Certificate examinations.
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 Geography and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.