An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
North Monastery Secondary School
North Monastery Road, Cork
Roll number: 62530F
Date of inspection: 5-6 December 2007
Date of issue of report: 17 April 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in the North Monastery. 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.
There are a number of very positive features about whole-school provision for History in the North Monastery. The move in recent years to teacher-based classrooms, particularly as all history teachers have been provided with their own base rooms, is applauded. In some instances, this has allowed teachers to develop substantial amounts of visual stimuli and resources in their rooms, while in other instances this is a work in progress. As a base and relatively inexpensive starting point, it is suggested that all rooms in which History is taught could benefit from having maps of Ireland, Europe and the World on display, as the number of times such visual material can and should be employed in teaching junior History is certainly significant. Teachers are applauded for the active consideration they have given to this suggestion. While the base classrooms are not currently equipped with information and communications technology (ICT), the school has a fine array of ICT equipment and one challenge ahead will be to assess how such potentially supportive technology can best be incorporated into teaching and learning within the classrooms including, naturally, the history classrooms.
In terms of other supports, the school is commended for having a good stock of history books in its library. These are somewhat dispersed across sections on sport, engineering and others, as well as in the core history section, but there is no doubt that they provide a very good resource, particularly for Leaving Certificate research study. Some recommendations have been made, again relatively inexpensive ones, on the potential augmentation of such history resources via subscription to some history periodicals. There is no fixed budget for History, or for other subjects, but the principal has given assurances that reasonable resource requests can be met. This is satisfactory. It is also noted that the school is willing to pay the membership fee required for teachers to become members of the History Teachers Association of Ireland (HTAI) and this is again applauded. Given the magnificent history of the North Monastery itself, the copious displays of past sporting successes and a wonderful collage dedicated to past students who achieved fame in a host of fields, including one as Taoiseach, also greatly enhance the sense of historical appreciation around the corridors. The value of this should never be underestimated.
As North Monastery is a voluntary secondary school, all junior classes appropriately have History as part of their core curriculum. Within the long-standing class allocation system in the school, it is noted that some classes, specifically the ‘R’ and ‘K’ groups in each year, have three single periods of forty-five minutes each per week. This is good provision. However, of more concern is the fact that the ‘M’ and ‘W’ classes, so called because these classes take either Metalwork or Woodwork (using the historical subject names in this instance), have an allocation of just two periods of History per week in each junior year. This is anomalous and certainly the time allotted to History in these classes presents a major challenge to coverage of the course. A review of this system is urged, as the addition of a subject to some classes and not to others, as opposed to their integration into a broader options structure, must impact on time provision not only for History but for a number of other subjects as well. The result, in History-specific terms, of this form of streaming is that some students are attempting to cover the same course as others in effectively two thirds of the time. It is undeniable that this places additional pressures on teachers and students and must impact negatively on higher-level uptake in the ‘M’ and ‘W’ classes over time. In some instances, classes have their weekly timetable provision for History on consecutive days, leaving large gaps between the last history period one week and the first the following week. This should be avoided if at all possible in future timetabling.
It is good to note that the school has reintroduced a Transition Year (TY) option to its curriculum in recent years. Of obvious concern, however, is the fact that there is currently no History or historical studies element in this programme at the North Monastery. This was provided for in a previous incarnation of the TY programme and should be reintroduced if at all practicable. The massive local historical material available around the school locale, from the lives of past students like Frank O’Connor to the Butter Market, Shandon, places associated with the War of Independence and so on are ideal material for a TY history module. It is also important to bear in mind that possibly even more student-friendly local issues, such as sports history and popular culture, could also be integrated into such a history programme. Again, the accomplishments of past students ranging from Rory Gallagher to Jack Lynch provide rich opportunities in such areas. Some other TY ideas in History can be accessed via www.transitionyear.ie and are certainly recommended for consideration should the school be in a position to reintroduce a TY history module. In terms of other programmes at the school, it is good to note that the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme does not have its link modules placed opposite History on the timetable. While the school does not currently offer either the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) or the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA), it is pointed out that History can play a very meaningful part in the JCSP and that local studies, as previously discussed, can feed very well into contemporary issues work in the LCA. This point is made for guidance purposes, should the school find itself in a position to consider such additional programme supports to students in time.
Leaving Certificate provision for History is very satisfactory. An open subject choice is offered to students in advance of fifth year and those who wish to study History are given every reasonable opportunity to do so. The present sixth-year class eventually chose History from an option line which also contained Business, Geography and Chemistry. Of these, the more popular subjects, Business and Geography, were offered in a second option line as well, which is applauded. The present fifth-year numbers opting for History were substantial, with the result that two history classes have been created. This is very encouraging. In fifth year, the option band also contained Business, Biology and Technical Drawing, again with the popular Business and Biology on in other blocks as well. Such a system is supportive of student choice and certainly is supportive of History also.
Very clear planning was evident in the approach taken by all teachers within the classes observed, evidenced by factors like the review of previous work, questioning, handouts and other supports. While all teachers had clear lesson structures in mind, some presented outline written plans for yearly and termly work while others did not. It is recommended that such planning be documented, as it facilitates a more common approach to work with different year groups and also can be a valuable support to any trainee or substitute teachers who might form part of the history-teaching team from time to time. On the positive side, even without written planning, it was evident in all lessons that teachers were cognisant of what needed to be covered and had factored into the equation how many periods per week the relevant classes had for course coverage. Where teachers had developed handouts for students’ use, this has been applauded, particularly as the handouts seen were stimulating and clearly focused on engaging students and assisting learning. It is important to develop parallel strategies to ensure that students retain such handout materials over the duration of the particular syllabus, making it advisable that folders or stapling of handouts to copybooks be actively considered to ensure such retention. The school operates a very successful book rental scheme, facilitating planning for student work, although there is an anomalous situation in one group at present because the textbook they have is not the one covering the topics being studied. This will undoubtedly be resolved soon.
The school generally has not been in a position to make significant progress on the issue of departmental planning in recent years. In looking to the future, it is important, not least for teachers themselves, that a culture of departmental support be developed over time and there is no reason why this cannot be given consideration sooner rather than later. It is anticipated that time for planning on a subject basis will be made later in the current academic year and this is certainly to be encouraged. Should such planning time be available, it is recommended that initial steps ought to include the appointment of a history convenor, preferably to rotate annually so that no one is overburdened. The template provided by the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) can provide a good background to assist with the development of a subject plan for History, perhaps to include outline plans of work, records of student achievement, lists of resources and other matters. It is recommended that minutes be taken at any subject meetings organised and that any issues identified as relevant to the teaching and learning of History, and which in-school management can help to address, ought to be brought to its attention. It remains essential that any moves in subject planning retain as their core aim the enhancement of teaching and learning by collaboration and mutual support; the ultimate aim of subject planning should see the sharing of ideas and resources to make life easier for teachers, not more difficult.
If it becomes possible to implement some of the general recommendations above in relation to subject planning, other opportunities may then present themselves. Again, it is emphasised that such work needs time and should retain an emphasis on supporting the work done in the classroom rather than necessarily creating more paperwork for teachers. Given that at least three of the four class groups in any junior year group contain a mixture of higher and ordinary level students, it is also worth considering the development of at least a portion of their end-of-term or end-of-year assessments as a common element. This could greatly assist students in deciding whether taking a higher-level paper in the Junior Certificate might be appropriate or not. One teacher is currently active in the HTAI but the school’s willingness to fund HTAI membership for teachers is also deserving of consideration by any other members of the history team who have a significant number of classes in the subject. The attendance by senior history teachers at the relevant in-service training provided by the History In-Service Team (HIST) is applauded. As a final point for future consideration, it would be an excellent support to all teachers if one of the current team were to be facilitated in attending training in ICT use in History, with a view to assisting colleagues in enhancing the opportunities presented by the school’s current equipment levels and also the fact that teachers now have their own base rooms.
The previously mentioned provision of teacher-based classrooms has undoubtedly been a support to teaching and learning at the school, particularly as all teachers of History have their own rooms. Some rooms have been enhanced with subject-specific materials and displays more than others but in all instances, the sense of ownership of the classroom was undoubtedly a support to teaching. In all classes visited, teachers gave clear and simple directions to students relating to matters like seating arrangements, coats and books, and dealt with students in a friendly but firm manner when required. Desk arrangements ensured that all students had clear sightlines to the board and that teachers were able to move around the room and down the aisles as they saw fit. This is good, practical planning for classroom activity. Occasionally, the absence of blinds made it slightly more challenging for the board to be seen easily and teachers have been careful to adapt to this, although ideally the restoration of blinds to south-facing classrooms is desirable.
In the combination of classes observed during the inspection, it was clear that quite a deal of ability, attention and attendance ranges were being dealt with in the course of lessons. With this in mind, teachers deserve great credit for the manner in which they engaged students and worked with them through all lessons. Teachers were universally patient and supportive, and were rewarded with good levels of attentiveness and engagement by almost all students. Some teaching observed relied very successfully on dramatic presentation styles while variation in methodology, the introduction of colourful anecdotes, questions and modern-day parallels all helped considerably in the teaching and learning of History.
Questioning was quite a central arm of the lesson development observed. It was used by most teachers to review what had been learnt in previous lessons before moving on to new material. Occasionally, such questioning included a handout to be worked on as teachers monitored the homework done for the lesson. This was effective, as the regular monitoring and dating of homework is a good support to students. In several instances, where half-answers or incorrect answers were offered, teachers expertly got students to elaborate on their initial responses, thus encouraging deeper thinking and greater accuracy. In some instances, a need to mix questions more evenly, in order to ensure that students who are slow to raise their hands are also brought into the answering process, has been recommended. An excellent variation on questioning was observed where a student had been assigned to give a short presentation to his classmates on his ‘life’ as a historical personage and he was then quizzed quite thoroughly by his classmates. The student was subsequently rewarded with a small prize.
Strategies where the result of questioning of students was the development by the teacher of lists of key words or, in some instances, of mind map diagrams on Roman slavery or sets of information about 19th century Irish political proposals on the board, were again very effective. It has also been suggested that bringing students to the board in quick succession in order to get them to identify the key points or words in the material being studied can be helpful in placing the onus for their own learning on the students. Interrogative strategies were particularly valuable where students were encouraged to make notes for themselves based on what had been developed. In one instance, short reading tasks were used to prompt students in the direction of identifying key points, as an alternative to questioning, while on another occasion short summary points were given after the questioning process had revealed a number of important issues for understanding and retention. Emphasising the need for students to help themselves via note taking is a valuable support to learning and deserves to be deployed in all classes, even in instances where some students may have forgotten their copybooks, as happened on occasions.
The use of the board to highlight some of the learning outcomes derived from questioning was complemented to a degree by its parallel use in developing visual stimuli to introduce new material. Drawings of house types in mid 19th century Ireland were wonderfully simple reinforcements of the different social strata in the period. On some occasions, teachers made use of wall maps to demonstrate, for example, the size of the USSR or the location of the Gaelic areas in post-plantation Ireland, again to good effect because students were presented with visual reinforcement of an otherwise-verbal message. Some very stimulating visual materials were also introduced via handout, with students asked to respond to extracts from the celebrated ‘Horrible Histories’ series, although more text-based handouts were also successfully deployed. In mixed-ability situations or in classes of lower ability, the deployment of visual stimuli is an important further weapon in ensuring students’ understanding, engagement and retention. This is a further reason for a previous recommendation around the use of the school’s ICT equipment, whether data projectors or potentially just as useful but less complex overhead projectors, to enhance the visual emphasis. Such equipment has the added advantage of allowing teachers to maintain a watching brief over the class while presenting visual or textual material to students.
Significant efforts were made by teachers to make History relevant for students. Latin terms were often compared to modern words in order to engage and assist students dealing with ancient Roman topics. Similarly, very good explanation of potentially difficult concepts for young students was given, such as the size of an acre in a plantation being compared to the school yard. Frequently, teachers drew parallels for students between historical material and present-day issues, with items as varied as Roman Abramovich, modern Iran and Ian Paisley all being drawn upon to help explain historical events and concepts. The telling of an anecdote about the history of Bandon as a plantation town, or the showing and analysis of a short extract from a film about Rome were other examples of teaching focusing well on the need to make History interesting and engaging for students.
In most instances, while students were engaged, it was also made appropriately clear to them what the core material needed, for example, for tackling higher-level or ordinary-level examination papers would be, with a particularly good focus with senior students in identifying the significance of issues relating to case studies, key personalities or other features of the revised syllabus. It has been suggested that in cases where the majority of students are likely to sit ordinary-level examination papers ultimately, those aiming for higher level should be directed towards further reading or occasional tasks designed to better equip them for such papers. The general level and clarity of the work covered in classes was of a good standard and such differentiation is merely recommended as an added insurance that all students achieve to their optimum potential. Again, teachers deserve to be congratulated on the significant input they have had in the delivery of History in the school and to be proud of the work they do in the classroom day to day.
The North Monastery operates a solid system of formal assessment incorporating examinations, reports and parent-teacher meetings for all year groups. In areas more directly relevant to History, the previously mentioned deployment of good in-class questioning has been noted as a fine support to gauging progress by students on a day to day basis. Most classes observed had also been assigned homework on quite a regular basis, with examples of instances where students were asked to draw historical maps or respond to visual as well as verbal stimuli being particularly productive in terms of the varied ability ranges being taught in most classes.
In terms of on-going written assessment, teachers have reported considerable difficulty with some students whose attendance levels, failure to bring in copybooks or to do homework at all have been a considerable challenge. There are no simple answers to such situations and certainly some of the copybooks scanned during the inspection have shown the considerable challenge that exists in this area. A number of strategies have been discussed, with a view to supporting student effort and achievement through assessment. Firstly, some very well focused homework tasks were assigned, particularly where students had been asked to identify core facts on a topic during in-class questioning and then, as homework, to turn them in accounts or answers. It has been recommended that homework instructions be very clearly outlined, avoiding somewhat nebulous instructions like asking students to write ‘a few’ sentences or ‘a little’ on the tasks assigned. A focus on explaining to students in class what constitutes good answering, and how many points or paragraphs need to be written, rather than the more vague ‘write a page’ type of instruction is important. Using devices such as the significant relevant statement (SRS) principle in correcting the work of junior students or the marking schemes employed for Leaving Certificate answers, could improve the focus of work done by students without necessarily requiring considerable amounts of time.
Given the assessment challenges which teachers have identified, it is also important that a consistent and manageable approach be taken to students who present themselves without copybooks. At present, there appears to be a degree of paperwork involved should a teacher wish to tackle homework problems systemically, to an extent that is potentially prohibitive in terms of time management to attempt to do so. Most students presented homework copybooks without difficulty, with some having separate notes copybooks as well. This is very sensible. It has been advised on occasion, however, that students who have forgotten their copybooks ought not to be rewarded de facto by not being asked to take down notes if the rest of the class is doing so. Insisting on this, even on a spare page, may help to develop these students’ focus on their work a little more over time.
Where students seem particularly challenged in doing or presenting homework, it may be worthwhile assigning a ten-minute period per week in junior classes to getting them to at least commence homework. This would allow teachers to monitor and support students, advising on any difficulties and so on and, given that classes at the school are of forty-five minutes duration in general, this could well be time well spent in the broader scheme of things. With senior students who will face more essay-style work in their State examinations eventually, such a ten-minute period might also be employed to ask students to consider a question and write the introductory paragraph to an answer. Some very good teacher monitoring of homework has been observed, via circling the class and placing initials and dates on students’ work. Some fine supportive commentary by teachers on students’ work has also been evident. These deserve wider usage, if possible, as they can support students’ effort and help to show parents as well that homework is important. Finally, the occasional use of visual tasks in homework has been applauded previously. With students who are challenged by writing and retention, the emphasis on varied assessment methods, such as visual tasks, wordsearch, cloze tests, crosswords and other methods aimed at focusing students on core learning targets is also worth developing.
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 deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.