An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
Cavan, County Cavan
Roll number: 61070P
Date of inspection: 7 October 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Geography
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Loreto 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 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. 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.
Loreto College is an all-girls voluntary secondary school under the trusteeship of the Loreto Education Trust. The programmes on offer in the school include the Junior Certificate, the Transition Year (TY), the established Leaving Certificate and the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP). It has a current enrolment of six hundred and ninety-one students.
There is very good provision and whole-school support for the organisation, teaching and learning of Geography in Loreto College. The school has a dedicated geography room where a wide range of resources is stored and teachers are provided with base classrooms. It is suggested that a more detailed inventory of resources be maintained so as to include for example, details of Ordnance Survey (OS) maps and photographs. As worksheets and other teacher-generated resources are developed these could be added to a shared folder on the school’s computer system. This would provide an opportunity for teachers to share their professional expertise. The school has a weather station located on the grounds and weather recordings are fed into national weather statistics and are also displayed in the school. This provides students with an opportunity to gain practical experience in the use of weather instruments.
In the junior cycle Geography is part of the school’s core curriculum and is allocated three single class periods per week in each of the three years. The subject is appropriately timetabled and lessons are well spread throughout the week. Geography is included within the optional TY and it is allocated two single class periods per week for the year. For the Leaving Certificate Geography is an optional subject where it is allocated five class periods per week, consisting of three single and one double class periods. This allocation is in line with syllabus recommendations. Students are presented with an open choice of subjects prior to option bands being generated. The school has a range of effective measures in place to support students and parents in making informed educational choices in relation to subject choice. The uptake of the subject has increased and is in a healthy state. All classes are taught in mixed-ability settings.
Five teachers deliver the geography teaching programme in Loreto College and they are all subject specialists. Teachers work collaboratively with one teacher acting as subject co-ordinator and this role will be rotated amongst the members of the department.
School management is committed to encouraging continuing professional development (CPD) for teachers both in relation to Geography and to whole-school issues. In the current school year there is a focus on assessment for learning (AfL) and in-service was provided in late August 2009. It is planned that in April 2010 the learning support teachers will provide input to the whole staff on how to use AfL principles to benefit students with special educational needs. CPD has been provided by the Second Level Support Service (SLSS) and by the learning support department of Loreto College in relation to teaching strategies for students with special educational needs. Teachers are made aware of the learning needs of students by the learning support co-ordinator and the geography teachers also refer students to the learning support department when needs arise. These good practices reflect the school’s commitment to cater for the needs of all its students.
During the evaluation it was evident that the school supports a number of co-curricular activities that give expression to some of the aims of the geography syllabuses. These include engagement with the Green-Schools Programme, the Young Environmentalists and a litter patrol is operated by the students. Waste is segregated in the school canteen and in the staff room and members of the geography department liaise with teachers from other subject areas to increase environmental awareness. These efforts resulted in Loreto College being awarded its first Green Flag last spring. The redevelopment of an open courtyard with seating and replanting is a striking feature of the school. As a means of developing further this co-curricular interest the geography teachers should consider taking part in the ‘Globe Programme’ where they could provide the weather recordings into a global network of schools.
Subject department planning is well established in Loreto College. Minutes of geography department meetings dating back to 2006 provided evidence that teachers are working collaboratively to plan, monitor and review the teaching programme. A revised teaching programme for first-year students for the current school year includes the introduction of map reading and photograph interpretation skills. This is most appropriate as these key geographical skills can be further developed by being integrated across the rest of the planned teaching programme. This work is facilitated by the provision of formal planning time by school management once per term and by the work of the subject co-ordinator. Informal planning takes place on an ongoing basis as teachers discuss issues as they arise.
A detailed subject department plan has been developed by the collaborative efforts of the geography teaching team. This plan refers to the school’s mission statement, and aims and objectives for the geography department. It also contains a planned teaching programme for all years, set out by year, term and themes for junior cycle classes and by curriculum content and timeframes for Leaving Certificate classes. There is a clear and appropriate emphasis on the development of key geographical skills, notably by introducing first-year students to using an atlas to develop their knowledge of place geography. Further review of the planned teaching programme for first-year students should include the introduction of large-scale Ordnance Survey (OS) maps and photographs of the local area. Teachers are encouraged to develop further the long-term curriculum plan for the subject by looking at learning outcomes linked to curriculum content, timeframes, resources, teaching methods and assessment. The plan contains information on students with special educational needs and the school’s learning support policy. There is also guidance for geography teachers in relation to classroom management.
A plan for the geography module within the TY was provided and it is in a state of development. Unit one, delivered during September, focused on students researching their family tree. This will facilitate the development of important research and presentation skills and this is most appropriate for students in TY. Unit two to be delivered in October and November will concentrate on map and photograph skills. The plan states that students’ progress in unit two will be assessed using past-examination questions. It is recommended that an appropriate way of using and developing these skills would be by carrying out a geographical investigation. This would encourage students to develop an investigative and exploratory approach to the subject. A list of suitable topics and sites with suggested hypotheses to be tested during fieldwork is included in the subject department plan and this could be a starting point for planning a geographical investigation. The geography teaching team could work collaboratively, using this information as a basis for planning an appropriate study for students. Any developments in TY should maintain a clear distinction between the content and methodologies of the Leaving Certificate and the TY.
Planning and preparation by teachers for all of the lessons observed was of a very high standard. The lessons in almost all cases formed part of a large unit of work had clear aims and the good practice of sharing the aims of the lesson was evident in most of the classrooms visited. Best practice was observed where the teacher shared the planned learning outcomes for the lesson and wrote these on the whiteboard. Planned learning outcomes should not be too numerous and are best expressed in very specific terms. To further build on these good practices teachers are encouraged to write a list of three or four very specific learning objectives and to tick off the list as each outcome is reached. A good sense of progress will then be achieved by both students and teacher.
Teaching and learning in almost all lessons was supported by teacher-generated resources. Resources used included rock samples, worksheets, maps shown on the overhead projector, video with accompanying worksheet and supplementary textual material. Providing students with a worksheet to complete while watching a video is good practice as this can help to ensure that students are actively involved and do not become passive spectators.
In all of the lessons observed there was a positive, affirming and mutually respectful atmosphere as teachers and students were engaged in teaching and learning. Students were addressed by their first name and willingly engaged in the planned learning activities. Clear classroom routines were evident in almost all of the classrooms visited. Lessons began with a roll call, homework was corrected, previously learned subject matter was recalled through focused questioning before new subject matter was introduced and lessons concluded with homework being assigned. This provided a secure environment that facilitated teaching and learning.
High quality teaching was evident in all of the lessons observed as teachers used a variety of methods to engage students in the learning process. Best practice was observed when there was a good balance between teacher exposition and student activity. Teacher exposition was clear and lessons were appropriately paced. Students were encouraged to develop higher-order thinking skills when teachers used questioning to encourage students to elaborate on their answers, to make judgements and to offer explanations for geographical phenomena. For example, ‘can you explain that?’ or ‘why not?’ encouraged students to reflect on their knowledge.
Teaching was particularly effective when teachers used ICT which was supported by the use of well-designed worksheets. In one lesson students were dealing with the topic of overpopulation and were using the internet site ‘World Clock’ to explore the topic with the aid of a teacher-generated worksheet which contained a set of appropriate questions. As the inspector moved around the room it was evident that students were very competent in their ability to access and to navigate their way around the site to find the information required. There was an obvious sense of enjoyment as students completed some of the set tasks. This investigative and exploratory approach to learning is very good practice and makes effective use of ICT as a teaching strategy. In another lesson students were provided with rock samples. This first hand experience by students is an effective way to helping them to understand the classification and formation of rocks.
Teachers have adopted a visual approach to teaching the geography programme. The use of video clips, wall maps and maps shown on the overhead projector stimulated students’ interest and facilitated their understanding of geographic events and concepts. In a lesson observed a ‘mind map’ of the topic under discussion was developed on the whiteboard through focused questioning of students. This visual representation of the topic was then copied by students into their notes. The provision of such ‘quiet time’ is good practice as it allows students time to reflect on subject matter. There was very effective use of a video clip on the effects of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake in another classroom visited. A very well-designed worksheet was provided to students who were given time to read the questions prior to viewing the video. The number of questions included was sufficient to exploit the learning potential of the video while at the same time allowing time for students to engage with the images and to appreciate the scale of the damage. This was followed by a discussion of the answers by teacher and students where information was checked and further issues elaborated upon. This carefully planned and skilfully executed use of visual material is a model of good practice.
Students displayed a very good knowledge of their courses and willingly engaged in discussions with their teachers and the inspector. They were able to use correct geographical terminology and were able to apply their knowledge to real world settings. Their knowledge of previously learned subject matter was also evident as homework was corrected.
The display of maps, charts, materials from the print-media and students’ project work created a stimulating learning environment in some of the classrooms visited. The display of students’ work is an important way to acknowledge and celebrate students’ efforts and its wider use is encouraged. In one lesson observed students had brought to class photographs showing the devastating effects of an earthquake. This played an important role in stimulating students’ interest and helped to establish a link between their study of Geography and current events. The use of a noticeboard in classrooms or in the corridor dedicated to ‘GeoNews’ would be an important means of stimulating interest in the subject and of helping students realise how their study of Geography could be used to explain and understand issues and events occurring outside the classroom. Students should be encouraged to take responsibility for keeping this notice board up to date.
Teachers are made aware of students with special educational needs by the learning support co-ordinator. The geography teachers can also refer students for learning support when the need arises. In many instances; these students were supported by being provided with differentiated worksheets and by the use of appropriate questioning by teachers. Students were also given individual attention during group work. New terms were introduced into lessons, were clearly explained and students were encouraged to use these in responding to teachers’ questions. In one classroom lists of key words were displayed and in some copybooks students were keeping lists of key geographical terms. These good practices help students to develop their knowledge of key geographical terms and their wider use is encouraged. Students for whom English is an additional language should be encouraged to build up a glossary of key geographical terms. This should be done by teachers providing a list of a few key words used in lessons and assigning homework which would require them to use a dictionary and write a translation of the term in their first language. Resources provided during the evaluation will support this development.
Clear structures are in place to support students in maintaining accurate records of their written work. In junior-cycle classes students have a hard back copybook for keeping their notes and use a soft back copybook for homework. In the senior cycle students use a folder in which to keep a record of their work. This is admirable and encourages students to take pride in the quality of their written work. Well-kept notes will also prove to be a valuable revision aid when preparing for assessments. The quality of students’ written work was impressive and reflects the high standards set and the high expectations of their teachers. The inclusion of marks for the quality of written work in school assessments takes place in some instances and its wider use is encouraged.
Homework is regularly assigned, monitored and in some instances students were provided with constructive feedback by their teacher. Feedback was particularly evident were students had answered past examination questions. The use of assessment for learning principles is in keeping with best practice and with the school’s CPD programme. Student progress is also assessed through questioning during lessons and by holding class tests when sections of the planned teaching programme are completed. Teachers maintain records of attendance, homework and class tests. These are used to inform discussions at parent-teacher meetings which are held annually for each year group.
Formal assessments are held at Christmas and at the end of the summer term. Third year and sixth year students sit pre-examinations in the second term. Reports are issued to parents following formal assessments. The uptake of higher-level papers in both the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate examinations is very good, reflecting the high expectations of the geography teachers. An analysis of results obtained in the certificate examinations can provide useful information to teachers in relation to learning outcomes and to facilitate future planning. It is therefore recommended that the geography teaching team analyses the learning outcomes achieved by students in the certificate examinations.
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 principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published March 2010