An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Religious Education
in the Junior Cycle
Roll number: 91517D
Date of inspection: 01 May 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Religious Education
Subject inspection report
This report has been written following a subject
Subject provision and whole school support
Religious Education is a core subject in junior cycle in this school. Mixed-ability class groups are formed for this subject in each year of junior cycle. However, the setting arrangements for other subjects, currently in place from the beginning of second year, mean that there is a concentration of better able students in some religious education class groups in second year and in third year. School documentation indicates that its characteristic spirit is Christian and that all students are expected to participate in the religious education programme. Where parents seek an exemption from Religious Education, school management reported that their wishes are accommodated. Currently, all students in junior cycle are studying Religious Education.
The allocation of three class periods per week in each of the three years of the junior cycle is in keeping with the recommendations of the syllabus. Responsibility for delivering the course is given to a team of teachers, each of whom has a specialist qualification in the subject. Some teachers have been assigned their own classrooms and they have created stimulating and supportive visual displays which celebrate students’ own work in the subject.
Support for the subject in the school is very good. Resources available to teachers and students include audio-visual equipment, overhead projectors and data projectors. The school’s computer room can be booked for the use of individual class groups. There are plans in place to establish a dedicated religious education area, including a classroom, a meditation space and offices for the school chaplain, in the new school building which is due to open in 2011. The school allocates a budget on an annual basis to the religious education department for the purchase of new resources. The religious education teachers have also developed a range of resource materials, including handouts and worksheets, for use in delivering the course.
The commitment of the religious education teachers to providing a number of extracurricular activities for students is acknowledged. Liturgies and prayer celebrations mark key moments in the school year. Students are encouraged to become involved in a number of charitable endeavours, including fundraising, which provide practical opportunities to promote and develop the affective outcomes of the religious education syllabus.
School management is committed to encouraging and facilitating the continuing professional development of the religious education teaching team. Teachers have benefited from school visits from the Religious Education Support Service and attendance at cluster meetings, where they have had the opportunity to share resources and ideas with teachers of Religious Education in other schools. Members of the department have also attended a number of resource days facilitated by the diocesan advisor for religious education. Whole-school training events have focussed on classroom management and assessment.
Planning and preparation
The four teachers of Religious Education work well together in planning and implementing the delivery of the subject in the school. They meet formally at the beginning of each year to arrange the distribution of texts, review students’ achievements in certificate examinations and discuss any other issues, such as arrangements for visiting speakers. Throughout the year, the teachers meet informally to progress those issues and to work collaboratively to plan their work and share resources. This close liaison between the teachers is an example of very good practice, contributing to regular review and continuous improvement. All members of the religious education department co-ordinate the work planned for a year group, so that the department benefits from the enthusiasm and talents of individual teachers.
A very good subject plan, based on the template provided by the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) has been developed. This was presented for inspection. The plan includes clear details of the organisational and curricular aspects of Religious Education in the school. Schemes of work have been developed for each year of the junior cycle and these provided evidence of on-going review and discussion in the school about how best to deliver the subject. For example, until recently, a spiral approach had been adopted, so that key concepts were introduced and re-visited over the three years of the programme. At the beginning of this year, following a review of their work, the department decided to adopt a thematic approach to teaching the syllabus. The religious education teachers reported that this approach had been determined to some extent by the textbooks available on the school’s book rental scheme. It is good to note, however, that this was not the principal deciding factor and that experiences of teaching and learning were more influential in determining the order in which syllabus topics are taught.
It is recommended that, as the on-going review of the plan continues, the schemes for each year should be developed to include a short list of desired learning outcomes, including those which support students’ personal engagement with the subject. An indicative list for each section of the syllabus is provided in syllabus documentation. Information on teaching and learning methods as well as possible resources, homework tasks and opportunities for assessment, identified in the current schemes, should be linked with planned outcomes. This would more accurately reflect the student-centred focus of teaching which was evident in many classrooms during the evaluation process.
Teaching and learning
There was clear evidence of effective planning and preparation by individual teachers for many of the lessons observed. As a result, those lessons had a distinct focus and were well paced, taking account of the relative abilities of students. For example, in one classroom, the purpose of the lesson was established from the outset so that all students were aware of what was expected of them. Good routines have been established to help students settle to work quickly, including the correction of homework and roll-call. An initial review of a homework assignment in one lesson allowed the teacher to re-teach concepts which had been insufficiently understood before moving on to introduce new material.
Very good use was made of the resources available to support teaching of the subject in some lessons. A PowerPoint presentation, which began with a selection of common signs, facilitated the introduction of the concepts ‘sign’ and ‘symbol’ in one lesson. Whilst there was a lot of information provided, judicious use of questions ensured that students were developing an appropriate understanding of the lesson topic. In another lesson, the whiteboard was used to provide a template for how students should annotate their learning. As the lesson developed, the teacher recorded the key points made by students directly on the template. The overhead projector was used at the close of this lesson to teach the students a helpful mnemonic for remembering the steps involved in moral decision making. In line with good practice, new information on the slide was revealed only when students’ had demonstrated a sufficient level of understanding of the preceding step.
However, in other lessons observed, there was scope to improve both the quality and the use of visuals and handouts. It is good practice to ensure that these learning aids are not too text-dense, that the images are clear and that the language used is accessible to students. Proof-reading of photocopied handouts is needed to ensure that there are no errors or difficulties which could confuse students and distract from the planned focus of the lesson. In addition, where it is necessary for students to retain a copy of a visual, a handout should be prepared and transcription should be avoided, so as to facilitate effective pacing of the lesson. In one lesson, for example, where students were required to record the content of a slide into their copies, a significant amount of class time was lost to an activity which added little to the lesson. As a result, the remainder of the lesson was hurried and it was unclear that students had achieved understanding of the concept being taught. Generally, however, the potential of illustrative images to support the students’ learning was recognised in the classrooms visited, two of which had very good displays of both commercial posters and maps and of students’ project work. It is suggested that the opportunity to use displays to illustrate key concepts being learned should be taken in all of the classrooms used.
Questions were used in all lessons observed to check that students were on task and learning. These worked best where teachers asked challenging questions, matching them to students’ ability. For example, in some lessons, students were provided with opportunities to both demonstrate their knowledge and to give their personal views, supported by reasons and examples. Good encouragement to use the religious and philosophical vocabulary which is appropriate to the subject at their level was evident also in these lessons. In other lessons observed, however, the balance between lower and higher order questions was less well managed and students’ responses were short and undeveloped. Little time was provided for reflection. Whilst the reluctance of some students to respond to questions and to express opinions in the presence of an inspector is acknowledged, it is suggested that questions should be planned so that students have more opportunities to express, clarify and extend their knowledge and understanding of lesson topics orally. More extensive use of questions which facilitate reflection and developed thought is recommended.
The quality of students’ responses to questions asked and their contributions in class reflected the range of ability in the subject. Better-able students made good connections across syllabus areas and established links between the concepts discussed and their own experiences. All students demonstrated a good knowledge of the key concepts underpinning the religious education courses at both higher and ordinary levels. Students keep homework folders and copies and an examination of these indicated high expectations of work and standards from teachers. Generally, students were well-organised and presented their work neatly.
In accordance with the school’s homework policy, homework is regularly set in religious education classes to check achievement of understanding. However, a review of students’ copies indicated that transcription of notes and short-answer work dominates in some classes. In other classes this work has been balanced by writing tasks which encourage students to develop their ideas, for example, assignments which compare or to make a connection between religious ideas and practices. The homework policy identifies a number of goals for assessment, including fostering learning, improving teaching and providing good information on their progress to students. In this context, it is recommended that the teachers of Religious Education should review their assessment practices. A variety of tasks, which includes those which require higher order thinking and personal engagement, should be employed. Tasks should be differentiated for higher and ordinary level courses and should be linked directly to specific learning outcomes for each section of the course. As appropriate, tasks should provide students with opportunities to go beyond demonstrating knowledge and understanding to express opinions, supported by, for example, references to specific religious texts or teachings.
Generally, completion of homework tasks is acknowledged by ‘tick’ marking. While teachers provide more detailed feedback to students when homework is corrected in class, this is, by its nature, more general in its nature and is not specific to the work of an individual student. It is recommended that more frequent use should be made of comment marking as it allows the teacher to identify areas for development and to affirm the work done by the individual student.
The progress made by students in first year is assessed on a continual basis and teachers set in-class tests on completion of a unit of work. In second year, continuous assessment is supplemented by formal Christmas and end-of-year tests. A ‘mock’ examination, held in the spring term, replaces the end-of-year test for third-year students. In addition to parent-teacher meetings which are held annually, parents are kept informed of students’ progress through reports which issue twice during the year.
Summary of main findings and recommendations
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Support for the subject in the school is very good. Each of the Religious Education teachers has a specialist qualification in the subject and there is good access to a range of audio-visual and ICT resources for the subject.
· A number of extracurricular activities which provide practical opportunities to promote and develop the affective outcomes of the religious education syllabus are facilitated by the religious education teachers.
· The religious education teaching team engages in planning for the delivery of the subject which includes regular review of the implementation of the course.
· The religious education plan includes clear details of the organisational and curricular aspects of the subject in the school.
· There was clear evidence of effective planning and preparation by individual teachers for many of the lessons observed and good use was made of the resources available to support teaching of the subject in some lessons.
· All students demonstrated a good knowledge of the key concepts underpinning the religious education courses at both higher and ordinary levels.
· Parents are kept informed of students’ progress in Religious Education through reports which issue twice during the year.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The schemes for Religious Education in each year of junior cycle should be developed to more accurately reflect the student-centred focus of teaching which was evident in many classrooms during the evaluation process.
· The teachers of Religious Education should review their assessment practices to ensure that a variety of tasks is set for students. Students should have more opportunities to express, clarify and extend their knowledge and understanding of lesson topics orally. They should be encouraged to develop their understanding and their critical skills by the setting of written work which facilitates critical reflection and developed thought.
· More frequent use should be made of comment marking to provide developmental feedback to students.
A post-evaluation meeting was held with one teacher of Religious Education, with the deputy principal and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published November 2009
School response to the report
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1: Observations on the content of the inspection report
The Board of Management welcomes this comprehensive Subject Inspection Report and is pleased that it recognises the various ways in which Religious Education is supported and facilitated in the school.
Area 2: Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection
The schemes for Religious Education will be further developed to reflect the student-centred focus of teaching which was observed during the inspection. Written assessment, with comment feedback, will be developed to provide opportunities for critical reflection and developed thought by students.