An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
John Scottus Secondary School
74 Morehampton Road
Donnybrook, Dublin 4
Roll number: 68071 G
Date of inspection: 24 October 2006
Date of issue of report: 26 April 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in John Scottus 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 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.
The school values History highly and reflects this in its place in the curriculum. Its prospectus, explaining the philosophical basis on which the school is founded, states: ‘History focuses on the way in which great men and women have influenced the course of human affairs, and aims to find out what made them great. Visiting sites of historical importance is a key part of good historical understanding’. Support for the subject underscores that philosophy in the provision of History-based classrooms, cross-curricular influences, visits to historical sites both locally and abroad, and good time allocation on the school timetable.
One of the History-based rooms is established for some years while others are developing in the same direction, by providing much stimulus material and up-to-date historical information on the walls and boards of the classroom. This print-rich environment provides a good basis for the work of teachers and students of the subject.
Class sizes are manageable and fit well into the rooms, which are sometimes quite small but adequate for their purpose. It is the policy of the school, where numbers permit, to divide junior cycle classes into male classes and female classes. The students appear at ease with this arrangement. In senior cycle, all classes are co-educational, and this is partly deliberate policy and partly dictated by choices and numbers for the subjects in each of the senior years.
Junior cycle History classes have three class periods per week in each of the three years, although in one instance the three periods are timetabled as one double and one single. This is not ideal for the teaching of History in the Junior Certificate syllabus, and it is recommended that this position be reviewed when timetabling for next year.
Provision of equipment comprises audio-visual and ICT hardware and software, as well as books, maps, screens and good shelving and cupboarding facilities. There is as yet insufficient ICT equipment in the school to provide a full set to any particular room or teacher. While it is the policy of the management to increase the quantity of laptops, computers and data projectors, in the interim some teachers use their own ICT equipment to assist in teaching their History classes. The school is to be commended on its policy of expanding ICT facilities and it is encouraged to proceed in that direction. An annual budget for History is accessed by application to the principal; this is intended for minor items of software and other expenditure for the subject.
There are currently three teachers of History in the school, all of whom have other subject specialisms as well as History, and there is an overlap with the junior school on the same site in some cases. The resulting cross-curricular influences are positive. It is part of the philosophy of the school that classes start and finish with a pause for reflection and to still the mind for learning; in some instances, exhortation or philosophical quotes formed part of the pause.
There is strong support for continuous professional development (CPD) among the teachers, and they are encouraged to belong to their subject association, to attend its activities and courses, and to take further inservice as provided. Teachers from the school have attended sessions provided by the History Inservice Team (HIST) and some have also taken ICT courses. This is to be commended and its continuance encouraged.
There is a reasonably good uptake of History in the senior cycle, although the teachers would like to see more students opting for the subject. A subject choice system operates in fourth year, where students are first consulted, after which subject-choice blocks are devised. From this system it is hoped that all students’ preferences can be accommodated. If not, the principal discusses the situation with the student and/or parents. Currently the success rate in subject choice is reported to be very high and would usually be in excess of 90%. This is good practice.
Parents are communicated with frequently by the school and there is a parent-teacher meeting annually for each year in the school. Reports are sent to parents four times a year.
History planning meetings currently take place twice a year and the History team co-ordinator keeps minutes and arranges agenda for the meetings. With a small school, and just three teachers involved in the History department, there is also a great deal of informal meeting and discussion among the History teachers. Good planning documents are kept, electronically, by the coordinator, and it is clear from the minutes of the meetings that much discussion takes place concerning text-books, tests, local visits and trips further abroad. This is good practice, and results in genuine attempts to find the best text-book for each class and in carrying out well-focused and frequent History outings, many of them reasonably local and of considerable historical value to the students.
Planning beyond the current year has not been the practice of the team so far and they acknowledge that mid-term to long-term planning is important for the future of the subject in the school. It is recommended that they pursue this course of action and take some time to consider strategic planning for the subject. The teachers also expressed some concern at the relatively modest uptake in History in fifth year, and have been discussing and addressing this matter for some time. Various strategies have been adopted and the teachers continue to pursue ways in which History can attract more students in the senior years. It is recommended that they continue to explore opportunities for achieving this, and that strategic planning should include such issues.
Preparation for teaching the various syllabuses is very good, and there is obvious communication and collaboration between members of the History team. This is to be commended. Preparation and planning for each class group and each lesson are carefully and conscientiously attended to, with much thought given to methodology, balance of material for the class, progress through each topic and expected outcomes. This is good practice. Individual lesson plans were produced for many classes, as were outline plans for revision on certain topics: much of this work was completed electronically, which is practical as it allows future planning to refer to the last version and to amend or augment with minimal problems.
Hardware and software are well-prepared in advance of classes, and the store of material built up by teachers greatly supports and expands the topics being taught. Further development of ICT in the school will enhance presentation of material in this mode. Preparation of rooms to reflect the subject-matter of the current topics and lessons is a positive aspect of History teaching in the school. There are relevant materials displayed on the walls which can be readily referred to during the course of the lesson, and much thought has obviously gone into this process. Many recent and relevant posters and charts are among the displays on the walls. This good practice is to be applauded.
In one example, the opinion was advanced that if all a teacher’s preparation is complete before a class starts, including video clips, powerpoint and introductory notes, the teacher can (with the assistance of modern technology) engage fully with the class and give greater attention to the students and the topic. This approach is to be commended.
In all cases lessons were well introduced, whether by audio-visual extract, question and answer sessions, or key words on the board or powerpoint. It would assist with this process if the topic title could, in all instances, be written or printed in a prominent place in the room (board or screen) from the outset of the lesson, as an aid to student focus and as a key to the development of a subject or the headline for a new topic.
Students were involved in lessons from the outset, being encouraged to contribute both individually or collectively, and usually being asked questions by name which is good practice. Both simple and higher-order questions were asked in the classes inspected, allowing students of all ability levels to contribute and participate in the learning process.
A wide variety of teaching methods was in evidence, with no one method dominating the lessons inspected. The variety meant that students’ focus was constantly being changed and their attention to the subject matter was maintained throughout the class. Students readily took notes, asked questions and answered them when appropriate. Reference was frequently made to the audio-visual material being used so that students could give their opinion or extrapolate ideas and developments from the book, or film, or quotation being used. Text-books were principally used as a back-up or support which students could refer to, or use as a reference for homework. There was good use of documents and other sources, both in senior and junior classes and the lessons were enhanced by such reference. This is good practice and is commended. ICT was in evidence in several classes, not just in classroom methodology, but also in preparation for the class and the production of information or work-sheets to support the teaching and learning of the topic being taught.
In all instances it was common practice to acknowledge, reinforce and affirm student input or contribution to the class. This is an example of best practice and is highly commended. It also helps the student to gain
in confidence and to contribute further to classes in the subject.
One aspect of teaching and learning which might be developed profitably in history classes is the expansion and development of student-centred or student-directed learning. Students make positive contributions as it
is but these tend to be in response to teacher prompts. Working in groups or pairs, or taking part in role-play in History classes, can be very valuable, whether as brainstorming sessions, group problem-solving, or
discussion of major points of a topic. This can contribute strongly to the lesson, with the focus on the student’s contribution. It is recommended as being worth using as a development of current methods.
As lessons progressed, it was the practice in most cases to write key words and ideas on the white board. This is good practice as it helps to focus the students on the main matters being dealt with in the class and develops their knowledge of the topic being studied. In most cases, students were encouraged to write these notes from the board into their notebooks and this is good practice and should be extended to topics in all History classes. Students were encouraged to comment on terms that arose during lessons, and much reference to contemporary parallels marked the contributions made by students. Teachers saw the value in these remarks and often expanded them further with the class, which was a valuable practice.
There was very good use of audio-visual material in classes, and video material and excerpts from longer films played a substantial role in some lessons observed. These had been chosen carefully by the teachers, who have built up an impressive resource of video/DVD films which are shown via recorder and monitor or through computer and data projector. Students in all cases were encouraged to look out for certain points in the films and were instructed to write down points or to write partial or full reviews for homework. The follow-up work was very good so that full historical and learning value could be derived from each excerpt.
One of the strongest traditions in the History department, and one which is very much in line with the mission statement of the school, is the integration of visits, whether local or further afield, into the teaching and learning process. It is regarded by all the teachers as a major factor in their progress with the syllabus, and they therefore plan well in advance for their visits, incorporating preparation into the lessons, and negotiating with colleagues to assist in taking groups away.
There is good use of the locally available amenities in Dublin, particularly museums and exhibitions, notable buildings and other historical locations. In visits to Northern Ireland, the students have had meetings with political and community leaders, and have visited many places of historical interest and value. Historical trips abroad have included visits to Berlin, by way of Bletchley Park, in England, thus taking in elements of two sides in world wars. There has been a degree of good fortune, coincidence and serendipity in the meetings and experiences while travelling away from the school, but these experiences could not have occurred had the visits not been planned in the first place.
Many photographs are taken on these visits and this adds to the value and record of the material seen, and also of the social aspect. These visits provide a strong base for choosing and building up material for research studies for the Leaving Certificate and it is recommended that students in those classes consider that opportunity as a valuable starting point or reinforcement for their independent studies.
The History teachers are to be commended on their enterprise in bringing students on interesting and valuable historical visits both near and far. These are examples of best practice in teaching the subject and they present students with great learning opportunities and memorable experiences.
Assessment takes place at many levels in History lessons and homeworks. There is constant resort to questioning in class with students volunteering often valuable and informative answers. The fact that both straightforward and higher-order questions are asked, and that students are invariably called by their names, makes this process a valuable one in the assessment of students’ progress. Students are asked to work things out, often aloud, in class and this reinforces the process.
Homeworks are set regularly, usually after each History lesson, and the students’ work is good and up to date. In senior cycle, work is usually in essay form and is set at appropriate intervals during the study of a particular topic. Teachers monitor, tick, initial and make comments on students’ work, but they do not usually grade the work as fortnightly assessment grades are sent to parents for each student in all subjects. While this is a positive practice and keeps parents, students and teachers in contact both with the work and progress of the students and on a school/parent level, it might be worth considering allocating appropriate grades to weekly homework as a guide to students in specific areas and on current topics. Projects are undertaken by History students: this is good practice although the approach might be a little more consistent across classes. It is also good practice to display students’ work, particularly projects, on their classroom walls as a means to spreading good work and as a starting point for discussion or revision in a topic. It is recommended that this practice be introduced into History rooms.
Tests are held fortnightly, half-termly and at the end of studying topics in History. Parents are sent fortnightly grade reports. In-house examinations take place twice a year, in the first and third terms. Written reports (computerised, but with teachers’ individual comments typed in for each student and subject) are sent to parents four times a year. Students in state examination years sit ‘mock’ examinations in February.
Records are held by individual teachers and by the school for each subject. Assessment is thorough and, clearly, homeworks and classwork lead to the frequent tests that take place. Emphasis is placed on writing and on presentation of work, and this is to be applauded. Not all work, however, is simply written answers or essays, with much work in evidence which required illustration, maps and models. This variety of work assignments is to be commended.
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.