An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Crosshaven, County Cork
Roll number: 62200H
Date of inspection: 14 May 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Muire, Crosshaven. 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 two days during which the inspector visited classrooms and observed teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with students and teachers, examined students’ work, and had informal discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided informal oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal. 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.
History is strongly supported in the curricular planning of Coláiste Muire. As it is in the voluntary secondary sector, the school appropriately offers History as a core subject in junior cycle. It is highly commendable that historical studies also form a core element of the school’s Transition Year (TY) programme. TY itself is compulsory at the school. For Leaving Certificate, History enters option blocks which are set each year following an open choice of subjects offered to students. For the current year, History has been placed in an option line against Accounting, Biology and Construction Studies (CS) but this changes from year to year. This is fair to History. The subject is timetabled every year in senior cycle, even if numbers are low, and this is positive ongoing support. As the school seeks to increase the numbers of students taking the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) in the coming years, it is urged to keep a watching brief for any negative impact this drive may have on the uptake of senior History, which is excluded from being an option in the LCVP subject groupings. A very interesting feature of senior cycle History provision at the school is the presence of a significant number of visiting students from abroad in TY or other history lessons, adding an interesting dimension to some of the historical debates therein.
Timetable allocations for History are very good. The subject has three single periods per week in all junior classes, which is good. Innovative timetable planning in TY has also ensured that, in addition to the core two periods per week for TY History, a further period per week is allocated in TY to an art history class. This is highly commended because of the centrality of art history to much historical study, the value of art as a historical source and for its own inherent value. In both fifth year and sixth year, History has a total of five periods, configured as a double period and three single periods. This is, again, good provision. There is a commendable spread of history periods across the days of the week and a good balance between morning and afternoon timeslots.
A number of general supports for History at whole-school level also deserve mention. The school’s new building has incorporated a significant expansion of its information and communication technology (ICT) resources, with all classrooms in the building now networked, with wireless broadband access. A number of the classrooms visited also had fixed ICT equipment. The school’s library is a wonderful facility, enhanced by the presence, on site, of a designated librarian. A very good stock of history resources has been built up over the years. It is also positive that a fine display of historical items and information dedicated to Nano Nagle currently adorns the entrance atrium, celebrating the 225th anniversary of her death. It is suggested that a corridor-based history noticeboard, which could be used to hold items of school and local interest, should be considered. Such a board could be a focal point of images and student-competitions, items of topical historical interest and information about careers relevant to History. A department meeting might consider such an initiative, as a means of maintaining the profile of History in the expanded building.
On the basis of the evidence available, departmental planning is well developed at Coláiste Muire. It has been recorded that the History department has a voluntary co-ordinator, whose main functions include the convening of meetings, acting as chairperson at meetings, co-ordinating in-service and formalising any resource requests to school management. The department meets roughly on a termly basis and members have developed common yearly schemes of work. This is all commended collaborative practice. Within the school planning process, a department plan has been developed, although it was not available for examination at the time of the inspection. A Transition Year (TY) curricular plan is a fine outline of the course delivered around family research, biographical study, Northern Ireland and the birth of the Irish nation, including aims, objectives, teaching and learning strategies to be employed and other features of good planning. It is also good to note a significant emphasis on feminism and social history within TY planning documentation.
Elements of the general school plan examined included a clear outline of the subject-options mechanism used to facilitate History and other subjects in senior cycle. The school’s suite of policies within the school plan also showed that considerable work has been done on the development of good practice in special educational needs, on teacher mentoring and on catering for international students. General practices observed in history lessons were in line with these policies.
Good links have been established with outside agencies, including the History In-service Support Team (HIST) and History Teachers Association of Ireland (HTAI). The supports of Cork City Library have been lauded by staff, particularly as students undertake research work in senior cycle. Department members are also commended for availing of other opportunities for continuing professional development, in areas such as art history and film editing.
Excellent work has been done on the development of the school’s social-studies room as a facility for History and Geography. The room is a credit to school management and to the history department, with significant display areas covered in illustrations, posters, local historical material and an array of models made by students and relating to elements of the first-year course. Like a number of other rooms, the social-studies room is equipped with very good technological supports, including an overhead projector, a computer and fixed data-projector, screen, DVD player and flat-screen television. With the facility now fully operational, it is recommended that, if possible, at least one period per week for each history class should be timetabled for the room in the coming years.
Collaborative planning has been reported on the use of ICT across the department, in addition to other areas such as the thematic approach to TY planning, the organisation of history tours and the planning of coursework. A school intranet system allows for history department members to store and pool resources and is an excellent idea to support teaching and learning. The system also facilitates students in storing their project work on an ongoing basis. This is evidence of very good planning and supportive of both teachers and students.
In individual lessons the evident planning and preparation which had been engaged in by teachers was very good. Desk layout was good in all cases, with excellent preparatory work ensuring that computers, data projectors, televisions and handouts were all deployed seamlessly when needed. Handouts were very well prepared in all instances, with a fine emphasis on visual and verbal stimulus material, and used to support in-class assessment via short cloze tests or comparative tasks on visual materials. The focus by teachers on using visuals and framework templates, as well as on developing keyword lists in notes copybooks also showed evidence of good planning for mixed-ability situations. It was further noted that the content of the lessons observed, in all cases, was fully relevant to the syllabus being covered or, in the case of TY, to the appropriate aims and philosophy of TY History.
The teaching observed all through history lessons was of a very high quality. In all classes visited, students settled down to work with little fuss and needing little direction from teachers. Opening strategies included the re-distribution of homework copybooks, outlining some details of forthcoming summer examinations and the monitoring of homework. These activities allowed classes to settle and within minutes teachers introduced the main topics and aims for the lessons ahead. Sometimes, these aims were placed on the board as well as spoken aloud and this is a practice deserving of use in all lessons as a reinforcement of students’ learning. In a number of lessons, some very interesting background information and questions were introduced by teachers in order to stimulate interest further. It was also noted that a good classroom dynamic was developed early on by teachers, through natural engagement with students, and this was irrespective of whether the classes had small numbers or larger groups of students.
Lesson development occurred very well in all instances observed. In most lessons, a clear and logical structure was evident from early on. Students were asked to compare or contrast images drawn from art or exploration maps, or were shown initial stimulus materials like pictures or a short video excerpt, before being asked to work in pairs or small groups for short spells. Student tasks ranged from comparative analysis of art forms or field systems in pair work, to examining different documentary perspectives on slavery or feminism, and were very well managed by teachers. Students were given every encouragement to come up with suggestions and solutions as required, and some very nice touches, including the sampling of some of the produce gleaned from the Age of Discoveries, were factored into the development of lessons.
The teaching observed was particularly well supported by the use of resources and teaching aids. The move to a new building in recent years has been accompanied by a very good fit-out of ICT equipment in several classrooms, including the social-studies room. ICT was used very comfortably by teachers in several lessons, adding a fine visual focus to lesson content, and also seamlessly integrated into general lesson development. The introduction of comparative images and the incorporation of short film clips on a historical figure were further supports to lesson delivery. Teachers made very good use of textual, visual and framework-style handouts to facilitate students’ active learning. On the occasions where a textbook was used as a resource in lesson delivery, it was done so appropriately, as a stimulus to questioning. Wall maps might have been employed a little more in some individual lessons, and it is suggested that asking students on occasion to read short document extracts from their handouts can be an aid in gauging their understanding of primary sources. These are very minor suggestions in the context of very good incorporation of resources and teaching aids into the lessons observed overall.
Lessons in History were built around lively interaction between teachers and students, and on occasion between students and students when pair work was facilitated, as happened in the majority of classes. Teachers asked very good questions, on visual stimuli, on written material and on general knowledge and understanding by students. Very good care was taken to ask as wide a range of questions as possible, with evident tailoring of questions to suit the learning styles of some students, including those for whom English was an additional language. Indeed, a number of lessons developed a very interesting and challenging atmosphere through the engagement of foreign students with Irish historical material. Elsewhere it was good to hear a teacher say ‘Who haven’t I asked yet?’ and on other occasions students’ efforts were very well supported by teacher comments ranging from ‘Good man’ to ‘Well done’ and even ‘Ye are brilliant’. The naturalness of teacher-student dialogue was a feature of all lessons, and it is also commendable that teachers had little difficulty in admitting that they did not know an answer, on a very rare occasion, or that their initial instructions needed clarification. Such honest interaction is highly commended.
There was ample evidence of good opportunities for learning and retention by students. Students worked very well in all lessons and were not afraid to ask questions. Strategies which teachers employed to assist retention included the development of word banks in students’ copybooks as new or difficult issues arose. Very good encouragement of student note-making was also a feature of several lessons, while the focus by teachers on visualisation and on repetition of key data was also very strong. The slightly wider use of student note-making in diagrammatic form, and perhaps the highlighting of key words in a different colour when using data projectors are worthy of consideration as further aids to students’ retention. The instances where teachers introduced local examples of life in Ireland long ago, or links between the modern allotment drive and historical crop rotation were further supports to retention, in that they helped to make the historical material more relevant to students.
As lessons ended, they were generally rounded off with good review sessions. Oral questioning featured quite strongly here and it is suggested in some instances that students be given a little more encouragement to volunteer information before the teacher assists them. Very good higher-order review was achieved in an instance where students were asked to compare and contrast what they had learnt about Ireland with what they had previously learnt about another country in the same period. Very good use of ICT was observed in drawing together the key issues covered in a lesson through a sort of summary diagram. One lesson saw its review phase introduced by the simple question from a teacher: ‘What have we learnt today?’ This is a strategy which can link very well to the initial statement of learning intentions given in some lessons, particularly if this has been left as a board heading through the lesson, and is again deserving of wider consideration.
The school is commended for an assessment policy which emphasises the place of formative and summative assessment, student self-assessment, the use of common assessment instruments in formal examinations within the school, and a soundly based homework policy. The good emphasis on in-class questioning, which has been alluded to in the previous section, also included a good emphasis by teachers on giving oral feedback and advice to students on both their spoken answers and sometimes their written homework. This is applauded. In some instances during history lessons, up to ten students were asked to read aloud from sections of their written homework, with good teacher commentary on the work as this review proceeded. Some very good formative commentary was also noted in teachers’ correction of written homework, particularly where students were engaged in junior ‘People in History’ questions or in senior essay-length answers. Some very good strategies were noted in terms of assisting students with longer writing, such as a ‘Mr Composition’ structure identifying the introduction, body and conclusion layout to a junior task, or the use of family-tree portfolio assessment in TY. Good differentiation was also noted in assessment practices, with a good selection of cloze tests, crosswords, drawing and map tasks given as homework to younger students.
Some recommendations are made in terms of the instructions given to students in advance of writing tasks as homework. It is suggested, for example, that it is better to give instructions around how many points a junior student needs to write on a long answer, rather than a more open instruction to write a specified number of pages. Such advice should also include why the achievement of the person chosen is important. Similarly, the assignment of specific interrogatives to senior students, rather than the more loose ‘write an essay’ approach would be more aligned to the question styles in certificate examinations. As a time-saving strategy, the giving of such an interrogative, and asking student to write the opening paragraph alone, can be a good means of focusing them on what the question is asking for, thus fine-tuning their answering techniques. These are isolated recommendations within the context of very solid informal assessment practices observed in all history lessons.
Whole-school assessment practices are good and complement the specific practices in History as outlined above. It is normal for classes to maintain separate copybooks for notes and homework. More formally, the school holds examinations for all classes at the end of every term and reports are sent home to parents after such assessments. The same happens with classes sitting pre-examinations each spring, in advance of the certificate examinations in June. Teachers use the student journals to keep parents informed of progress or difficulties on a day-to-day basis, and parent-teacher meetings are held annually for each year group. This is all sound practice.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· History is strongly supported in the school’s curriculum and timetable.
· Important additional supports to History include a designated social-studies room, a wonderful library and very good ICT facilities in many rooms.
· Relevant elements of whole-school planning are supportive to the delivery of History.
· The available evidence suggests that good departmental and individual teacher planning has occurred in History.
· Very good teaching which provided significant opportunities for students’ learning was observed in all history lessons.
· Individual, informal, assessment practices in history lessons and homework are comprehensive.
· Whole-school assessment policies and practices are thorough, with assessment outcomes being well communicated to parents.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The maintenance of viable numbers taking History for Leaving Certificate should be prioritised as the school considers increasing its LCVP student cohort.
· Planning for coming academic years should seek to ensure that each history class has access to the new social-studies room for at least one period per week.
· This report contains some recommendations regarding assessment, for consideration and to inform future departmental practice.
Post-evaluation meetings were not held with the teachers of History at the conclusion of the evaluation. An informal meeting with the principal was held, when some draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published, December 2009