An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
College Street, Ballyshannon, County Donegal
Roll number: 91506V
Date of inspection: 11 May 2006
Date of issue of report: 26 October 2006
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Geography
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Cholmcille, Ballyshannon. 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.
Members of the Geography department are involved in a number of educational initiatives aimed at developing students’ appreciation of cultural differences, sensitivity to the environment and of people in less developed countries. These include participation in the Comenius Project, and a number of students and teachers from Central Europe have recently visited the school. The school participates in the Green-Schools Project and is to be congratulated on the recent award of the Green Flag. A twinning arrangement between Coláiste Cholmcille and a school in Ethiopia under the auspices of ‘Self-Help’, a non-governmental organisation, is in place. The school is very highly commended for participation in these initiatives as they give a practical expression to many of the aims of the Geography syllabuses.
At junior cycle, Geography is a compulsory subject and all classes are of mixed ability. In first year two class periods per week are provided and this increases to three in second and third year. At senior cycle, in the Transition Year Programme (TYP), Geography is present under the title of ‘European Studies’ and is allocated three class periods per week. It is recommended that consideration be given to the inclusion of a geographical investigation within the TYP. This would help to develop co-operative learning amongst students, develop their investigative skills and would be a useful preparation for undertaking the geographical investigation as part of the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus. For the Established Leaving Certificate, Geography is an optional subject and students and parents receive appropriate support and guidance prior to making programme and subject choices. It was reported that students have inputs on four occasions into the construction of the subject option bands, thus ensuring a high level of satisfaction with the final subject bands on offer. The school is commended for its efforts to cater for the requests of its students. Five teaching periods are provided in each of the senior cycle years, one double and three single class periods and a mixed ability class structure is operated. This time allocation is in line with syllabus requirements. Geography occupies a prominent place in Coláiste Cholmcille and uptake of the subject at senior cycle is at a very healthy level.
There are currently six geography teachers in the school and they form a clearly identifiable subject department with one teacher acting as subject co-ordinator. Teachers have been involved in continuous professional development related to the introduction of the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus and have attended in-service courses provided by the Association of Geography Teachers of Ireland (AGTI). While the school does not have a dedicated Geography room most teachers have been provided with a base classroom and school management has provided a wide range of resources to support teaching and learning. These resources include wall maps and charts, Ordnance Survey (OS) maps, aerial photographs, a collection of rock samples and videos, and audio-visual equipment in classrooms. It is recommended that a comprehensive list of all available resources for the teaching of Geography be prepared. This will facilitate the identification of future resource needs, planning for their provision and will also facilitate school budgeting. While the Geography department does not have an annual budget allocation school management provides resources as needs arise. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is provided in the staff room, in classrooms and laptops and data projectors are available. Broadband access is available and each student has been provided with an individual profile. It is recommended that as part of subject department planning the Geography teaching team develop a comprehensive plan of the integration of ICT into all aspects of the curriculum. The school is commended for the development of resources as they help to provide rich learning experiences for students.
The process of subject department planning is taking place in Coláiste Cholmcille. A Geography department plan, using a template provided under the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI), has been used to develop a plan for the organisation of teaching and learning in the subject. This plan was inspected during the evaluation process and contained reference to aims and objectives, time allocation and options structure, planning for students with special education needs, the development of cross-curricular links and assessment procedures amongst others. It was reported that school management supports this process by providing time for subject departments to meet during staff day, held usually on four occasions in each school year. In addition informal planning takes place on an on-going basis. These good practices are commended and it is recommended that teachers build on them by working collaboratively to produce a more formal and comprehensive plan for the Geography department. Within this plan consideration could be given to a statement of learning outcomes and curriculum content within agreed timeframes for each year group, active learning methodologies, fieldwork policy, plans for the further integration of ICT into teaching and learning and the further development of appropriate resources. The use of resource materials provided during the evaluation visit and the ‘Guidelines for Teachers’ relating to the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus will provide support for long term planning by the Geography teaching team.
It was noted during classroom observation and an examination of student’s copybooks that there was a particular focus on teaching topics from the Physical Geography sections of the syllabus to first year classes. This places challenging demands on students in terms of the extensive range of technical terminology, understanding geomorphic processes and describing landform development. It is recommended that this focus on the study of Physical Geography be reviewed and consideration be given to the development of map and photograph skills at an early stage by using large scale (1:1000) OS maps and photographs of Ballyshannon. The development of such skills could then be re-enforced throughout the planned teaching programme.
A written plan for the European Studies programme within the TYP was supplied during the evaluation process and an opportunity was provided to discuss the programme. This written plan contained a list of the topics being covered and a list of student tasks to be completed during the year. These tasks included participation in the Comenius Project with schools from Poland, Slovakia, Germany and Turkey, PowerPoint presentations on member states, and ‘Tastes of Europe’ in conjunction with the Home Economics department. The use of student’s ICT skills and the development of cross-curricular links is good practice and their further development is encouraged. Further support materials for this module are available from the offices of the European Commission in Dublin or from the Commission’s website.
There was clear evidence of very effective short term planning and preparation for all of the lessons observed with some individual lesson plans being provided. In some of the lessons there was a clear focus on revision and examination preparation, as is entirely appropriate at this stage of the school year. In other lessons either new topics were introduced or the lesson was developed from previously taught subject matter. Homework was regularly assigned, monitored and corrected, as was evidenced from an examination of student’s copybooks. Where teachers provided resource materials to support student learning they were effectively used and were integrated into the lesson plans. Resources used included: weather instruments, maps obtained from the Internet, supplementary textual material, worksheets, peat samples and wall maps. This level of resource provision is highly commended as the range of resources used caters for the preferred learning style of a variety of students and reflects the commitment of teachers to providing a stimulating learning experience for their students. The provision of such support materials could be used to explore opportunities to introduce pair or small group work.
Clear routines were observed in the classrooms visited. Lessons generally began with a roll call and this was followed by the correction of homework. The good practice of sharing the aims of the lesson with the students was also in evidence. As lessons concluded the learning outcomes were reviewed and homework was assigned. These good practices are commended as they provide a clear focus for students’ attention and create a sense of order and security both of which are powerful motivational factors.
In the classrooms visited the topics being taught included: weather forecasting and recording, rivers and their impact with reference to a local river, problems of economic development in Ethiopia, Irish peat bogs, peripheral regions with reference to the Border Midlands and West (BMW) region in Ireland and the environmental impact of economic activities with a focus on global warming.
A variety of teaching methodologies was used in the lessons observed. Classes began with a review of the material taught in previous lessons or topics were being revised with a focus on developing appropriate answering techniques. In one lesson observed there was particularly good scaffolding of students’ learning as a past examination question was analysed and the topic reviewed. Through a series of focused questions to students an outline of a suggested answer was developed on the white board. The questioning was used to revise several related topics and students were challenged to offer explanations for geographic phenomena. This is good practice as it helps to develop higher order thinking skills. Students were engaged by the lively question and answer session and were impressive in their knowledge of the topic. The provision of a ‘quiet time’ to allow students to copy the question outline into their copybooks would facilitate their reflection on and assimilation of the subject matter. The opportunity for the introduction of pair work should be explored by affording students time to analyse the past examination question before taking feedback in a whole class setting.
In a lesson where students were discussing the future use of a natural resource the structuring of the lesson in the form of a debate could prove to be a useful strategy for engaging students, providing variety in methodology and developing student’s oral skills and self-confidence. In a lesson where students were making calculations from a set of temperature data the use of pair work was effective in providing students with an opportunity to learn from each other and their enthusiasm for this activity was evident. As students were engaged in performing the calculations the teacher moved around the classroom offering support and guidance as appropriate. It is recommended that as part of subject department planning the further development of teaching methodologies that actively engage students in their own learning be explored. The use of models in Geography can make a significant contribution to students’ understanding of geographic processes. The use of a Core and Periphery model and its application to the BMW region in Ireland was developed effectively in one lesson observed. Where large units of work have been completed consideration should be given to providing students with a summary of the topic, which would also enable students to see clearly the interconnections between different parts of the topic. The use of ‘Mind Maps’ could be particularly useful in this regard.
A visual approach has been adopted to the delivery of the syllabuses in Geography. Effective use was made of black/white boards to outline the main points of lessons, of wall maps and maps in textbooks, the showing of a video clip and the provision of weather instruments and samples of peat provided a stimulus to learning and catered for the learning needs of a variety of students. The integration of these resources into lessons is commended and they helped to maintain student interest. Frequent references to examples drawn from the local environment, from students’ personal experiences or the use of newspaper articles were used to facilitate student understanding of geographic concepts and is commended. The use of a newspaper article and photographs on ‘bog bodies’ was particularly effective in engaging students. In building on this good practice of linking the study of Geography to the world outside the classroom it is suggested that consideration be given to the creation of a GeoNews notice board in classrooms. Newspaper articles, photographs and other materials related to the world of Geography could be displayed here. This would provide a rich and stimulating learning resource for students.
Throughout all of the lessons observed there was a clear emphasis on the development of geographic skills and this is in line with syllabus requirements. The use by students of thermometers, the calculation of mean temperatures, the use of maps and photographs to identify and describe geographic features and the drawing of statistical diagrams from data helped to develop a wide range of skills and introduced variety into the lessons. The development of geographical investigation skills was provided for by a recent visit to the Marble Arch caves and by a study in Fluvial Geomorphology as part of the requirements of the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus. The undertaking of a study on the effects of a recently open bye pass for Ballyshannon is particularly appropriate and interesting. Students were carefully introduced to the language of Geography by having new terms introduced, their meaning clearly explained and students were encouraged to use these terms. This good practice is commended as it contributes significantly to student’s linguistic development. Discussions with teachers and written records indicated that teachers are aware of students with special educational needs in their classes and this is commended. The display of lists of key words and their meanings in classrooms will provide further support for students. .
In all of the classrooms visited students remained on task and were engaged by the planned learning activities. A positive, supportive and mutually respectful atmosphere was observed to exist between students and their teachers.
All students in Coláiste Cholmcille receive a formal assessment at Christmas and reports are issued to parents/guardians. It was reported that this assessment consists of a formal class test held towards the end of the first term and the results of at least two previous class tests held during the term. Students preparing for Certificate Examinations sit pre-examinations during the second term and progress reports are provided to parents/guardians. All other students sit formal examinations at the end of the school year. Student progress is also reported on at formal parent teacher meetings.
Throughout all of the lessons observed teachers assessed student understanding through the use of focused questioning, either to individual named students or to the whole class group. Students were encouraged to seek clarification wherever necessary. Students willingly engaged in discussion with their teachers and were knowledgeable about their courses displaying an ability to use correct geographical terms. Class tests are held when sections of the syllabus have been completed and results are recorded in teacher’s diaries. An examination of student’s copybooks indicated a generally high standard of work with neatly drawn maps and diagrams. This reflects the high expectations of their teachers and is commended. Where students had answered past examination questions they had received appropriate feedback from their teachers and this good practice is highly commended. This provides students with an insight into their strengths and indicates how improvements can be made both in the content of answers and in the answering technique.
In the initial stages of answering past examination questions teachers are encouraged to consider the use of ‘comment only marking’ as a means of getting students to focus on formative assessment. It is recommended that the Geography teachers develop a policy to broaden the scope of assessment by considering the use of small scale project work and the further extension of Assessment for Learning principles to include ‘comment only’ marking. Small-scale project work would be particularly suited to recording weather instrument readings and would also allow students’ work to be acknowledged and celebrated by being displayed in classrooms. Information on the development of Assessment for Learning principals can be accessed on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) website, www.ncca.ie and teachers are encouraged to access this site.
The following are the main strengths and areas for development identified in the evaluation:
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following recommendations are made:
A post-evaluation meeting was held with the principal, deputy principal and with the teachers of Geography at the conclusion of the evaluation at which the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.