An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Saint Brendan’s College
Killarney, County Kerry
Roll number: 61320M
Date of inspection: 24 and 25 April 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St. Brendan’s College. 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 to the 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.
As a voluntary secondary school, St. Brendan’s College Killarney offers History as a core subject in junior cycle. This is commendably in line with Department guidelines. All classes have History timetabled for two single periods per week. These are generally well spread across the timeslots and days of the week. However, it is pointed out that completion of the Junior Certificate history course in two periods per week in each year at junior cycle is a major challenge. The school is urged to investigate any means available to bring the time provision for junior History closer to an average of three periods per week in each year. It was not entirely clear during the inspection whether the current difficulty is contributed to by an overall shortfall in weekly timetable provision, but it is reiterated that current time allocation for junior History is in need of urgent review. Circumstances have also arisen where classes have changed teachers from second year going into third year quite regularly and it is strongly advised that this is not best practice in seeking to maintain continuity of subject delivery.
In turning to senior cycle, there is no Transition Year (TY) at the school. Prior to fifth year, students are asked to select their preferred senior-cycle subjects from the full range available. Following individual discussions with the school’s guidance counsellor and an information night for parents, students make their choices. These are then built into option blocks, with the school reporting an approximate satisfaction level of 95% among students seeking to do their preferred subjects. In some years, demand for History has resulted in two class groups being formed, one in each of two option blocks, while in other years History has merited just one class group. Uptake levels have generally been healthy, although it is noted that a slight fall-off in recent years has been reported. This may coincide with the introduction of the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) at the school, as this programme nationally continues to exclude History and Geography from the designated Vocational Subject Groupings. Maintaining healthy uptake levels in senior History should remain a priority of the subject department, and also of management in seeking to ensure the retention of the school’s broad-based curriculum into the future.
Turning to broader supports, the school does not have a library but students seeking to undertake Leaving Certificate research studies in History can readily avail of a substantial branch library, located literally at the end of the road. While there is no designated history room per se, it is general school policy to allocate base rooms to teachers as far as possible. This has been supportive to the teaching of History, with most teachers’ rooms visited being well equipped with overhead projectors or information and communication technology (ICT), and having good subject-relevant wall displays and book storage areas. Management is very optimistic that a significant roll out of ICT to support teaching and learning in the classroom will be feasible in the coming years, complementing the broadband access and networking work which has already been facilitated. It is important that the opportunities which present themselves therein for History be seized upon. Management is also applauded for its support of teachers’ attendance at Leaving Certificate History in-service sessions in recent years.
The school has engaged in formal subject department planning in recent years. The school development planning initiative (SDPI) template on subject planning has provided a framework for planning to date but the subject department is commended for its honest appraisal of the work which remains to be done in this context. It is commendable that a subject co-ordinator has been appointed, and offered for consideration that the rotation of this position among all interested teachers over time would be a good means of sharing the workload and upskilling everyone in departmental planning. It is planned to have a number of meetings during school planning sessions each year, and this is commended. Some minutes of a previous meeting have been seen and the clarity and honesty of these is commendable and worth persevering with in future subject-planning meetings. The department has also given some consideration to identifying resources which might be accessed for History within budgetary constraints, and this is further commended.
In terms of recommendations for future departmental planning, it is suggested that a focus on sharing aims, objectives, learning outcomes and ideas in teaching and learning among department members is deserving of inclusion on future meeting agendas. As the planned ICT roll-out comes to fruition, the development of a school intranet system to accommodate pooled visual and text-based resources in an easily-accessed form is worthy of increased focus as well. Naturally, and as resources such as periodicals or books become part of the department’s stock, the development of a list or catalogue of such resources would be of use to all teachers. The ongoing monitoring of student performance in State examinations, including higher and ordinary-level uptake levels compared to national norms is another logical activity for the subject department to engage in as time allows each year. Given the historic nature of Killarney and its environs, the development of more links with local historical sites and resources is also worthy of departmental consideration. If practicable, some exploration of cross-curricular possibilities with English might be considered, as the range of important speeches relevant to the documents topic in Leaving Certificate which might also be productively studied under the ‘language of persuasion’ heading in English could be useful resources to both subjects. Lastly, as there is a fine local branch of the History Teachers Association of Ireland (HTAI) in the area, it is strongly urged that teachers become members of the HTAI. This would provide a further support to collaborative planning and to history teaching generally.
At individual levels, most teachers showed a fine awareness of the value of planning and preparation. Some presented outline plans for lessons, with instances of excellent strategies for differentiation between levels, while most had a clear structured approach to the coverage of the syllabus, especially where the available time posed something of a challenge. Some judicious decisions have had to be made about how much of the course can be covered in the time available, especially in third year. In some other junior classes, it has been pointed out that too little time had been given to cover material adequately in planning or actual classroom contexts and that a review of the time allocated to students working on their own was needed. This has been accepted. Good individual planning also allowed for including a range of student learning activities into some lessons and included the preparation of handouts, PowerPoint presentations and acetate equivalents in different classes. Most teachers presented substantial folders of resources that had been developed by them or in collaboration with colleagues over time. This is applauded. Planning for the display of student work in some classrooms has also been applauded as a good support to engagement with History.
In most lessons observed, a positive and productive classroom atmosphere obtained from the outset and all through. Teacher-student rapport in these situations was relaxed but purposeful, with everyone settling down to work following roll calls or other introductory procedures. Occasionally, recommendations have been made about how seating arrangements and simple instructions could assist in developing a more positive environment from the start of the lesson. In most cases, issues like desk layout, classroom decoration and the availability of resources and equipment were very well factored into the development of purposeful lesson delivery. In most lessons, teachers gave good outlines of the lesson aims and objectives, sometimes on the board for added reinforcement, and this is applauded.
Most lessons proceeded in a productive fashion, with good teacher-student rapport and the use by teachers of clear, student-friendly language in explanations being at the core of such progression. Some important recommendations about the management of student behaviour have been discussed following individual lessons but the generality of lessons observed had no such problems. Questioning was generally used very effectively in lessons too, as a means of gauging students’ learning and also of moving issues forward. At times, it has been suggested that slightly more emphasis on posing questions to students who are reluctant to put their hands up might be considered but generally this was not a difficulty. In some lessons, a greater emphasis was placed on students taking action, such as engaging in pair or group work, or taking part in short role playing tasks. These are applauded as strategies which promote good student engagement.
Most teaching observed included very productive use of resources, particularly with a view to helping students with the visualisation of places and people, or the analysis of textual resources. Both data projectors and overhead projectors were very effectively deployed in lessons, with screen-based text being generally very readable and written in student-friendly language. Commendably, in one room where sunshine made screen-viewing difficult, the teacher had prepared to counteract this difficulty by distributing handouts based on the screen text as well, which is commended. Excellent map displays were shown to classes, ranging from ones relating to Cold War Europe to the Cuban Crisis, while political cartoons given on handouts also were accompanied by excellent teacher advice on how to analyse such historical sources. While some recommendations have been made in individual lessons about the need to use the whiteboard to highlight key terms or events for students, in most classes this was done automatically. In one context, the use of clearly defined board columns to accommodate feedback from group work was an excellent visual support to student learning. On another occasion, very good visual linkage was achieved between a wall-mounted poster and the Kennedy-Johnson era in US history.
Some very good strategies, designed to build on students’ interest and engagement, were observed. Anecdotes relating to topics as varied as local workhouses and the origins of the Raffeissen movement brought Famine history to life for students. Students’ interest in sport and awareness of current affairs were also tapped into successfully to raise engagement. The origins of the name ‘Parnell Park’ and the links between historic and modern US government positions were well employed in this way. In some lessons, in-class activities featured strongly. Excellent group work and role-playing tasks around the key decisions to be made in the Cuban Crisis, imaginative depictions of the concept of an ‘iron curtain’ linked to differentiated student source tasks, debates on hawk-dove approaches to diplomacy and lively discussions of the merits of political rhetoric were all engaged in productively in different lessons. In a number of instances, students were pushed to revisit preconceptions or to use higher-order thinking skills around the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of History, which is richly applauded. Occasional recommendations towards augmenting such good work have included: the reading aloud by students, rather than by a teacher, of documentary material and placing the onus on students to identify the parts of a text which should be highlighted, rather than doing so by teacher direction. These are generally seen as good means of measuring student understanding and are worthy of wider consideration.
Linked to engagement strategies, good work was done in most lessons to ensure student retention. Very good explanations and a focus on key learning targets were the norm, as was regular questioning around the topics covered. It has been recommended that the interweaving of such strategies with a little more emphasis on board summaries, perhaps to include mind mapping, and particularly with student note-making of key points would aid retention further. Similarly, where handouts have been distributed, as was the norm in most lessons observed, it is suggested that the good practice seen in one instance of students maintaining files of such handouts could be extended across the department as an aid to student retention and revision. Handouts which linked to student activities, such as ‘before’ and ‘after’ templates to be completed on the Famine or Cuban Crisis decision making can be particularly valuable revision aids and their deployment as such is also applauded.
One of the positive moves taken at departmental level in recent times has been active engagement with the idea of common assessment, including end-of-year examinations for first-year and second-year history classes. This is a very sensible move, not least in the context of the mixed-ability nature of classes generally, as a means of gauging student levels in relation to their peers and can save valuable teacher preparation time into the bargain. This policy fits well into the overall school assessment structures, where classes sit formal examinations at Christmas and in summer, if not sitting State examinations. State-examination classes have mock examinations in the spring instead of summer examinations, before sitting the State examinations in June. All year groups have annual parent-teacher meetings.
It is recommended that consideration be given to strengthening the homework policy in junior History particularly. With just two periods per week at present, the relatively new homework policy in this subject, which recommends one written homework task per week, is in need of reconsideration as homework can be an obvious means of offsetting some of the difficulties created by limited class-contact time. Where students are given written tasks, it is advisable also that the number of points required be specified. Some homework monitoring observed became rather entangled with new lesson content before it was completed; it is best to complete homework monitoring before moving onto new material in class, as a rule. In other cases, some very thorough written correction of student work was noted and applauded. In addition, some very good assessment strategies in individual lessons have been applauded, and included template completion and source-based questions, which are wholly appropriate to assessment in History. In general policy review, consideration might also be given to how homework assignment and monitoring or correction can assist students in their learning also. The deployment of junior cycle significant relevant statement (SRS) marking strategies, and Leaving Certificate style schemes in tandem with occasional commentary on work ought to be given consideration as structured supports to assessment of and for learning.
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, October 2008