An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Kanturk, County Cork
Roll number: 71000A
Date of inspection: 2 March 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 June 2006
This Subject Inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Treasa. 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.
As a vocational school, Coláiste Treasa is not required to have History as a compulsory subject to Junior Certificate. This said, it is good to note that there is a considerable provision for the subject in junior cycle. Along with many other subjects, History is studied by all students throughout first year, with each of three class groups having two single periods of History per week during the year. Towards the end of first year, students are then given an open choice of subjects, outside of the compulsory ones, from which to pick a reduced number for study to Junior Certificate level. This allows students to have a good insight into what History involves before making their choices, with the result that good uptake levels in the subject have been seen in the second- and third-year classes visited and are reported to obtain as a rule at the school. The fact that the choice mechanism employed in selecting subjects for second year is an open one is also commended. At present, having taken student preferences fully into account, second-year History has been matched against Art, Geography and French on the timetable, with both Geography and French available in other option lines as well. Third-year students who opted for History after first year did so while other students took French or Geography, with each of these subjects offered in another slot as well. This subject choice provision is positive for the uptake of History.
Whatever restrictions might have been in place on class contact time in first year are well compensated for by the provision of four single periods, spread across four separate days of the week in second- and third-year timetabling for History. There is one class group for History in each of these year groups. It is somewhat unusual to have one teacher currently taking the first-year classes and then another teacher taking on second and third years. However, desirable as more continuity might be, no evidence was seen of this situation causing undue difficulties, with a good spirit of informal collaboration and the teachers concerned having a clear grasp of where first year work ends and second year begins.
In senior cycle, it is good to note that all students who opt for Transition Year are expected to take a year-long History course as part of the programme. This is in keeping with the TYP’s broader aims of developing social and political awareness. As many of the students who opt for Transition Year have not studied History since first year, while others will have studied it up to Junior Certificate, it may be difficult to find a happy medium in terms of course content. This said, it is certainly possible that students who have only ‘returned’ to History via Transition Year could take up the subject for Leaving Certificate if they so wished and the school is commended for its efforts to facilitate this option by not forcing Leaving Certificate subject selection on students before Transition Year. Indeed, given that there is just one History class group in any given third year at the school, the encouragement of Transition Year as another route to Leaving Certificate History could well be the difference between generating a viable class cohort for Leaving Certificate Year 1, known as ‘fourth year’ at the school, on an annual basis. This will be discussed under the Planning and Preparation section of this report in due course.
In its Leaving Certificate options mechanism, the school is again commended on its open choice policy, designed to give the optimum number of preferred subjects to students. Because the pool of available junior History students is reduced from first year, it has not always been possible to form a class group every year as students enter fourth year. There is no History class in the present Leaving Certificate Year 2 (‘fifth year’), for example, but it is encouraging that, this year, a quite healthy uptake level has ensured the formation of a History class in fourth year. In the options for Leaving Certificate, History is offered across from Geography, Physics and Biology, with Biology also timetabled in another slot.
There is no designated History room at the school. It would appear to be impracticable, given the pressures of space and the non-compulsory nature of the subject. However, it is good to note that as much of a base facility as is possible has been offered in that practically all History lessons are taught in one of two adjoining classrooms. These rooms were found to be very well appointed and decorated with substantial historical material, including student-generated project work, creating a real historical atmosphere if not an actual subject base room. Management and staff have been very open in identifying storage space as a difficulty in History. It has been suggested that the placing of a lock-up press in one or other of these rooms could help offset this difficulty, providing a store for books, handouts, video and DVD materials as required.
Management is applauded for its consideration of moving to fixed budgets for the different subject areas on offer at the school. Should resources permit, some suggestions have been offered in the area of periodical subscriptions in particular, with publications like History Ireland for senior students and the ever-lively Horrible Histories for juniors being worthy of consideration. It is suggested that a subscription to BBC History could be invaluable as a means of developing a store of articles for facilitating student research at senior cycle, as well as possible visual and documentary materials for class use and information on many useful websites and publications on historical studies in general. While the book stock in the school’s library is of quite a high standard, many of the older books may seem unattractive to possible researchers in senior cycle, with the added possibility that ordinary level students undertaking research studies for the first time under the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus may prefer more student-friendly materials than might have previously been the case.
Because the school’s library doubles as the main computer facility as well, it is in use most of the time. It is, thus, difficult for classes to have easy access to either the library or computer facility for research work. This is another reason why basing a subject-specific storage area in one of the classrooms used for History as suggested makes sense and management is commended for its willingness to consider this idea. Given that the computer facilities in the library are now networked and have broadband access, it is also highly desirable that senior History students have access to these facilities on an occasional basis, not least because of the demands of the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus for compulsory research studies by all students. With six class periods in History each week, management is confident that access for the class and teacher to the computer room on an ad hoc basis for internet-based research is workable and it is certainly encouraged in this report.
There is no formal departmental structure in subject areas at Coláiste Treasa. On one level, with just three teachers operating in History at present, this is not an overt drawback. Given that first year is the only year with multiple History groups within it and that all classes there have the same teacher and examination papers in History, the issue of organising common assessment policies is not, in fact, one which a History department would need to trouble itself unduly with at present. It could, naturally, cause difficulty in any academic year where first years have a number of different teachers involved. There is also very strong evidence of effective informal collaboration in the organising of the annual historical projects competition in junior cycle. This is supported by the UCC Access programme and has produced a most impressive array of student projects, some of which were seen to be used very effectively during lessons as teaching and motivational aids. In addition, visits to the Cork City Library and an archaeologist-facilitated trip to local heritage sites are further valuable evidence of collaborative and time-consuming planning among teachers and support from management. Although without a formal departmental structure, teachers are also highly commended for their use of the School Development Planning Initiative departmental planning templates to outline key areas of concern and collaborative activity within History, including the documentation of their pool of video resources for History.
There are a number of factors which suggest that any further moves which can be made in the direction of more formal structures, complementing the informal work as outlined above, would benefit the subject and probably make things easier for teachers in the long run. There are potentially six teachers of History at the school but no more than three or four of them actually teach the subject in any given academic year. If a formal department structure existed, with meetings, minutes of meetings and dissemination of materials all covered by the structure, it could enable teachers who have not been teaching the subject for a year or two to keep informed and updated about developments within the subject. Similarly, attendance at in-service training for the revised Leaving Certificate History course has been somewhat disjointed and a formal departmental meeting where in-service attendees could share news updates and methodological ideas with colleagues would be very useful. It is suggested that the headship of such a department could be rotated annually, in order to lighten any increased workload which might be perceived, and also that meetings could consider how best to use the subject budget, should that be allocated in future years, in identifying books and periodicals for possible purchase, in addition to the usual decisions to be made around textbook selection.
Another benefit in forming a History department would be that of providing a vehicle whereby contacts could be maintained through rotated responsibility with the History Teachers Association of Ireland. The support of this organisation at a time of great change in senior cycle History and potential change at junior level could be invaluable, even if attendance at meetings quite a distance from Kanturk is not readily feasible. A final suggestion in relation to a potential departmental role in History could be the general development of a Transition Year programme to take into account the quite mixed backgrounds of the students in terms of their previous exposure to historical study. Some ideas have been offered in relation to the materials available on the History section of the TY Support Service website at www.transitionyear.ie, with a view to using the year to help develop valuable historical skills and knowledge which could be useful not only for potential Leaving Certificate study but also for life.
At individual levels, the commitment of teachers to planning and preparation has been both very evident and impressive. Folders containing student records of achievement, termly and yearly outlines of work as well as examples of tests were seen. Some excellent handouts were also seen, some using web-based resources, including those from the National Library of Ireland, which are very worthwhile. Furthermore, in all lessons visited, the material being covered was fully appropriate to the year groups concerned and took good account of the mixed-ability nature of the classes. Some excellent teacher-generated charts, covering historical terms and date lines, were also in evidence, as was provision for table quizzes and students’ storage of handouts.
In every lesson visited, the atmosphere was conducive to learning, with good teacher-student rapport and a clear but pleasant work ethic established from the beginning, with clear outlines from teachers about the objectives of the lesson. Desk layout generally facilitated clear sight lines to the board for students and teacher mobility around the room as required. In some lessons, it was also impressive to see the ease with which students were organised to move around the room for activity-based work. As previously mentioned, the classrooms were also very well-decorated with History-related materials which were seen in use as occasion demanded during a number of lessons.
In most lessons, the initial minutes were spent in oral correction of previously-assigned written homework. Sometimes, students were asked to read the answers they had given while equally valuable was the encouragement given in some situations to generating short class discussions around some of the answers. It was impressive to see the degree to which natural interaction occurred between teachers and students, always respectful, but with nice moments of humour also during some lessons. As questioning moved on to new material, most of the time it was individually directed and designed to ensure the involvement of the maximum number of students in the lesson. With younger students, visual stimuli were gainfully introduced into the questioning process, while some very skilfully-handled questions ensured that students who were not so comfortable orally were not left out of the work either. Older students were asked more probing questions, for example, to gauge comprehension and understanding of the tone of historical documentation. This was all certainly good practice.
A significant variety of strategies was seen in terms of core lesson development in different classes. The employment of role play to give a practical demonstration of how feudalism worked was very effective, with the fact that the girls were unable to participate in the ceremony being very cleverly used to show the gender divide in medieval times. In some lessons structured handouts were used, with students being encouraged to fill them in as the lesson proceeded. Such practice was excellently reinforced by teacher inputs on the class whiteboard and provided a very simple but structured way for students through the material, via spider diagrams and blank-filling tasks. When possible, some very good use of visual stimuli was seen, ranging from photographs, drawings and political cartoons in handouts or textbooks to the deployment of materials like students’ model castles or wall charts containing historical terms. The visual reinforcement of a verbal message is an excellent strategy in mixed-ability settings.
Very little reading of textbook or handout extracts was seen during any lesson, with the emphasis instead very much on teacher-student interaction as the main form of lesson development. In relation to occasions where extract reading was employed, this worked best when done by students, as short reading tasks are a good way of checking student understanding of documents and individual words, not to mention making them active in their own learning. Overall, the notion of using the textbook as a resource for visual and documentary stimuli and a support for students’ homework and study but not as a main feature of lesson development is certainly applauded.
Very good work was seen in the area of developing student interest in History. Central to this were the efforts by teachers to make material relevant to their daily lives or existing knowledge base. Links were well-established between modern day income taxation and the causes of revolution in America, between modern riots and historical workers’ demonstrations in Dublin and between Irish events and the broader context of post-war European events. Sometimes, topics were linked to a film with which the students were familiar, like Angela’s Ashes, or issues of distance or area were compared to the distances from Kanturk to known points for students. Colourful details about historical personages were offered, as were Irish links to international events where possible. This is all very important in the development of students’ understanding and interest. Excellent care was taken by teachers to check understanding of difficult terms, sometimes with words being broken down to their origins, as with ‘quartering’ and ‘socialism’ or even used in a simple rhyme, as in the distinction between ‘motte’ and ‘moat’. One area which has been suggested for some consideration is the need to explain the monetary value of things from historical times in today’s terms but, this very small point apart, it must be said that the efforts made to make historical material relevant for students were highly commendable.
In all lessons excellent use was made of the board as a reinforcement of key points and it was good to see students generally encouraged to make notes for themselves of such key points. The constructive and often unobtrusive way that such note making was encouraged is deserving of application in all classes as an aid to longer-term retention. It was notable that students were encouraged to make notes in their copybooks and also, on occasion, to retain separate copybooks for homework or to have files for the storage of handouts and other notes.
Regular and relevant homework assignment was in evidence during the inspection. In most lessons, the previously-given homework was corrected orally, while in copybooks seen, the commitment to inserting encouraging and formative comments by the teacher is applauded. As already mentioned, teachers maintain very thorough records of student performance in tests, employ some innovative assessment methods including table quizzes and project work, and use very high levels of oral questioning to stimulate and assess students simultaneously. The commitment to visual elements in homework, from map-drawing exercises and castle designs to the analysis of political cartoons is particularly applauded, being very appropriate both to recent thinking in syllabus delivery and to mixed-ability teaching and differentiation.
Whole-school assessment methods are relatively standard. There are formal examinations for all classes at Christmas and prior to the summer holidays, with teachers given the flexibility of holding informal class tests for their charges when they so wish. Two school reports are sent home each year, following the formal tests, with an annual parent-teacher meeting being held and a school homework policy outlining appropriate levels of homework for different year groups.
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.