An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
Balbriggan Community College
Pine Ridge, Chapel Street, Balbriggan
Roll number: 70010V
Date of inspection: 1 March 2006
Date of issue of report: 29 June 2006
This Subject Inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Balbriggan Community College. 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 these subjects 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 the opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
Balbriggan Community College is a co-educational school within the area of responsibility of Co. Dublin Vocational Education Committee. There is good whole school support for the teaching and learning of Geography.
Geography is a compulsory subject for the majority of students at junior cycle and these class groups are streamed. Geography is allocated two and three class periods per week in first year and second year on a rotating basis, and this increases to three class periods in third year. Students following the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) take the Environmental and Social Studies (ESS) syllabus and this is allocated six class periods per week.
On transfer into senior cycle, Geography becomes an optional subject. Prior to selecting subjects students receive information and support from the Guidance Counsellor (GC) and the various subject teachers. The school is commended for providing this level of support as students are advised on making informed choices, which facilitates effective career planning. Students are given an open choice of subjects from which option blocks are created. These blocks are designed to provide maximum choice within the resources available. The school is commended for its efforts in trying to cater for the subject choice of its students. Five teaching periods per week, consisting of one double period and three single class periods are allocated in each of the Leaving Certificate years and classes are of mixed ability. This time allocation is in line with syllabus requirements. The uptake of Geography at senior cycle is very healthy and teachers are commended for their work in maintaining a prominent profile for the subject in the school.
There are seven teachers currently teaching the subject. They have formed an identifiable subject department and the role of co-ordinator forms part of a Special Duties Teacher (SDT) post of responsibility. The school management have strongly supported subject department planning with the provision of a weekly time slot to facilitate this process. This time period is rotated between the various subject departments and can be accessed when required through a booking system.
School management has provided a wide range of resources to support teaching and learning in Geography. These include Ordnance Survey (OS) map extracts, aerial photographs, rock samples, wall maps and charts and a collection of videos. These resources are stored in a number of different rooms as there is no designated Geography room and teachers are allocated to base classrooms. It is recommended that the Geography teaching team gather and catalogue all available resources for the teaching of Geography within the school and that these are centrally stored. This development would allow for more effective sharing of resources and encourage their greater use as a means of increasing student interest and supporting learning in Geography. A television and DVD unit is exclusively available to the Geography department and the teaching team have access to an audiovisual room. School management has facilitated the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) including a mobile laptop and data projector by putting in place a booking system for this equipment. The school has been grant aided to cable all rooms for broadband and this development will allow for increased integration of ICT into the teaching and learning of Geography. The Geography department does not have an annual budget allocation but the school management provides resources as the needs arise. The school is commended for the development of these resources as they make an important contribution to effective teaching and learning.
There was clear evidence of planning and preparation for the Geography lessons observed. Some teachers had annual schemes of work which contained topics to be covered within specific timescales, assignment worksheets and assessments, lists of resources, maps, relevant websites to be accessed and supporting texts such as newspaper extracts. This level of individual planning is commended and its wider use is encouraged. Effective short-term planning was also evidenced in the delivery and presentation of material in a logical and structured manner in line with the learning targets set at the start of class. Teachers had prepared stimulus materials including maps, overhead transparencies, sketches and a variety of creative worksheets. These resources were introduced into the lessons at appropriate times and skilfully exploited in reinforcing student learning. The continued appropriate use of these resources is to be encouraged and commended. In some classes homework was assigned and teachers thoroughly explained the demands of the exercise and clarified any difficulties that the students might experience. Appropriate reference was made to the relevant textbook pages where students could access useful information in completing the assignment. This use of the textbook as a complementary, rather than the sole resource in supporting learning is commended and its wider use is encouraged.
There was evidence of collaborative long-term planning by the Geography teaching team. Formal planning takes place at regular meetings throughout the year and there are also frequent informal discussions to share information and good practice. Teachers had agreed common planned programmes of work for junior cycle and these were provided during the evaluation process. The written planning documents contained areas of the syllabus to be covered within given timeframes, common textbooks, assessment procedures and resources available to support teaching and learning. Teachers are encouraged to build on this good practice by working collaboratively to produce a more formal plan for Geography in line with the school’s progress with school development planning (SDP). This plan should give consideration to active learning methodologies, special educational needs strategies, fieldwork policy, collaborative planning at senior cycle, plans for the increased integration of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), the introduction of a greater variety of assessment methods and the future development of teaching resources. ‘Guidelines for Teachers’ related to the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus and the Assessment for Learning project of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) could be of assistance in this planning process. These resources can be accessed on the NCCA website www.ncca.ie.
It was noted from the planning documents junior cycle for that course content consists exclusively of Physical Geography in term one of first year. This emphasis places challenging demands on students in terms of the extensive range of terminology, geomorphic processes involved and resultant landform development. It is recommended that the Geography teaching team review this strong emphasis on Physical Geography and consider the introduction of map and photograph work at an earlier stage. From this base, vital map and photographic skills could then be developed, expanded and exercised in association with many parts of the syllabus. Students would accordingly be exposed to a more visual and activity based approach which would greatly enrich the teaching and learning of Geography for first-year students.
The subject department plan also made provision for the delivery of the Environmental and Social Studies (ESS) syllabus. The plan also contained samples of assessment modes and comprehensive ESS field exercises. A number of student projects were made available during the visit. It was reported that Learning Targets and Student Profiles have been developed in line with the requirements of the programme. This level of planning is highly commended and reflects a commitment by teachers to their students.
In all lessons observed the learning intention was clear and teachers generally shared the planned learning outcomes with their students at the beginning of the lesson. In one class the rationale for choosing to study a particular topic was clearly outlined to students. That gave context to the learning situation and provided for more meaningful engagement with the subject. This good practice is commended and its wider use in all lessons is encouraged. Most classes began with a review of the material covered previously and appropriate links were established with the new material to ensure continuity. Lessons then progressed in a coherent manner and at a pace that was suitable to the abilities of the students. In the classes visited the topics being taught included: the growth of Dublin from Viking times, factors contributing to high population density in Dublin, the work of the sea, Italy as a peripheral region and an introduction to map reading with a focus on the use of maps and the understanding and use of the concept of scale.
A variety of teaching methodologies ranging, from traditional didactic approaches to innovative activity based learning strategies, were employed in the lessons observed. In some classes teachers had adopted a very visual approach to the teaching of Geography. This is commended as it caters effectively for the learning needs of all students. In the delivery of lessons brainstorming, mind maps and overhead transparencies were used to present material. Main points were effectively summarised and the students were instructed to copy these into their notes copies. This good practice is highly commended and its wider use in all lessons is encouraged as it provided students with valuable revision aids. The provision of ‘quiet recording time’ enables students to assimilate and reflect on new subject matter.
In some lessons observed the teacher paid careful attention to the development of the students’ linguistic skills. Key geographical terms were revised at every opportunity and new terms were written on the whiteboard explained by the teacher and reinforced by frequent use throughout the lesson. This practice is highly commended as it greatly facilitates student understanding and retention of the language of Geography. It is recommended that this good practice be incorporated into the teaching methodologies used in all classes. Teacher questioning was central in most lessons observed. Questions ranged from lower order ones to those demanding more reflective and analytical answers. This methodology is commended as it enhances the development of higher-order thinking skills. In addition all students were included in the questioning process and thus were challenged to remain alert and attentive. The Geography teaching team are to be commended for the range of methodologies they have adopted to deliver the syllabus in an interesting and vibrant manner. It is recommended that in classes where more traditional methodologies dominated that active learning strategies be employed to cater for all learning styles and to make learning more accessible, meaningful and enjoyable for students. Reference to the resource material provided during the evaluation process will provide some interesting ideas to assist teachers with this process. It is also recommended that the Geography teachers and the Learning Support department plan and develop differentiated teaching and learning strategies to cater for the broad range of student abilities and learning styles. The Geography teachers could provide a list of key geographic terms, curricular requirements and revision plans to the Learning Support department who in turn could advise on suitable teaching methodologies to cater for the needs of all students.
A range of resource materials was used to support teaching and learning. Medieval and modern maps of Dublin were successfully used to highlight the concept of growth and change over time. Students were required to label features on the medieval map and a comparative exercise on the differences between the two maps ensued. These rich visual stimuli enabled every student to participate in the task with a tangible level of enthusiasm and energy. Sketch maps of Italy illustrating main regions, cities and physical features were distributed to students were used to introduce students to a study of the Geography of Italy. The teacher modelled the drawing of the sketch map on the whiteboard, highlighting the level of detail required for examination purposes and the appropriate time to be spent on the task. The students were then challenged to reproduce a sketch using these guidelines. Brainstorming and associated mind maps illustrating the main points of a topic were also used to engage students. Throughout the process students were continuously questioned and directed along specific lines of enquiry in order to elicit the required information. This practice is highly commended as it provides students with a strong sense of ownership of and participation in the learning process. A variety of maps of different scales were used to demonstrate the concept of scale to students. Students were then shown how to use scale to measure distance and this was followed by the students using prepared strips of paper to measured distance and to practices the newly-acquired skill. It is suggested that consideration be given to the further development of mapping skills throughout the school by using large scale OS maps (1:1000) of the local area.
Teachers in Balbriggan Community College use a variety of assessment procedures. Assessment is carried out on an ongoing basis in class through questioning, correction of homework and student completion of task sheets. Oral assessment was incorporated into all lessons. Students were questioned frequently on current topics and relevant related material to establish the depth of learning and understanding. The students were appropriately affirmed for all their efforts. Homework was corrected and in some cases commented on by teachers. This provision of feedback to students is highly commended as students are informed on their strengths, weaknesses are identified and ways to improve are outlined. This knowledge is invaluable to students in enabling them to progress the quality of their work and to teachers in informing them on the level of attainment reached by students. This good practice is commended and its extension to all classes is advocated. Teachers are encouraged to further develop their methods of assessment particularly with reference to ‘Assessment for Learning’ principles. The documentation on this topic provided by will assist teachers in implementing these principles into their assessment procedures.
Teachers used a creative range of assessment methods including crosswords, geobusters and word searches to test learning. Worksheets were distributed for completion during class. This practice is commended as it enabled teachers to instantly monitor progress and allowed for teacher intervention and assistance with any difficulties individual students was encountering. The continuous affirmation provided throughout proved most effective as a motivational force and students constantly remained on task. Project work forms an important element of assessment and achievement in JCSP. Students had completed impressive projects using a local coastal location, this provided students with an opportunity to put into practice OS map photograph and research skills. These projects had clearly defined aims; a comprehensive outline of the investigative methodology used and clearly stated conclusions. Students’ use of ICT in the presentation of their work is commended. It is suggested that the further introduction of project work into all classes be explored.
An examination of planning documentation revealed that standardised end of year tests are used in classes at junior cycle and student abilities are catered for by the use of examination papers in both junior and senior cycles. This good practice is commended. However it is recommended that students should not decide at too early an stage to take ordinary level papers in examinations and teachers should encourage as many students as possible to attempt higher level papers particularly in the Junior Certificate Examination.
Formal assessments for non-examination classes include regular class tests and Christmas and summer examinations. Some teachers request that parents sign the class tests. This practice of including parents is commended as they are updated on an ongoing basis on their child’s progress. State examination classes take a formal Christmas examination and pre-examinations in the second term. The results of all formal assessments and examination are reported to parents through written school reports and at parent teacher meetings.
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 Geography at the conclusion of the evaluation at which the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.