An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
Achill, County Mayo
Roll number: 72070D
Date of inspection: 4 April 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in geography
This report has been written following a subject inspection in McHale 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, deputy 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.
McHale College is a co-educational school within the area of responsibility of County Mayo Vocational Educational Committee. At junior cycle Geography is a compulsory subject and is allocated three class periods in each of the junior cycle years. All classes are of mixed ability.
In the school Geography is offered as an optional subject to Leaving Certificate, however there are no senior cycle geography class groups this year due to the low demand to continue the subject to this level. Given that all students study the subject for junior cycle it is recommended that school management and the geography teachers explore ways of encouraging uptake of senior cycle geography. It is recommended that Geography be included in the planned introduction of the Transition Year (TY) programme in the school in September 2008. This would be an ideal opportunity to promote Geography by providing a suitable taster of what the subject entails at senior cycle. In this regard consideration should be given to including a fieldwork component modelled on the geographical investigation for the Leaving Certificate in a TY geography module. This module should also be used to explore the potential of information and communication technologies (ICT) as a rich resource in supporting the teaching and learning of Geography. Teachers should consult the document ‘Writing the Transition Year Programme’ when developing a plan for Geography within the TY programme.
There are currently three geography teachers in McHale College. It is recommended that the teaching of senior cycle geography be rotated among the teachers in order to develop a broad skills base across the department. In this regard the resources obtained at the recent national in-service for the introduction of the revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus should be discussed with and made available to the other members of the geography teaching team.
The geography department has access to resources to support teaching and learning which include wall maps, Ordnance Survey (OS) maps, aerial photographs, rock samples, overhead projectors, and TVs. The subject plan should contain a catalogue of all the available resources within the school for teaching and learning in Geography. This will assist in the identification of future resource needs within the department. There is a need for the geography department to develop its bank of resources particularly to facilitate the delivery of an effective TY geography module and in the event of the reintroduction of senior cycle Geography. It is recommended that planning for resources should initially focus on the provision of an adequate range of fieldwork instruments to conduct geographical investigations. It is also recommended that the potential of the geography room should be further developed as a specialist room. This room should be equipped with display cabinets, additional storage space, a globe, large maps of Ireland and a range of geographical posters. These provisions would increase the visible presence of Geography in the school and serve to create a stimulating and print-rich geographical learning environment.
The geography teachers can access the school’s computer room by arrangement. There was evidence that ICT is used to varying degrees by the geography teachers. It is recommended that future subject planning, particularly in the context of the revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus, give consideration to the increased integration of ICT in the classroom as a means of enhancing the teaching and learning of Geography.
Current timetabling arrangements in the school result in a teaching week which falls short of what is required to ensure that all students have access to twenty-eight class contact hours. Senior management stated this matter is being addressed for the next academic year to ensure compliance with the Department of Education and Science circular M29/95 Time in School.
Subject department planning in Geography commenced in January 2008. In leading the planning process forward it is recommended that one of the geography teachers act as subject co-ordinator. This role should be rotated among all members of the geography teaching team in order to foster collective responsibility for subject planning. It is advised that minutes of department meetings be maintained to support continuity in the planning process. This documentation should indicate the main items discussed and agreed plans for development.
A subject policy document has been developed which includes long-term curricular plans for each year group. These plans provide a list of topics to be taught to each year group. It is recommended that more comprehensive curricular plans be developed to indicate in an integrated manner the syllabus content to be covered within term timeframes, the corresponding learning outcomes to be achieved, the resources employed to support the teaching of topics and the assessment modes used by teachers. Consideration should be given to planning for active learning methodologies and the further integration of ICT into teaching and learning. It is also recommended that a review section be included on plans to record comments on students’ progress and the attainment of the learning outcomes of lessons. These comments will be a useful guide for teachers in planning for revision of course material and evaluating the effectiveness of particular teaching strategies and resource materials in supporting student learning. In acknowledgement of the time involved in developing such plans it is suggested that this work be undertaken on a phased basis, with priority given to State examination class groups.
The first-year curricular plan contained in the subject plan has an exclusive concentration on physical Geography including geomorphology, meteorology and climate. These topics contain a wide range of specialised vocabulary and require students’ understanding of complex processes. In the context of ongoing review and development of the department plan it is recommended that this focus on the study of physical Geography be reviewed and consideration be given to introducing less technical sections of the syllabus in first year. In one first year lesson however, the development of map reading skills formed the basis of the lesson. This is good practice and the development of map and photograph skills is encouraged across the department at an early stage in first year. These skills can then be re-enforced throughout the planned curricular programme.
Given the recent commencement of subject planning in Geography and the ongoing nature and development of such work, it is recommended that the teachers collaboratively engage in future planning for the geography department. This engagement with the planning process will provide opportunity for reflection and the sharing of experiences, practice and resources and will have the potential to positively impact on the teaching and learning of Geography.
In the lessons observed there was a positive atmosphere characterised by mutual respect between the students and teachers. Students were encouraged to ask questions and participate in class discussions and teachers affirmed them in their contributions. The students were attentive and interested to participate in the learning process. It was evident from their responses and their written work in copybooks that they showed a good understanding of the topics under study.
Lessons commenced with roll call and generally concluded with the setting of homework based on the lesson content. These routines are commended and encouraged as they establish clear expectations in relation to attendance and student learning. Short term planning for lessons was evident in the teachers’ knowledge of the subject matter and in the availability of ordnance survey maps and examination papers for use during the lesson. Lessons were generally well paced and pitched at a level suited to the abilities of the class groups.
A range of methodologies was used in lessons including questioning of students, board use, discussion, student reading, class assignments and correction of work. Best practice was observed where teachers employed a variety of strategies which maintained an appropriate balance between teacher talk and students active engagement with the learning process. It is thus recommended that following the exposition of new material that students are provided with an opportunity to put their new knowledge into practice. This methodology will enable students to actively engage with lesson material and consolidate their learning and add variety to lesson delivery.
Teachers provided comprehensive and interesting explanations of lesson content and in some cases this was combined with student reading from the textbook. It is recommended that where the textbook forms a central part of the lesson that key points be underlined and highlighted in order to focus students’ attention on these salient aspects of the topics. In some lessons effective use was made of the whiteboard to explain and clarify concepts using teacher drawn diagrams. The whiteboard was also used to give a structure to the lesson by highlighting the main learning points. It is recommended that this good practice be developed in all lessons and that students are instructed to record the main points in their copybooks. Such provision would provide a summary of the lesson and be of benefit to students in carrying out revision.
Teachers frequently employed questioning to check students knowledge and understanding and this is to be commended. The questions posed to students ranged from the factual, testing recall, to questions of a higher order that were more challenging and required students to think at a deeper level. It is advised that a good mix of global and targeted questions be used in lessons in order to ensure that all students are sufficiently challenged.
There was very good reference to the local environment and the students’ direct experience to explain geographical concepts, which is commended. In one lesson human settlement was studied using the 1:50000 ordnance survey map of the local area. The students eagerly participated in the lesson and it was evident that their level of interest was positively enhanced by use of such a familiar learning context. Revision of course material and preparation for certificate examinations was the main focus of one lesson as was appropriate for the class group and time of year. Students were working from past examination papers and a recap of relevant sections of the syllabus was integrated into the lesson. To further build on this good practice it is recommended that students be well informed on examination criteria and marking schemes to guide them in structuring and presenting their information especially for State examinations.
Whilst the school has no qualified resource or learning-support teacher the geography teachers are aware of the students in their classes with special educational needs. Among the strategies employed by teachers to support students with special educational needs the simplification of lesson material and the provision of assistance to individual students within the mainstream setting are included. Teachers are encouraged to access the website of the Special Education Support Service www.sess.ie to obtain information and guidance to assist them in differentiating the syllabuses. It is also recommended that key word lists are displayed on topics as they are being taught as a means of supporting students’ literacy development in the subject.
Student learning was assessed informally in all the lessons observed. This was achieved primarily through ongoing questioning of students as the lesson was developed and in some cases was combined with the correction of an exercise based on the lesson content. There are also regular class tests held on the completion of topics. The homework tasks completed and corrected in students’ copybooks were generally of a good standard and reflected student progress with the learning plan. In most cases students’ copybooks were regularly checked and marked with comments on the standard of their work. This is good practice and should be further developed in all lessons. It is advised that copybooks be regularly monitored and that students receive feedback on their work to assist them in improving its quality. Teachers are encouraged to access the website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) www.ncca.ie to obtain information on the development of ‘Assessment for Learning’ principles.
Formal assessments for all students take place at Christmas and for first-year, second-year and fifth-year class groups at the end of the third term. It was reported that the geography department plans to implement the practice of common assessment commencing with first year class groups at the end of the school year. This practice is encouraged. In order to facilitate common assessment it is necessary that teachers follow an agreed programme of work and this should be reflected in curricular plans. Students preparing for State examinations sit pre-examinations in the spring. It is recommended that students’ State examination results be analysed and discussed at departmental level. This practice will serve as a broad measure of self-evaluation and will beneficially inform subject planning and classroom practice.
Teachers maintain records of assessment results, attendance and homework. This is good practice as it enables teachers to develop a profile of students’ progress and engagement with learning over a period of time. Feedback from all assessments is provided to parents through parent-teacher meetings and school reports.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Geography is a compulsory subject at junior cycle.
· The geography teachers have access to ICT facilities and audio-visual equipment to support teaching and learning in Geography.
· There was evidence of short-term planning for the lessons observed.
· Good rapport between teachers and students was noted in lessons. The students were attentive and eager to engage in the learning process.
· Good quality teaching was observed during the evaluation.
· There was very good reference to the local environment to support students’ understanding of geographical concepts.
· Students displayed a good understanding of Geography.
· Students’ progress in Geography is assessed on an ongoing formal and informal basis.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· School management in collaboration with the geography teachers should explore strategies to increase the uptake of Geography at senior cycle.
· The planned introduction of the TY programme should include Geography within its curricular provision.
· Future resource provision in the geography department should focus on expanding the school’s stock of fieldwork instruments and developing the geography room as a specialist room.
· Subject planning should be developed in line with the various recommendations outlined in the main body of the report.
· All lessons should provide opportunities for active student engagement with the learning process.
· ‘Assessment for Learning’ principles should be further implemented and developed in the correction of students’ written work.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Geography and with the principal and deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published September 2008