An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Borris Vocational School
Borris, County Carlow
Roll number: 70400L
Date of inspection: 21 February 2006
Date of issue of report: 26 October 2006
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Borris Vocational 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 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 well provided for in terms of timetable in Borris Vocational School. All students take History in junior cycle, where they are taught in a mixture of streamed and mixed-ability classes for three class periods per week. The second-year students are currently streamed and this system is under review at present. There are four class groups in each of the first three years. Transition Year (TY) is optional and about one-third of the students choose to follow that programme. History is not included in the curriculum at present but has been in the past, usually as a composite course including Geography. The school hopes that it will be possible to re-include History as an integral part of the programme. This is to be encouraged as History is a discipline very much in line with the principles and practice of the TY. There is one History class group in each of fifth and sixth years. These classes are mixed ability and have five class periods a week, usually two double periods and one single period. An open system of choosing subjects for senior cycle is employed by means of which the majority of students are enabled to study the subjects of their choice.
There is one computer room and the school has been connected to broadband in recent months. At present it is difficult to exploit the potential of ICT to the full, partly because the school is largely accommodated in temporary classrooms, each of which would have to be separately connected to broadband. The school is about to have a major extension built, in which broadband will be installed for all rooms. This extension will offer major opportunities in the ICT area, among others. The school also has a library. It is recommended that History teachers make the most of facilities currently available and not await the completion of the extension building before concentrating on use of ICT and other media in the classroom.
When equipment is required, or needs replacement, the teachers make requests to the principal who sanctions purchases where possible. It is important that History teachers make an inventory of materials available for their subject and create a centralised resource area for these materials. This could be in a room, a cupboard or even a cabinet or box which is accessible to all the History teachers.
The current planning policy in the school facilitates the subject teams in holding regular planning meetings. So far this year, there have been three subject planning meetings; this is a positive development. Planning documents outline the aims and objectives of the courses to be taught and the curriculum content. The documents refer to cross-curricular planning and outings and visits to places of historical interest. A good section on aims and objectives covers junior cycle very well but is somewhat less detailed in referring to the aims of the syllabus for fifth and sixth year class groups. This planning process has been in place for about two years and is progressing well. It is recommended that collaboration in developing the planning process, and a specific annual meeting for strategic planning for the subject should be priorities for the History team.
There was some good planning in evidence in the classes visited, and scope for a wider variety of teaching methods in developing subject plans. Preparation was generally good, though use of audio-visual aids and stimulus material should form a substantial part of that preparation. Where teachers have their own classrooms it is possible to display subject-relevant material and students’ work. This opportunity is taken in some instances and should be developed as part of the planning and preparation process in others. Providing a stimulus-rich environment for students is a major part of engendering interest and enthusiasm, and this in turn plays an important part in encouraging students to select History for their Leaving Certificate.
Teachers are also supported by management in attending inservice courses for new syllabuses, and to develop their skills. This opportunity has been availed of and further attendance at the ongoing inservice sessions for the new Leaving Certificate History syllabus is to be encouraged. It is recommended that the many resources, and especially the software provided without charge by the inservice team, be exploited to the full and its opportunities availed of. This is of particular importance to the current cohort of students preparing for the Leaving Certificate. Further use of the school library and current ICT facilities should be made until the new buildings are complete. It should also be a priority to create a resource centre and an inventory of History materials.
There is, in the History teachers’ subject association, a reservoir of support, through meetings, seminars and a national conference, as well as publications and lists of sources. There is great advantage to be gained by tapping into this resource and this course of action is recommended for the teachers of History in the school.
In all lessons observed students were courteous and respectful and there was a pleasant atmosphere in the classes inspected. This mutual respect has helped to foster good teacher-student rapport. Classroom management was subtle and affirming at all times, with roll-calls and the checking of homework at the beginning of lessons a common practice. It is suggested that strategies be investigated to minimise the amount of class time taken up with the checking of homework, especially where this is not relevant to the development of the current lesson. Sufficient time was allocated for the development of topics in all lessons and lessons progressed at a pace commensurate with the abilities of the students.
Some of the teachers visited had their own base-classrooms and these were well utilised with examples of student-generated work on display. It was encouraging to see this work and the degree to which students are engaging with History in an active way. Teacher-based classrooms can serve to give both teacher and students access to a range of relevant resources that can used to stimulate student learning. Visually stimulating material relevant to current lessons should also be displayed on classroom walls as a means of generating and sustaining students’ interest and enthusiasm in History.
A variety of teaching strategies was observed in the classes inspected. A strong commitment to oral questioning was in evidence and this methodology was central to the development and assessment of student learning. There was a good balance of higher and lower order questions and these were well directed amongst the students. Teachers made efforts to involve most students and skilfully assisted them with answers by rephrasing questions to improve understanding. In one instance group project-work was observed with time allocated in class to allow students to collate their work. Students had obviously invested time in gathering resources and were studious in their approach to their projects. Availing of such opportunities for group and cooperative learning is recommended and it was clearly enjoyed by the students.
The blackboard was used to good effect to display key terms and historical facts. Students were often encouraged to record these notes in their copybooks. This practice of taking notes of key words and points from the board should be followed in all History lessons so that students retain a record of the work completed in class. In this way no vital information is lost, and it assists students in completing their homework assignments and in revision of the topic.
Textbooks were referred to frequently during classes visited as a teaching and learning resource, and it was good to note that they were not the only stimulus used. On one occasion links were established successfully between content in textbooks and students’ interest in popular movies and the topic of the lesson. This worked well and engaged the students in an analytical way. Here students expressed their interest in the period of study because of the “things”, “people” and “colour”. In a general sense, it is suggested that some carefully-chosen (and brief) extracts from feature films can be used as valuable supports to complement teaching and learning, particularly if the topic of study lends itself to this methodology.
Greater diversity in teaching strategies is advisable to maintain and stimulate student interest. The positive approach to planning taken by the History department can be built upon to discuss a variety of approaches and develop the resources necessary to teach the various modules of the syllabuses. It would be beneficial in the conduct of classes to change the focus and pace of the lessons by involving students more actively and frequently in the learning process. Pair-work, group-work and peer presentation are proven methods in this area. Additional visually stimulating material should be used to engage students with History and to complement the existing teacher and student-generated material. Some possible sources of additional supplementary resource material may be found on www.hist.ie or through subscriptions to the relatively inexpensive periodicals such as the BBC Horrible Histories. The use of the existing overhead projectors is to be encouraged. Overhead transparencies are an inexpensive method of developing visually attractive resources.
The building of the new school extension should bring a welcome opportunity to develop a key role for ICT in the teaching and learning of History. This medium has enormous potential to support and complement the good work being carried out by the History department.
In addition to question and answer sessions in most classes, teachers set written homework assignments for students on a regular basis, as well as learning or reading tasks. Written work is completed, well monitored and in many instances teachers add positive remarks to the work.
Some teachers hold class tests at the completion of topics. In-house examinations are held at Christmas and summer for first, second and fifth years following which written reports are sent to parents or guardians. There are trial or ‘mock’ examinations in the spring term for certificate examination students; reports are sent home after those examinations also.
Student work inspected during classes, and general attainment levels in the subject, are generally good and show preparation and effort on the part of students. In general outcomes are commensurate with the ability level and input of the students in this subject. Students are encouraged by their teachers to take History at the appropriate levels for state examinations and this advice is based on performance and ability.
The school organises annual parent-teacher meetings for each year group and holds information meetings concerning subject choice. Speakers are sometimes invited to address meetings and this lends a social aspect to these occasions. Parents are also encouraged to contact the school if there are concerns or issues regarding their children.
The following are the main strengths and areas for development identified in the evaluation:
· History is well provided for in terms of timetabled hours, teacher-based classrooms, and an open student subject choice system to Leaving Certificate.
· A well-qualified team of six teachers is supported by management in their work by the provision of time for planning meetings and in facilitating attendance at in-service courses for the new History Leaving Certificate syllabus.
· The History team has produced planning documents for 2005-2006 including aims and objectives for the subject and class plans for each year.
· Methodology in History lessons is varied and includes questioning, boardwork and some student-centred activities.
· Classes are orderly and well-behaved, and an atmosphere of mutual respect prevails.
· Regular written homework, class tests and in-school examinations are the main modes of assessment, and teachers keep progress records. Reports are sent to parents twice a year.
· Parent-teacher meetings are held annually for each year group and there are parent information meetings to help with students’ subject choice for senior cycle.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following recommendations are made:
· Greater use of visually stimulating material and students work in classrooms and public areas in the school would enhance and increase the profile of the subject in the school.
· In preparing and delivering lessons in History, teachers should avail to a greater extent of audio-visual, display and ICT material.
· It would be beneficial in the planning and conduct of classes to change the focus and pace of the lesson by involving students more actively and frequently in the learning process: pair-work, group-work and peer presentation are proven methods in this area.
· Teachers have been involved in continuous professional development through, for example, inservice courses for the new History Leaving Certificate syllabus. This should be expanded where possible to include all teachers of the subject and skills such as those needed for ICT.
· The team of History teachers should aim to expand its current meetings to include long-term and strategic planning for the future of the subject. The new building, when complete, will offer enormous potential for the subject and the History team should be ready to exploit this opportunity to the full.
· The addition of History to the curriculum in Transition Year is important, not only in developing students’ skills in many areas, but in giving them a real taste of what History will be like in the Leaving Certificate.
· A resource centre, whether a cupboard or a room, should be developed as soon as possible to support the teaching and learning of History, and the existing library facilities should be fully utilised, particularly for projects for all years, and for research studies as required by the new Leaving Certificate syllabus.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the principal, deputy 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.