An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
St Patrick’s College
Cavan, County Cavan
Roll number: 61060M
Date of inspection: 3 December 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Geography
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Patrick’s 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 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.
The organisation, teaching and learning of Geography is very well supported by school management. The subject is appropriately timetabled, teacher-based classrooms are provided and a wide range of resources is provided to support teaching and learning. These resources have been catalogued and this inventory is included in the subject department plan. Resources are currently stored in individual teachers’ classrooms. Consideration is being given to the creation of a geography resource library where shared teaching resources could be stored and readily accessible to all of the geography teaching team. This development would enable the identification of resource needs and would facilitate planning for resource acquisition. The recent provision of information and communications technology (ICT) equipment along with school-based in-service for teachers in this area further support the subject.
In the junior cycle Geography is a compulsory subject and is allocated three class periods per week in each of the three years. Commendably, all first-year classes are of mixed ability. At senior cycle students’ geographical knowledge is extended by studying a half-year module on Environmental Studies within the Transition Year (TY) programme which is optional in the school. For the Established Leaving Certificate (ELC) Geography is an optional subject and is allocated five class periods per week, consisting of two double and one single class periods. This time allocation is in line with syllabus recommendations. Classes are of mixed ability, thus providing the widest possible choice for students in choosing the course level they wish to study for examination. Parents and students are effectively supported prior to making subject choices by the holding of an ‘open night’ and by receiving advice and support from the guidance counsellor and subject teachers. Every effort is made by school management to cater for students’ subject preferences and currently Geography is included in four of the option bands. The uptake of the subject for the Leaving Certificate is in a very healthy state.
Currently seven teachers deliver the geography programme in St Patrick’s College. They work collaboratively and form a clearly identifiable subject department. A subject co-ordinator is in place and the good practice of rotating this role amongst members of the department takes place. This is commended as it encourages shared responsibility and provides all teachers with the opportunity to lead their subject department. Teachers have availed of continuing professional development (CPD) by attending in-service in relation to the introduction of the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus, and school-organised CPD in relation to ICT and subject department planning. The provision of such school-based in-service is commended as it can be designed to meet the specific needs of individual schools.
Subject department planning is well established and is supported by the provision of formal planning time by school management three or four times in the school year. Informal planning takes place on an ongoing basis in discussions among teachers. Minutes of department meetings are kept, are included with the subject department plan and were made available during the evaluation. The subject plan contains a planned teaching programme for each year to be delivered within agreed timeframes. The plan also indicates that teachers have begun to consider teaching methodologies, resources and methods of assessment as well as curriculum content. This approach to curriculum planning is an effective way for delivering the geography syllabuses. In line with best practice the teaching plan has been reviewed. Amendments to the plan have been made in light of experience gained and to cater more effectively for the needs of students. This was evident in the amended teaching plan for first-year students where there is now less emphasis on teaching topics from physical geography. Consideration might be given to introducing key map and photograph skills early in first year, perhaps using large-scale maps and photographs of the local area. The plan also includes reference to the organisation and delivery of the geographical investigation for Leaving Certificate students and reference to agreed procedures for assessment of students’ progress, record keeping and reporting to parents.
Teachers have also begun to consider teaching methods to cater for the wide range of abilities present in their classes and to consider how to develop literacy and numeracy skills in their geography classes. During the evaluation it was evident from discussions with teachers that there is a strong desire amongst the members of the geography department to work collaboratively and to share their professional expertise. This collaborative approach will facilitate the development of a policy and practices in relation to the fuller integration of ICT into teaching and learning, and provision for students with special educational needs. Support for developing a policy on catering for students with special educational needs will be found in the documents: Learning-Support Guidelines published by the Department of Education and Science and Exceptionally Able Students, Draft Guidelines for Teachers published by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA).
A plan for the Environmental Studies module within the TY was provided during the evaluation. This plan is very much in keeping with the philosophy of the TY in that it identifies aims and objectives for the module as well as outlining knowledge to be acquired and skills to be developed. It makes reference to use of students’ ICT skills both for research and in making presentations. Reference was also made to methods of assessment and to the evaluation of the module in keeping with best practice. Consideration might be given to including a geographical investigation within this module as a means of further developing students’ geographical skills.
There was effective short-term planning by teachers for the lessons observed and in some instances teachers have begun to evaluate the effectiveness of such planning through reflective practice. All lessons had clear aims that were shared, in some instances, with students at the outset. The wider use of this good practice is encouraged. Some teachers provided detailed written individual lesson plans. The lessons observed were all set in the context of a planned wider unit of work and were in line with syllabus documents. In most cases teacher planning for lessons included the preparation of appropriate resources to support teaching and learning. In some instances teachers made folders of resources available that had been developed over a period of time. The development of such resources reflects a commitment to providing rich learning experiences for students and deserves to be acknowledged.
During the evaluation four classrooms were visited and high quality teaching was evident in the lessons observed. Topics being studied included: the desert biome, cities in the developing world, river rejuvenation, fluvial processes and resultant landforms. Teachers had established clear classroom routines and these helped to create appropriate conditions to support teaching and learning. Lessons began with a roll call, homework was monitored and corrected, and previous learning was recalled before new subject matter was introduced. Lessons concluded with the subject matter being recapped before homework relevant to the lesson was set and recorded by students in their journals.
Teachers used a variety of methods to enable students to understand and appreciate the topics being studied. These methods included: teacher exposition and demonstration, question-and-answer sessions between students and teacher, note taking by students, the setting of short student tasks, whole-class teaching, and the showing of a video with an accompanying worksheet. The use of the video clip came at a very appropriate time during the lesson observed and contributed significantly to maintaining students’ interest. The use of an appropriate teacher-generated worksheet helped to maximise the learning potential of the video and the provision of such supportive material is very good practice. It is commended that in some lessons students were provided with a ‘quiet time’ to write up notes or to reflect on newly presented subject matter. However, in some lessons there was an over-reliance on teacher input. Teachers should seek ways to extend their repertoire of teaching methodologies by seeking to provide more student-based activities in their lessons, such as the completion of short student tasks and the introduction of some pair or small group activities.
Teachers in St Patrick’s College have adopted a very visual approach to teaching Geography and, in the lessons observed, this contributed significantly to students’ engagement with and enjoyment of the subject. Particularly effective was a very innovative way of demonstrating the operation of plate tectonics and the effects of this on base levels of erosion using a glass jar with water and various materials. During the demonstration students were encouraged to suggest outcomes of various processes and to relate the effects of these changes on base levels of erosion. Geomorphic processes that are complex became readily understandable to students and their sense of wonder was obvious. Correct terminology was appropriately introduced and applied to the processes and their outcomes before the lesson concluded with a handout with these terms being provided to students. Teachers have begun to explore the learning potential of ICT. The display of photographs, statistical diagrams and key points in one lesson observed provided variety in the learning process and the photograph, in particular, made it clear to students what life is like in a city in the developing world, thus catering for their affective education. Photographs and the provision of an appropriate worksheet could also be used as a means of introducing pair work to lessons. These would provide further variety in the teaching methodology and would encourage students to work together and to learn from each other. Diagrams drawn on the whiteboard were used to explain subject matter to students. The gradual development and build up of the diagrams make clear the sequential development of geographical features. However, care should be taken not to allow the diagram to become too complex and sometimes a sequence of separate diagrams could make understanding clearer to students.
To support students with special educational needs in geography classes, differentiated strategies are used during questioning and when students answer past examination questions. To build on these good practices it is recommended that formal links be established between the geography teaching team and the learning support department. The geography teaching team could provide lists of key terms and revision plans to the learning support department while the learning support department could advise on appropriate strategies for differentiation. The display of key geographical terms in class rooms would also support students’ learning. Lesson summaries, provided in some lessons, are another means of scaffolding students’ learning.
In all of the classrooms visited a positive, supportive and mutually respectful atmosphere was evident. Students, who were addressed by their first name, were invited by their teachers to seek clarification of points under discussion to which they frequently responded. Students willingly participated in the planned learning activities and responded positively when asked to answer questions or to express opinions. As evidenced by their interactions with their teachers students were knowledgeable about previously studied topics and were able to use their knowledge to offer explanations for geographical phenomena under discussion. Students also demonstrated appropriate geographical skills when statistical diagrams were introduced into lessons. Teachers encouraged the development of the higher-order thinking skills of analysis and synthesis through very careful questioning. Phrases such as ‘can you imagine?’ and questions ‘why?’ and ‘where?’ were commonplace in the lessons observed. Students were also encouraged to use the language appropriate to Geography. As new terms were introduced they were clearly explained, often written on the whiteboard and then used throughout the lesson. This good practice makes an important contribution to developing students’ literacy skills.
Teachers have used the provision of base classrooms as an opportunity to display maps, photographs and posters and in some instances work by students. This has helped to create a map-rich and print-rich environment designed to stimulate students’ interest in Geography. Maps were used in some lessons to show the location of geographical features and this is good practice. As a means of adding further to visual impact in classrooms and as a means of establishing a clear link between the topics being studied and current events, it is recommended that classrooms have a GeoNews notice board where maps, photographs and articles from the print-media could be displayed. Students should be encouraged to contribute to such displays as a means of further engaging them with the subject and such material could provide valuable teaching resources. Support materials provided during the evaluation will provide exemplars for this initiative.
Teachers use a range of methods to assess students’ progress. Some of these methods were evident during lessons observed and included questions directed to named students, the setting, correction and monitoring of homework and the holding of class tests on completion of sections of the course. Formal assessments are held for third-year students and sixth-year students in October and these students sit pre-examinations in the second term. Other students sit formal examinations at Christmas and at the end of the school year. Reports are issued to parents after each formal assessment. Parents are informed of students’ progress through the use of the students’ journal and at formal parent-teacher meetings held annually for each year group. Some ‘assessment for learning’ principles are used to provide feedback to students when they have completed the geographical investigation for the Leaving Certificate and when students answer past examination questions. In some instances, notably within the TY and when students answer past examination questions, self and peer review methods of assessment are also used to provide opportunities for students to improve the quality of their answering techniques. These good practices should be documented and recorded in the subject department plan and their wider use is encouraged. The range of assessment methods could be extended to include small-scale project work that would encourage students to develop as independent learners.
During the evaluation a sample of students’ copybooks was examined. Students, in a number of classes were provided with an outline of the planned teaching programme and this was included in their copybooks. The good practice of having separate copybooks for notes and homework was praiseworthy. While some copybooks showed high quality written work with subject matter presented in a logical order, neatly drawn diagrams and clear headings, there is scope for greater support and direction for some students. The members of the geography teaching team are encouraged to develop a policy directed at improving the quality of students’ written work as a means of supporting their learning.
Results obtained by students in the certificate examinations are analysed by teachers. A very high percentage of students take the higher level papers in both the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate examinations. This positive indicator of student engagement with Geography reflects the high aspirations of both students and teachers in St Patrick’s College.
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 Geography 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