An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
St Michael’s Loreto Secondary School
Navan, County Meath
Roll number: 64370T
Date of inspection: 23 November 2007
Date of issue of report: 22 May 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Geography
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Michael’s Loreto Secondary School. 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 and to the 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.
St Michael’s Loreto Secondary School is a single sex post-primary school and has a current enrolment of 782 girls. Teaching and learning in Geography is extremely well supported by school management with the provision of a dedicated geography room, teacher-based classrooms, and a wide range of resources, especially in the area in information and communication technology (ICT). Resources have been catalogued and the outcomes of this process have been used as a basis for identifying future resource needs. This level of resource provision is commended as it enables teachers to be innovative in the delivery of the planned teaching programmes to students.
Geography is a compulsory subject for all students in the junior cycle and is allocated three class periods per week in each of the three years. The Transition Year (TY) programme is optional in St Michael’s. It is commendable that Geography is included in the programme where it is allocated two class periods per week. For the Established Leaving Certificate (ELC) Geography is an optional subject and it was reported that students are offered an open choice of subject before option bands are generated. This is commended. Students and their parents receive appropriate support prior to making subject choice as the school holds an ‘open night’ for parents. Teachers also make themselves available to discuss subject choice with students. The uptake of the subject for the ELC is in a very healthy state, with three or sometimes four class groups being formed in each of the years. Class organisation at this level is of mixed ability. The teaching of Geography has been linked to the school’s co-curricular programme, notably the Peace and Justice Week organised by the school. Members of non-government organisations (NGOs) have also visited the school. This is an example of good practice as it broadens the students’ knowledge and helps them to develop positive attitudes towards important social issues. This is in keeping with the aims and objectives of the geography syllabuses.
There are currently six teachers of Geography in St Michael’s. They form a very clearly identifiable subject department where they provide mutual support and share their professional expertise. Commendably, teachers contribute lessons using PowerPoint to the school’s ICT facilities where they are available to all members of the subject department. Currently, one teacher acts as subject co-ordinator. Consideration might be given to rotating this role amongst the other members of the department.
Subject department planning is well established and linked to the school’s mission statement. A focus on learning outcomes as well as curricular content has begun. This focus on learning outcomes within subject department planning is welcome and is in line with recent recommendations from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). A copy of the subject department plan, a plan for the TY and minutes of department meetings were made available during the evaluation visit. The plan outlined the agreed teaching programme for each year group within given time frames, agreed textbooks, the use of ICT in teaching and learning, a catalogue of available resources and suggested teaching methodologies along with policy in relation to assessment and recording of students’ progress. Reference was also made to teaching students with additional educational needs. The area of co-curricular activities was identified by the geography teachers as an area for future development. The non-linear approach to the delivery of the Junior Certificate syllabus is particularly commended, as the more difficult concepts have been included in the teaching programme for third year. It was noted that there is an emphasis on teaching topics from physical geography in first year. This places significant demands on students at this early stage in terms of technical vocabulary, complex geomorphic processes and landform descriptions. It is recommended that, as an alternative to some of this work, the development of map and photograph skills, using maps and photographs of the local area, takes place at an early stage in first year.
The plan for the TY is very much in keeping with the spirit and philosophy of the programme. It seeks to broaden students’ understanding of the subject. This is done by reference to medical geography where students discuss the issue of HIV/AIDS, an analysis of world trade with reference to the Fair Trade movement. Attention is also paid to issues currently facing Irish society with reference to multi-cultural Ireland. The inclusion of project work, using students’ ICT skills, is commended. Consideration should be given to including a geographical investigation within the plan for the TY, as a means of further extending an exploratory approach to learning and of developing students’ investigative skills.
Planning and preparation for individual lessons showed many examples of excellent practice. Lessons had clear learning objectives and learning was supported by the provision of very high quality teacher-generated resources which were appropriately used. The good practice of sharing the learning intention with the students was evident in all of the lessons observed. Particularly commendable was the use of ICT by teachers both in planning and preparation and in the delivery of lessons. Students have also been using ICT for research and in the presentation of their project work as was evidenced during a visit to the geography room. During the evaluation, teachers made available folders of resources that had been generated over a period of time. These resources showed that teachers have made extensive use of ICT both to research and to prepare material that supports teaching and learning. This clearly demonstrates the commitment of the geography teachers to provide rich learning experiences for their students and reflects their enthusiasm for and knowledge of the subject.
In all of the lessons observed there were many examples of excellent practice. Very high quality teaching and learning were observed in all of the classrooms visited as teachers used a variety of methodologies that actively engaged students in the learning process. Topics taught in the lessons observed included: the drawing of sketch maps, an introduction to the Indian Sub-Continent, weathering processes and the advantages and disadvantages of constructing dams on rivers.
Particularly effective in engaging students in the learning process was the setting of short tasks, such as the drawing of a sketch map of India and marking on it features indicated by the teacher. Students completed this individually and then swapped their work with a neighbouring student. The teacher then, with the use of a map on the overhead projector, guided the students through the correction of the work. This provided students with an opportunity to develop an important geographical skill and at the same time to learn from each others’ mistakes. The students did all this very efficiently and with a degree of enjoyment. This set the scene for a discussion on how to divide India into physical regions. Through a series of carefully worded and very focused questions the teacher guided the students through a process whereby they were able to suggest a division of the country into regions based on physical make-up. The questioning skills of the teacher made a very significant contribution to developing the students’ higher-order thinking skills and of facilitating an exploratory approach to the study of the subject. Frequently, in the lessons observed, students were asked ‘what do you think?’ as a means of developing their ability to offer explanations for geographic phenomena.
There was a clear focus on developing students’ geographic skills in the lessons observed and this is in line with syllabus recommendations. The important skill of drawing a sketch map from an Ordnance Survey (OS) map was clearly outlined to the class by the teacher. Appropriate guidance was given on the importance of showing and naming features. Students were than set the task of drawing a sketch from a map in their textbook and were encouraged to work in pairs or in small groups for this activity. Students clearly enjoyed the opportunity to work together and to learn from each other. The teacher moved around the classroom offering support and affirmation to students as appropriate. This gave the teacher the opportunity to provide some extra support to students who were finding the task challenging or who had been absent from the previous lesson.
Teachers in St Michael’s have adopted a visual approach to the teaching of Geography. The distribution of photographs showing the effects of weathering did much to raise students’ curiosity about the topic. This interest was further sustained by the display of diagrams on the overhead projector to explain how weathering occurs. This caters effectively for those students whose preferred learning style is visual. Students’ linguistic development was facilitated by the careful introduction of new terms, which were used in lessons at appropriate times. The terms were clearly explained and then used throughout the remainder of the lesson. Where teacher exposition was delivered it was clear and succinct and did not dominate the lesson. Teachers encouraged students to ask questions and they frequently sought clarification from their teachers. Students were impressive in their knowledge of the language of Geography and in their ability to use correct terminology during discussions with the inspector. Students’ understanding of geographic concepts was also facilitated by the many references to examples drawn from a local or national context.
In discussions with teachers it was clear that they had been made aware of students with additional educational needs in their classes and this is highly commended. When students were engaged in group work teachers provided additional support to those who needed it. It is recommended that formal contacts between the geography teachers and the learning-support department should be established as a means of developing a policy for differentiated learning. The geography teaching team could advise on syllabus recommendations and on revision plans while the learning-support department could advise on appropriate teaching methodologies for mixed-ability class settings.
Classroom management, in all of the lessons observed, was of a very high standard. Students were focused, were engaged by and enjoyed participating in the planned learning activities and were supported and affirmed by their teachers. The establishment by teachers of clear classroom routines facilitated effective classroom management. Lessons began with roll call, homework was monitored and corrected, the aims of the lesson were clearly outlined and homework linked to the day’s lesson was assigned and recorded by students in their journals. Teachers are commended for these good practices that help to create a safe and secure environment for students. All the classrooms visited provided rich learning environments with the display of maps, charts and articles from the print media. In a number of classrooms students’ project work was displayed and this is an important way to acknowledge student effort and is commended.
Teachers in St Michaels’ use a wide range of assessment methods to monitor student progress. Formal assessments are held for all students before Christmas, pre-examinations are held for third-year and sixth-year students in the second term while first, second and fifth-year students are assessed at the end of the school year. It was reported that the members of the geography teaching team analyse the results that students obtain in the certificate examinations and this is good practice. The setting of common tests by teachers has begun and this is commended. Reports are issued to parents after each formal assessment. Student progress is also reported on at formal parent-teacher meetings held annually for each year group. The use of small-scale project work as a means of assessing student progress is particularly commended as it provides students with an opportunity to develop as independent learners. This is a feature of assessment in Geography within the TY.
Assessment of students’ progress was a feature of all of the lessons observed. Focused questioning by the teacher, usually directed to individual named students provided ongoing feedback on student progress. In one lesson observed students were provided with cards with the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ that they used to answer oral questions from their teacher. This provided the teacher with information on student progress and the students willing participation in the activity was an indication of their enjoyment of this novel method of assessment. The opportunity to correct any inaccurate knowledge and to further extend students’ grasp of the subject was provided by discussion between teacher and students. Teachers also assess students’ progress by holding short tests within lessons, and by holding class tests when sections of the teaching programme have been completed. Teachers maintain good records of attendance, homework and class tests.
The good practice of having separate copybooks or folders for homework and for notes was evident in all class groups. An examination of students’ copybooks indicated that work is generally of a high standard. Work was presented in a logical order, margins drawn and maps and diagrams accurately drawn and coloured appropriately. This reflects the high expectations teachers have of their students and it is commended. Teachers monitor copybooks and helpful comments are provided in an effort to both affirm and support students’ progress. A policy in relation to assessment for learning (AfL) should be developed and included in the subject department plan. This will be supported by materials provided during the evaluation visit and by accessing the website of the NCCA at www.ncca.ie.
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.