An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
Finn Valley College
(formerly, Stranorlar Vocational School)
Stranorlar, County Donegal
Roll number: 71240U
Date of inspection: 8 February 2007
Date of issue of report: 4 October 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Geography
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Finn Valley College (formerly, Stranorlar Vocational School). 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 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.
Finn Valley College is managed by County Donegal Vocational Education Committee. It is a co-educational school with a current enrolment of 287 students, 164 boys and 123 girls. The organisation, teaching and learning of Geography is very well supported by school management through the provision of a dedicated geography room and a wide range of teaching resources. The range of resources includes a collection of rocks, wall maps, charts, Ordnance Survey (OS) maps and photographs. An overhead projector and computer are also provided in the geography room. An inventory of these resources is included in the subject department plan and this is commended. In reviewing this inventory it is suggested that some more detail be included on the list of map extracts and photographs available. This catalogue of resources could also be used to identify and prioritise future resource needs such as a set of weather instruments or resources to support the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in teaching and learning. This will be particularly important in the context of the planned new school building programme due for completion in the autumn of 2008.
In junior cycle, Geography is a compulsory subject and it is allocated between three and five class periods per week. It was reported that students in first year undertake an induction programme of eight weeks during which they experience a planned programme of study. During this time student progress is monitored. How students maintain their journals and their attendance are taken into consideration in the monitoring. At the end of this period students are assessed in literacy, numeracy and in the curricular areas they have studied. This assessment is then used to stream students. It was reported that the involvement of the learning support department in this process is crucial and students’ individual needs are identified, catered for and monitored. Some students participate in the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP). It was reported that learning targets and student profiles are maintained and there is good communication between the JCSP teacher and the JCSP co-ordinator. These good practices are commended.
For the senior cycle the school offers the Established Leaving Certificate (ELC), the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) and the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP). However, Geography is not currently offered to senior cycle students. In the context of the planned new school building it is recommended that the introduction of Geography into the senior cycle be considered. As a means of preparing for this possible development it is suggested that all opportunities to attend in-service related to the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus be availed of.
There are currently four geography teachers in Finn Valley College and they form a clearly identifiable subject department with one teacher acting as subject co-ordinator. It was reported that the geography teachers maintain close liaison with the learning support department and that students with special needs are identified and resources are put in place to support their learning needs. The geography teachers provide the learning support team with lists of key words and advice on the geography curriculum including appropriate teaching methodologies. These good practices are highly commended.
A very comprehensive subject department plan is in place in line with the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) template. This was accomplished by the collaborative efforts of the members of the geography teaching team. School management also facilitates the planning process by providing time for subject departments to meet twice per year. Informal planning discussions are held on an on-going basis throughout the year. The subject plan outlines the school’s philosophy and has a mission statement for the geography department. Particularly noteworthy is its reference to discovery and problem solving teaching strategies and its recognition of a social responsibility dimension to teaching and learning in Geography. Curriculum plans within given time frames for each year group are included. It is recommended that the focus on the teaching of topics from Physical Geography to first year students should be reviewed and consideration be given to developing map and photograph skills. Reference is also made to teaching methodologies, special education provision, assessment, recording and reporting on student progress. In parallel with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment’s (NCCA) current focus on the expression of syllabuses in terms of learning outcomes, it is suggested that the geography department reconstruct the year programmes in terms of such learning outcomes and not simply in terms of content. Teachers are commended for facilitating contact with agencies outside the school; students have taken part in a Bórd Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) project, they have been involved in Cross Border initiatives and they have undertaken fieldwork in a number of locations. The plan identifies ICT as an area for further development and it is recommended that a section of the subject department plan be devoted to an outline of policy and procedures for the fuller integration of ICT into teaching and learning.
There was very effective planning and preparation by individual teachers for each of the lessons observed and written lesson plans were made available. The learning intention was clear and was shared with the students, thus providing a clear focus for their attention from the start of the lesson. Individual planning included the preparation of resources to support teaching and learning. Resources used during the course of the lessons observed included: wall maps, worksheets, OS maps and the overhead projector. Folders containing an extensive range of resource material have been developed by the collaborative efforts of the geography teaching team and these were made available during the evaluation visit. These resources play an important role in scaffolding student learning and represent the commitment by teachers to provide rich learning experiences for their students. This commitment deserves to be acknowledged and is highly commended.
The range of topics covered in the lessons observed included: regional inequalities in Europe, settlement patterns on OS maps and presentations of project work by JCSP students to their class group. The quality of teaching in all of the lessons observed was of a very high standard. Teachers used a variety of methodologies to engage students in the learning process. Brainstorming, question and answer sessions, completion of worksheets, teacher exposition and student presentation were methodologies used to engage students. When references were made to textbooks and the teacher or students read to the class, these activities were not allowed to occupy a substantial part of the lesson and this is commended. As students presented the results of their project work to the class they were adequately supported by their teacher and the provision of a worksheet to be completed during the presentations ensured that all students remained focused during the presentations. In discussion with students it was evident that they had used ICT to research and present their project work. This is very highly commended and the fuller integration of ICT across all areas of the subject is advocated. Teachers are encouraged to further develop their teaching strategies by the greater use of pair or small group work. This would provide further variety for students and would enable them to learn from each other. Fieldwork and project work are integrated into teaching and learning. This strategy which provides students with opportunities for independent learning and enables them to experience Geography outside the classroom deserves to be acknowledged. It was noted that as part of the BIM project students had visited Killybegs and photographs taken during a coastal study were displayed in a classroom.
There was a clear focus on developing students’ geographic skills during the lessons observed and this is very much in line with the syllabus recommendations. The use of OS maps and statistical diagrams enabled students to develop appropriate skills either through teacher questioning or group work. There was also a clear focus on teaching the language of Geography. New terms were introduced, clearly explained and in some instances these terms were written on the white board and students were given time to record these terms in their copybooks. The provision of a ‘quiet time’ for students to record and reflect on new terms is commended as it enables students to assimilate these terms into their vocabulary. As a means of linking the world outside the classroom with the topics under discussion, references were made to the local environment and to current affairs. This good practice is commended. In one lesson observed students were working on a local OS map and were asked to find their own home. This generated considerable interest and discussion and provided a good example of students actively engaging in their learning. In class discussion or where students read the textbook they were challenged, through focused questioning, to offer explanations for geographic phenomena. This good practice helps to develop higher order thinking skills and is commended.
In all of the lessons observed clear class routines had been established. Lessons began with a roll call and then homework was monitored and corrected. The aims of the lessons were then clearly stated, providing a focus for students’ attention. Lessons were developed from previously taught subject matter, thus providing a sense of continuity and enabling students to build on previously learned subject matter. At the conclusion of lessons homework was assigned and clearly explained to students who recorded it in their journals. This structured approach provided a sense of order and security for students and is commended.
Classroom management was very effective in all of the lessons observed and students willingly engaged in the planned learning activities. Positive, mutually respectful relationships were evident in all of the classrooms visited. Students were provided with opportunities to seek clarification of issues raised in discussion and were supported and affirmed by their teachers. During interaction with the inspector students willingly engaged in discussions and were knowledgeable about their courses. Commendably, the display of maps and charts in classrooms helped to provide a stimulating learning environment and student effort was celebrated by the display of project work.
Comprehensive assessment procedures both formal and informal are in place in Finn Valley College. Assessment procedures used for newly enrolled first year students have been referred to in an earlier section of this report. Formal assessment for all year groups takes place before Christmas and at the end of the school year, while students preparing for Certificate Examinations sit pre-examinations in the second term. Reports are issued to parents after each formal assessment and it was reported that these reports include references to the student’s social development and effort as well as academic attainment. Every effort is made to ensure that these reports are as personal and individual as possible. All reports are signed off by the school principal. Where a student is in receipt of learning support an additional report is issued outlining what was planned and what had been achieved by way of student progress. This practice is very highly commended as it encourages student progress and provides a basis for planning the future learning needs of individual students.
Commendably, teachers also use project work to assess student understanding. This provides students with an opportunity to develop as independent learners and to develop their ICT skills both for research and in the presentation of their project work. The range of assessment approaches should be extended and the use of ‘comment only’ marking should be considered where appropriate. Resources to support this were provided during the evaluation visit. Further support on assessment for learning is available on the website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) at www.ncca.ie and teachers are encouraged to access this site. An examination of student copybooks indicated that some students are working to a high standard with work neatly presented including carefully drawn and coloured maps and diagrams. However some students need further support in the presentation of their written work. It is recommended that the geography teaching team consider ways to improve the quality of students’ written work and the organisation of students’ notes and resource materials.
During the lessons observed student understanding was frequently assessed through questioning of individual named students. Students were encouraged to ask questions where issues needed further clarification. Homework is regularly assigned and corrected. Student progress is assessed regularly by the holding of class tests usually at the conclusion of a section of the syllabus. The good practice of setting common tests has begun and it is to be further developed. This is commended. Records of results obtained in these tests, of attendance and of homework are maintained by teachers. This information forms the basis of discussions at formal parent teacher meetings. The school follows a schedule of parent-teacher meetings. This includes meetings in November for the parents of first year and Leaving Certificate Year 2 students. In January all year groups have a parent-teacher meeting to discuss the report on the first term’s progress and after Easter a meeting is held for the parents of third year and Leaving Certificate Year 2 students. The school is commended for the involvement of parents in the education of their children in this way.
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:
A post-evaluation meeting was held with the teachers of Geography and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.