An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
Saint Clement’s College
South Circular Road, Limerick
Roll number: 64220A
Date of inspection: 12 October 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 February 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in geography
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St. Clement’s College. 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; a response was not received from the board.
St. Clement’s College is an all boys, voluntary secondary school with a total enrolment of 431 students. Geography is a compulsory subject at junior cycle and classes are mixed ability in nature. Three teaching periods per week are allocated to Geography in each of the junior-cycle years and these classes are well distributed across the days of the week. There are three class groups in 3rd year and four class groups in both 1st year and 2nd year. The fourth class group in 1st year and 2nd year consists of a learning support class in a small group setting. This class was formed on the basis of Drumcondra Reasoning Test (DRT) assessments, psychological reports, primary school reports or evaluation of students during their first month in the school. Students are enabled to move in and out of the class during the year depending on their performance and progress. This good practice is commended. This class is allocated a classroom assistant who gives extra tuition to those experiencing difficulties and students with specific learning difficulties are withdrawn from time-tabled lessons for supplementary tuition in some subjects by the learning support team. This level of support and commitment to students with learning support and special educational needs is commended. Subject teachers are informed by the learning support and resource teachers on individual students’ learning difficulties. To further build on and develop this good practice it is recommended that the Geography teachers engage in a more intensive dialogue with the learning support department so that specific strategies and methodologies to differentiate the geography syllabus can be discussed and resources shared to the benefit of students experiencing difficulties in these mixed ability settings.
For the Established Leaving Certificate Geography is an optional subject. On entry into senior cycle students are given an open choice of subjects and from these first choices option blocks are created in line with student demand and available teaching resources. The time allocated to the teaching of senior-cycle Geography is in line with syllabus requirements and classes at this level are of mixed ability. It is suggested for the current Leaving Certificate 1 class that in the allocation of class periods for the next academic year that consideration be given to the provision of a double class period for this year group so as to accommodate work on the Geographical Investigation and other extensive units of the syllabus. Students and their parents are well-informed in relation to programme and subject choice at senior cycle through the provision of an information evening and the active involvement of the career guidance counsellor in supporting students. The school is commended for this supportive work.
Geography is offered as part of the Transition Year Programme (TY). The course is divided into two main modules, “Environmental Studies” and “Culture and Identity”, each of which are delivered to students over a ten week period. Each module is allocated one class period per week. St. Clement’s College has a large number of international students many of whom start in the school in transition year. The inclusion of a culture and identity module is lauded as it provides a forum for all students to discuss their customs, religion, language and country and it helps to foster a healthy appreciation, respect and understanding of each other’s culture.
School management has provided a wide range of resources to support the teaching and learning of Geography. These include Ordnance Survey (OS) map extracts, aerial photographs, fieldwork instruments, weather instruments, wall maps and charts, a very impressive display of rock samples, overhead projectors, ample storage space, CDs, TV and VCR, a collection of videos, textbooks and geographical periodicals. There is a dedicated Geography room which is broadband enabled and equipped with a computer and printer. This room is primarily used by one teacher but the other members of the Geography teaching team can have access to it by request. Other teacher-based classrooms are well resourced. While the Geography department does not have an annual budget allocation school management provide resources as the needs arise. The school is commended for the development of resources as they make an important contribution to effective teaching and learning.
The in-career development of teachers is encouraged and teachers were facilitated to attend the in-service provided as part of the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus. It is recommended that the resources obtained at these courses be shared amongst all members of the Geography teaching team as many of them would be relevant and beneficial for use at junior cycle. An appropriate induction process is in place for new teachers which includes a meeting with members of the Geography department to share information on the subject department plan and the available resources for the teaching of Geography. This collegial support for new teachers is highly commended.
Subject department planning is taking place in St. Clement’s College and school management has supported this process by providing time for formal subject department meetings on three occasions during the school year. There is a clear and identifiable Geography department in the school with an appointed co-ordinator chosen on the basis of seniority. It is recommended that this role be rotated or that the workload involved in executing the role be shared so that the expertise and skill associated with the various tasks may be acquired by other team members. A subject department plan, based on a template provided by the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI), has been used to develop a plan for the organisation, teaching and learning of the subject. This plan included a description of textbooks used, available resources, homework and assessment procedures, record keeping procedures and a curricular plan for junior-cycle and transition year Geography. It is recommended that a curricular plan for the teaching of senior-cycle Geography be collaboratively developed as its absence was noted from a review of the planning documentation made available during the evaluation. To build on the good planning practices already in operation it is also recommended that the existing plan be further developed to produce a more formal and comprehensive plan for the Geography Department. Within this plan consideration should be given to a statement of learning outcomes and curriculum content within agreed timeframes for each year group, increased liaison with the learning support department in providing for the variety of needs within the mixed ability classroom setting and a broadening of the range of assessment modes currently in place to include the increased use of project work. The further integration of ICT into the teaching and learning of Geography should be prioritised by all members of the teaching team. Use of the ‘Guidelines for Teachers’ relating to the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus and the resource material provided during the evaluation visit will also provide support for long term planning by the Geography teaching team.
A written plan for the Geography programme within the TY was supplied during the evaluation visit. The plan made reference to aims and topics to be studied. The programme offers students an interesting, relevant and varied exposure to aspects of Geography and provides a flavour of some of the course material for senior cycle without excessive encroachment on material contained in the Leaving Certificate syllabus. One of the documented aims of the programme is to inform students on possible career opportunities linked to the subject. The Geography teachers are commended for this provision as it provides students with beneficial exposure to the subject before making their choices at senior cycle. The internet is used as a research tool and this is commended in developing students’ ICT skills. The use of newspaper articles in gathering information is also lauded as it serves to establish links between Geography and its relevance and application in the real world.
It was noted from the junior-cycle curricular plan that the teaching of physical Geography occupies a dominant position in 1st year. It is recommended that this provision be reviewed as some of these aspects of the syllabus contain a vast array of new terminology and geomorphic processes that are more appropriate to the cognitive maturity of students in 2nd or 3rd Year. Consideration should be given to an increased input on the development of map and photograph skills in 1st year by using large scale (1:1000) OS maps and photographs of Limerick. The resource materials provided by the inspector will provide some useful guidelines and ideas on developing a programme for junior-cycle Geography.
There was clear evidence of extensive short-term planning for most of the Geography lessons observed. One teacher had compiled a folder of resources containing notes and overhead transparencies on a number of topics and this gathering and preparation of resource material is commended. Homework was corrected and assigned homework at the end of some lessons related to teacher prepared worksheets. There was appropriate cross reference to maps and a range of overhead transparencies specific to topic content was effectively used to support student learning. In some classes the content was presented in small manageable units with each section accompanied by a short worksheet. This step-by-step approach is highly commended as it facilitates students in their understanding and management of new learning material. All lessons were delivered in a lively manner and at a pace suitable to the ability of the students.
Lessons had clarity of purpose and the planned learning outcomes were shared with students at the start of the class and at other times as the activity changed. This good practice is commended as students are pre-informed of the work to be done and it provides for a more focused and meaningful learning context. The topics under study in the classes visited included a revision class on rivers, weather forecasting and recording, the structure of the earth and plate movement and the American South-West as a sub continental region.
Some classes began with the correction of homework and the good practice of integrating students’ answers by recording the key points on an overhead transparency was observed. Students were instructed to take these down which allowed them the opportunity to supplement their own work with additional points if necessary. These short summaries can also be used as an effective revision aid for students and assist them in organising their own learning. This strategy was also skilfully deployed to encourage students with special educational needs to develop and expand their answers as they were challenged to make a sentence on each point.
A range of methodologies was employed to progress lesson content and maintain student engagement in the learning process. Questioning was used to very good effect to establish the level of student knowledge and understanding, to revise previously covered related material, to progress the delivery of material and to enhance the participation of students in the lesson. A balanced questioning strategy was in evidence which included both global and directed questions which required factual recall of information and in some cases demanded the exercise of higher-order thinking skills. In many classes teachers’ explanations were kept brief and concise and were regularly punctuated with student based tasks and the integration of visual resources to support learning and vary the classroom activity. Students were challenged to complete appropriate worksheets as the lesson advanced and these were most effective in reinforcing key learning points. In all cases the worksheet questions were short and written tasks were restricted to bullet points so that maximum use was made of class contact time. In some lessons students were less actively involved. It is recommended as a variation on the lecture model and question and answer sessions that the aforementioned good practice be extended to all classes in order to meet the learning needs of all students.
In all classes attention was paid to revision and every opportunity was seized to recap on associated taught material. In this way previous learning was meaningfully integrated within the current learning context and this was appropriate in presenting topics in their entirety. To further build on this good practice it is suggested that the use of local examples be incorporated into the lesson as much as possible. Such linking with the students’ local environment and direct experience will serve to further create a meaningful and relevant learning context. In one class examination requirements for both higher level and ordinary level Geography were thoroughly and comprehensively presented and reinforced and class exercises were accordingly differentiated. Differentiated homework was also administered as handouts of past examination questions were distributed to students. This good practice of preparing students for State examinations is commended. The junior-cycle Geography syllabus is designed as a common syllabus with some extra settings for higher level students. In view of this it is recommended that all students be encouraged to participate in higher level Geography and that the decision to take ordinary level be postponed to as late a stage as possible. In some classes geographical terminology was well taught and reinforced. Students were questioned on key terms and advised to apply and use this terminology in State examinations. It is recommended that this practice be incorporated in all lessons as subject specific terminology and language play a vital role in determining a student’s access to the subject. To this end it is recommended that key word lists be compiled on the various topics and displayed in classrooms as these topics are being taught. A student glossary of terms recorded in their copies would also contribute to students’ linguistic development.
A visual approach has been adopted to the delivery of the syllabuses in Geography. Effective use was made of the whiteboard and the overhead projector to record students’ answers, to present class exercises and to draw and present diagrams and sketches. Locational Geography was well catered for through the use of wall maps and in one case an overhead transparency of a cross section of the Rocky Mountains was matched precisely to the North American map. Weather instruments were displayed and circulated in one class and the visual and tactile exposure to these material resources proved most effective in supporting student understanding and in maintaining their attention and interest. The Geography teachers are commended for their commitment to facilitating and enhancing student learning through the preparation and provision of a variety of resources .
In all classes there was very good rapport between teachers and students and it was obvious that an atmosphere of mutual respect prevailed. Students’ responses were always affirmed and integrated into the lesson. Students’ contributions were welcomed and students were apparently at ease in asking questions and offering their opinions. This atmosphere created a learning environment conducive to student participation in the lessons and student enthusiasm and engagement were features of all classes.
The mixed ability nature of the lessons was obvious from the range of student responses and from the varying quality of work in student notebooks. It is suggested that consideration be given to the use of mind maps in the mixed ability class setting as a means of summarising and structuring lesson content. These could assist students in establishing links between the various aspects of a topic and lead to creative organisation of their own learning. The variety of methodologies and visual resources used in the delivery of lessons in combination with student activity-based tasks ensured that learning was taking place.
A range of assessment procedures is utilised in Geography lessons. Oral assessment is incorporated into all lessons and worksheets are frequently used to reinforce class material and are corrected in class. During completion of these class exercises teachers rotated among students, monitoring their progress and assisting and advising as required. There is a whole school policy on homework which explicitly outlines its importance and the expectation of its completion to the best of the student’s ability. An examination of students’ notebooks revealed that homework is frequently given by most teachers and is corrected and signed. It is recommended that in some classes homework is set more regularly, however short and simple, and that the expectation for its completion be firmly communicated to students. Homework plays a vital role in consolidating learning and thus needs to be utilised as a crucial tool in enhancing student learning. The school operates a journal system which is used as an avenue of communication to parents in the event of a pattern of non-completion of homework emerging. Parents are then required to sign the journal and teachers also record the incidence in their diaries. In the majority of cases homework records are maintained and it is recommended that this practice is employed in all classes as an additional means of evaluating students’ participation and performance in the learning process.
It was also evident from students’ copies that there is limited use made of developmental comments in corrections. It is recommended that this practice be developed and its use extended to include feedback to students on their strengths, and that guiding comments be provided on ways in which students can address their weaknesses. This practice would provide students with specific guidelines on improving the quality of their work. The website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) www.ncca.ie has useful information on its Assessment for Learning Project which will assist with the implementation of these principles into assessment procedures.
Formal assessments include class tests which are usually given when a topic is completed. All non-examination classes sit formal examinations at Christmas and at the end of the school year. In addition to Christmas tests State examination classes sit mock examinations. Most end of term/year tests are stand alone assessments except in the case of the learning support classes where the students’ continuous performance is taken into account. Feedback to parents on their children’s progress is communicated through reports which are issued twice a year. Parent teacher meetings for each class group are also held once a year and in some cases prior to such meetings parents are required to sign their child’s test copy so that they have some knowledge as to how the child is performing. These meetings create a suitable forum for discussion on students’ performance and progress.
A notable feature of all classrooms was the lack of display of student work. It is recommended that the range of assessments being used are broadened to include project work. The Geography syllabus affords vast opportunities for the development of project work and students generally embark on this activity-based learning with great enthusiasm and enjoyment. Project work allows for the development of many skills including ICT skills and caters to a wide range of learning styles. Completed work could be acknowledged and celebrated through display in classrooms and would also serve as a rich visual stimulus in supporting the teaching and learning of Geography.
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.