An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Mathematics
Blessington Community College
Blessington, County Wicklow
Roll number: 70760S
Date of inspection: 5 May 2009
REPORT ON THE QUALITY OF LEARNING AND TEACHING IN MATHEMATICS
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Blessington Community College. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Mathematics 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, deputy 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; a response was not received from the board.
The Mathematics department in Blessington Community College comprises six teachers. This year a Postgraduate Diploma in Education student has been offered teaching experience in the school. Mathematics teachers are given opportunities to rotate the teaching of levels and programmes. This is good practice as it allows teachers to share in the teaching of the subject and to develop expertise within the department. However, not all the Mathematics teachers are specialists in the subject up to the highest post-primary level. Management should ensure that teachers are deployed in accordance with their subject specialism.
The school operates a week of forty-three class periods with classes of thirty-five or forty minute duration and an additional ten-minute assembly on Monday. This timetable is resulting in a shortfall in instruction time to students. The school must extend instruction time to comply with the Time in School circular M29/95, which specifies a minimum of twenty-eight hours’ instruction.
The timetabling of Mathematics is satisfactory. All year groups are allocated five class periods with the exception of Transition Year (TY) which has an allocation of three class periods per week. Mathematics classes are distributed throughout the school week and daily contact with the subject is afforded. Concurrent timetabling of Mathematics classes takes place in all year groups except first year and TY. The practice of concurrent timetabling is commendable, as it allows students to access a level most appropriate to their ability.
On entry to the school first-year students are assigned to one of two mixed-ability class groupings. A common assessment paper in Mathematics is administered at the end of first year. This assessment, teacher observation and ongoing class assessments are used to assign mathematics students to second-year class groupings. In second year one higher and one ordinary level grouping are arranged. Students are encouraged to remain with higher level for as long as possible and movement between levels is permitted. These arrangements are satisfactory.
In TY two mixed-ability classes for Mathematics are formed. The provision of an additional Mathematics teacher at both fifth and sixth year is commendable as it allows for the formation of three class groupings. This has resulted in the creation of stand-alone classes for the three levels of Mathematics in fifth and sixth year.
There is good provision for continuous professional development. Mathematics teachers are supported by management to engage with subject-specific continual professional development courses organised through various education centres, and by Co. Wicklow Vocational Education Committee (VEC). Teachers have also participated in in-service within the school, most recently in the area of Assessment for Learning (AfL). The school operates a mentoring system for newly appointed teachers and receives support for the programme through the Co. Wicklow VEC services.
Resources for the teaching and learning of Mathematics include subject-specific materials, textbooks and calculators. Many classrooms have overhead projectors; computers and data projectors are available in the school. The school is networked, thus allowing teachers to explore and access materials and resources on the internet. Requests for subject-specific materials are made through the subject co-ordinator or on occasion on an individual basis to management. To ensure that all teachers are aware of the available resources within the department, it is recommended that the Mathematics department collaborate to review and document the current resources available and to collectively plan for the acquisition of additional resources as the need arises.
Students identified as having difficulties with Mathematics receive support in a variety of ways to ensure optimal benefit. Methods of support include team teaching, withdrawal, or one-to-one support as deemed appropriate to cater for the specific needs of a student. In general such support is offered by a Mathematics teacher or a resource teacher.
The Mathematics department nominates a co-ordinator who takes responsibility for liaison with management and colleagues, acquisition of resources and convening of meetings. Subject department planning throughout the school year is facilitated by management. Additional meetings are arranged on a needs basis. Minutes of departmental meetings are retained. Issues discussed include procedural issues, such as class organisation and, more recently, the adoption of some AfL strategies into the teaching of Mathematics. Departmental meeting agendas should be extended to include discussion to agree common practices, for example in the teaching of key areas of Mathematics such as factorisation. This should ensure that there is consistency in practice among teachers, particularly as students move between levels.
The long-term plan made available during the evaluation was handwritten. Given the available ICT equipment and expertise among members of the Mathematics department, it is recommended that the Mathematics plan be electronically prepared. This should ensure that the plan can be readily accessed and updated more easily. Storing the long-term plan and associated Mathematics materials in a shared folder on the school’s network should also be considered.
The long-term Mathematics department plan includes the aims and objectives for Mathematics, various topics to be studied by each year grouping and departmental procedures regarding class organisation, homework and assessment. It is recommended that the department plan be amended to include the learning outcomes associated with each section of the syllabus and suggested timeframes for their completion. This should provide a record of what students should achieve at the end of a topic. Furthermore planning for concurrent studying of topics across different levels should also be included so that students who change levels do not miss out on any topics.
The TY plan for Mathematics has a good variety of topics including practical Mathematics, problem-solving topics, puzzle work and project work. A unique feature of the TY Mathematics plan is the design and development of a Mathematics-based project by TY students, which is then used to teach students in a local primary school. Such an initiative is commendable as it gives students the opportunity to develop creative and critical thinking skills and communication skills, while allowing them to work collaboratively. The facilitation of modular delivery of TY Mathematics is also commended. This allows teachers to teach modules that they have an interest in while offering students the opportunity to experience a range of teaching styles.
The Mathematics department should consider ways of promoting Mathematics among students in the school. For example, the computerised notice board in the school’s foyer could be used to promote events such as mathematics competitions. Engagement in events such as Maths Week would allow students to experience Mathematics in different situations and would complement the TY Mathematics programme.
Many teachers have developed very good individual schemes of work that include details of the topic and a timeframe for the teaching and learning of the topic. There was evidence that some teachers share a common template to develop individual schemes of work. It is recommended that such a template be shared among all members of the department, with the possibility of using a modified version for the long-term plan for Mathematics.
Five lessons were observed during the evaluation including junior cycle, TY and senior cycle, and a range of levels. The teaching of Mathematics, while predominantly traditional in approach, was competent although at times not sufficiently engaging for students. Teaching was in general of a fair standard. Topics observed during classroom evaluations included integration, algebra, and statistics and, because of the time of the year, revision work was prominent. Lessons frequently started with clear objectives established and articulated to students and lessons were, in general, presented in a confident manner. The use of mathematical terminology both by students and teachers was very good and indicated that students are exposed to relevant and appropriate terminology on a regular basis. Teachers regularly questioned students to check their understanding of terms, and this is good practice.
The main methodology observed was traditional whole-class teaching, in which the teacher demonstrates a technique and students then complete a series of examples to practise. There were instances where alternative methodologies would have been more appropriate to the topics being studied and to students’ abilities. For example, during revision lessons consideration might be given to allowing students to prepare a topic and then make a presentation of the topic to the entire class. This would allow students to become actively involved and share in the responsibility for their own learning. Group work was observed during a lesson where students collaborated in the collation of data for a statistics project. While this was an appropriate method, greater organisation would have allowed the activity to progress in a more efficient manner. When planning group work it is important that students are fully aware of specific roles assigned to them and what is expected of them at the completion of the task. Such planning should also allow for necessary progress to be made during the lesson. It is recommended that teachers investigate the technique of co-operative learning to improve group work practices.
A range of questioning styles and question types was used in lessons observed. Where teachers used challenging questions they engaged students successfully in the lesson topic. Greater use of such higher-order questions is recommended to allow students to become fully involved in their own learning. Teachers initially asked a global question and followed this with a directed question to an individual. In many instances students were asked to refrain from chorus answering and this is good practice. To increase the effectiveness of questioning, teachers should ensure that students have time to think and prepare a suggested solution to a question. Teachers should not supply an answer to a question until time for student thinking has been allowed. This approach is in line with principles of assessment for learning.
In general, there was good discipline in lessons which was conducive to a good learning environment. Teachers frequently circulated the classroom during lessons to observe students’ work and, where appropriate, provide assistance to individuals, and this was done in a sensitive manner. However, it was noted that on occasion students were inattentive to the work they had been assigned to do. It is important that students develop good independent work habits. Specific timeframes should be given for all tasks set. Teachers should also monitor group work to ensure that students remain on task. In some instances greater use of differentiation in selected work would have challenged students during assigned work.
Resources used in lessons included textbooks, examination papers, prepared worksheets and the whiteboard. Many teachers are classroom based and these rooms had displays of school developed materials, including for example key points for algebra and co-ordinate geometry. Such visual displays enhance the learning environment for students while providing opportunities for their use in the teaching of Mathematics.
Teachers used questions throughout lessons to assess students’ understanding. In addition to end-of-topic exams, formal assessments take place for students in first, second and fifth year at Christmas and again at the summer. Examination year groups are formally assessed in November and sit ‘mock’ exams in the second term. TY students are assessed on an individual basis by their teachers and are interviewed at the end of the school year on five aspects of completed course work. This provides students with the opportunity to prepare, present and attend an interview. This is commendable practice.
School reports are issued following formal assessments. Parent-teacher meetings are convened for each year group and, if necessary, parents are contacted to discuss the progress of a student. Teachers retain good records of student assessments and attendance. There is evidence from the observed practice and a review of Mathematics homework copies that regular homework is assigned. It is, however, difficult to identify from students’ copies what has been completed as homework and what work was completed during a lesson. It is therefore recommended that students be encouraged to present work in an orderly manner. Through observation of student dairies there was evidence that students do not accurately record homework assigned throughout the year. Students should be encouraged to accurately record their homework on a regular basis.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· The school management provides good whole school support by for Mathematics.
· The Mathematics department has developed a good Transition Year Mathematics plan that allows students to experience the planning, development and implementation of a
mathematics based project which they deliver to a local primary school.
· Individual planning documentation presented was good.
· Teachers retain good records of students’ attendance and achievements.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The school must extend instruction time to comply with Circular M29/95 Time in School.
· The long-term plan for Mathematics should be reviewed, to include the learning outcomes associated with sections of the syllabus and the timeframes associated
with teach each topic.
· It is recommended that a greater range of methodologies be used in lessons to ensure that the learning styles of all students are addressed.
· Teachers should continually review the questioning styles and types for lessons to ensure that students are challenged and to allow them to become involved in their own learning.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Mathematics and with the principal and deputy principal, at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published April 2010