An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta

 

Department of Education and Science

 

 

 

Subject Inspection of History

 

REPORT

 

Ashton Comprehensive School

Cork

Roll number: 81008W

 

 

 

 

Date of inspection: 18 October 2007

Date of issue of report: 21 February 2008

 

Subject inspection report

Subject provision and whole school support

Planning and preparation

Teaching and learning

Assessment

Summary of main findings and recommendations

 

 

Report

on

the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History

Subject inspection report

 

This report has been written following a subject inspection in Ashton Comprehensive School, Cork. 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 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.

Subject provision and whole school support

 

History is a compulsory subject for all junior cycle students in Ashton Comprehensive School. Classes are of mixed ability and every junior group has three single periods of History per week. This is satisfactory provision, as is the fact that in general the class periods are spread very fairly across the different days of the week and varied between morning and afternoon timeslots as much as is practicable. The timetable provision of a ten-week module, for a double period each week, in Transition Year (TY) is also quite satisfactory, in that it allows all students in TY to have access to historical study and the double period is particularly conducive to project work, one of the cornerstones of recommended TY methodology. Timetabling in fifth and sixth year sees History have two double periods and a single period in each year. This is again satisfactory provision and it is noted that the double periods have a number of days or a weekend between them, which is helpful. Subject options in fifth and sixth year currently see History placed opposite Biology, Accounting, Design and Communication Graphics (DCG) and modules in the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP). The fact that Biology is in another option block as well means that this situation is not at odds with maintaining good uptake levels in History. It is advised, however, that while current LCVP numbers are relatively small, the positioning of core elements of the LCVP programme opposite History is a potential factor militating against the uptake of Leaving Certificate History, not least because of the continued exclusion nationally of History from the subject groupings within the LCVP.

 

An area of concern relating to the timetabling of History is the practice of sharing some class groups between two teachers. This is acceptable where it concerns a student teacher, and indeed the school and History teachers deserve credit for the manner in which the current student teacher in History has been integrated into the history team itself. However, elsewhere, a first-year class and a third-year class are each shared between two of the core history teachers. As junior students need considerable help in developing a sense of time and context, it is very, very difficult to deliver the junior syllabus by trying to divide the course between teachers. This has resulted, for instance, in first-year students attempting to engage with prehistoric burial customs and the Renaissance simultaneously, and in third-year students covering modern Irish and relatively unconnected European history side by side. It is advised that establishing a practice where each junior class is taught by one teacher only, unless there is a student teacher involved, would be better than the current situation. It is also advised that the more the same teacher is able to continue with a class group through the three years of junior cycle, the more readily the course can be covered in a consistent, structured fashion. The practice of sharing classes in senior cycle is more acceptable, as the division of work in a topic-driven syllabus is manageable along topical and thematic lines, with much less danger of confusing students, who are more mature in any event. The fact that the senior teachers have opted for this system themselves is also an important consideration, as it is certainly in the school’s interests to have at least two teachers experienced in delivering the Leaving Certificate syllabus.

 

The school is commended on the general supports which are in place for History. For instance, it has a superb library facility, the Wallace Library, with a very diligent librarian. The facility is a treasure trove of history books and also boasts a newspaper cuttings cabinet which students can access. The book stock contains an excellent combination of Irish and international works, suitable for students of all ages and levels. The method employed in budgeting for History’s needs, as with other subjects, is as needs arise and there is certainly evidence of this working satisfactorily in terms of the subject of this report. The school’s information and communications technology facilities include two computer rooms, a portable laptop computer and data projector, and a wonderful intranet system. In History, teachers have been able to place electronic versions of their own materials, including some superb PowerPoint presentations, on the intranet and share them with colleagues. This is excellent practice. The provision of base rooms for teachers as much as possible has also enabled those who have History as a central element of their timetables to transform the rooms into de facto history rooms, with plenty of posters and subject-specific materials on display. Even though the main school building dates only from the 1970s, a history-relevant atmosphere has also been developed within it, with photographs of old school groups, a designated history noticeboard and a beautiful commemorative display to former students killed in World War I being particularly noteworthy.

 

Planning and preparation

 

The school facilitates three formal planning meetings a year for all subjects. Because just two of the teachers of History are teaching substantial amounts of classes, it can be difficult for other teachers to attend the full meetings of the history team. This said, much good work has been done and a good culture of informal meetings and collaboration has also been evident. History has a designated co-ordinator and a fine subject plan has been developed. This includes an excellent list of resources available for teachers, a very exciting Transition Year plan, thorough attendance and performance records, support materials from the History Teachers Association of Ireland (HTAI) and the History In-service Team (HIST), and good data on students with additional needs. It has been suggested that it is important to ensure that this is the most up-to-date data available on students’ needs and this suggestion has been taken on board for investigation. The department is also commended for the diligence with which records of meetings have been maintained. It is merely suggested that some time could be allocated at future meetings to discuss issues like differentiation in teaching methods, given that mixed-ability teaching is now the norm at the school, and the opportunities as well as the problems created by cultural diversity. It is noted that both of the teachers involved in Leaving Certificate History have been released to attend the relevant HIST in-service days, and also that the school refunds the membership of the HTAI to teachers who join the subject association. The school’s involvement and success in the Discover Cork schools’ history competition, and other competitions, over the years is a further tribute to the work done by the department and by individual teachers in bringing History alive inside and outside the classroom for students, and is roundly applauded.

 

At individual level, the quality of teachers’ planning and preparation has also been satisfactory. Teachers involved in sharing classes, as previously mentioned, have endeavoured to divide the work in the most logical fashion possible. In senior cycle, for example, one teacher takes the class for documents and research-study work while the other teacher covers the other three ‘regular’ topics on the course. In all schemes of work, a sensible focus on the amount of time needed to cover the syllabus for each academic year has been evident. Among some excellent PowerPoint presentations, it was good to note also that one created by students previously, on local streets, has also been adapted for classroom use. Teachers also prepared individual lesson plans and, in all lessons, the material was well geared towards the time available and the level of detail appropriate to the relevant syllabuses. Prepared materials abounded in all classes, with teachers having developed handouts of both visual and verbal material, cloze tests and worksheets, sets of syllabus-relevant documents, acetate sheets, video excerpts and, in one instance, an entire short play was prepared, with student assistance, to help summarise a particular topic. This level of individual planning and preparation is highly commended.

 

Teaching and learning

 

In all lessons visited, a natural and focused atmosphere obtained from the initial moments. Even though most lessons required the students to come to the classroom rather than be based in it beforehand, there was very little time lost in getting settled and in the commencement of teaching and learning. Teachers gave students a clear idea of the aims of the lesson ahead and students generally settled very well to work. Monitoring of previously assigned homework was mostly done by oral review, with students answering well. On occasion, teachers made good early connections between previous work and the material about to be covered in the lesson ahead, as with the introduction of Calvin and the links with previous learning on the Reformation. This was very effective, as indeed were strategies where the purpose of the imminent use of excerpts from The Wind that Shakes the Barley or of handouts being distributed on the GAA or ancient tombs were outlined clearly to students and connected to previous learning in order to contextualise the coming lesson’s work.

 

Good levels of teacher-student interaction were evident in all lessons visited, with very little reliance placed on static learning strategies like textbook reading or lecturing. Questioning by teachers was central to much of the lesson development observed, with a generally good mix of higher-order and lower-order questions asked of students. This is important, particularly as classes are of mixed ability, and teachers showed very good awareness of the need to vary questions. It has been recommended that slightly greater use of questions directed at individuals, rather than asking for hands up most of the time, would help to ensure also that the more reticent or reluctant students would remain equally challenged, but on the whole this was not a major concern. In classroom interaction, teachers dealt very well and sensitively with awkward student queries, relating for instance to religious beliefs, and also integrated nice digressive but productive moments to explain the origins of words, the old names for plantation towns or the elements of bias evident in documents or video clips. Students were given every opportunity in lessons to ask their own questions or offer viewpoints, while the enthusiasm of those who took part in a drama on a Reformation character was palpable and very conducive to learning also.

 

Considerable and valuable use was made in all lessons of a range of teaching supports. Where the overhead projector or television was employed, despite small difficulties with visibility due to text overlap or subtitle size, they were used judiciously and added important visual reinforcement to an otherwise-verbal message. While the non-reading of swathes of textbooks has been commended, it may be possible to incorporate some more textbook illustrations, maps or charts into the drive to increase the visual focus of some lessons. Teachers made considerable use of handout materials in class also. Where these consisted substantially of document excerpts, it has been suggested that a timeline of simple style, perhaps developed on the board, could assist students to place the documents in context more easily. This said, the way in which handouts contained both a visual and a verbal focus, sometimes including questions for students to respond to, is highly commended. Where students were asked to complete missing sections of a handout, such as text for a play, or develop information charts from what could be gleaned via documents or film extracts, this was an excellent support to active engagement. At all times, whether the stimulus materials were on a screen, television, board or handout, teachers engaged students in considerable discussion and interaction on the materials, which is very much in keeping with recommended strategies for the delivery of both junior and senior syllabuses in History.

 

Some very good methods of developing students’ skills, relevant to History, were noted in several classes. While occasional suggestions have been made concerning the need to draw younger students’ attention to the meaning and/or origins of words, as a means of explaining them fully, it has also been noted that a very fine emphasis has been seen in the area of enriching older students’ vocabulary for possible essay-style work later on. All tasks assigned for completion in class were given with the clear instruction that students could ask for help at any point. It might be possible to develop this openness into some pair-working scenarios, for instance on documents-handling work, a little further, to encourage collaborative learning among the students themselves. When documents were being analysed by senior students, the focus in teaching was as much on developing the students’ evidence-based skills as it was on them learning from the content. This is applauded. Similarly, the use of visual sources with junior students again saw teachers urge students to think about what they were looking at, and to consider issues like what could be learned about ancient life from burial customs, what could be gleaned about Calvinism from pictures and how propaganda and bias were evidenced in a dramatisation of a historical event. A very simple but appropriately challenging tactic also observed was the assignment of short research tasks to junior students, offered as ‘extra-credit assignments’ to investigate, via a dictionary, the meaning of some terms that arose in class.

 

Fine learning opportunities were presented in all lessons observed. In terms of encouraging retention, in some instances, students were urged to take note of, for example, any important points which had been placed on the board. This is a sensible and effective retention aid which deserves more widespread deployment. Where handouts were given out, in some lessons it was clear that students retained such materials in a structured fashion through the use of folders, and this is again recommended for general use. In the split junior lessons referred to earlier, an added difficulty has been the need for students to retain two sets of copybooks, for each teacher, so as to make sure that one teacher doesn’t have the copybooks of a class taken up while the other wishes students to use their copybooks in a different class. This is a sensible approach but again, the need to employ it typifies the cumbersome nature of having the classes split between teachers in this fashion. A final suggestion to aid retention has been offered on occasion, whereby students might be encouraged to have a copybook, or a section of a copybook, which could be designed as a ‘history dictionary’, in which they could insert key subject-specific terms, and their meanings, as they arise, either in chronological or alphabetical order. This could underscore their awareness of key terms and ability to use the language of History comfortably in their own work, thus complementing the very good work observed in all history lessons during the inspection.

Assessment

 

Some informal assessment methods, like homework monitoring, oral questioning in class and handout-based short questions have been referred to and commended previously. Cloze tests and some wordsearch tests seen in teachers’ planning folders also deserve commendation, not least because they offer additional support to students who may not necessarily all be comfortable with free-answering assessments formats. In the context of mixed-ability assessment, it has been suggested on occasion too that the assignment of visual tasks would be appropriate. These could include drawing tasks, as for instance of simple versions of ancient tombs, or stimulus-driven assignments where the stimulus is a photograph or drawing, with or without text.

 

In the student copybooks and essays which were scanned during the inspection, it was very evident that teachers spend considerable time in assisting students via formative assessment. Teacher comments inserted on student work invariably sought to point out where material might be improved upon, always in an encouraging and supportive fashion. It was good to note, for instance, that students’ first names were frequently used when teachers were inserting comments at the end of essays. The avoidance by teachers of the allocation of grades or marks on homework is also commended, as it encourages the students to take a little more notice of the comments than might otherwise obtain were there to be a summative mark allocated as well. While praising the degree to which teachers have employed supportive comments on homework, it is also commendable that some relatively stern comments have been noted in instances where students had clearly not given of their best on a particular task.

 

Overall assessment procedures at the school are satisfactory, with the use of common assessment instruments in formal examinations being the norm. History students, as in many other subjects, are given end-of-section tests as they progress through the relevant syllabus. Classes also sit more formal, end-of-term examinations at Christmas and summer, with state-examination classes having pre-examinations as well, in early spring. The practice in TY of assigning projects to students is also highly in keeping with the aims of TY generally, with the added bonus that the research and collation skills which students develop during such work can be of tremendous benefit to them in later, Leaving Certificate work, not only in History.

 

Summary of main findings and recommendations

 

The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:

 

·         The time allocated to History in all year groups is satisfactory.

·         Student access to History is very good, being compulsory up to the end of TY and is via a fair subject-choice system thereafter.

·         Resourcing of History, by means of the school library, ICT and the intranet, and support for involvement in competitions, the HTAI and in-service training, is excellent.

·         Very good levels of collaborative and individual planning and preparation have been noted.

·         Positive student engagement, variety in teaching methodologies, positive classroom interaction and a focus on developing student interest and the skills of History are typical features of the very good levels of teaching and learning observed.

·         Very thorough assessment procedures have been observed, with the degree to which most teachers engage in the formative assessment of students’ work being particularly credited.

 

As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:

 

  • Discontinuing the current practice of dividing some junior classes between teachers ought to be prioritised.
  • Management is urged to remain mindful that timetabling LCVP link modules opposite History may have an impact on the viability of having a senior history class on occasion.
  • Collaborative planning should consider, when practicable, the discussion of differentiated teaching methods and ensuring that lists of history students with additional learning needs are as up-to-date as possible.
  • Slightly more emphasis on encouraging students’ retention of what has been learned in class, via notes, the maintenance of handout folders and other means is encouraged.

 

 

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.