An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Ballincollig Community School
Ballincollig, County Cork
Roll number: 91386O
Date of inspection: 7-8 May 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Ballincollig Community School. 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 informal discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided informal oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and deputy principal. 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
Ballincollig Community School is applauded for the strong support given to junior History. Both History and Geography are core subjects to Junior Certificate level. First-year classes have just two periods per week for History, which makes delivery of the relevant syllabus somewhat tight, but is explained by the school’s desire to maintain a subject-sampling system for first-year students. The provision of three single periods per week for both second-year and third-year history classes is very good, while the spread of periods between morning and afternoon slots, and across the different days of the week, is also applauded. First-year classes are allocated on a mixed-ability basis and those in second year and third year are banded. Where small-group teaching has operated in certain contexts, it is suggested that a visit to the website of the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) website at www.jcsp.ie could provide some methodological advice of interest, even though the school does not have students technically within the JCSP remit.
Transition Year (TY) is compulsory at the school and History is timetabled for two double-periods per week within this programme. This is very impressive provision but, as students are asked to pre-select likely Leaving Certificate subjects as they begin TY, this sees History as an option subject rather than a core element of TY. A proposal from a curriculum review committee within the school to increase TY option subjects to four, and facilitate the dropping of one subsequently, would at least help to ensure less choice restriction in the end. It is recommended that the practice of asking students to select likely Leaving Certificate subjects in advance of TY be discontinued. From the perspective of History, consideration should be given instead to a more broad-based social or historical studies module in TY to be done by all students. The written TY programme was examined as part of the school’s curricular plan. The programme is very Leaving Certificate oriented and, while recognising the fluidity in any TY timetable, it is recommended that the programme should focus more on non-examination topics. Cross-curricular approaches and areas like local history, integration studies, research projects, historical novels and other aspects of value should be given greater emphasis. It is also urged that the subject department identify its TY programme as a separate entity, not as the first element in the Leaving Certificate History Programme as it is currently denominated.
Leaving Certificate History is an optional subject, offered in one or two option blocks depending on the number of students seeking to take the subject. Students who have opted for TY History in general continue with it for Leaving Certificate, so the TY option blocks tend to be the Leaving Certificate options also. It is commended that options are only set after consultation with all students, and can vary from year to year. The uptake of History in fifth year and sixth year is very good. The time allocated to Leaving Certificate History consists of two double periods and one single period, which is good provision and, again, these are generally fairly placed across the timetable.
A number of broader whole-school supports for History deserve commendation. The fact that the subject is taught, in the main, in teacher-based classrooms has facilitated a very substantial commitment to visual and project displays. Despite ongoing contractual challenges regarding maintenance of the system, the school’s information and communication technology (ICT) system is excellent, allowing for computers, data projectors and the internet to be used in any classroom. The school library, with book stock and internet access points, is another important support to History students, while the atrium display area dedicated to historical matters is deserving of great praise. It is used for examples of students’ work, for cryptic quizzes on topical history, local photographic displays and details of school teams taking part in the annual Cork History Teachers’ Association (HTAI) quiz in recent weeks. The net result is a strong sense of this being a school which values history and considers it an important element in students’ education.
Although it was not possible to have a meeting of the department during the inspection, an excellent department folder was examined within the ambit of the overall school plan. This department plan details relatively frequent subject meetings, for which minutes are kept, and which deal with live issues as they arise. Such practicalities have included the discussion of assessment strategies, the organisation of a city tour, the appointment of a co-ordinator on a voluntary basis and the annual monitoring of results in state examinations. Very strong contacts have also been established by department members with the former History In-service Support Team (HIST) and with the Cork branch and national executive of the HTAI. These are applauded. Yearly and termly schemes of work have been agreed, according to the plan, and agreement on common assessment has been reached, with in-built flexibility for small-group assessment within the current banding system as required. A video of a recent history and geography field trip and other supports available at departmental level have also been noted during the inspection process.
In terms of suggestions for future departmental consideration, it could be worthwhile to set down a history-specific mentoring process for any post-graduate diploma (PGDE) students teaching History at the school. Some very good practice in this area has been noted in informal discussions and the formalisation of such a mentoring system would be a valuable departmental task, given the likelihood of at least some PGDE students working within the department from year to year. A final recommendation for department meetings is simply to keep as much of the focus as possible on the discussion and sharing of teaching and learning ideas, both ones which have worked and ones which have not. Beyond that, the department is congratulated, on the basis of the evidence examined, for a strong and well-documented commitment to subject development.
Individual planning and preparation by teachers was also very good. Teachers were seen to have substantial folders for storage of lesson notes and handouts, readily accessible within their classroom bases. Within individual lessons observed, a substantial number of prepared handouts, acetates and assessment instruments were employed, as well as objects of historical interest. Furthermore, the school’s own intranet system has been a great support to subject preparation, allowing teachers to store and use resources electronically within classes, as was observed in a number of instances during the inspection. In all lessons, preparation was at a premium, with hard copy and electronic resources, seating arrangements and other elements all provided for by teachers. Where intranet resources were not used, teachers in a number of instances also planned for the seamless integration of materials from the internet or DVDs. Room-based equipment was excellent in all instances, and a very fine commitment to the use of wall space for historical displays, and shelving to display students’ historical models was evident in most classrooms visited.
While the availability of just two periods each week presents something of a challenge to course coverage in first-year History, in all lessons observed teachers were covering material fully relevant to the syllabus and at an appropriate pitch for the class groups involved. The curriculum plan for History showed a keen awareness of termly and yearly work requirements on the part of teachers. Lesson planning included some very good planning for the integration of stimulus materials and activities like picture-pasting and drawing tasks in special-class contexts. In senior History, excellent links have been established with the Cork County and Cork City libraries in facilitating students’ research studies, which is further evidence of the fine commitment to thorough planning evident across the history department.
A very good standard of teaching was observed across all history lessons. Teachers invariably gave a clear outline of lesson intentions to students as lessons began, which in some instances could have benefited from being presented in written form as well. Students settled to work very readily and a pleasant but work-oriented atmosphere obtained from the initial moments of lessons without exception. Some clever strategies were deployed to introduce lesson topics, including the allocation of short dictionary tasks to students as key terms like ‘republic’ or ‘civil’ were introduced, and the use of a prize-fight analogy where historical comparisons were a focus. In some instances, senior students were invited along a journey of analysis, structured around identifying the good and bad of presidential careers or the significant stepping stones on a historical topic over a period of time. Overall there was a strong sense, from the outset, that lessons were being developed with students, rather than simply for them. Teachers displayed evident commitment but expected the same from students, so that lessons observed invariably revolved around a very strong work ethic. This is commended.
The content of lessons observed was very well pitched. In all lessons, teachers covered material fully relevant to the syllabus which students were studying for either Junior Certificate or Leaving Certificate. Where classes were within a few weeks of sitting state examinations, a clear focus on revision and on issues like how to structure an answer was evident, with handouts or PowerPoint demonstrations used accordingly to support student engagement with such work. In other classes, while the focus on ensuring learning was equally evident, it was appropriate that more time was devoted to developmental content, including working with objects as diverse as potatoes, facsimiles of US dollar bills and monastic clothing with junior students, to a focus on sorting skills, analysis and historical perspectives with older students. In all lessons, the pitch of language and level of content was suited to mixed-ability or special-group contexts, with very clear and direct explanations given where needed. With younger students, such explanations included new terms being broken down into language components, linked to visuals or sought out through dictionary work. With senior students, content included the development of writing and analytical skills, such as higher-order discussions of appropriate word use in distinguishing between the nuances of words like ‘indulged’ and ‘encouraged’ where a politician’s actions were being assessed.
General interaction between teachers and students was of a very high standard throughout lessons observed. Ample supportive comments and a touch of humour were evident across lessons as teachers interacted consistently well with students. Very good levels of oral questioning were used in lessons, with a good mix of lower-order and higher-order questioning evident. Some suggestions offered in individual lessons observed, included seeking out junior students’ reactions to short text extracts which had been read, or asking for older students’ views on how a ‘paragraph-equivalent’ helps to answer a specific question. These were very minor suggestions within the overall context of very good teacher-student interaction and questioning as lessons proceeded. Very good questioning around visual stimuli was used with junior-cycle students in particular. In senior classes, comparative questioning was very well used, as students were asked to discuss issues like how historical assessments can change over time, or how we measure historical ‘greatness’. The vast majority of students in all lessons observed were brought into direct lesson engagement through questioning and prompting by teachers, or from discussion phases to ones involving student activity, making lessons overall very interactive and successful.
A very wide and impressive variety of teaching resources was observed in history lessons. A strong emphasis on the use of visual stimuli to reinforce oral and aural messages was very successful, whether through the supports of handouts, overhead projectors, televisions or, in particular, of ICT. In the majority of lessons observed, teachers made use of ICT in lesson delivery, with the level of equipment available to them being very significant. The good teaching observed, however, went far beyond the mere deployment of ICT. It was the degree to which such supports were integrated seamlessly into lesson delivery which made them so successful. In many lessons, teachers were comfortable in switching from text presentations to film clips on Irish or international topics, from electronic displays and maps to whiteboard diagrams developed manually alongside. Electronic resources included the use of materials developed by teachers themselves and also links to feeds from the internet as required. The overall use of ICT as a teaching tool in History at the school is highly commended, particularly for the manner in which it was integrated into overall lesson delivery.
Almost all lessons observed were taught in mixed-ability contexts. Appropriately, very good emphasis was placed by teachers on differentiation strategies to ensure that the different learning styles and abilities of students were taken into account. The mixing of lower and higher-order questions, as previously mentioned, was one element of such differentiation. Teachers also placed significant emphasis on key words as they arose, and also on concepts and personalities which related directly to ordinary level syllabuses as relevant. Many examples of the use of visuals and short film extracts were also used to add variety to the stimulus materials deployed and reinforce key points and issues. In individual lessons, it was recommended that a little more attention be paid to the structured layout of text on a board and the visibility of a chart or overhead transparency. Again, these are very minor concerns in the overall scheme of things. Some teachers’ notes seen showed a keen awareness of the learning needs of individual students, while some very good examples of confidence-building questions or reading tasks to encourage more reticent students were also noted. Hands-on tasks, working with models and asking students to fill in a wall timeline as issues were discussed, were further very good examples of teachers considering the need to differentiate in their teaching styles. Some very good use of simple role playing around medieval life, and of pair-working tasks on other activities, supported self-directed active learning among junior students and, again, allowed them to work to their own pace and confidence levels. The passing around of historical objects was also worthy of consideration where they were shown to students, as this can provide a literal hands-on experience to promote further engagement.
A lot of the previously mentioned methodology provided good support to students’ long-term retention. It is also commendable that history department policy generally supports the idea of students having designated notes copybooks, in addition to homework copybooks which all have. Some very good note-making was included within most lessons, with a focus on students retaining key terms or explanations. The structured use of a template designed to help students compare and contrast historical figures was a successful extension of this commitment to aiding retention. The insertion of a word bank for new terms that arise, or the reproduction of timecharts or simple diagrams from class work in such notes books is also suggested. Towards the end of lessons, teachers provided time for short review sessions, where learning intentions were revisited, students were questioned and reinforced on their learning and, if deemed necessary, a chance to start supported homework was proffered as well. This is all good practice aimed at ensuring that learning outcomes are clearly reached. It must also be added that teachers made lessons interesting and supported student retention by linking historical topics to ones of student interest. Sport, television programmes and topical issues like swine flu and school life were gainfully employed to add relevance, as was the origin of a Cork city street name which linked nicely to the revolutionary topic being covered. There is no doubt that making History relevant to students aids retention and longer-term learning, so such ideas are applauded.
Informal assessment was observed to a good degree in history lessons. Oral questioning and discussion has been commended already. In the course of such oral work, it was also good to note teachers’ emphasis on questioning to gauge empathy, through interrogatives like ‘How would you feel in that situation?’ or ‘What would you have done in that position?’ Homework was assigned in all lessons and was always relevant to the topics which had been covered. Students’ copybooks showed a good commitment by teachers to the formative assessment of work where practicable and the monitoring of its completion otherwise. Similarly, an excellent approach to the structured monitoring and completion of senior research studies was also evident. A fine variety of homework types was also noted, with the recommendation that slightly more stress on visual tasks, whether source work or drawing tasks, would be a useful assessment aid in mixed-ability classes.
Assessment had a significant emphasis on promoting student improvement across the range of lessons observed. In senior cycle, a small recommendation was made to encourage students to think of writing tasks more as answers to a specific question rather than as essays. Some very good frameworks which support extended writing were deployed as assessment tools with older students. These ranged from compare-and-contrast frameworks on political figures to essay plans covering a lengthy period which took additional account of related elements, case studies, personalities and concepts within the syllabus, which is commended. Posing an interrogative to students and asking them to write simply the opening paragraph to the answer is also recommended as a possible means of assessing students’ answering skills and sharpening them for examination purposes when time is at a premium. Very good planning for more supported student work with small junior groups was also in evidence, ranging from picture-pasting and drawing games, cloze tests, wordsearch games and supported short-answer questions. Very good compare-and-contrast tasks were developed around visuals, which is also commended. Very nice elements of peer assessment were factored into the feedback from junior role play. Simple tactics like seeking an answer from one student and then asking another ‘Is he/she right?’ or ‘Do you agree?’ also worked well as peer-assessment methods.
In broader departmental and school terms, assessment remains a strong feature. The history department develops common assessment tools for junior classes at Christmas and summer and good co-operation and sharing of the workload is reported. The school also has a homework policy in place and is to be commended for assigning a review date for this policy in September 2009, as part of ongoing school planning. Good arrangements are in place for the sending home of progress reports at appropriate intervals and the holding of parent-teacher meetings for all class groups once a year.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· History is strongly supported at whole-school level.
· A very good range of supports inside and outside classes has been put in place for the teaching and learning of History, both by management and by the subject teachers.
· Subject planning has formed a very significant subset of school planning and history teachers are commended for the significant departmental and individual planning which has been undertaken.
· The quality of teaching observed in History has been very good and has been enhanced by very significant ICT and other resources at the school.
· Opportunities provided by teachers for promoting student learning, engagement and retention in History have been very good.
· Assessment practices in History are thorough and appropriate, and sit well within the overall school assessment structures.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· A review of the manner in which TY History is provided is merited.
· A further review of the content of the TY history programme should be effected to ensure it does not link too closely with the content of the Leaving Certificate syllabus.
· Future departmental discussion should include a general mentoring programme for any PGDE students in History but retain as much focus as possible on the core sharing of practice in teaching and learning.
An informal post-evaluation meeting was held 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, December 2009