An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
Roll number: 72360M
Date of inspection: 29 March 2006
Date of issue of report: 26 October 2006
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Geography
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Ballinode College, Sligo. 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 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.
In Ballinode College, Geography is a compulsory subject for students at junior cycle; two class groups are formed with one group of students receiving extra support in developing their literacy and numeracy skills. The school is commended for its support for these students. Geography is allocated three class periods per week in each of the junior cycle years.
At Leaving Certificate level Geography is an optional subject. On entry into the senior cycle students are given on open choice of subjects from which option blocks are created in line with student demand and available teaching resources. Students and their parents are appropriately supported and advised by the Career Guidance Counsellor and class teachers prior to the selection of subjects. In addition, students on receipt of the results of the Junior Certificate Examination have the opportunity to reconsider their subject options and every effort is made to accommodate a movement between subjects if this is deemed appropriate. School management is commended for this level of support for student choice as it facilitates more effective career planning. The Leaving Certificate 1 and 2 Geography classes are combined to form one class group and are of mixed ability. The uptake of Geography in the senior cycle is at a satisfactory level. Geography at this level is allocated six class periods per week. This time allocation consists of two single and two double class periods and is in line with syllabus requirements.
There are three Geography teachers in the school within a developing Geography department. The school has a dedicated Geography Room and school management has provided a wide range of resources to support teaching and learning in the subject. The Geography Room is well equipped with Ordnance Survey (OS) maps, aerial photographs, wall maps, a range of charts on various Physical Geography topics, rock samples, weather instruments, fieldwork instruments and a collection of videos. The use of a digital camera, radio, voice recorder, overhead projector, video and DVD player is also available to the department. While an annual budget allocation is not provided to the department, school management provides resources as needs arise. It is recommended that the Geography teachers prepare a comprehensive catalogue of all available resources in the school, to be used as a means of identifying future resource needs, particularly in the context of the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus. All of the Geography teacher’s rooms are broadband enabled and equipped with a computer and printer. In view of this commendable level of resource provision, it is recommended that the Geography teaching team engage further in the process of integrating Information and Communication Technology (ICT) across all areas of the curriculum. The provision of a number of mobile laptop computers and data projector units planned for the future will greatly facilitate this process. Such a facility will provide easy access to a comprehensive range of websites and web resources to support units of study and will effectively and creatively support teaching and learning. Support for this is provided by the Association of Geography Teachers of Ireland (AGTI) website at www.agti.ie.
The Geography teachers have established strong links with the Learning Support Department. The curriculum is appropriately differentiated to cater for the needs of students and a variety of methodologies are employed in implementing a multi-sensory approach to learning. Careful attention is paid to examination papers and answering techniques including repeated revision of key examination vocabulary and questions. Answers to questions are modelled and scaffolded according to students needs. This level of liaison with the Learning Support Department is highly commended in supporting students in their learning and assisting them to achieve maximum examination success.
The Geography teaching team has had significant involvement in cross-curricular projects including the Green-Schools initiative and the establishment of a Limestone Garden on the school grounds. This latter project involved undertaking a number of fieldtrips to limestone areas in Ireland. The school staff is complimented for their engagement with and promotion of such relevant and worthwhile projects. These undertakings provide students with rich and practical learning experiences and opportunities to develop and apply fieldwork skills that are an essential component of the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus.
There was evidence of collaborative long-term planning by the Geography teaching team. Subject departments hold formal planning sessions on a number of occasions throughout the year. In addition there are frequent informal contacts amongst the Geography teachers to discuss issues relating to the Geography syllabuses and to share practice. Written planning documents, provided during the evaluation process contained clearly stated subject aims and objectives, textbooks used, course materials and resources employed to support teaching and learning, assessment modes and times, areas of the syllabus to be covered within given timeframes, record keeping and reporting procedures, planning for students with special educational needs, cross-curricular planning and reference to effective teaching methodologies. Teachers are commended for their work in this area and are encouraged to further progress this good practice by working collaboratively to produce a plan for a number of other areas. Consideration should be given to a statement of the learning outcomes for each year group, fieldwork policy, plans for the future integration (ICT) and the future development of teaching resources. In working together to advance subject-planning teachers will benefit collectively from sharing their individual expertise. This process will also facilitate the school’s engagement with the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI). Reference to the ‘Guidelines for Teachers’ for the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus will provide support for this long term planning process.
A review of the planning documentation revealed a concentration on the teaching of topics from Physical Geography in first year. This places challenging demands on students in terms of the extensive range of terminology, understanding geomorphic processes and landform development. It is recommended that teachers review this excessive focus on teaching Physical Geography at this early stage. Consideration should be given to the development of OS map and photographic skills using large-scale OS maps (1:1000) of the local area. These skills could then be concurrently developed and exercised in association with some aspects of the Physical Geography syllabus. Such an approach would engage students in a more visual and activity based learning experience and would facilitate the variety of learning styles exhibited by students.
There was evidence of individual planning and preparation in all of the classrooms visited. All lessons had a clear purpose and content was delivered in a thorough and systematic manner. Meticulous attention was paid to the revision of associated previous learning and teachers are commended for their diligence in this area. In some classes however the proportion of material covered was somewhat limited in light of the breadth of the Geography syllabuses at both junior and senior cycle. It is recommended that attention be given to appropriate content coverage within given timeframes and to the pace at which material is presented. A comprehensive review of the plan for senior cycle Geography in the context of the challenges imposed by the presence of two-year groups within the one classroom will facilitate this process. Use of the ‘Guidelines for Teachers’ issued to support the introduction of the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus will provide direction with this task. A variety of resource materials including worksheets, diagrams on whiteboard and maps were used to support student learning. These were effectively integrated into the lesson plan and made a significant contribution to reinforcing learning and keeping students on task. Course materials such as coloured pencils, A4 sheets of unruled paper, string and rulers, necessary to complete some of the required tasks were at hand. Teachers are commended for organising and supplying these materials as their availability allows for immediate progression with the task on hand. There was evidence of well-established routines at the end of classes with students gathering and storing these materials.
The lessons observed had definite aims and at the start of each class the purpose of the learning activity were clearly communicated to students. This good practice of sharing the planned learning outcomes of the lesson is commended as it serves to focus student attention and helps to develop a greater sense of responsibility for their own learning. Lessons were well structured and subject content was presented in a logical and ordered sequence. Good preparation for classes was apparent in the provision of worksheets and in the availability of materials that were necessary to carry out some tasks. In all the lessons observed there was a clear focus on developing geographical skills and these included method for giving grid references, direction, symbol interpretation, height recognition and the drawing of sketch maps. This good practice is commended and is in line with syllabus requirements.
A variety of teaching methodologies was employed in the lessons observed. Most classes began with a review of the material taught in previous lessons. Students were questioned using both global and targeted questions to establish depth of learning and understanding and to reactivate interest in the topic. In some classes key terms and their respective definitions were written on the board and students were instructed to write these into their copybooks. This good practice is commended as it supplies students with an effective summary for use in revision and the provision of ‘quiet time’ enables students to assimilate the information. Relating the task to examples drawn from the local environment further facilitated student understanding. This approach was most effective in eliciting the required information from students and its wider use in all learning activities is encouraged. In building on this good practice of linking Geography to the real world it is recommended that consideration be given to the creation of a GeoNews notice board. Newspaper articles, photographs and other materials related to the world of Geography could be displayed here. This would provide a rich and stimulating learning resource for students.
Worksheets on a range of map skills were distributed to students and they were challenged to apply these skills using Ordnance Survey maps of the local area. The provision of worksheets is commended as they assist in reinforcing the material taught and actively engage students in the learning task. During completion of the worksheet the teacher circulated among students, which allowed for effective monitoring of progress and also enabled students to obtain individual assistance when necessary. In some classes, however, there was a disproportionate length of time allocated to the completion of worksheet tasks. It is recommended that these exercises or a portion thereof be assigned as homework in order to allow more class time for progression through course content. Good use was made of the whiteboard in drawing contour patterns to illustrate variations in steepness of a slope. This effective integration of visual aids to support learning and aid understanding of geographical concepts is commended and its wider use is encouraged.
In some classes there was an appropriate focus on examination techniques. Questions from the examination papers were used to revise topics. The question was read to the class and the students were guided carefully and thoroughly through all aspects of the question. While they undertook the work the teacher continuously observed individual student’s progress, repeatedly reminded them of key points for inclusion and advised on presenting their information in line with marking scheme requirements. The students were also informed on how well they performed in their mock examinations in relation to a similar question and areas requiring further attention were also highlighted. As various features were encountered on the map they were revised and related to the short questions on the examination paper. A chart showing the structure and format of the examination paper was also displayed at a strategic location in the classroom. This good practice and preparation for Certificate Examinations is to be commended as it assists students in obtaining maximum examination success.
Good attention was paid to the language of Geography in the classes visited with key terms explained and written on the board. In one classroom a large chart displayed frequently used geographic terms. It is suggested that these good practices be incorporated into all lesson plans as it greatly facilitates student understanding and retention of the language of Geography. The compilation of a glossary of key geographic terms by students would further support learning and is particularly beneficial for students who may be experiencing literacy difficulties. In all lessons observed students had a good knowledge and understanding relative to their abilities of the topics for study
A colourful and well-presented range of projects by students on a selection of Physical Geography topics was displayed in the Geography room. Classrooms contained numerous learning materials including a variety of maps and geographic charts. This good practice is commended as it acknowledges and celebrates student work and promotes visual literacy.
In all lessons observed classroom management was effective. A positive and inclusive atmosphere prevailed and students were secure within an environment of mutual respect. Students were addressed by first name and were appropriately affirmed for all their efforts and contributions. Teachers were most sensitive to the needs of students, and by their proactive, supportive and positive approach prevented any difficult situations for arising. It was evident that students were attentive, readily engaged with all classroom activities and remained on task for the duration of the lessons.
A variety of assessment procedures is utilised by teachers in Ballinode College. Assessment on an ongoing basis is carried out in class through questioning, correction of homework and completion of task sheets. In all classrooms visited a rigorous questioning strategy was used to test student knowledge and revise topics. Textbook activities, a worksheet and an examination question were assigned during class and these exercises allowed for immediate assessment of individual ability to apply map skills as the teacher circulated among the students. In the event of students experiencing difficulties with the task the teacher was available to assist and instruct as necessary.
A review of students copies revealed that homework is regularly assigned, corrected and in some cases is commented on by teachers. This practice of employing ‘Assessment for Learning’ principles is highly commended and its wider use is encouraged as it provides students with knowledge of their strengths, identifies weaknesses and provides the learner with clear guidelines of how to improve on their performance. The school has developed a homework policy to promote and highlight the importance of homework in contributing to student learning and achievement and has established an after school homework club. The work of school staff in setting up this initiative is highly commended as the completion of homework is an essential activity in that it provides opportunities to reinforce and consolidate learning as well as to help teachers to monitor progress and plan future work.
Formal assessment also takes place consisting of regular class tests at the end of topics, Christmas and summer tests. State Examination classes take a formal Christmas examination and pre-examinations in the second term. The results of all assessments and examinations are reported to parents through written school reports and at parent teacher meetings. Parent-teacher meetings for each year group are held annually and this affords parents the opportunity to meet teachers and discuss students’ progress.
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:
A Post-evaluation meeting was held with the principal and the teachers of Geography at the conclusion of the evaluation at which the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.