An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne
An Daingean, County Kerry
Roll number: 91511O
Date of inspection: 5 December 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne. 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 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 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.
Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne is a new community school situated in An Daingean. As a school formed from the amalgamation of two voluntary secondary schools in the town, it is appropriate that the new school has maintained the tradition of having History as a compulsory subject to Junior Certificate. Further evidence of a strong commitment to historical studies is seen in the fact that all Transition Year (TY) students also study History, while History is offered as part of an open choice of subjects in fifth and sixth year. This open choice is fair to History, with good uptake levels evident, and the school is also very well served with teaching personnel qualified to degree level in the subject area. All history classes are of mixed ability, with the exception of one special class group in a junior year.
Timetable provision for History is very satisfactory. The allocation of four lesson periods per week to all first-year history classes is excellent, the fourth period being intended to support delivery of what is perceived as a language-rich subject through the medium of Irish. Second and third-year history classes have a satisfactory provision of three periods per week, with the two single periods allocated to TY History every week being also good provision. Fifth-year and sixth-year history classes each have a double period and three single periods per week, which is satisfactory provision. In general, history lessons are spread evenly across the days of the week and between morning and evening timeslots. In two instances where junior classes have two periods of History in the same day, the second of these periods is effectively the bonus first-year period so this is not a cause for concern.
In addition to the provision as outlined above, some very good whole-school supports for History are in place. The lack of a designated history room is more than offset by the fact that several history teachers have their own base rooms, facilitating storage of resources very satisfactorily. Classrooms are equipped with information and communication technology (ICT), including broadband internet access, or with televisions and overhead projectors. One, largely history-oriented, classroom has recently been supplied with one of the first interactive white boards in the school and this has already become a very valuable tool in lesson delivery. A fine library facility forms part of the potential whole-school support and will be more central to history delivery once its cataloguing system is finalised. Budgeting for History and other subjects is on a needs basis, which is operating satisfactorily at present.
As the school’s language policy displays a very strong commitment to education through the medium of Irish, some other whole-school supports are recommended for greater application in supporting history students who may feel challenged by language issues. The school has a language laboratory which at present is under-utilised and consideration ought to be given to using this facility, ideally for one of the additional first-year periods, at intervals to either pre-teach or reinforce any difficult terminology occurring as the history course is being covered. The fact that a staff training day to follow the inspection had scheduled part of the work for ideas on language-laboratory use was very timely and teachers and management are commended for their willingness to explore the feasibility of supporting History through language laboratory use if practicable. Structured and on-going liaison between the history department and the school’s special educational needs department is also recommended, with a view to the identification of strategies and methodologies which can support any students with Irish-language difficulties in first year, or in the special class beyond that. A mentoring system has already been put in place to support the pastoral needs of first-year students. In the special circumstances here, there would be merit in considering a language-mentoring system as well, where older students with good Irish might be able to offer peer supports to younger students, as an additional element to those already in place. Finally, a designated History notice board which could employ both visual and verbal means of communication around historical anniversaries, local history and other items of student interest would be a further useful support in overcoming any possible language barriers at whole-school level, as well as being a useful way of maintaining the subject’s profile across the school.
Although the school is just over a year in existence, good progress has been made in subject planning. An outline departmental plan has been compiled, with clear aims and objectives detailed. In the context of this school, it may be worthwhile including reference to language-teaching aims or links in such a document also, when time permits. A co-ordinator has been appointed and this role includes the general organisation of department meetings, handling literature coming from the Department of Education and Science and the support service as well as maintaining links with the North Kerry branch of the History Teachers Association of Ireland (HTAI). The fact that the majority of Leaving Certificate in-service training sessions attended have been in the Irish-language is also applauded as a support to the school’s language policy and to history teaching through Irish where practicable.
A number of departmental meetings have been held in the current academic year already. With a view to putting such meetings in a longer-term and more formal context, it is recommended that the practice of recording contemporaneous minutes, and perhaps of rotating the roles of chairperson and minute-taker at such meetings also be considered. In time, the development of an identifiable senior teaching team in History should also form part of such departmental practice. The records presented of the meetings held in 2008-9 show a good focus on practical issues, such as pooling resources, TY topic selection and discussion of whether an English-language textbook or an Irish translation is more appropriate in first year. A number of fine co-curricular initiatives designed to bring History outside the classroom have also been noted in discussions around departmental activities, including local historical studies and visits to places of interest like Cragganowen, Kilmainham Jail and Dáil Éireann.
With a very good basis laid to date, recommendations for future departmental development include the compilation of a common TY plan in History, to involve consideration of assessment policies to be employed. The department is also urged to consider the potential merits of common assessment, for example in end-of-year examinations for first year and second year. Such practice can streamline assessment and reduce teacher workload, as well as facilitating a common approach to course coverage and time management within year groups. Given the extent of the networked ICT facilities at the school, the possibilities of using an intranet system to store electronically all history-teaching resources, allowing teachers to access them in any classroom as required, is also deserving of serious consideration at departmental level. The fact that one of the first interactive whiteboards in the school is dedicated significantly to History could also see the subject to the fore in planning for ICT use in teaching and learning across the school in time.
Individual teacher planning observed was of a good standard. Teachers in general presented outline plans of yearly or termly work, showing a clear link to the relevant syllabus. Preparation in all classes was very good, with copious amounts of handouts and source-based stimulus material being used in lessons. Teachers also kept clear records of student attendance and, in a number of instances, of student performance in class tests. Most classrooms visited were teachers’ base rooms, and even when this was not the case, teachers showed a high degree of preparedness for all lessons, with the required equipment, resources and even seating arrangements being well planned for. Wherever ICT or overhead technology was to be used, teachers’ planning was very sensible and well thought-out and had clearly involved a significant time commitment in advance of lessons. Teachers also showed considerable adaptability when required to teach on occasion in a classroom which was not set up for a history lesson specifically, or in planning for the use of equipment which had only recently arrived.
In all lessons observed, a very pleasant atmosphere existed throughout. At no stage did teachers have to demand good behaviour or attention and the rapport between teachers and students was very natural and unforced. Students were prepared for work from the outset of lessons, and teaching and learning got underway with the minimum of fuss. In all lessons, the topics being covered, and the levels at which they were pitched were in line with syllabus or programme requirements. Some teachers used a short text or oral outline of what the aims of the lesson were before any new work was begun. This was a very good idea and brought clarity to proceedings for students from the beginning of the lesson. This is recommended for wider use as practicable, with a view to further assisting students in overcoming any potential language difficulties in a given topic. The pre-teaching of such objectives, along with terminology, could be a particularly valuable controlled use of the language laboratory with the bonus first-year classes if found to be available for use, especially with a view to supporting the four key areas of language learning – listening, speaking, reading and writing – through the study of History, and vice versa.
Lessons developed at an appropriate pace in all instances, with teachers showing a keen awareness of the need to focus on student understanding and engagement. Where necessary, particularly with older students, the language of instruction moved from Irish to English seamlessly in order to ensure comprehension. As the school seeks to move more fundamentally in the direction of mono-lingual instruction, it remains vital that students’ understanding and learning is at the core of classroom activity, and teachers are commended for their understanding of this basic tenet. Some very good oral strategies have been noted in lessons, including teachers using English and Irish versions of key words side by side, or teachers re-stating aloud the answers that students had given to some questions, in order to clarify pronunciation and meaning. Sometimes, the simple instruction to students to answer ‘ós árd’ was enough to aid oral clarity and was used very sensitively. It has been recommended elsewhere that the placing of difficult or important terms on the whiteboard as they arise, with concurrent emphasis on getting students to make note of such terms, and their translations if necessary, would be additional reinforcements to learning and worthy of wider deployment.
In all lessons, very good use was made of visual materials to stimulate students’ interest and learning. Some good overhead projector use employed transparencies on the Bronze Age and Plantations, while ICT was very well used to show short film clips on the Cuban Crisis and the Anglo-Irish Treaty, a PowerPoint presentation on the 1920s and 1930s, for interactive dictionary work and some map development on overhead transparencies or interactive whiteboard. The linking of printed dates to each image during a PowerPoint presentation was a particularly simple and worthwhile visual reinforcement. Equally effectively, a well structured timeline comparing 1900 to 2000 was used in one lesson, and a fine sketch diagram triangulating sources of evidence on Vietnam in another lesson were developed in a gradual fashion on the board and fed into by the students’ own responses. There is no doubt that such visual reinforcement added to the quality of teaching and reinforced learning for students. Such visualisation also added variety and provided an additional stimulus to the spoken word. The possibilities of using illustrations from the textbook a little more to assist in the linking of visuals to lesson content also deserve a little more emphasis, but overall deployment of visuals in lessons was very good and is commended.
While good questioning occurred all through the lessons observed, in some instances a good emphasis on pair work or group work was also seen. This facilitated self-directed learning by students and had the added benefit of encouraging student-student interaction, in Irish or English as appropriate to the level of understanding, with some very good discussions and mini-debates facilitated with older students in particular. Some excellent group work was used in discussing the appropriateness of internet sources, or in the analysis of historical sources for meaning and possible bias. In some instances, it has been recommended that the use of such activities could be considered earlier in a lesson, as a means of stimulating student dialogue a little sooner. Analysis of historical documents, for example, might profitably come as a stimulus to subsequent development rather than as a rounding off of previous learning. At other times, it has been recommended that teachers should take a step back, metaphorically, and encourage students to step forward and be more responsible for their own learning. Such an increased emphasis on students talking would also be supportive of language-skills development, as well as taking some of the onus off teacher delivery and place it a little more on students themselves. Where pair-work or group-work was used, it was very effective in allowing students to work at their own pace and students’ oral feedback from such work was of a high standard.
Strategies to support student retention included the repetition by teachers of key points, and their clarification in English as required, in almost all lessons. Students were encouraged to take notes in some lessons, while bilingual handouts were given out in almost all lessons as further aids to learning and retention. Some emphasis on developing means for students to retain such handouts in folders may be required, while the commitment to note-taking might also include the development by students of their own historical glossaries according as they encounter new and challenging terms. Excellent supports in the form of bilingual vocabulary handouts were distributed in some lessons, but the benefit of encouraging students to make structured, contemporaneous notes as part of the retention of historical material in Irish is worthwhile also. Some teachers have encouraged students to retain separate copybooks for homework and notes, and those notes copybooks examined were of a very good standard, undoubtedly aiding students’ retention.
Starting with informal assessment, good homework regimes existed in every lesson visited, with teachers using the opening minutes of most lessons to discuss the answers to previous tasks. Oral questioning was used most often to gauge students’ answers to homework, and this strategy worked well. Homework was assigned in all lessons observed, with clear links to the topic under investigation. Some good homework tasks which combined the identification of historical information and linguistic challenges included cloze tests and wordsearch games and these are worthy of wider use with junior classes in particular. Occasionally, it was good to see students asked to undertake a little independent research on the internet, or being offered extra credits for additional information being found beyond the textbook. The possibilities of short role-playing tasks might also be considered, perhaps in the bonus first-year classes, as such a practice could facilitate students with different linguistic and historical ability achieving at differentiated levels. The use of a drawing task as part of a homework assignment was noted with one junior class and this strategy is worthy of further deployment as a non-verbal means of differentiated assessment.
In looking towards homework correction, the possible use of the guidelines from the State Examinations Commission (SEC) to show students how significant relevant statements (SRSs) can link to eventual marks for junior students would be a good idea, as occasionally homework assignments lacked some clarity in terms of how much students were expected to write. Some excellent teacher commitment to the formative assessment of older students’ essay-length work was noted in classes, with comments and suggestions for improvement offered in the language students felt most comfortable in, or bilingually. Homework tasks monitored during the inspection had been accepted in either English or Irish, again dictated by the aim of ensuring that students were able to complete the tasks satisfactorily. The school’s homework policy seeks to have written homework done through Irish in general but the sensitivity which has been displayed by teachers in current assessment practices, in facilitating students working bilingually, has been applauded at this stage of the school’s development.
Overall school assessment practices are satisfactory. Continuous assessment practices operate across each year group, with Christmas examinations being mainly class-based and taking previous work into account as well. Even in this context, and especially for end-of-year examinations, the previous recommendation that the department should consider common examinations is reiterated. State examination classes sit pre-examinations in the spring each year with, to date, the possibility of students sitting their history examinations in English or Irish having been maintained. Formal reports are sent home to parents after Christmas and summer assessments, while a parent-teacher meeting for each year group is held annually. The excellent school diary is used for any communications with parents, and has an appropriate two-way usage as required. A clear emphasis on encouraging students to take higher level papers wherever possible in examination classes has been noted and applauded.
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:
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of History and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published April 2009