An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Mount Mercy College
Model Farm Road, Cork
Roll number: 62661U
Date of inspection: 13 March 2007
Date of issue of report: 4 October 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Mount Mercy College, Cork. 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 with the teachers, examined students’ work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and the teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and to the 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.
History is a core junior cycle subject at Mount Mercy College, with all classes having an allocation of three single periods per week. These are spread very fairly across the days of the week and a good mix of morning and afternoon classes has also been noted. This level of provision in junior cycle is certainly satisfactory. Apart from an isolated difficulty in 2006-7, it is good to note that it is stated school policy, in so far as is possible, that teacher continuity with classes is maintained from one year to the next. The Transition Year (TY) option is taken by a large percentage of students at the school and the provision of two periods per week of History for the full year is again satisfactory here. However, given the tradition of undertaking field trips and library visits in previous TY history classes, it would be a useful support to the subject if the current allocation of two single periods for each class in TY could be changed to a double period. This, naturally, depends on the exigencies of overall timetabling in TY. The broad scope of material covered in TY is in keeping with the programme's aims and objectives nationally, and the school is commended for its efforts to ensure that a genuine TY programme is in place for students.
In fifth and sixth year, the allocation of five periods per week to history classes is satisfactory, as is the fact that two of these periods are consecutive, as such double periods can also be a support to student research work within the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus. In terms of subject options for Leaving Certificate, management reports that options bands have been fixed for the past few years but that they are not absolutely so. In other words, if significant numbers of students want to do a particular subject combination, the option bands can be tweaked accordingly. At present, History sits in the same option line as Music, Home Economics, Biology and Accounting, with all of these subjects apart from Music being offered in another line as well. This seems quite fair to History. It is also noted and applauded that students only make their Leaving Certificate subject choices towards the end of TY, not before it, ensuring an extra year of maturity and experience of subjects before making final selections.
With regard to whole-school resourcing for History, the school itself has expressed concern that its library facilities are in need of upgrading. This is certainly so in the case of History. Some excellent but old books apart are available. However, there is a need to develop the book stock particularly to meet the needs of Leaving Certificate students undertaking compulsory research studies under the revised syllabus. Some specific recommendations have been made around relatively inexpensive means of augmenting history-specific resources, including books, periodicals and video materials. The school has made very productive use of nearby public library facilities and supports, and the introduction of a lunchtime video showing is an interesting idea which can certainly assist overall provision for History.
Teachers have good access to television and DVD facilities as required, while computer facilities are being developed overall at the school. It is also noted that overhead projectors are readily available and, on the basis of the evidence seen, very productive use is being made of such resources. Consideration of how best to progress history resourcing, to include ideally a subject-specific noticeboard and proper resource-storage facility, suggests that the possibility of identifying a subject base room is well worth considering. There are, at present, over sixty periods of History being taught each week at the school, which operates a forty-three-period week. While acknowledging that space can be a premium commodity at times, it is highly likely that a base ‘history room’ would be in very frequent, if not constant, use and could be an ideal solution to matters of resource storage, project displays and, ideally, provision of television, overhead projector and information and communication facilities. Such a facility is certainly recommended for active consideration and could well solve more difficulties than it creates in time.
A history department structure has operated at Mount Mercy College for some time, with the position of subject co-ordinator being rotated on a regular basis. Departmental planning has been excellent, with formal minuted meetings being held at least once per term. The idea of submitting a written report to the principal of issues discussed and decisions taken is a sensible support to whole-school co-ordination. The thorough departmental folder also contains evidence of planning for students with special educational needs, consideration of the development of some common examinations, cross-curricular awareness, planning for trips and visiting speakers. The visit to the school in late 2006 of Holocaust survivor and writer Zoltan Zinn Collis was a notable achievement by the department. Collaborative planning for the involvement of students in competitions like the Discover Cork project run by the Cork Civic Trust and the UCC History Department’s essay competition is also roundly applauded. It is noted that the school has released teachers for all Leaving Certificate in-service training relevant to the revised syllabus, and also that some teachers are members of the Cork branch of the History Teachers Association of Ireland. These are both excellent supports to the teaching and learning of History and are applauded.
In identifying some future issues for consideration by the department, there is a need for more cohesion in terms of junior cycle textbook selection than is currently in evidence. As classes are of mixed ability, having classes using different textbooks seems unnecessary and will make further collaborative planning more difficult. Moves to pool visual and video resources are also well worth continuing. Should a move to a history base-room be feasible in time, or indeed as development of library stock for History is being considered, these would also be best achieved through full departmental involvement. It would be an additional support to teachers if collaboratively developed materials could be stored and used via information and communication technology. Finally, it remains sensible for a portion of some future departmental meetings to be devoted to discussion of the practicalities of teaching and learning History, to include the sharing of ideas and challenges among colleagues as practicable.
The level of individual teacher planning seen has been very satisfactory. All classes visited were up to, or slightly ahead of, where they ought to be in terms of syllabus coverage. It was also important to note that teachers were aware of students in particular classes having special educational needs and had planned work accordingly. Good documentation, both of agreed yearly work schemes and for lesson-specific work, was presented. Teachers have clearly put considerable time into preparing handout materials, locating and preparing video excerpts for class use, laminating pictures and developing question and summary sheets for student use. This is all evidence of a very fine commitment to planning and preparation.
In all lessons visited, seating arrangements, sightlines for students to the board and access routes for teachers around the classrooms as desired, were very satisfactory. Equally, teacher-student rapport was very positive from the outset of all lessons, with students taking their seats and preparing for class with the minimum of fuss or need for teacher input. This was most impressive and contributed significantly towards making the history classrooms into positive learning environments as a whole. As History is not currently taught in a specific base room, it has not been feasible to erect substantial displays of historical material, charts or students’ projects in all relevant environments but a number of classrooms did have some interesting subject-specific displays, including some wonderful projects, which also helped to create a form of historical atmosphere conducive to teaching and learning in the subject.
Questioning by teachers was the main strategy employed in the initial stages of lessons and, in some instances, as a significant element of overall lesson development. Oral questioning was employed to monitor and correct homework or to introduce short revision tasks before moving on to new material. Some interesting variations were also seen, including the use of a short video excerpt on industrialisation which was accompanied by question sheets that students were asked to consider as they watched the film. The use of questioning has, overall, been found to be very successful in both gauging and developing students’ learning in the lessons observed. Occasional recommendations have been made relating to the need to vary questions between general and individually directed ones, between students who put their hands up and those who do not, to ensure that quieter students are also challenged. Similarly, even where students respond to questions asking if they have heard of different leaders or events, it is useful to push them to develop answers a little further than the mere affirmative. Even if this needs an extra few seconds of waiting time, it is worthwhile and is important also in the context of the largely mixed-ability settings in which History is taught at the school.
Teaching methods observed made very effective use of a considerable variety of resources. Video use in some classes worked well, particularly where key or difficult issues in social history due to arise were pre-taught for a few minutes. Sometimes short video excerpts were used to good effect to complement documentary or pictorial material, ranging from the Renaissance to Northern Ireland. The use of not only documentary film but also of an excerpt from a well-chosen drama is also applauded. Historical photographs of protest marches and images of paintings, notably ones which allowed students to consider different versions of similar events and the bias of the images’ creators were also very effective. Some excellent newspaper, political-cartoon and documentary sources were deployed, with most teachers having prepared substantial visual and verbal handouts for students’ use. In some cases, it was also noted that very thorough systems had been adopted to ensure that students immediately filed and retained such handout material. This is a simple tactic and yet a highly effective one which merits general use. Some superb laminated photographs, taken by the teacher, were also used in highlighting the visual dimension to historical art and architecture. Particularly relevant in the context of mixed-ability classes, the good emphasis seen on visual and other resources as aids to teaching and learning is deserving of even more deployment, with the reminder that the textbooks themselves can also provide some very rich visual stimuli to assist lesson development.
Teaching strategies in general were found to make good use of the black or white boards as lessons proceeded. There is scope for the integration of information and communication technology (ICT) or overhead projectors in this area but, this said, the clarity of board work seen was very satisfactory. More often than not, teachers placed key concepts or difficult words on the board as the lessons proceeded, with a good number of students making notes of such material spontaneously or with little direction necessary. Particularly impressive was the development of structures on the board to enable students to see different sides of political viewpoints in the 1960s or other issues. It was important and noticeable also that teachers in senior classes were ready to remind students where key concepts and personalities identified in the relevant syllabus were linked to the topics being covered. Some occasional recommendations have been made about the possibilities of using the board to develop diagrammatic representations of key issues or to help visualise, for example, difficult concepts in relation to election constituencies. It is also useful to place the full wording of political terms for which adults may use acronyms on the board, to make sure all students understand such acronyms. These are minor suggestions in the overall context of the very good board work seen during the inspection.
A very satisfactory level of historical analysis and treatment was found in all lessons. While some suggestions have been made in relation to the need to make sure that all difficult words are explained and understood, the material being covered in all lessons was presented in clear terms by teachers. With the central focus of teaching on questioning and discussion, the general low reliance on textbook-reading has been applauded. Where textbook reading was deployed, it was interspersed with good teacher commentary or questioning and was, in most cases, appropriately shared among a significant number of students. Some very good work was noted in the area of making historical material relevant to students, with items such as Elvis Presley songs, news broadcasts and the playing of rugby and soccer in Croke Park being tapped into by teachers in order to show students where historical issues relate to the modern world. On one occasion, even students’ interest in gaining good points in the Leaving Certificate was used to help them understand the sentiments of a social group which does or does not see its political hopes realised.
It was useful that, where students sometimes encountered difficult material, they were urged to check back on their notes for clues from previously-covered topics, rather than just being given the answers again by the teacher. This is excellent in terms of promoting self-directed learning. Similar emphasis on students learning by doing was observed in document analysis and image-handling work in senior classes, wholly appropriate to the syllabus guidelines, and prompts the belief that developing this focus on making students as participative as possible in their learning is deserving of departmental consideration. Other strategies designed to assist learning, such as note making, handout-retention, questioning, questionnaire-completion and general feedback sessions have, as already intimated, been very satisfactorily employed across the lessons observed. Certainly, the questioning of students which formed part of the inspection process in each lesson found a very satisfactory level of understanding and retention among the vast majority of those responding.
Examination of students’ copybooks in every lesson visited has shown that very consistent regimes of homework-assignment have been established across the history department. In most instances, this has been accompanied by a high degree of teacher monitoring, with fairly frequent correction of longer homework assignment tasks being evident. In several instances, the level of formative and encouraging commentary inserted on students’ work by teachers has been hugely time-consuming but also highly valuable and is applauded. More informally, the high quality of oral questioning which has been employed quite uniformly across lessons, and the commitment of several teachers to projects or essay competitions have already been commented upon in this report and certainly provide a valuable tool for ongoing assessment of students’ learning.
Among strategies which have been suggested as aids to formal assessment are included the training of students from an early stage in what constitutes a ‘significant relevant statement’ and specifying in homework direction that a certain number of statements or points is required, as opposed to potentially vague ‘write a page on’ instructions. The assignment of tasks requiring students to write the opening paragraph of a long answer, rather than the entire answer, might also be considered as an aid to assessing organisational skills and students’ understanding of question-relevance.
Whole-school assessment policies are also satisfactory. Within the history department, good progress has been made in the area of common assessment components of end-of-term examinations. These are a very useful means of gauging individual students’ work in relation to peers. It is good to note that the school encourages the holding of in-class assessments at regular intervals, in addition to house examinations at Christmas for all years and in summer for non-state examination classes. Pre-examinations are done in spring by third-year and sixth-year students due to sit state examinations, while parent-teacher meetings are held annually for all classes.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Timetable provision for History, including the spread of lessons across the days and timeslots, is very satisfactory overall.
· The school is commended for its efforts to ensure that TY History is a core subject and one which seeks to offer students a wide range of historical experience, in keeping with national TY philosophy.
· A very good departmental structure has been put in place for History and teachers have actively engaged with much valuable planning work in that context.
· Individual teacher planning and preparation has been developed to a very high degree.
· Very satisfactory levels of teaching and learning have been observed, characterised by very good teacher-student rapport, good questioning, use of teaching resources and a fine standard of historical understanding overall.
· Thorough assessment procedures, including a significant commitment to teacher correction of homework and the development of common assessment instruments, have been applauded.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· If practicable, the provision of the two single periods for TY History should be changed to a double period for each class group to facilitate project work and field trips.
· The school’s library facility, in terms of its history book stock, is in need of some upgrading.
· There are several compelling reasons why the development of a history base classroom in time would quite significantly assist delivery of the subject across the school.
· More uniformity in terms of textbook selection for junior cycle classes is desirable.
· Slightly more emphasis on the use of visualisation strategies, varied questioning and self-directed learning within the classrooms has been recommended in the context of classes being of mixed ability.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of History and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.