An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
St. Louis Community School
Kiltimagh, County Mayo
Roll number: 91494R
Date of inspection: 26 February 2007
Date of issue of report: 21 June 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Geography
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St. Louis Community 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, and the response of the board will be found in the appendix of this report.
Geography has a high profile in St. Louis Community School. It is a core subject at junior cycle and is a popular optional subject for the Leaving Certificate. The substantial uptake of the subject at senior cycle is a testament to the work and commitment of the Geography teachers. Students have an open choice in the selection of senior cycle subjects. Access to Geography is currently facilitated by its provision in two of the four subject option blocks available to students. In the selection of subjects and programmes students are supported and advised in the provision of timetabled guidance classes for third year and transition year students. Subject teachers discuss their respective subjects with students. There is also an open night for parents to disseminate information on programmes and to assist students in making informed decisions. This good practice is commended.
The wide range of curricular programmes offered in St. Louis Community School reflects its aims ‘to provide students with an education that has a sound academic and practical content’. These programmes include the Junior Certificate, the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) and there are four programmes in senior cycle. The school has 478 students at post-primary level and Post Leaving Certificate (PLC) courses have a current enrolment of 141 students. The school strives to serve the educational needs of the community in providing a significant number of further education courses, most of which are accredited by the Further Education and Training Awards Council (FETAC). This provision is highly commended.
The Geography department benefits from a good level of provision in terms of subject specific resources. It is recommended that large European and world maps be displayed in classrooms where a significant number of Geography lessons are held. It is praiseworthy that teachers collaborate in the management of these resources which are catalogued and centrally stored in an area accessible to all. There is no dedicated geography room. School management reported that the demand for extra space due to increasing enrolment in recent years has impeded the provision of specialist rooms. If the current application for ten new classrooms is sanctioned, it is recommended that consideration be given to the provision of a dedicated geography room.
All classrooms are networked with broadband access and there are three fully equipped computer laboratories in the school. The Geography department has shared access to one mobile laptop and data projector unit. It was reported that there is little use of information and communication technologies (ICT) in the classroom due to the difficulty in accessing the aforementioned facilities. It is recommended that the Geography teachers prioritise the increased integration of ICT into the teaching and learning of the subject. While there is no dedicated budget to the Geography department it was reported that resources are made available from school central funds as a result of advance planning. In this context it is recommended that, planning for the future development of resources should give consideration, as a matter of urgency, to the provision of a dedicated laptop and data projector unit to the Geography department. This provision is essential to support the teaching and learning of the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus and to obtain maximum benefit from the resources provided by the Geography Support Service for its implementation.
There are four class groups in each of the junior cycle years and two class groups in fifth and sixth years. At all levels classes are mixed ability in nature. Classes generally retain the same teacher from first year to third year. This is commended as it supports continuity of learning.
The time allocation for Geography is appropriate with junior cycle classes receiving three teaching periods per week. At senior cycle the time allocation of five class periods is in line with syllabus requirements. This provision incorporates a double class period to facilitate practical work.
The school offers an optional Transition Year (TY) programme. It is recommended that school management should consider the reintroduction of Geography into this programme. The programme could be used as an opportunity to provide students with a ‘taster’ of what the subject entails at senior cycle. To this end the incorporation of a fieldwork component modelled on the Leaving Certificate geographical investigation would be a suitable option. Such a provision could also be used to introduce students to ICT and Geography. A module of work based on the OSi Trail Master (Ordnance Survey Ireland) would facilitate the further development of map and photographic skills acquired at junior cycle. Students would also be exposed to a more activity based engagement with the subject than heretofore experienced, which would be in keeping with the philosophy of transition year.
There was evidence of good support for students with special educational needs (SEN). At the start of the school year the teachers are informed of students with SEN and the nature of their learning difficulties. Special Needs Assistants (SNA) are allocated to students when necessary. The Geography teachers reported that they make concerted efforts to address within the mainstream classroom the needs of all students. Teachers use materials from simplified books with students. In some cases SNAs are given a series of questions to revise with students before assessments. Key word lists were displayed in some classrooms and there was differentiation in the homework administered to students. To build on this good work and further support teachers it is recommended that the expertise of the Special Education Support Service (SESS) be availed of to assist them in differentiating the syllabuses so as to cater for the needs of all students within the mainstream setting.
The teachers have participated in the in-service courses provided by the Geography Support Service. School management is commended for facilitating the continuing professional development of teachers.
The Geography department has a long tradition of subject department planning and this process was formalised during the academic year 2005-2006. Good progress to date has been made on the development of a Geography policy document. It was noted from the minutes of formal meetings that the teachers are currently undertaking a review of some aspects of this document. This good practice is highly commended as subject department planning is essentially continuous work in progress and so in this respect requires regular revision and ongoing development. In this context it is recommended that the details of such reviews be recorded in a review section of the planning folder, outlining evaluations of implemented plans and any necessary actions that may need to be taken to achieve desired objectives. Such recordings will beneficially support continuity of planning.
It was very evident that the Geography teachers work well as a team and have adopted a collegial approach to subject planning. They have worked collaboratively to compile an extensive stock of resources on various sections of the syllabuses. These resources are filed in folders, centrally stored and include worksheets, supplementary textual materials, overhead transparencies and assessments. The development and sharing of resources is highly commended and is in line with best practice.
One of the teachers acts in a voluntary capacity as co-ordinator of the Geography department. It was the reported that the tasks involved in organising and planning for the work of the department are shared among all the teachers and that the current arrangement works satisfactorily. Notwithstanding this, it is recommended that the position of co-ordinator be rotated on a regular basis so that all members of the Geography teaching team have the opportunity to gain the experience and leadership skills attached to the role.
Management provides dedicated formal meeting time on four occasions throughout the year as part of its commitment to supporting school development planning. There are also informal discussions on subject related issues as needs arise. This facilitates a common direction for the subject and contributes to the effectiveness of departmental practices.
It was noted from curricular planning documentation that the teaching of physical Geography including geomorphology, meteorology, climate and soils feature prominently in 1st year. These topics contain a multiplicity of technical terminology and complex processes and are thus theoretically challenging. If this provision is to continue, it is recommended that it be reviewed to include a general treatment of these topics in first year and that they are revisited in second and third years for further development in line with syllabus requirements. An alternative approach would be the development of map and photograph skills at an early stage in first year using large-scale OS maps (1:1000) and aerial photographs of the local area. This would provide for a more familiar and activity-based introduction to Geography. The resource material provided by the inspector will provide some ideas on developing a programme for junior-cycle Geography.
Long-term schemes for work have been developed for junior and senior cycle classes. These indicated topics to be covered within specific timeframes, outcomes to be achieved and skills to be developed. The subject plan also indicated general teaching strategies in use. To further develop this good planning it is recommended that these methodologies and the resources to be used in the various sections of the syllabus are integrated into the curricular planning documentation for each year group. This work will be greatly facilitated by the end of term reviews and the ongoing dialogue among the Geography teachers on the relative merits of tested teaching approaches.
There was high quality teaching and learning in evidence in all the Geography lessons observed. Lessons were well structured and sequenced and presented at a pace that was suitable to the abilities of the students. The expected learning outcome was identified at the start of lessons and shared with students. This good practice is commended in encouraging students to develop a greater sense of responsibility for their own learning. Very good short term planning was noted in the prior preparation of worksheets and handouts suitable to the learning task in hand.
There was a good blend of teaching methodologies employed which included teacher instruction and explanation, questioning, discussion and the use of worksheets, the textbook, geographical posters and the whiteboard. These diverse strategies contributed to an appropriate balance between teacher input and active learning activities. The overall effect was the creation of a learning environment which purposefully engaged students in their work.
Some of the topics under study had been partly developed prior to the mid-term break. In these cases the lesson material was effectively re-introduced using a series of questions to trigger students’ memories and reactivate engagement with the topic. In all classes student learning was supported by the provision of worksheets or exercises on the subject matter. The inclusion of practical tasks is commended in varying the lesson and providing an opportunity for students to practically apply and consolidate their knowledge. There were some very good examples of linking the lesson material to the everyday life experiences of the students. This technique proved most successful in capturing student interest and provided a more meaningful and relevant learning context. Teachers demonstrated good knowledge of their subject and in all cases explanations were clear and informative.
Excellent attention was paid to the development of map skills. In one class a handout outlining guidelines for drawing sketch maps and clear step-by-step instructions on completing certain tasks was provided to students. In another class clear teacher-drawn diagrams of the various drainage patterns aided student learning. Students were given the opportunity to practice the skills through the provision of relevant worksheets, during which time the teachers circulated among students, guiding their work and assisting any individuals experiencing difficulty. It is suggested that prior to students undertaking practical map tasks that the steps involved be initially demonstrated by the teacher using the whiteboard or overhead projector. This would enable all students to proceed with the activity and reduce the waiting time for those having difficulty and requiring assistance from the teacher. There were continuous reminders to students of all the requirements necessary for appropriate presentation. Appropriate homework was administered which enabled the further development and practice of these skills.
Questioning was used in all classes to engage students in the learning activity. A combination of lower order and higher order questions was integrated to check student knowledge and to encourage students to reflect on and analyse concepts and processes. In most classes directed questioning was employed to assess student progress and this strategy also served the purpose of keeping students alert and attentive. This good practice is lauded and its frequent use in all classes is encouraged.
The physical environments of the classrooms were enhanced through the display of geographical posters, maps, articles from the print media and students’ project work. Teachers are commended for this as it contributes to a heightened awareness of the subject and provides a rich and stimulating learning environment. The increased use of project work, particularly at junior cycle level is encouraged, as a means of developing students as independent learners and as a vehicle for learning that takes cognisance of the different learning styles pertaining within the mainstream setting. Key word lists pertinent to the topics under discussion were displayed in some classrooms. This practice is lauded and it is recommended that its use be extended to all classrooms in facilitating student familiarisation with the language of Geography. In some cases these lists were initially presented on the whiteboard and there was a thorough revision of their meaning. This practice was further supported by the provision of a handout to students on key terms and there were numerous instances of their repeated integration into the delivery of lesson material. It was clear that by the end of the lesson students had grasped an understanding of the terms and demonstrated a good ability to integrate them into their responses.
In all classes interactions between teachers and students were positive and characterised by mutual respect. Teachers displayed competence in classroom management which enabled lessons to proceed in an organised manner. High expectations for learning were promoted and students accordingly responded. The students were praised for their efforts and all of their contributions were acknowledged. A diligent atmosphere prevailed in all classes.
It was clear that students were interested and participated well in the learning activities. Observation of students’ responses to questions asked by teachers revealed that they had acquired a good level of knowledge and understanding in the areas under study. A good standard of work on a range of topics was evident from an examination of students’ copybooks. Discussions with students and their participation in class indicated a good level of interest in Geography.
A variety of assessment procedures is employed to assess student performance and progress in the subject. Formative assessment is carried out on an ongoing basis in class. This was achieved through the continuous use of questioning which challenged students to recall key points, and to draw on prior knowledge to develop their understanding. Worksheets were integrated into the learning activity to test student competence and their ability to undertake specific map exercises. Teachers are commended for the effective planning that is inbuilt into the junior cycle curricular programmes to include a significant proportion of time in third year for revision. A central feature of this revision programme is the use of examination papers in preparing students for the final examination. This is deserving of much praise and is indicative of the good practice that prevails within the Geography department.
Samples of students’ copybooks were viewed. These contained a good build up of work on a variety of syllabus topics. There was evidence of teacher monitoring and marking of work. This annotation included comments which appropriately acknowledged and affirmed students’ work and also incorporated some developmental comments which provided guidelines on advancing the standard of their work. It is recommended that this good practice be further developed as the provision of such constructive feedback provides very valuable insights to students which will enable them to achieve their maximum potential. The consistent correction of homework in a whole-class setting will also assist this process as it provides an opportunity for common errors to be identified and addressed at a global level and correct work to be affirmed and reinforced. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) at www.ncca.ie promotes ‘Assessment for Learning’ principles and useful information to assist with the extended implementation of this practice can be obtained on its website.
The school provides an after school Homework Club for first year students and supervised study is available to other year groups at a fee. Some transition year students, as part of their involvement in the Gaisce initiative, attend this Homework Club and provide assistance to any students having difficulty with their work. The school is commended for these supportive measures in assisting students to make a smooth transition to post-primary education.
Formal examinations for students are held at Christmas and the end of the year. The State examination classes take pre-examinations in spring in advance of the Junior and Leaving Certificate. The good practice of analysing the results obtained by students in the State examinations and their comparison with national averages takes place. The practice can beneficially inform subject planning and is encouraged.
The results of students’ assessments and attendance rates are recorded systematically by all teachers. This good practice is lauded as it enables a profile of students’ participation and trends in achievement in the subject over a period of time to be established. The school has an open approach to communicating with parents. School reports are issued twice per year following formal assessments. Parent-teacher meetings for each year group are organised on an annual basis and the records maintained on students suitably inform these meetings. Staff members are willing to meet with parents at any stage if they have concerns about their children’s progress. The homework journal is also used as an ongoing channel of communication with parents as the need arises. These contacts with parents are commended and are indicative of the commitment of the teaching staff to further motivate students to achieve to their potential.
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 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.
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1: Observations on the content of the inspection report
We are pleased with the content
Area 2: Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection
New Co-ordinator appointed as recommended. Provision of lap-top to Geography Dept. to facilitate a beginning of ICT resources. Re-distribution of large wall maps to rooms where Geography is taught. Decision taken to concentrate on more practical Geography in 1st year.