An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
St. Aidan’s Community College
Dublin Hill, County Cork
Roll number: 71101G
Date of inspection: 19 October 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 February 2007
the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St. Aidan’s College. 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 one day 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 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 subject in junior cycle at St. Aidan’s for all students not involved in modified curricula in the Junior Certificate School Programme. This means, in effect, that an average of 85% of junior students study History for the Junior Certificate. As the school is a community college, it is within its rights to not have History as a compulsory subject. The provision of three single periods per week for History in junior classes is satisfactory, although it is noted that some of the junior classes of History are bunched within three consecutive days on the timetable and so there can be a gap of up to four days between classes, which is not ideal. Management has made every reasonable effort to ensure an equitable spread of timeslots generally for junior History and the mix of morning and afternoon classes is very fair overall. Junior classes have been streamed in recent years at the school and teachers and management have spoken favourably of the impact this has had on student performance in that time.
It is good to note that History has been developed as a compulsory modular element in Transition Year in recent years. The provision of three periods per week for half a year includes a double period, which is conducive to field trips and project work and is commended. The placing of the historical studies module back to back with Geography is another positive decision in that it can facilitate cross-curricular work which complements both subjects quite readily. Management reports that the presence of History as a core element of Transition Year has helped uptake levels of the subject for Leaving Certificate. It is certainly valuable that students will have had the opportunity to explore historical study in Transition Year, outside of the exam-orientation required by Junior Certificate preparation, before they make their choices in relation to subjects for the Leaving Certificate. The school is applauded for its policy in this regard.
Provision for History in fifth and sixth year is satisfactory. The allocation of five periods per week tends to break down into two double periods and a single period each year, although occasionally it has involved three double periods, as with the present sixth year group. Normally, this number of double periods would not be ideal, in that it reduces the number of days on which students and teachers have contact to three a week. On the plus side, however, is the fact that teachers have reported no difficulty with the arrangement and the net average of five and a half periods spread over the two years of the Leaving Certificate is very good provision in terms of time. It is also true that the focus on research work and documents analysis, in addition to the anticipated promotion of self-directed learning, group work and student presentations within the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus and guidelines are facilitated by double periods much more readily than the old syllabus requirements did, so the prevalence of double periods for senior History is not a major difficulty in this school context.
Subject options mechanisms in senior cycle are fair to History. Students are given considerable guidance in both third year and Transition Year, including the facilitation of a parents’ information evening, before being asked to select subjects from an initial open list. Following this, the bands are developed to ensure optimum satisfaction for as many students as possible. In the current Leaving Certificate cycle, History sits in an options band with Geography, Accounting and Construction Studies in fifth year. In sixth year, History lies across form Geography, Art and Technology. The prevalence of subjects with practical elements in the options blocks explains why History tends to have a number of double periods, as previously mentioned. In terms of the blocks themselves, it must be added that this appears to be a fair system, particularly as the subject most likely to attract students with social-studies inclinations is Geography and this is offered in another option block in both fifth and sixth year, thus allowing students to study History and Geography if they wish.
Resource provision for History is satisfactory in a number of senses. Firstly, a good annual budget allocation is available, as it is to all subjects. In addition, there is a de facto ‘history room’ at the school which is a well-equipped and appropriately decorated base room. Even in the other classrooms visited, a good level of provision of audio visual and overhead projectors was noted. The school has also readily facilitated the attendance at inservice training of teachers involved in teaching the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus. One challenge for the school relates to its library facility which is currently being revamped. In some respects, this could be an ideal opportunity to begin redevelopment of the history book stock too, taking account of the needs of senior students in particular who now have compulsory research studies to complete. The supports available from the Cork City Library (Local Studies Room) can also be of great assistance to student research work. While there are a number of ICT facilities in the school, including a computer in the subject-specific room, which can be used in teaching History, there is no doubt that a very useful aid to subject delivery would be the eventual installation of a data projector in the history room. The visual nature of the subject itself, in addition to the renewed focus on source and document work in junior and senior syllabuses mean that such a facility should be a tremendous asset to the History department, particularly with the likely availability of training courses provided in Cork by the local History Teachers Association of Ireland branch, as in previous years. This is offered for consideration, obviously dependent on available funding, and management is commended for its positive approach to this issue.
It is good to note that there is a departmental structure for History at the school, with a designated subject co-ordinator and a culture of collaboration. The department meets formally at least twice a year and informally at intervals in between. This is satisfactory. Main topics for discussion have tended to include decision making in relation to textbooks and on how to spend the subject’s budget. This is sensible. The department is pleased with the increased uptake of the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus in History within the school in the past two years and is certainly encouraged to see the retention of these viable numbers as a priority goal, not least because a strong, viable senior history cohort is automatically a motivational factor for junior students as well. It is also good practice that a teacher who has been in attendance at Leaving Certificate inservice training has regularly kept colleagues in the junior cycle up to date with the syllabus, resources and methodological suggestions. If ICT resources can be developed by the department along the lines previously referred to, the collaborative development of visual and documentary resources for all year groups would be ideally suited to electronic storage and use. One idea might be for the department’s members to take one year of the junior cycle course, for example, and divide it into its component units. Each member then might focus when time and opportunity allow during an academic year on finding and recording images and documents which would become part of the departmental resource bank in time. The fact that classrooms are networked also makes this idea one which could be of great benefit to teachers as and when desired, not just in the subject-specific room. It is also good to see that planning for History within Transition Year has identified a particular focus on local studies and also that there is no over-emphasis on the coverage of Leaving Certificate material within the History element of the programme. There has been limited involvement of teachers to date with the History Teachers Association of Ireland Cork branch. This is another avenue of support to the subject department which could benefit all teachers, so membership is heartily encouraged. The streaming system which now operates at the school can make the collaborative setting of examinations for different year groups a more complex task than it might have been. However, some common assessment strategies have been deployed in the past and ought to be persevered with, as even where only part of an in-house examination is a common one, it can be a tremendous help in gauging student progress and suitability for higher or ordinary level in the State examinations.
At individual levels, substantial evidence of good teacher planning was presented. In some instances, very clear and considered lesson plans were seen, including consideration of methodology and the use of visuals. Most teachers keep files, some for each year group they work with, which detail the plan of work for the year or term, resources to be used, student records and handouts. In addition, teachers have compiled considerable stores of illustrated books, PowerPoint presentations and acetate sheets, adding to the view that the incorporation of a data projector into the work of the History department is a very logical next step where such an awareness of the importance of visual preparation is clearly present already. It was good to see not only the detail and obvious time which people put into individual planning but also the imagination. Factoring in local material, song lyrics and excerpts from documentaries all added to the sense that particularly close attention is played by teachers at individual levels to planning and preparation. A suggestion which might make productive and collective use out of the individual work done by teachers is for individuals to share their experiences at a future department meeting, specifically around lessons which were given successfully and also ones which didn’t. Experience has shown this to be a particularly useful way of sharing ideas between colleagues, with it always being an important consideration that we learn as much, quite often, from what does not work as from what does.
In the lessons visited, the level of student behaviour varied from very good to excellent, with their calm but natural attitude, even while waiting to enter a classroom, being particularly evident. The good humour and general rapport with students which teachers displayed both outside and inside the classroom influenced the positive atmosphere in the rooms themselves. On the rare occasions where students had to be redirected to work or attentiveness, teachers did so in a firm, fair and sometimes humorous manner which worked very well indeed. Occasionally, desk layout was not conducive to teacher movement around the room, or was inclined to leave some students on the periphery. This was sometimes due to the fact that space was at a premium in most rooms or because seating arrangements involving smaller numbers of students needed revision but, overall, teachers deserve commendation for the manner in which they have developed good classroom layout, atmosphere and rapport with students. Both in the designated room for History and in general classrooms used in teaching History, a very clear emphasis has been placed on visual displays and these certainly help to add greatly to the ‘history atmosphere’ which prevailed in the rooms.
Teachers employed several strategies to begin lessons. Most commonly used was the monitoring of previously-assigned homework. This varied from teachers inserting ticks or initials on copies once checked, to oral questioning of students about the work done, with copybooks closed prior to questioning sessions around the homework to ensure that what had been done had been understood and retained. These worked well as ways of getting the lessons started, as indeed did other introductory methods. The placing of lesson aims and key issues on the board at the outset of one junior lesson was another very sensible means of introducing a lesson, to the point that it left students in no doubt as to the work that lay ahead and served as a form of reference point as things proceeded. This is a tactic well worth repeating in all classes, as far as board and display space will allow.
General lesson development methods used were both varied and interesting for students. Teacher-driven questioning was a central element in most lessons seen and was generally used very effectively in developing student interest and awareness, as well as helping to gauge their understanding when more complex topics came up. At times, the focus may have been a bit too much on the asking of general questions, of the ‘Who can tell?’ or ‘Hands up’ varieties. The danger of overdoing this is that students who are struggling, or not fully engaged, may need more direct intervention to bring them along. Therefore, it has been suggested that more interspersing of questions geared towards individual students, and non-volunteers, merits consideration. This said, the degree to which students were prepared to put their hands up and offer answers was very impressive. Sometimes too, while developing lesson content, teachers interjected surprise questions or gentle hints to students, inviting them to help the move to the next point. This worked very, very well and showed teachers having a very good understanding of the capabilities of their students. It should also be emphasised that several classes visited contained a clear majority of male students but at no stage did teachers leave the female students either under-questioned or overshadowed by their male counterparts, which is applauded.
Other strategies employed in lesson development included the use of student presentations, in pairs, on previously-researched topics. This worked well and is recommended as an appropriate strategy for teaching the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus in particular. The degree of mutual respect evident between students as they asked each other questions on the presentations was impressive. In most classes, teachers switched from questioning and explanation to the use of overhead projectors in a really seamless fashion, using the visual and verbal reinforcement offered by the projector as a very powerful reinforcement of learning. Text and visuals were very clear and, in the main, not over elaborate. Instances of very clever summary diagrams being employed to help tie essential learning together for students, or short lists of key terms developed on the side of a board, were other examples of strategies which worked well and are deserving of wider employment in all classes. Sometimes, students were encouraged to note these diagrams or short lists for themselves and this should be emphasised more strongly as another means to aid retention wherever possible. Where issues relating to political divisions or international events are involved, the use of a wall map is also recommended as an additional visual reinforcement.
Teachers used a refreshing variety of methods to engage and help students in their learning. References to how material covered in other subject areas clarified what students were doing in History were made in a number of instances. In some classes, songs were introduced, both in aural and text form, to add variety and act as oral history sources for discussion. Very good handouts were distributed in most lessons, some with visual as well as verbal elements, and it was good to note the emphasis placed in some lessons on making sure that students retained these handouts carefully for future use, with the idea of immediately stapling them into notes copies being particularly simple and effective. Perhaps most importantly of all, teachers in all classes were very comfortable operating without recourse to getting students to read aloud from long sections of textbooks, relying instead on discussion, questioning, self-generated resources and plain good rapport. Textbooks were delved into for short insights, visual stimuli, homework and occasionally to give a structure to the topic being covered but they were never the central focus of any lesson, which is applauded.
Efforts to ensure student learning and retention were very impressive. As previously intimated, a greater focus on identifying key words and getting students to make notes could be employed in some lessons. However, the overall policy of getting students to retain separate hard cover notes copies is very helpful to retention, as is the provision of handouts. Most copies examined also displayed a good amount of general annotation by students, including the drawing of historical maps. The degree to which questioning permeated all lessons, and the use by teachers of a few minutes towards the end of each lesson to recap and investigate the extent to which students had understood the material covered were other very solid aids to student learning.
The degree to which oral questioning features as an assessment method in History has already been referred to and, indeed, commended. In addition, copies scrutinised show a considerable degree of consistency among teachers in assigning written homework which is subsequently corrected either by oral monitoring, when short-answer questions have been assigned particularly, to formative, comment-based correction of longer work by students. This is a sensible approach to assessment of homework, balancing what is manageable for teachers in terms of time with the best principles of assessment for learning. The encouraging and helpful tone of most of the comments written by teachers on students’ essays is deserving of high praise, as it the emphasis seen in places on assigning visual homework tasks to younger students, such as simple diagram- or map-drawing tasks.
Whole-school assessment policies are also helpful to History. There is a homework policy in place for each year group, and a series of fixed in-house examinations at both Christmas and summer, with pre-examinations for third-and sixth-year classes each year. Parent-teacher meetings are held for each year group, with first-year, third-year and sixth-year students actually having a second such meeting during the year as an added means of gauging and reporting on student progress in all subjects. It is encouraging too that the history department had no difficulty in producing statistics relating to higher and ordinary level uptake in State examinations and is commended on this, and on the uptake levels themselves.
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: