An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
Saint Joseph’s Secondary School
Foxford, County Mayo
Roll number: 64640W
Date of inspection: 20 October 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 February 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in geography
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St. Joseph’s Secondary School. 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, deputy 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.
In St. Joseph’s Secondary School Geography is a compulsory subject at junior cycle. Each year group consists of three classes which are of mixed ability. Geography is allocated three class periods per week in each of the junior cycle years.
For the Established Leaving Certificate, Geography is an optional subject within a structure where students are offered an open choice of subjects. From these first choices subject option blocks are created to provide maximum choice to students within the resources available. In the selection of senior-cycle subjects and programmes students and their parents receive support and guidance from school personnel. Programme and subject options are explained and discussed at an information evening held for parents and students prior to entry into senior cycle. The school prospectus outlines relevant details on a variety of individual subjects and further information can also be obtained on the school’s website. Students are appropriately advised by the career guidance counsellor and subject teachers also inform students about their respective subjects. The school is highly commended for its efforts in catering for and supporting student choice at the important transition points both at junior and senior cycle as it assists students in making informed decisions and facilitates more effective career planning. Senior-cycle Geography is allocated five class periods per week and this time allocation is in accord with syllabus requirements.
Geography is not present in the current Transition Year (TY) programme. It is recommended that school management should consider strategies to include a module of Geography within the transition year curricular provision. Such a module could be used to provide students with an opportunity to further study and explore in innovative and novel ways, than heretofore experienced, elements of Geography. The inclusion of fieldwork and geographical investigation would enable students to exercise practical application of geographical skills in the real world and would also beneficially prepare them for undertaking the geographical investigation as part of the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus.
Geography is a well supported subject and school management is commended for the resources provided to support the teaching and learning of Geography. These include Ordnance Survey (OS) map extracts of varying scales, aerial photographs, wall maps and charts, rock samples, weather and fieldwork instruments, soil test set, access to a TV and VCR unit, overhead projectors and a collection of videos. There are very good Information and Communication Technology (ICT) facilities available to the Geography department. The school is broadband enabled and each room is networked with internet access. There are two IT rooms available, the staff room is equipped with a computer and teachers also have access to a mobile laptop and data projector unit. Teachers are encouraged and facilitated by school management to participate in ICT training courses which are available as part of the school’s Adult Education programme or in the regional Education Centre. School management is commended for this level of provision and access and for its proactive promotion of the extended use of ICT. It is recommended that the integration of ICT into the teaching and learning of Geography should be prioritised by all members of the teaching team. The use of ICT is vital to derive the maximum benefit from the wealth of resources provided by the Geography Support Service for the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus. Some of these resources are also relevant and applicable to teaching of the junior-cycle syllabus and their use will enhance and enrich the teaching of Geography at this level.
There is a dedicated Geography room which is primarily used by one teacher and base classrooms are provided to some of the other members of the Geography teaching team. It is recommended that the Geography teachers further explore ways of maximising the value of their rooms as spaces to display student project work and other geography related materials. Whilst there was evidence of project work in one room it is recommended that consideration be given to its increased use in the creation of motivational and print rich geographical learning environments in base classrooms. Some Geography teachers and their students are involved in co-curricular projects including the Green Schools Initiative and European school exchanges. Projects such as these enable students to develop a practical awareness of the importance of environmental protection and have direct experience of other cultures and countries. Teachers are commended for their promotion of such projects.
The school development planning process is well advanced in St. Joseph’s Secondary School and a comprehensive range of policies has been developed in a number of key areas. The expertise of the Subject Development Planning Initiative has been availed of and a subject department structure is in place. Formal subject department meetings are held once a term and school management is commended for the provision of dedicated time to support and advance the planning process.
There are currently four Geography teachers and they form an identifiable subject department with an appointed head of department. It is recommended that this role be rotated amongst the Geography teachers so that each individual member acquires the experience and expertise attached to the position. A copy of the subject plan provided during the evaluation referred to textbooks and curricular content to be covered within specified timeframes in each of the junior-cycle years. A common programme of coursework and end-of-term assessments has been implemented for first year students. This good practice is commended and a stated short-term priority of the Geography department is the further development of the second and third year programmes of work. It is recommended that a curricular plan for the teaching of senior-cycle Geography be detailed as its absence was noted from a review of the planning documentation. To build on the planning practices already in operation it is recommended that the Geography teachers continue to further formulate and develop the plan in a number of areas. Within this plan consideration should be given to a statement of learning outcomes for each year group, resources and methodologies to be used in the delivery of programmes, the integration of ICT, a broadening of the assessment modes currently in place to include increased project work and formative assessment and strategies to cater for special educational needs within the mainstream setting. Use of the ‘Guidelines for Teachers’ relating to the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus and the resource material provided during the evaluation will also provide direction and ideas for long term planning by the Geography teaching team.
The school’s Learning Support Policy reflects the firm commitment of its mission statement ‘to give every student the opportunity to develop his/her unique and special talents’. The school has implemented a number of procedures for identifying and selecting students for learning support which include consultation with feeder national schools. A comprehensive range of supportive measures is in place to assist students in more fully accessing the curriculum. The school has participated in the Laptops Initiative and a highly successful model of provision and practice has been established for students with learning difficulties. To further build on this good work, and as all Geography classes in the school are mixed ability in nature, it is recommended that more intensive links be developed with the learning support department to assist with the implementation of methodologies to differentiate the Geography syllabus within the mainstream setting. This increased communication and sharing of in-house expertise will enable teachers to cater more effectively for the diverse range of learning needs and styles found within the mixed ability classroom setting. The inclusion of students with special educational needs in mainstream classes has been identified as a priority concern for school planning this year and school management has organised a Special Education Support Service seminar to further support staff with planning strategies for differentiation within the Geography lessons.
The subject plan contained a general outline of the resources utilised and it is recommended that all of the resources available for the teaching and learning of Geography be specifically catalogued for the purpose of identifying, prioritising and planning for future resource requirements. Continued collaborative discussion, sharing of ideas and ongoing review of practice will assist in achieving the developmental goals articulated by the Geography teaching team.
An examination of the subject plan indicated an exclusive emphasis on the teaching of physical Geography in term one of first year. It is recommended that this focus be reviewed as this section of the syllabus is theoretically challenging in terms of the vast range of technical terminology and complex geomorphic processes. It is suggested that the development of map and photographic skills be considered at an earlier stage in first year to launch the subject and provide students with a more activity based and practical introduction to Geography. The use of large-scale OS maps (1:1000) of the local area and photographs would constitute an appropriate and familiar starting point for students.
The lessons observed were well prepared as reflected in the structured presentation of material and logical progression through course content. Most teachers had prepared resource materials to support student learning and these were effectively integrated into the lesson. Homework appropriate to the work in hand was administered in all classes.
There was a high quality of teaching and learning in the Geography lessons observed. The topics being taught included rivers, secondary economic activities, the West of Ireland as a peripheral region and map skills.
A variety of teaching methodologies and resources was used to deliver class content and support student learning. Some lessons began with a brainstorming session on what students had previously learned or knew in relation to the topic and this proved to be most successful in stimulating engagement with the subject and focusing students’ attention. In one class pair work was very effectively employed to support this strategy and students engaged in the activity with enthusiasm and diligence. Students’ contributions and answers were recorded on the board in a lively feedback session. In all lessons the learning material was very well structured with main points detailed and highlighted on the whiteboard. To gain maximum benefit from this good practice it is recommended that all teachers instruct students to take such summaries down in their copies as they can be very beneficial revision aids. This practice models ways in which students could organise their own learning and to this end teachers are encouraged to teach students the skill of making mind maps. In some lessons the methodologies were well varied and worksheets and class tasks were well deployed throughout the lesson to achieve an effective balance between
student active engagement and teacher input. It is recommended in the context of subject planning that there is collaborative discussion and sharing of teaching strategies and approaches for the various sections of the syllabus.
There was very good focus on the development of map skills and the relevant requirements for examination purposes. Students were challenged to draw a sketch map of an OS map extract during which time the teacher circulated amongst students monitoring their progress and advising individuals. Correction of the work was excellently facilitated by a teacher drawn sketch presented on an overhead transparency with acetates added incrementally to illustrate the various features. Using this method students were enabled to evaluate their own work and were provided with clear direction on representing features. In another class the OS map of Mayo was appropriately referred to and utilised in outlining and explaining the difficult natural environments that pertain to peripheral regions and hinder their development.
Teachers employed to varying degrees both global and targeted questioning techniques to check student understanding and learning and to progress lesson content. This good practice is commended and students are also challenged to remain alert and attentive. It is recommended that as a variation on the lecture model that questions are used to their maximum potential in leading and prompting students along specific lines of enquiry in order to elicit the required information from their own reflection and analysis. This approach would give students a strong sense of ownership over their own learning and foster a more meaningful engagement with the subject.
The language of Geography was well reinforced, new terminology was thoroughly explained and previously encountered terms were revised at every opportunity. It is recommended that key word lists on the various topics be displayed as they are being taught and that students compile a glossary of terms in their copies. This work would assist the development of subject specific language skills and enhance student accessibility to Geography.
Recap and revision were inherent components of every class. The presentation of new material was regularly punctuated with a recap of preceding information to establish students’ level of understanding. Opportunities were also exploited to revise and create links with related previously learned material. To build on this good work it is recommended that links to the local environment and the students’ direct experience be established and highlighted. This will help to create a more meaningful learning context and increase the likelihood that students will retain their learning.
Students displayed a good level of knowledge and understanding of the topics under study and they participated in all class activities with interest and diligence. The interactions between students and teachers reflected a high level of mutual regard and respect. Students were addressed by first name and all of their contributions and questions were affirmed and answered by teachers. The classroom atmosphere in all lessons was conducive to creating a positive and secure learning environment.
Informal assessment is carried out on an ongoing basis in class through the correction of homework, brainstorming sessions and use of a variety of questioning strategies to test student knowledge. In some lessons class exercises were assigned and these allowed for immediate assessment of individual ability to apply map skills and knowledge as the teacher circulated among the students monitoring progress. In the event of students experiencing difficulties with the task the teacher was available to assist and instruct as necessary. In first year project work is employed as a form of assessment and it is recommended that this practice be extended to all year groups. The Geography syllabuses offer vast opportunity for individual and group project work and this exercise would simultaneously promote independent learning and the development of ICT skills both in research and presentation styles. Completed projects should then be displayed in acknowledgement of students’ work. Student achievement in Geography is currently recognised through the award of the Michael Hanley Memorial Prize to the student who makes the greatest effort to work well in Geography.
An examination of students’ copies revealed that homework is regularly administered and corrected and it contained some general comments on the standard of work. It is recommended that this latter practice is further developed in all classes as it will provide invaluable help and insights to students in progressing the quality of their work. Students should be informed on their strengths and areas requiring additional work should be identified with accompanying suggestions for improvement. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) promotes Assessment for Learning principles and useful information to assist with the implementation of this practice can be obtained on its website as www.ncca.ie.
The school has developed a comprehensive homework policy which explicitly articulates its expectations in relation to homework. It also outlines the responsibilities of the various education partners, recommended study periods for each year group, rewards extended to students for consistent completion of homework and sanctions imposed for consistent failure to do so. This work is highly commended as it reinforces the importance of homework in contributing to student learning and achievement. The operation of the homework policy is currently under review. It is suggested that consideration be given to the increased use of the student journal system as a channel of communication with parents in monitoring the completion of homework. A project policy for the completion of coursework and projects for State examinations has been drafted and this good practice is also commended. Parents are appropriately informed on the regulations and requirements stipulated by the State Examinations Commission and their co-operation is sought in facilitating teachers to carry out their responsibilities in this regard.
Formal assessment also takes place and records of students’ performance are maintained by teachers. It was reported that class tests are administered at the end of topics. State examination classes sit formal examinations in October and pre-examinations in advance of the Junior and Leaving Certificate. All other year groups take formal examinations at Christmas and at the end of the school year. The results of assessments are reported to parents through written school reports which are issued twice yearly. Parent-teacher meetings are held annually for each year group which allow parents the opportunity to meet teachers and discuss students’ progress.
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, the principal and the deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.