An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Christian Brothers Secondary School
Tramore, County Waterford
Roll number: 64923L
Date of inspection: 26 October 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 Tramore CBS. 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.
As a voluntary secondary school, Tramore CBS appropriately offers History as a core subject in junior cycle. Timetable provision for the subject is satisfactory, with the allocation of four periods per week to first-year classes now being a quite dramatic increase on the two periods per week which had obtained previously. In general, classes are well scattered across the days of the week and in a variety of timeslots, which is fair. All junior classes of History are of mixed ability. While it is not necessarily ideal for first-year classes to change teacher when they enter second year, as sometimes happens, the collaborative culture which is encouraged within the history department can serve to ensure that continuity of syllabus coverage is maintained. Such collaboration is also an important support mechanism where there may not be a full compliment of qualified history teachers in the department, as is currently the case.
Transition Year (TY) sees History in a form of link with Geography, sometimes having one period per week and, at other times, a double period. Certainly, the double period is more conducive to the sort of work which a Transition Year history group would normally engage in – research, projects, field trips and so on. The feasibility of offering a weekly double period for the subject ought to be investigated, although the existing form of co-timetabling with Geography can also be a support to cross-curricular work and team teaching if desired. Timetable provision beyond TY is satisfactory, with History almost always having three single periods and one double period each week. Again, the effort to spread these timeslots across different days and in a mix of morning and afternoon slots is noticeable and a good support to the subject. The subject options system at the school seeks to develop bands which allow the maximum number of students to take subjects they have expressed a preference for. The option bands are altered somewhat, though not rigorously, from year to year to assist in this process. At present, sixth-year students have selected History from a line including Chemistry, Engineering and Business, while in fifth year the band had History against just two other subjects, Chemistry and Engineering and resulted in almost double the uptake that obtained in the sixth-year group.
General resource provision for History is good. It is reported that teachers have ready access to laptop computers for lesson preparation and the recent presentation given by a history department member on the on-line resources, scanned images and teaching ideas available to teachers of the subject should encourage use of these resources even further, as will the fact that classrooms are networked. A number of data projectors, television/DVD sets and overhead projectors are also available in strategic locations for use as teachers require. The school’s support for co-curricular activities in History, such as trips to the National Heritage Park in Ferrycarrig, Kilmainham Jail and Newgrange, is also commended. As most teachers have their own classroom bases, the school does not have a distinct library facility. This is not a major problem in itself but it is recommended that a portion of the budget allocation for History over the coming two years or so needs to go on procuring books and periodicals to assist senior research work, now a compulsory element of the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus. Students have been given good encouragement in accessing ICT facilities for research work and teachers have developed their own banks of resources and make them available to students as required; this recommendation is made to complement and extend this support on a more general level, with the possibility of storage of such a book stock in a lock-up press seeming relatively straightforward.
The school encourages teachers to become members of subject associations relevant to their subject areas. Membership of and contact with the Waterford branch of the History Teachers Association of Ireland (HTAI) have been progressed by some teachers at the school and it is recommended that all who teach the subject should be members at a time of considerable syllabus change and with the local HTAI being so actively involved in giving support to teachers, such as an ICT/History course, at the Waterford Education Centre at this time. It is good to note that the teacher of Leaving Certificate History has been released to attend all in-service training offered to date by the History In-service Team (HIST). Indeed, a teacher teaching the subject in a home-tuition situation has also attended one of the HIST sessions. It would, however, also be useful if the fully qualified teacher of History in Transition Year could be released to attend forthcoming training, simply to ensure that a good base of teachers exists, should the need to deploy a second teacher at Leaving Certificate level arise.
The focus of school planning in the current academic year has been directed by the principal very much towards the development of subject department plans, with History being no exception. This is a positive step, with a subject convenor in place and some formal meeting time having been identified, and with textbook selection having already been identified as an issue for departmental discussion. The template provided by members of the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) has been productively employed by the department to provide an overall structure to its written plan. In addition, clear plans specific to each year group have been developed, in the main outlining the core topics to be covered. All plans seen for junior and senior cycle year groups were closely aligned to the content and aims of the relevant syllabuses. It has been suggested that the junior cycle plans might emphasise the use of sources in teaching and learning a little more strongly but there is little doubt that the work is happening in practice anyway. It is good to note that the Transition Year plan is very much in keeping with general TY philosophy and contains a good mix of historical material, with an appropriate focus on varied methodologies and the possibility of research and source work.
In terms of teacher allocation, a fine additional support to History planning at the school has also been noted in the structured deployment of a substitute teacher if occasions of teacher absence occur for any reason. Very thorough sharing of plans, preparatory work and even teaching strategies have ensured that students are not just supervised in such instances but are enabled to make progress with their work as well. This is very positive and all involved deserve credit for the commitment with which it is effected. In many respects, the evident success of this strategy is in itself proof of the value of good planning. A difficulty which will need consideration in terms of whole-school planning, however, is that half of the history teachers have less than one class of History per day on average, being substantially deployed in other subject areas. This makes it much harder for teachers to engage with the idea of departmental planning and it would be in everybody’s better interests if the distribution of history classes could be more evenly planned, naturally in instances where teachers have expressed a desire to have more class contact time in the subject. Good planning will also have to involve teachers knowing as early as possible what classes they may have in any coming academic year.
In terms of recommendations for further departmental planning at this very early stage, there are a number of options which the department ought to consider. The generous budget allocation to subject departments is certainly an item which merits early discussion in any academic year, in order to ensure the identification of optimum ways of using the allocation to develop departmental work and resources. It has been suggested that the department might collaborate to develop a ‘history notice board’ to enhance awareness of historical matters around the school. Given the plans for amalgamation of Tramore schools in the coming years, this would be an ideal time to celebrate past school events and interweave other historical matters, including materials on the subject itself, via a notice board or special event. The recent launch of a history of Tramore itself could be of great assistance in promoting local history too. Overall, however, it is a simple truth that departmental planning will be most beneficial should the focus remain substantially on the promotion of teaching and learning of History. Further sharing of ideas on the use of ICT in teaching and learning would complement the presentation already given to colleagues by the department convenor. The collaborative pooling of resources is very worthwhile, with the possibility of doing this on an incremental basis being mooted. If, for example, the six members of the department were allocated a portion of the first-year syllabus each and simply undertook to keep an eye open for any good pictorial, documentary or audio-visual material during an academic year, the amount of resources which could be pooled for networked usage would be very valuable. A similar strategy could be adopted for second year, and so on annually. It is also suggested that time at a future planning meeting might be given to inputs from teachers on lessons they had given which were successful and, just as importantly, on lessons which had not been successful. The benefits of such a formal sharing of ideas can be tremendous. Finally, although amalgamation may be some time off as yet, it would be a useful item for discussion at a departmental meeting were the issue of provision for History, including a designated room facility, be placed on the agenda. The new school may well be large enough to have two social studies rooms, at least, and it will be important to ensure that one of them at least is equipped in a manner which will be conducive to historical study.
In all classrooms visited, a natural but orderly atmosphere prevailed, with students settling easily into their desks, producing the requisites for work and basically being focused on the task ahead from the outset. The natural and easy rapport which teachers had with students played a central role in this. In general, seating arrangements were conducive to both easy teacher movement around the room and also allowed students to see the board, television and other visual materials very easily. The fact that many teachers have their own classroom bases was also noted to afford some the opportunity to develop sets of wall displays, including some very nice student-generated materials, based around recent history field trips, for example. This is good practice, helping to generate a sense of history in the room and is deserving of encouragement. In a number of instances, it was also noted that easy access obtained for teachers to audio-visual material, either within the specific room or in a nearby facility. This is again very supportive of making History stimulating and visual for students, which is also in keeping with syllabus aims and objectives.
In general, initial lesson development centred on either reviewing previously covered material or the checking of homework. These were sensible strategies and worked very readily in the focused atmosphere which prevailed in all classes. Recapitulation of previous learning, even where it had been covered under another teacher, was done in a crisp, interrogative fashion, with significant amounts of teacher questioning employed. Occasionally, it has been recommended that a greater emphasis needs to be placed on asking questions of individuals, not just of those who put their hands up, to ensure engagement of all students and the tailoring of questions to suit the ability levels of different students. However, as a rule, the use of such questioning was very productive and generated a degree of energy in the lessons seen which carried through to the new work to be done subsequently. On the occasions when students themselves asked questions, even if sometimes slightly off the point, they were given every encouragement and handled sensitively by teachers, without distracting from the main work to be done.
A good emphasis was placed by teachers on the use of visual reinforcement. This is applauded. Board use, for instance, was invariably very well-structured and clear. Sometimes, students’ answers were built into a board ‘mind map’ diagram by the teacher, adding a visual dimension to the recap. This was very useful. On the occasions when teachers used video excerpts to enhance the topics being covered, they worked very well. Ranging from ancient times to modern politics, such short video clips added variety and additional stimuli to learning, as well as being carefully selected for their student-friendly language and impact. Some of the handout material seen in use also contained a good mix of visual and verbal material, with the occasions when students were directed to illustrations in their textbooks being also very valuable reinforcements. Ways of developing the emphasis on visual work, including source work, which could be considered include the use of laptops, in conjunction with data projectors if the class group is large, to display and analyse political cartoons or illustrations. Also recommended is a slightly greater emphasis on the deployment of maps, even sketch maps, when dealing with geographical, diplomatic or political issues which require visual comprehension. The progression of a political career can also be productively traced by means of a graph measuring success or failure, as relevant, and has been offered for consideration in trying to find clarity through sometimes-complex material. These suggestions have been offered in the context of individual lessons but also mindful that the emphasis seen on visual work is already satisfactory.
In addition to the teacher questioning already mentioned, good strategies were used to make students active in their own learning. Where occasional reading tasks were assigned, they were short and followed by more questions to gauge comprehension. Where such short tasks were shared among a number of students, rather than done by one good reader or by the teacher, they worked better as aids to engagement generally. The encouragement of students in giving short presentations in pairs to classmates about different elements of the junior syllabus was a very good idea which was enhanced further by the questioning which developed between students after each short presentation. Where students were given brief writing tasks within class, they were very thoroughly and supportively monitored by the teacher, and it was also good to see them encouraged to seek answers to short task sheets using the support of textbooks for mini-research work as required. Another very good idea seen was the allocation of two or three minutes of reading time to senior students, following which they were questioned on the specific topic. This can also be developed into fuller discussion which will assist students’ analytical and critical thinking skills over time. Given the success of teachers in managing classes anyway, it might be possible to invite students to the board to write up key words on a quick-fire rotating basis, for instance when revising a topic, in an active brainstorming session from time to time.
A lot of time was put into making sure that students could relate to the historical material they were studying. Words drawn from non-English backgrounds, like ‘souterrain’ or ‘crannóg’ were explained by means of their etymology, which makes perfect sense. Teachers deserve great credit for the manner in which they frequently broke down potentially vague words like ‘society’ and ‘anti-semitism’, to ensure students understood them, even sometimes comparing historical terms and events to modern ones with which students were likely to be familiar. Some exceptionally good handout material did a similar job of providing clarity on, for instance, the complexities of sectarianism, gerrymandering and other difficult concepts. Teachers made very good use also of colloquialisms and slang terms to ensure students’ understanding and these worked very satisfactorily as students clearly understood the issue and were then given the more ‘historically correct’ term to digest. From the perspective of minor recommendations, it is suggested that, where possible, the use of local examples or even of analogies with television programmes, sport and other student interests should be stressed a little more and can be productive in ensuring the relevance of the material to students.
Retention strategies were very successfully employed by teachers. A good culture of note taking has been developed in several classes, with the practice in some instances of getting students to maintain separate notes and homework copies being worthy of use as a departmental policy, if practicable. If it were felt to be possible (and very much dependent on the class make-up in each case), it is suggested that the encouragement of students’ thinking skills via the encouragement of spontaneous note-making by students, where they learn to discern and annotate without waiting for direction, is worth aiming at as classes get older. It was good to see instances of teachers pausing during development of topics to point out to students where the material was covered in their textbooks as well. A suggestion which has been offered is to try to get students to develop easily remembered acronyms or mnemonics to aid retention of the more difficult, list-style issues that invariable come up in History. In all lessons, it was good to see the effort made to find a few minutes towards the end where the key messages of the lesson were revisited and reinforced before homework was assigned.
The assessment policies followed in History are consistent with the aims and objectives of the relevant syllabuses. As already suggested, oral questioning is used to a considerable degree to gauge student retention and understanding within classroom settings. In most classes, a good homework regime was seen to operate, with junior classes being given a variety of short-answer questions and longer accounts to write at home, with occasional drawing tasks and stimuli-driven assignments. The previously-mentioned use of students’ oral presentations and short in-class writing tasks added good variety, as did the use of some very appropriate wordsearch tasks, both as homework and as brief in-class work. A recommendation has been made in some cases that the development of students’ awareness of the ‘significant relevant statement’ principle of marking in junior History can be a useful formative support to students’ work, in that it encourages them to think about issues of relevance, the amount of detail required in an answer, what information to discard or develop, and so on. Discussion of the principle might form part of a future planning meeting in time, particularly should assessment strategies or generic homework policies be on the agenda. In senior History, the TY focus on using project work and document-linked tasks is very sensible. Beyond that, it is good to note the focus on syllabus elements and perspectives in the assignment of homework, as it is the degree of supportive and valuable commentary frequently inserted on students’ work by teachers. Again, the focus on developing syllabus-relevant skills around documents and visual sources, via in-class questioning and homework tasks was very appropriate.
At whole-school level, assessment procedures follow regular lines. All classes have formal examinations at Christmas and summer, with the addition that classes due to sit State examinations sit compulsory mock examinations in the spring of their examination year. The school strives to have common assessment in so far as this is practicable with, for example, a practice that first-year history classes tend to have the same or at least similar tests, set if possible by one teacher. This is also aspired to in second- and third-year History. The increased emphasis on departmental planning may facilitate this practice even further, with the value of using common assessment as a means of ensuring collaborative progression through the syllabus and of checking on the suitability of students for different examination levels already being accepted by teachers. The school is also commended on the regularity with which parent-teacher meetings are held as an additional support to getting the optimum gain from any assessment procedures that take place during the year.
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 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 Board of Management welcomes the very positive report on teaching and learning of History at the school. It reflects the high standards and dedication of the History Department. The report was very fair and balanced and it is a comprehensive overview of the quality of teaching and learning of History at CBS Tramore. The Board of Management wishes to congratulate the Principal and teaching staff of the History Department.
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 will continue to provide the necessary support and resources that will facilitate the Principal and Staff in the implementation of the findings and recommendations of the Inspection Report.
All suggestions and recommendations as per report (Page 7) will be implemented as a means of building on existing strengths and to address areas for development.
The Board also wishes to acknowledge the courteous and professional manner in which the Inspector carried out the subject inspection and is of the opinion that the inspection process and outcomes will greatly benefit the school in its SDP.