An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Árdscoil na mBráithre
Clonmel, County Tipperary
Roll number: 65320J
Date of inspection: 15 and 16 May 2006
Date of issue of report: 15 December 2006
This Subject Inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Árdscoil na mBráithre, Clonmel. 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 was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
Árdscoil na mBráithre is a voluntary secondary school and, as such, offers History as a core element in its junior cycle. Timetable provision for the subject is satisfactory, with each class group having an allocation of three single periods per week. In addition, it should be pointed out that in almost every case, these periods are spread across at least four days of the week, minimising as far as possible the danger of leaving lengthy gaps between any two History classes. The balance in the spread of junior History classes also extends to the provision of the majority of the relevant periods before lunchtimes. This is particularly supportive provision where a subject, such as History, has fewer class contact periods per week nationally than most other State-examination subjects tend to have.
Transition Year (TY) is an optional programme at the school but one to which access is limited to just twenty-four students annually. Timetable provision here sees History and Geography combined having two single lessons per week, with the subjects generally taught by the same teacher as two distinct subjects. This is satisfactory provision in terms of timetabling but the forthcoming changes in staff availability are likely to mean a re-think about both TY provision and the contents of the History element of the programme. Maintaining the History-Geography link may be possible and if so, the opportunities which a cross-curricular approach could offer should be explored. It is also worth considering the merits of timetabling this History/Geography element as a double period, given that this would facilitate any possible project work, field trips, museum visits or visiting speakers which might be factored into a redrafted programme. If the new teacher of the History element is not involved in Geography, other cross-curricular options may be possible, as indeed may the incorporation of materials with a local emphasis currently being taught in TY. Other suggestions around what would be appropriate topics, methodologies and timescales for a future TY History module are to be found in the Curricular Areas section of www.transitionyear.ie, under ‘History in Transition Year’.
Provision for History in fifth and sixth year is on an optional basis and is very satisfactory. The school supports an open-choice mechanism in trying to arrive at a best fit of subject-option bands each year. This is commended. As a rule, History has ended up being offered in two distinct option bands each year, meaning that students are effectively able to select the subject without having to lose out on any other preferred subject by doing so. This open choice results in a complex timetable arrangement, with sometimes up to seven subjects across from each other in a particular band. Within this system, it is noted that uptake levels of senior History have generally been healthy enough to support two good-sized class groups, each generally being of mixed ability. This is very satisfactory. One caveat which school management has identified within the senior-cycle options, however, is that the popularity of the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme within the school is subliminally but definitely impacting on the uptake of subjects outside the Vocational Subject Groupings, i.e. History, Geography and Classical Studies in the context of this school’s curriculum. This is a cause for concern as the school seeks to maintain the viability of having two History classes in each Leaving Certificate year group. This is also a difficulty largely outside the school’s own control, as only one of the four slots where History appears in fifth or sixth year contains the LCVP Link Modules as an alternative.
Up until recently, the school has experienced difficulties around securing Broadband Internet access. This has been particularly frustrating in light of the networking facilities already in place, as well as the availability of laptop computers and data projectors for teacher use. It is anticipated that the Broadband difficulties will have been sorted out in the near future and, with access to the school’s computer room readily facilitated through a booking system, there are exciting prospects for the broadening of information technology use in History. Much good work has already been seen in areas such as teacher preparation of handouts and increased ICT availability should impact also on student research work for the revised Leaving Certificate History syllabus and in the use of data projectors for visual and documentary analysis, central to both junior and senior syllabuses.
An area of some difficulty for the school at present relates to its library stock. The requirements of the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus suggest that the school is undersupplied with the textual resources which should form a base for senior research study. Some avenues through this difficulty have been suggested, particularly in the relatively inexpensive area of subscriptions to respected periodicals and in the gradual development of a book stock which can meet the needs of students of a wide range of abilities preparing reports on their research studies (RSRs). The imminent availability of Broadband Internet access should further assist research studies and the proximity of both the Clonmel branch library and of the Tipperary SR County Museum are additional supports which the school has, in the past, made use of and should do again.
A formal subject department structure operates at the school, with a designated head of History in place. To date, meetings have tended to occur on a formal basis only at the start of a given school year, supported by further informal meetings thereafter. Given the number of teachers, it is suggested and accepted within the school that additional formal meetings will need to be factored into the planning for History in the coming year. Some excellent guidance on how best such a formalisation of departmental planning can be progressed can be found on the school development planning website, www.sdpi.ie, or via the Leaving Certificate History website at www.hist.ie. In the context of this large school, with twenty different History class groups operating in the current academic year alone, it is also suggested that any move towards formal planning ought to keep in mind the immense value to be gleaned by all teachers from the simple practice of sharing ideas on teaching and learning. If it is possible to use at least part of any formal planning meetings to discuss teaching strategies that have and have not worked, this should certainly be done. Furthermore, it would be very worthwhile if the teachers who have attended Leaving Certificate in-service training could give a resumé of what the syllabus involves, recommended methodologies, required skills, the designated website and other facets of the course which ultimately have relevance for all teachers of the subject. Management is commended for its support of planning and preparation by its release of teachers to attend Leaving Certificate History in-service training and also in its practical support for teachers’ membership of the History Teachers Association of Ireland. Budgeting for History is as needs arise, which is very satisfactory in the context of considerable management understanding of the subject’s needs.
Evidence of individual teacher planning has been found to be very satisfactory. Most teachers have identified key issues like the material to be covered, approaches used and assessment methods. Some also presented thorough records of student progress and all had developed very good banks of resources for use with classes as handouts, overhead transparencies, questionnaires or revision aids. Individual planning also included several very honest summations of issues relating to specific class groups. In all cases, teachers were seen to be teaching material wholly relevant to the syllabuses concerned and appropriate to the year groups and time of year involved. Some teachers had also managed to develop good schedules which allowed for some revision work on previously covered material to be factored into the core work being done. This is a very sensible strategy, given the time of year, and is evidence of a clear, structured approach by teachers to delivering the various syllabuses.
A natural, unforced atmosphere was found to prevail in all classes visited during the inspection. Whether students were arriving at the classroom before or after their teacher, they settled down to work very readily. Sometimes, teachers used the opening minutes of lessons to say prayers, commend students on sporting achievements or return homework copybooks quietly and quickly. Any awkward queries or student difficulties around copybooks being full or not having homework completed were dealt with fairly and firmly at all times. Even student anecdotes which were or were not fully relevant to material being covered were accepted and reinforced very supportively by teachers. Some classrooms had appropriate History displays, ranging from posters to examples of student project work, including models, swords and costumes, which enhanced the learning environment. Given that it is not practicable for teachers to have their own base rooms, this effort to introduce print- and object-rich environments relevant to History is certainly commended.
While a number of classes visited had quite large student numbers, at no stage did attention deviate from the focus of the lessons. Teachers used a variety of strategies to ensure ongoing student attention, including regular questioning, the introduction of colloquialisms into explanations and references to current affairs. Desk layout in all rooms was conducive to teacher movement around the room as desired, though this possibility was not uniformly availed of. On occasion, teachers enhanced student focus further by pausing for short recap sessions, including brainstorming tasks and short tests on stimulus-based material. These worked well, and could well be developed in time to embrace pair work and group work, promoting self-directed learning among students still further. Prompts on the board, akin to the hints given in Junior Certificate Ordinary Level examinations, can be another useful way of assisting student responses, particularly if a class is more academically challenged. It merits being stated at this point that, while the school operates a mixed-ability policy in general, junior classes are compiled dependent on what subjects students select from a list of first-year options. This has had the effect of creating classes which are strongly populated by students of similar aptitudes or abilities and teachers are highly commended for their sensitivity to the learning needs of their students in different class groups, through appropriate lesson pacing, word usage and tailoring of lesson content.
Some very good board use was seen in a number of lessons. The development of board charts, for example, to highlight the differences between one set of election results and another worked very well with senior students. On more than one occasion, junior students brainstormed aloud around life during World War II, with the generation of spider diagrams on the board adding very clear visual reinforcement. On other occasions, teachers used the board to develop sets of key words which students needed to know, sometimes using the board to prompt responses, giving initial letters of difficult terms. These were all very simple, clear examples of good board work. In some instances, a very obvious culture of student note-making had been fostered, with many if not all students noting down important data for later use. This is worth developing in all classes, even more than note-dictation, as it fosters a sense of discernment and self-direction among students, as well as aiding retention.
While some opportunities were allowed for student-centred brainstorming, focus on source work or short written tasks, most lesson development involved teacher-led question-and-answer processes. In the context of the time of year and desirable emphasis on revision work, this is satisfactory. Questioning worked most effectively where students were presented with a mix of lower- and higher-order questions, with senior students in particular being stretched to identify issues of cause and consequence, draw conclusions and analyse material on an ongoing basis. In this context, it was good to see senior students urged to identify up to four or five effects which a particular event had on subsequent developments. In some lessons, a tendency to focus a little too much on seeking volunteer answerers has been noted, with the recommendation that questions be tailored to individual, perhaps reticent students a little more, in order to ensure understanding and encourage participation from the less vocal members of classes. In developing student responsiveness, it has also been suggested that teachers could offer more open-ended questions, allowing students to respond to photographs and documents without any initial hints about what information they may glean. This is particularly recommended for classes where the majority of students are aiming for higher-level papers.
A huge range of support materials was used by teachers in the lessons seen, in all cases very productively. With junior students, handouts focused on the identification of key words, sometimes through cloze tests, or on visually-stimulating items, covering topics such as Renaissance painting, election outcomes, 20th century dictatorships and wars in most interesting and engaging ways, with the general emphasis being on students developing their source-handling skills, which are relevant to both junior and senior syllabuses. With classes due to sit State examinations shortly, the focus of handout materials was substantially on revision, assisting students in structuring answers, identifying key points of relevance, identifying the successes and failures of leaders, etc. It was good to note also that senior students have been given extracts from the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus in handout form, to bring additional focus to their revision. A difficulty which has emerged in some classes concerns the best means of ensuring that students retain handout materials for future revision. As placing handouts loosely within the pages of copybooks or textbooks does not seem the best option, it is recommended that students be encouraged to maintain files or binders for any handout materials and that this could perhaps become departmental policy in time.
The overall quality of historical analysis seen during class visits was very satisfactory. It was very pleasing to see how little teachers relied on mere reading of textbook excerpts, if at all, relying instead on explanation, questioning and discussion as already intimated. A feature of the high-quality approach was the frequent creation of connections to help students through the materials being covered. In some classes, students were given an overall framework, or timeline, to help tie everything together better. Elsewhere, parallels were drawn between different revolutionary periods, with students asked to compare and contrast outcomes, or between different political leaders and parties. On one or two occasions, teachers also made excellent connections for students between what they were covering in History and what they knew from other subjects, such as Art and Geography. Such work is invaluable in giving students insights and showing them the relevance of historical study to today. If and when such parallels can be drawn, even where they can include links to television programmes, sports and music with which students are familiar, they invariably assist in student engagement. Teachers are certainly commended for their excellent work in this regard, as they are for the very good work seen overall in the History classes visited.
Student homework was examined in all classes visited. In general, a very good range of homework tasks has been assigned to different classes, taking into account the ages and ability ranges of classes and syllabus requirements. Junior classes have been assigned a fine mix of short- and long-answer questions, as well as source-based questions, both from textbooks and from teachers’ own documentation. This is good practice. Some very good examples of assigning more imaginative tasks, such as drawing exercises, wordsearch and crosswords have also been noted and are deserving of further employment if practicable, particularly where students may not be very comfortable with lengthy writing assignments. As previously intimated, some very worthwhile examples of student project work, in-class short tests and oral questioning have also been seen in many junior classes. Most homework correction in junior cycle has been through teacher monitoring and self-correction by students. This is quite acceptable. As classes progress towards Junior Certificate, it is suggested that a focus on showing students how the Significant Relevant Statement (SRS) marking principle which is at the core of Junior Certificate should be developed, training them in how to write good ‘History’ in a gradual, formative manner. This should not add considerably to the time required for homework correction, if at all, but can be a very valuable means of getting students to concentrate on what a question is asking them and what information is required to answer it.
The focus of assessment in senior classes has been substantially on question answering in relation to source-driven tasks, paragraphs or longer answers. Teachers have shown a keen awareness of the focus within the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus on writing ‘answers’ rather than mere ‘essays’ and this has been worked on to a significant extent with students, both in homework and in class. Assessment methods employed on longer answers mixed formative comments and summative approaches driven by the draft marking principles of the revised syllabus, again wholly appropriate in the context of employing assessment as a means of promoting optimum achievement.
Whole school assessment policies follow regular lines. A generic homework policy is currently being worked on as part of the school planning process. Examinations for non State-examination classes are held at Christmas and summer, with State-examination classes having pre-examinations in early spring in addition to Christmas tests. Parent-teacher meetings for each year group are held on an annual basis. In both History-specific terms and at whole-school level, the assessment structures outlined above are conducive to promoting optimum student achievement.
The following are the main strengths and areas for development identified in the evaluation:
Timetable provision for junior-cycle History is very satisfactory.
Timetable provision and the subject options mechanism for Leaving Certificate History are very supportive of the subject, although the school is very mindful of the impact which non-availability of History within the LCVP has on uptake in the subject.
Progress has been made in rectifying the school’s difficulties in securing Broadband Internet access and this should assist significantly in the teaching and learning of History.
Positive steps have been taken in the area of subject planning at the school, with further measures anticipated, hopefully to retain a focus on discussing teaching and learning whenever possible.
Individual teacher planning and preparation in History is found to be very satisfactory.
A fine quality of History teaching has been epitomised by good student-teacher rapport, good use of the board and support materials, questioning and a clear awareness among teachers of the ability and aptitude ranges of students.
Very good, varied and syllabus-relevant assessment methods have been employed across the History lessons seen.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
Given forthcoming staffing changes, consideration of how best History in the TY programme can be maintained and developed deserves prioritisation.
The development of the History resources in the school’s library is recommended, particularly in light of the compulsory research element in the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus.
Within the context of the fine standard of teaching seen, occasional recommendations have been made around questioning techniques, self-directed learning strategies, visual approaches and retention aids.
The employment of the SRS marking principle as a gradual aid to developing the quality of student homework answers is worthy of consideration.
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.