An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Presentation Secondary School
Cannon Street, Waterford
Roll number: 64970U
Date of inspection: 15 March 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 June 2006
This Subject Inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Presentation Secondary School. 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.
History is a compulsory subject in junior cycle at the Presentation Secondary School. This is in line with the Rules and Programmes for Secondary Schools. Each junior class group has three single periods per week for History. It has been pointed out that some classes tend to have their lessons on three consecutive days, which can militate against optimum student-teacher contact, but overall this level of provision is satisfactory. The school is also well supplied with qualified teachers of History.
In senior cycle, there is currently no History or historical studies element in Transition Year. In light of the broad aims of TY in the areas of social studies, the promotion of local studies and project work, it is recommended that the introduction of a historical studies element into the Transition Year Programme be given active consideration. Such an element, whether in whole-year, modular- or cross-curricular form, could offer students excellent opportunities for self-directed learning and analytical skills development. These would benefit students whether they continued with History to Leaving Certificate level or not. The ideas found in the History section of www.transitionyear.ie have been offered for consideration and the school is commended on its openness to investigating the feasibility of introducing historical studies into a busy TY schedule.
Fifth- and sixth-year provision for History is very satisfactory. The subject has an allocation of five periods per week, generally organised as one double period and three single periods, spread across four days of the week. Students are given an open subject choice prior to entering fifth year and the option bands are then built to ensure optimum satisfaction. This is very fair. History is currently offered across from Chemistry, Business, Geography and Home Economics in fifth year, with the latter two subjects available in another option line as well. In sixth year, History lies in an option line with Art, Business and Home Economics, with Home Economics again offered in a second line. This choice structure has contributed to viable numbers taking History for Leaving Certificate. It is also notable that those students who opt for the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme are not hampered from studying History by any timetabling of link modules or other elements of the programme. This is praiseworthy.
A very significant feature of whole school support for History, and indeed for all subjects, is the policy of allocating teachers their own base rooms. This has not been easy and does involve the use of some prefabricated classrooms at the moment, including some which have been generously donated by the school’s trustees. However, the benefits of this arrangement are very evident, facilitating teachers in the storage of History books and teaching materials, the development of some excellent wall charts and displays of student projects and simply in helping to create a ‘history atmosphere’ in classrooms. The school has also maintained a very fine library facility, with a book stock, which is useful for both junior and senior cycle students, and computers with internet access for research work as required. As a means of developing resources further, and particularly with the now-compulsory research study in Leaving Certificate History in mind, some suggestions have been offered around periodicals and student-friendly books to complement the existing materials over time.
The availability of information technology for History teaching and learning has been somewhat limited up to now. However, a new IT room is currently being fitted out and it is anticipated that this will greatly improve matters. It is expected that this facility will have broadband internet access, networking and a data projector. Given that a member of the History teaching team is an NCTE-accredited trainer, this facility offers an excellent opportunity for the future incorporation of IT into teaching and learning strategies in History. The renewed focus on visual stimuli, documents analysis, political cartoons etc. in the different History syllabuses would certainly be ideally suited to the use of this facility.
A very well-defined History department operates in the school, with a designated head. The department meets formally once a term and informally at other times. Minutes of meetings are maintained. Regular issues dealt with include identifying common schemes of work and the setting of common examinations for each year group where there are a number of History classes, as well as discussions on textbook selection. It is very commendable that the department has been pro-active in inviting visiting speakers to talk on historical matters and has developed a ‘History noticeboard’ to display pictures and other materials pertaining to the subject.
The fruits of the department’s ‘Active Historian’ model-making project for junior students are very evident in several locations around the school, with the department’s pro-active links with local newspaper and business concerns being deserving of considerable praise. The involvement of senior students in UCC History seminars, the UCC senior History competition and the plan to initiate a senior History award for the annual prize-giving night are further evidence of the work of this very active department. In recent times, the advent of a compulsory research project to Leaving Certificate History has been a motivating factor in the organising of a senior History tour, with a central focus on Holocaust studies. A similar tour is already in the offing for the coming academic year. Students have also given presentations on their research to others from within and outside the school. The commitment by History teachers, management and students to such thorough and valuable co-curricular work is deserving of the highest praise.
In seeking to identify other ways in which departmental activity might develop, it is noted that management has been very supportive of the need to release teachers for in-service training relating to the revised Leaving Certificate History syllabus. Part of a future meeting might be devoted to those teachers who have been at Leaving Certificate in-service training giving formal feedback to everyone in the department on the syllabus content, resources available and methodological ideas being promoted. Holistic planning for how History can best use the anticipated IT facility is another item worth putting on a future agenda, as is a possible discussion on methods which work best in mixed ability or special class situations, given the level of expertise available among department members. These are suggested merely to complement what has already been very successfully achieved in terms of collaborative planning.
At individual level, teachers showed considerable evidence of planning and preparation, ranging from yearly schemes of work, the preparation of handouts, tests, maintenance of records of student achievement and occasional planning for the use of video or historical projects. In all lessons seen, teachers were teaching material wholly appropriate to the relevant syllabuses, to the particular stage of the academic year and to the year groups concerned. Excellent provision was also made where teachers needed to be cognisant of individual students’ learning needs. Some teachers are members of the History Teachers Association of Ireland and, in anticipation that the association will focus on more general History-teaching issues once the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus has bedded in, membership of the local branch is certainly recommended.
In the History lessons visited, the general classroom atmosphere was excellent. A number of factors contributed to this. As previously intimated, the fact that teachers have their own base rooms was seen to be a positive feature, meaning that everything was in place and ready for work literally as soon as students arrived in the rooms. Teachers were relaxed with students, usually dealing with minor issues calmly and supportively. Nice touches from teachers, such as enquiries about a match that students had played, individual supportive comments as homework was monitored and checks to ensure that students could see the board, allied to well-decorated classrooms and good desk layout, all contributed to positive learning environments. In many respects, the friendly teacher-student rapport which was evident from the outset of many lessons set the tone for the success achieved in engaging students subsequently.
The monitoring of student learning was the main feature of initial lesson development seen. Usually, this incorporated oral checks on assigned homework or short question-and-answer sessions about previously-covered material. In general, questioning worked well because it contained a mix of lower and higher order questioning, and teachers endeavoured to bring as many students as they could into the answering process. Very good variations on this theme were seen where students were asked to brainstorm for a few minutes with the aid of a blank spider diagram, and where their responses were linked by the teacher to projects and objects already stored in the classroom. While the main emphasis was seen to be on teacher-generated questioning, students had considerable freedom to ask questions as well. While occasionally challenging, the students’ natural enthusiasm was well managed in this respect and where any questions threatened to distract from the flow of the lesson, they were handled sensitively and effectively. The degrees to which teachers employed patience and included touches of humour or colloquial expressions to engage students in question answering were also important
In lesson development, teachers placed a lot of emphasis on the creation of connections for students through the historical material. This is very valuable. For example, study of medieval town life was linked with what the students knew of the remains of medieval Waterford. Elsewhere, consideration of the 1916 Rising was deepened through comparison with modern rebel actions and Easter symbolism, while further effective links were built around World War 1, relying on students’ knowledge of a folk song and experiences of a school tour, and around local GAA clubs. Industrial Revolution centres were simply and effectively linked to modern soccer teams to help students remember them, while another quite humorous point which worked very well was the comparison of Irish independence leaders to modern day ‘heart throbs’ in contrast to the relatively less ‘glamorous’ members of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Where the relevant syllabus being taught laid emphasis on specific concepts and personalities, it was very good to see the degree to which teachers referred students to such connections as they arose during the course of the lessons. Occasional suggestions have been made around the desirability of building timeline connections for students as well, as in the similarities between medieval and early eighteenth century agriculture, and on how historical information can be gleaned from local street names but these should not take from the quality of the work seen as outlined above.
There was considerable teacher focus on providing supports for student engagement. Some very good handouts were used, including maps, photographs, political cartoons and fact sheets. Where students were encouraged to focus on the visual as well as verbal content of such handouts, the results were very impressive. At other times, teachers incorporated video extracts or referred briefly to textbook illustrations to reinforce lesson content. The strategy of giving senior students a handout copy of the relevant section of the syllabus they were covering was also a very sensible idea. Given that many of the lessons seen involved mixed-ability teaching or education support contexts, the focus on visual as well as oral and written stimuli has been applauded and encouraged for even wider deployment. This is another reason why the advent of the new IT facility will provide exciting opportunities for the teaching of History. Commendation is also offered on the judicious use of textbook reading which was seen in lessons. This involved short extract-reading tasks, usually shared among a number of students, but never more than was necessary to develop a point or add clarity to what had been discussed beforehand. Some excellent examples of short group-reading exercises, where students were very purposefully engaged, were also seen in an education support context.
As most of the lessons seen progressed through oral questioning and discussion, it was appropriate that considerable use was also made of the whiteboards in classrooms as visual reinforcements. Some very creative and structured board use was seen. This included the sort of spider diagram previously mentioned, the development of outline plans for essay work and, in one or two cases, the development of lists of key words and events for students which were written on a separate part of the board. This methodology ties in very clearly with recommended approaches to History teaching, ranging from the learning targets for the Junior Certificate Schools Programme through to the awareness of key concepts for Leaving Certificate Higher Level in the revised syllabus. This board work not only aids retention but can be very effective in encouraging correct spelling or, as was seen, in breaking down difficult terms into their constituent parts for greater understanding. In most classes, students were encouraged to take note of important issues which appeared on the board. Further development of this note-making skill to a stage where students spontaneously make notes without the need for direction could also enhance their engagement and critical thinking skills.
Retention strategies seen were varied. Recurrent oral questioning assisted in student retention, as did the encouragement of note taking. Some teachers had urged students to maintain files for any handouts they were given, while some others had insisted on students having separate copybooks for notes and homework. These were good strategies. The idea of students keeping hard-cover copybooks for notes is particularly worth developing across all classes because of the developmental nature of History and the fact that the syllabus can cover two or three years’ work. A particularly good idea seen in some lessons was the requirement for students to maintain ‘History dictionaries’, divided alphabetically or thematically so that students were encouraged to develop their awareness of historical terms, naturally promoting the use of such terms in their own work subsequently and also making them active in their own learning. In oral interaction with the students towards the end of lessons, a very satisfactory degree of understanding of the material which had been covered was found to obtain, as was a clear grasp of seminal issues around the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus among senior students.
As has previously been mentioned, it is very good to note the degree to which the History department engages in common assessment strategies. This happens particularly in the formal Christmas and summer tests held at the school. In between these tests, teachers are free to give class tests at their own discretion. A number of teachers maintain thorough sets of students’ results in such assessments, which can be very productively employed at the parent-teacher meetings which occur annually for all year groups. The involvement of students in such competitions as the Active Historian competition and the UCC senior essay competition are other useful assessment tools specific to History at the school. Obviously, should a Transition Year historical studies module become a reality in time, it should provide a fine vehicle for the development of project and portfolio work, and perhaps even oral assessment via debates and speaking tasks, some of which have already been gainfully employed in the course of students engaging with their research studies for the Leaving Certificate.
Across the range of History classes whose work was examined, a very thorough commitment by teachers to assigning and correcting homework was evident. With junior classes, a good mix of short- and long-answer questions tends to be assigned, with occasional drawing tasks. Given that many class groups are of mixed ability, it is recommended that assigning drawing or visual stimulus-driven tasks could merit further employment. The commitment of teachers to marking homework, and specifically to inserting supportive, formative comments on such work, deserves to be highly commended. It is suggested that occasionally marking longer junior answers using the ‘Significant, Relevant Statement’ model from the Junior Certificate marking scheme could aid students too in developing an awareness of what good quality history-writing and relevance to the question involves. Some innovative strategies were also used to promote achievement in learning support contexts, including the use of stickers to support good work in copybooks, cloze tests and crosswords. In senior History, teachers had felt themselves to be operating in something of a limbo until the availability of marking principles for the revised syllabus. They have engaged very thoroughly with the altered requirements of the syllabus from the point of view of assessment, particularly in relation to the new, stronger focus on question-answering rather than broader essay-writing as was more the case with the old syllabus. As previously mentioned, the thoroughness and interesting nature of the approach to senior research study work, and the significant time commitment involved for both teachers and students, has certainly been noted.
The broad spectrum of assessment methods seen, in tandem with the excellent commitment to formative assessment by teachers are obvious supports to optimum student achievement in History.
The following are the main strengths and areas for development 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 principal and with the teachers of History at the conclusion of the evaluation at which the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.