An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Carrigaline Community School
Carrigaline, County Cork
Roll number: 91388S
Date of inspection: 24 January 2007
Date of issue of report: 26 April 2007
the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Carrigaline Community School. 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 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.
Carrigaline Community School holds it as school policy that all students should study History in junior cycle, with the subject entering into a series of option structures after that. This is very satisfactory and the school is commended on its promotion of a broad-based education before students are asked to specialise to some degree after Junior Certificate. Because the school seeks to offer a very wide range of subjects to its first-year students before asking them to drop some, provision for History is of just two periods per week in that year, with an increase to three single periods per week in second year and third year. While two periods per week is a challenge to comfortable coverage of the first-year elements of the Junior Certificate course, this situation is understandable in the overall context of the school’s broad curriculum. It is recommended that care be taken to ensure that the spacing of these two single periods is such that they do not occur too closely together during the week, thus leaving a gap of up to six days between class contact times. This has occurred in some isolated instances but generally the timetable allocations for junior History are very fairly distributed across the days of the week and between morning and evening slots as well.
Senior cycle provision for History is very good. Although not all Transition Year (TY) students study History, they are given the option of doing so for part of the year or, if they so desire, of continuing with it for the full year. The allocation of one double lesson and a single lesson for TY History is very good, not least as the double lesson can readily facilitate project work, the use of information and communication technology (ICT) and even local field trips if desired. Before fifth year, students are given an open choice of subjects to select from, with the option bands formed only after analysis of student responses. For the past three years, uptake in History has been such that two class groups have been formed. History is available in fifth year in two different blocks and in sixth year the students’ preferences have dictated its optimum position to be offered twice in the same block. Given that the numbers are healthy enough to form two substantial classes in each Leaving Certificate year group, all evidence suggests that this structure is very supportive to History. Sometimes History is allocated one double period and three single periods while on other occasions it has two double periods and a single period per week. Teachers reported no difficulty with either breakdown in this regard.
In turning to general resourcing of History, it is wonderful to see the provision of a designated history room at the school. This room is decorated in excellent fashion, with its walls replete with students’ murals, time charts, photographs and political cartoons. Because storage space is tight, it is not feasible to use the room for displaying students’ projects. With the library facility at the school having undergone considerable upheaval in recent times, the history room is also used as a storage point for books, mainly ones which relate to potential Leaving Certificate research study work. Some suggestions have been made in relation to extending this stock of print resources via new books and periodicals. It has also been suggested that the room itself might be highlighted more prominently via a nameplate or prominent signage on or near the door, as has been done with the nearby Geography facility. These points do not, however, take away from the fact that this history room is a superb facility. While history teachers can access information and communication technology (ICT) equipment and facilities via a booking system, the current plan to install a data projector in the history room is an exciting one which should considerably enhance the opportunities for teaching and learning in the subject in the not-distant future.
Carrigaline Community School has a very strong culture of school planning and this permeates through to individual subject levels too. A lead teacher or co-ordinator heads up the history department, currently consisting of eight other teachers. It is school policy to rotate this position at intervals of roughly three years. The co-ordinator has priority but by no means exclusive access to the history room and also takes responsibility for organising department meetings, liaising with management on resource applications, co-ordinating initiatives such as the use of common examination papers with individual year groups and general subject promotion. Regular departmental meetings are facilitated, with very thorough minutes of such meetings having been made available for inspection. The school is also commended on having a teaching and learning committee within its structures, with anticipated significant engagement by the history department and others with this committee’s work during the current academic year. It cannot be stated strongly enough that the main emphasis of collaborative planning should always be on enhancing teaching and learning and the current structures in the school facilitate this very satisfactorily.
It is good to note the history department’s documented emphases on highlighting History as a subject option for senior students and on wanting students to enjoy the subject. Some suggestions which have been made for future consideration include the possible deployment of a history notice board which would complement the numerous historical photographs around the school and might be a useful vehicle for showing students what Leaving Certificate History is all about. Given that the provision of a data projector for the history room is now highly likely, another departmental initiative might be the pooling of visual and documentary resources, for general use on DVD as teachers desire. This could certainly give a major boost to source-based teaching and to a visual approach to teaching and learning. Discussion of teaching and learning strategies, perhaps in conjunction with the aforementioned teaching and learning committee, should, naturally, always be central to as much departmental work as practicable. The opportunity of developing a bank of local historical documents has also been discussed with the department, mindful of the possible archive of local material which has recently been offered for school use, with again the use of ICT to store and deploy such materials in classroom contexts being very worthy of consideration. Some recommendations have also been made in relation to topics which might also be considered for the TY History programme, with the ideas available in the relevant section of the Transition Year website, www.transitionyear.ie being worthy of departmental discussion.
At individual levels, teachers have been found to engage in significant planning and preparatory work for their lessons. All classes visited were studying material at an appropriate point in the relevant syllabus and generally at a correct level of detail and pace. Only in one or two instances was the lesson pace or volume of material being covered felt to be a little excessive. On a number of occasions, good preparation saw teachers arrive for lessons equipped with sets of handouts, visual stimuli on DVDs, preparatory measures taken for developing students’ project work or placing key words on the board even before students had arrived for the lesson. In addition, many planning folders contained outlines of work to be done for the year, which were also approved at departmental level, as well as copious materials for use with class groups as the need and opportunity arose. Some teachers were also seen to make excellent use of supports gleaned from either the History Teachers Association of Ireland (HTAI) or the History In-Service Team (HIST). The school deserves commendation for not only facilitating the attendance of teachers of senior History at HIST in-service training but also for funding teachers’ membership of subject associations. Involvement with the Cork branch of the HTAI can and does offer many benefits for teachers of the subject.
Classroom atmosphere in all history lessons observed was very positive. Teachers engaged in natural, sometimes witty, banter with students and sorted out initial regular matters like attendance sheets, student absence slips and other details very comfortably. In most rooms, desk layout consisted of a form of peripheral horseshoe shape with a central bank of desks within it. This layout was unusual but suitable for the significant numbers of students in several classes. Teachers retained the possibility of moving around the room if desired, which some did as they monitored homework or engaged in student questioning, while it was noticeable that all students, regardless of seating positions, had clear sightlines to the board and to stimulus materials in the various classrooms. Classes contained a good gender balance in the main and, more importantly, this balance was also well maintained in the in-class interactions which followed.
As previously intimated, good preparedness on the part of teachers generally meant that most lessons had a very clear structure to them, with aims and objectives outlined to students from the initial moments. This was most effective where the board was also brought into play, being used to identify or pre-teach key terms or dates which were appropriate to the coming lesson. Some lessons began with the distribution of handouts designed to stimulate lesson development. A poem and a number of visual stimuli, including war photographs, propaganda cartoons and graphs, were used in this manner, most effectively where the stimuli were employed to develop questioning and discussion. As almost all classes visited were in mixed-ability contexts, such a visual or source-based focus is even more appropriate as an additional means of emphasising key learning targets and of non-reliance on oral delivery alone. Some good use was also made of a newspaper cover image and of pictures from around the classroom walls to further the role played by support materials in lesson development. In the small number of learning-support classes observed, both the deployment of visuals projected onto a screen and of handouts highlighting key terms, containing cloze-test style gaps for completion and also details of where the textbook pages linked with lesson content were all excellent supportive strategies observed.
Use of the whiteboard played a significant and sometimes central part in the lessons observed. This is applauded because it enabled teachers either to outline topic structures in advance for students and/or develop them both orally and visually as lessons proceeded. In all cases, board writing was clear and kept a direct focus on the work to hand. Occasional recommendations have been made around ensuring that board writing follows a structured approach, helping students to see development or to interpret the different categories into which historical information, such as the different sides in a war or different elements in a political issue, might fall. On two occasions, the board was also used to fill in a timeline for students, enabling them to fit the material being covered into a broader context or to identify parallel events in other fields of study. This is good practice.
The level of teacher-student interaction observed in most lessons was very high, with a focus on interrogative approaches to topics predominating. Only in isolated instances has a recommendation been made that more questioning of students ought to be considered, with the suggestion that pauses be utilised and extended if necessary to encourage students to think and respond. In the main, very good questioning was employed, both of individually-focused and more open varieties. Some teaching observed made very good use of questioning to differentiate in mixed-ability contexts, aiming lower and higher order questions appropriate to the levels of students. In some senior classes, an emphasis on seeking evaluative and sometimes emotional responses to events and issues was noted as a very constructive means of assisting the development of critical thinking. Elsewhere, discursive and engaging teaching styles, sometimes involving simple interjections like ‘isn’t it?’ or ‘don’t we?’ in mid stream also enabled students to respond to and be challenged by issues as the teacher saw fit. On the rare occasion where short textbook extracts were read in class, they were followed by questioning of students on the content. A very good use of questioning was also seen where students were asked to compose questions to put to each other, removing the focus from the teacher to some degree and facilitating short pair work tasks in the process. In instances where students were nervous in answering or occasionally inaudible in doing so, the handling of such moments by teachers was very sensitively and encouragingly done, which is applauded.
Some very effective and yet simple teaching strategies were deployed in lessons to add clarity or interest for students. Some colourful details, whether about life in ancient Rome or Mussolini’s Italy added to students’ enthusiasm without detracting from key learning targets either. In several classes, teachers emphasised the messages of historical developments by linking them to current affairs, sometimes even with the previous days’ events in Iraq, Northern Ireland and, quite importantly, in Cork itself. Student-relevant items as diverse as the film ‘Gladiator’, the use of Croke Park for rugby and the Jack Lynch tunnel were brought into play to reinforce points in students’ minds. Helping students to appreciate the scale of casualties in war by comparison with Irish population figures and using modern schools to contrast with pre-O’Malley education were other examples of simple clarification strategies which worked very satisfactorily. With older students, the role of propaganda in historical times vis à vis modern media-management or the teasing out of personal responses to historical decision making in Ireland were similarly effective. Such examples of teachers making the material for study relevant to students are richly applauded and might well also form part of future discussions within the department on the enhancement of teaching and learning.
In terms of ensuring student retention, in some lessons observed a good and spontaneous culture of note-making by students has been noted. The development of this as a viable retention strategy has been recommended for departmental consideration, particularly as the encouragement of note-making can add an extra support to student understanding and retention, in addition to the focus on oral and visual stimuli already commended. The use of notes copybooks separate from homework copybooks or folders by classes, or the development of history ‘dictionaries in a gradual fashion according as students encounter new terms and concepts, are other suggestions which have been made in some circumstances. Furthermore, as the recent in-service training sessions of the HIST team have pointed out, note-making by students can greatly assist independent learning and critical thinking, including discernment of what is relevant and what is not. In this context, it is recommended that a wider deployment of such strategies, in conjunction with the good practice and use of handouts also seen, would enhance the already-impressive levels of student learning in History still further.
In almost all classes visited, student copybooks showed a regular commitment by teachers to the assignment of homework. Some very good variations on standard written questioning-answering tasks were also noted and applauded, including a focus on giving drawing or picture-interpretation tasks as well as some challenging cloze and crossword-development work in junior classes. The assignment of homework with added teacher guidance on web links which might be used at home by students to complete such work was another very good idea seen, promoting ICT use and self-directed learning simultaneously. The structured focus seen in relation to students’ research studies in senior cycle is applauded, as is the promotion of project work in a junior class as a student-centred assessment method very appropriate to a mixed-ability context. It is also good to see that performance in project work is intended to form part of the end of year assessment mark awarded.
Much of the in-class assessment of homework has been done orally at the outset of lessons, with teachers monitoring student completion of the set tasks by moving around the room at the same time. On the occasion where it was deemed necessary, it has been suggested that students ought to place correct or incorrect marks on the homework once it has been thus corrected orally as leaving answers un-ticked is of little long-term benefit. If a culture of getting students to insert the correct answers where errors have been made initially, this in itself is very valuable. A recommendation has been offered in terms of using the standard Junior Certificate focus on awarding marks for ‘significant relevant statements’ (SRS) as a means of training students in the skills of writing good, clear and relevant history, focusing on the quality of their work from as early a stage as practicable. An added bonus offered by SRS training and marking is that it has an element of formative assessment to it but can also be done in a very short timescale. With senior students, some very thorough teacher commitment to formative, comment-based marking of long answers has been applauded.
Moving beyond individual assessment methods, the history department is commended for its development of common examinations across the mixed-ability classes in different year groups. This is a very useful way of gauging where students are in relation to their peers. The school is commended also for the regularity of its assessment policies. All classes sit two formal assessments a year and parent-teacher meetings are held for each year group on an annual basis.
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:
A post-evaluation meeting was held with the teachers of History and with the deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.