An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
St. Jarlath’s Vocational School,
Mountbellew, County Galway
Roll number: 71290M
Date of inspection: 19 September 2006
Date of issue of report: 15 December 2006
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Geography
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St. Jarlath’s 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 the teacher, examined students’ work, and had discussions with the teacher. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and the teacher’s written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and subject teacher. 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.
St. Jarlath’s Vocational School is a co-educational school within the area of responsibility of County Galway Vocational Education Committee. Geography is a compulsory subject at junior cycle and there is one class group in each of the junior-cycle years. Three class periods per week are allocated to each group. It is recommended that the uptake of levels in Geography in the junior cycle be reviewed and that the Geography department and school management devise strategies to increase student motivation to study the subject to higher level. Such a review should help to stimulate student interest and participation in the subject at senior cycle.
At senior cycle Geography is an optional subject within a structure where subject options are discussed with students and subsequent option bands are created from which students then choose their subjects. Students are informed by teachers on the various subjects and are supported and advised by the guidance counsellor in making subject choices. If parents require information the principal and guidance counsellor are also available to meet with them. In the current senior cycle there are no students studying Geography. If however students express an interest in Geography efforts are made to accommodate them in their choice within the confines of available resources.
School management has provided a dedicated Geography room and a range of resources to support teaching and learning in Geography including wall maps, charts, Ordnance Survey (OS) map extracts, aerial photographs, rock samples, weather instruments, CDs and videos. The room is also equipped with an overhead projector and there is access to a photocopier, TV and video machine. This level of resource provision is laudable. Requests for resources are made to school management as needs arise and these are generally acceded to. It is recommended that, as an integral part of subject planning, the Geography department catalogue all of the resources available for the teaching of Geography. This catalogue could be used as a means of identifying and prioritising future resource needs. School management is commended for facilitating the attendance of staff at in-service for the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus. It is suggested that the resources and information and communication technology (ICT) skills acquired at these in-career development courses be used and implemented for the teaching of Geography to all year groups. The wealth and variety of resources will significantly contribute to the provision of a rich and stimulating geography experience. Access to the computer room is made available to subject departments and it is suggested that the Geography department should increase integration of ICT into the teaching of the subject.
All Geography classes in the school are mixed ability in nature. It is recommended that links be established with the learning support and resource teachers to assist with the implementation of methodologies to differentiate the Geography syllabus and thus cater more effectively for the diverse range of learning needs and styles. The Special Education Support Service at www.sess.ie will also provide useful information and guidelines to support planning strategies for differentiation within the Geography lessons.
Subject department planning in Geography is work in progress in the school. A copy of the Geography department plan was provided during the evaluation process. This plan made reference to textbooks and resources used, homework, assessment and record keeping procedures and contained broad headings of curriculum content for each of the year groups. It is recommended that the Geography department continue to further engage with the school development planning process in the formulation of a more formal and comprehensive plan for Geography. This plan should give consideration to a statement of learning outcomes for each year group, special educational needs and the development of links with the learning support department, the profile of Geography within the school and the uptake of levels in state examinations, the integration of ICT, the future development of resources and assessment practices. This increased engagement with planning will delineate clear developmental goals for the Geography department and provide it with focus and direction in achieving these goals. The resource materials provided during the evaluation visit and the website of the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) at www.sdpi.ie will provide support for long term planning by the Geography department.
A review of the planning documentation revealed a marked emphasis on the teaching of physical Geography in first year. These sections of the syllabus contain an extensive range of terminology and students encounter a variety of complex geomorphic processes. In view of these challenging academic demands it is recommended that consideration be given to the introduction of map and photographic skills at an earlier stage in first year. Use of large-scale OS maps (1:1000) of the local area and photographs would be an appropriate starting point in the development of mapping skills. Such an approach would provide students with an interesting, familiar and activity-based engagement with the subject. The skills acquired could then be further developed and practised in line with the teaching of physical Geography topics at intermittent intervals.
There was clear evidence of short-term planning for the Geography lessons observed. A number of resources were employed to support student learning which included overhead projector transparencies, a handout, worksheet and a well organised and positioned rock sample display. These were available to hand and integrated at appropriate points in the lessons. Homework was assigned at the end of classes and students were quickly informed of page numbers and specific questions. The Geography department is commended for this level of preparation as it allowed for the continuous flow of lesson content and student engagement with the learning process.
Lessons were well organised and structured in the Geography classes observed. The expected learning outcomes were clarified to students at the beginning of the class which helped to focus their attention and directed the progression of class activity. Objectives in all classes were clear and in line with syllabus requirements. The topics under study in the lessons observed included rock formation and rock types, drawing Ordnance Survey sketch maps and tertiary economic activities.
A variety of resources and methodologies was effectively used to deliver course content and vary the learning activity. Question and answer sessions at the beginning of lessons established connections with previous knowledge relevant to the advancement of new material. Students were challenged to recall information through a series of global questions and throughout the lessons were guided and prompted carefully along specific lines of enquiry in order to elicit the required information from them. This good practice is commended. Key definitions and lesson material were presented on overhead projector transparencies and students were instructed to take these down. The provision of quiet time to do so enables students to assimilate and reflect on new subject matter. Whilst this good practice is highly commended it is recommended that lengthy note-taking be minimised as it is necessary to be mindful of the pace of the lesson in view of the breadth of the Geography syllabus. It is suggested that the use of Mind Maps be employed to present lesson content in a structured and simplified format. These can be an invaluable resource in assisting students to establish links between different parts of the topic, are quickly and easily constructed and extremely beneficial as a revision aid.
In the study of Geography students are exposed to a vast range of new terminology. Language plays a vital role in determining a student’s access to the subject and thus it is recommended that key word lists on the various topics be prominently displayed as they are being taught. These will greatly assist students in becoming familiar with subject specific language and thus increase the likelihood of greater engagement with and success in the subject. A student notebook of key words may prove very useful to this end.
Very good attention was paid to examination requirements and in drawing Ordnance Survey sketch maps students were repeatedly reminded of the avoidance of frequent examination errors. This good practice is commended. The main rules were presented on an overhead transparency followed by a sample sketch map which clearly illustrated the level of detail required in drawing a variety of key features. Individual features were pointed out to students and their representation on sketch maps was explained. Students were then challenged to undertake the exercise of drawing their own sketch maps. Throughout the activity there was constant monitoring of students’ work by the teacher. A correctly completed sketch map was then illustrated on another overhead transparency and students had the valuable opportunity to evaluate their own work. This provision of model work is in line with best practice and is commended.
In all lessons visual and active learning were central to achieving the learning objective. In studying tertiary economic activities a video on tourism in Ireland was shown to students and four central questions were highlighted for attention during viewing. These were then discussed and at a global level students demonstrated a good ability to recall the relevant information. A handout of the main points was then distributed to students. It is recommended that an activity such as this be exploited as an opportunity to introduce some pair or group work as a means of challenging all students to extract the information for themselves and thus promoting independent learning and ensuring constant active engagement with the learning task. The lesson was appropriately concluded with a worksheet to reinforce student learning. In one class an excellent display of rock samples and an accompanying exercise were used to very good effect in teaching rock types. This visual approach to the teaching of Geography is good practice as it results in more effective learning and helps to maintain student interest. Students had the rich opportunity to view individual rock types and feel their weight and texture. Each rock was described and students were then presented with the task of matching pre-prepared name labels to them. This task was undertaken with great enthusiasm and a lively discussion ensued on rock types and their uses in the local environment and students’ homes. This good practice of linking geographical material to the students’ direct experience is encouraged as it provides a meaningful learning context. As a means of further developing a connection between the study of Geography and the world outside the classroom it is recommended that consideration be given to developing a Geo news board. This notice board could then be devoted to displaying newspaper articles, photographs and other print material related to the world of Geography.
Most classes concluded with a recap of the lesson content and both targeted and whole class questions were utilised to test students’ understanding and knowledge. To further consolidate the learning process either a worksheet or exercise was given to students which expanded on and developed the skills and knowledge acquired during the class.
Classroom management was clear and effective and good order contributed to a productive learning environment. Students were polite, attentive and a mutually respectful atmosphere prevailed. Students were addressed by first name and affirmed for all their efforts. In turn students freely asked questions and made individual contributions. During class exercises students who were absent from previous lessons were assisted by the teacher and any other student experiencing difficulty was also helped.
Students participated well in all class activities and had a good knowledge of the topics for study relative to their class group and ability levels. Notes copies were well organised and maintained. It is recommended that the Geography room be used to create a rich learning geographical environment through the display of key word lists, student work on various topics and a Geo news board. This would greatly enhance the classroom environment and simultaneously promote visual literacy.
In the classes observed questioning was the dominant strategy employed to check student knowledge and understanding of the topic under study. Responses to targeted questions indicated a good level of achievement relative to ability of students. Constant teacher circulation among the students during exercises also enabled the level of learning and progress by individuals to be established. The students were appropriately affirmed for all their efforts. Homework copies are taken up on a regular basis and there was some evidence of annotated homework. This good practice is commended and its further use and development is encouraged. The provision of feedback to students on their strengths and areas that require further development is vital to students in enhancing the quality of their work. The documentation on Assessment for Learning principles provided by the inspector and the website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) www.ncca.ie will provide guidelines for implementing these principles into assessment procedures.
Project work forms an important element of achievement in addition to promoting independent learning and the use of ICT. It is recommended that the Geography department involve its students in individual and group projects as the junior-cycle Geography syllabus affords vast opportunity for this work. The Geography room is bright and spacious with plenty of available wall space. Completed projects should then be displayed here and also in areas beyond the classroom where space is available in acknowledgement and celebration of students’ achievement. This practice would not only project a positive image of the subject throughout the school but would also serve as a source of motivation and reinforce student learning.
Formal tests for non-examination classes include Christmas and end-of-year examinations, following which a report is issued to parents. It was reported during the evaluation that occasional class tests are administered to students. It is recommended that regular tests be utilised to check student learning and progress and to facilitate appropriate intervention in the event of students underperforming relative to their ability. It is also probable that students engage more consistently with their studies when regular class tests feature in assessment practices. State examination classes take a formal Christmas examination and a pre-examination in the spring. It is recommended that examination classes be assessed in all types of standard examination questions so that students are given the opportunity to model examination practices in terms of time restrictions and other requirements. Student progress is communicated to parents through annual parent-teacher meetings and school reports.
Priority is placed on the completion of homework and there is a whole school policy on homework. Homework records are maintained by teachers and parents are informed if it is considered necessary. This good practice is 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 teacher 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.