An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Saint Michael’s College
Ailesbury Road, Dublin 4
Roll number: 60561G
Date of inspection: 8 April 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St. Michael’s College, conducted as part of a whole school evaluation. 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.
St Michael’s College offers History as a core subject within its junior cycle, as is appropriate for a voluntary secondary school. The provision of three single periods per week for all junior history classes is satisfactory, as is the fact that, in nearly all instances, these periods are evenly spread across the days of the week and between morning and afternoon slots on the timetable. Teachers generally retain the same classes throughout the three years of junior cycle and this is also applauded as a support to continuity of syllabus delivery in History.
In senior cycle, provision for History is quite satisfactory. The Transition Year (TY) history class is timetabled for a double period, currently on a Friday. While this can facilitate project work or historical fieldtrips, it has sometimes transpired that activities unrelated to History have caused some weeks’ lessons to be missed. The timetabling of two single periods on different days is suggested as a means of offsetting the impact of such disruption to a degree, although this could militate against the possibility of undertaking project work. The current timetabling as a double period should be reviewed. In each of fifth and sixth year, the provision of a double period and three single periods for History is satisfactory, with the balance across the days of the week and across the timeslots being very good.
The school’s senior options mechanism has resulted in History being offered in TY to those students who select it from a choice of three subjects, rather than globally as a TY historical studies module. The merits of this are debatable. It is of some concern that an element of rigidity enters into senior subject choice from this juncture. It is possible for a TY student to opt in or out of History prior to the commencement of the Leaving Certificate course; however, the choice in TY tends to reflect the choice offered in fifth year also, with History on offer against Biology and Business. While it is applauded that Business is also offered in another timetable block, and that it is conceivable that a second History option could be offered if demand was sufficient, custom and practice here sees History offered against two very strong subjects, with little flexibility. Should it be possible for the school to consider an open subject choice initially, from which subject blocks are drawn up to best suit students’ preferences, this could help ensure that students are opting in or out of senior History for more considered reasons than can obtain in a fixed system.
General resourcing of History has been very good. There is a very fine library facility in the school, with a good selection of history books and some periodicals. The suggestion to augment the stock of up-to-date periodicals was discussed at the time of the evaluation. Most subject teachers have their own base rooms and these are well equipped with visual displays, televisions and DVD players. Overhead projectors were also found in most rooms visited, while a staged expansion of information and communication technology (ICT), specifically laptop computers and data projectors, has also begun to impact very positively in some of the rooms where History is taught. An annual budget allocation to History is very satisfactory, and the school’s support for field trips, including a trip to Poland last year, and visits to see historical sites and films in Dublin has been very helpful to the subject. A wonderful set of acetate transparencies has also been procured for classroom use. Teachers are supported in becoming members of the History Teachers Association of Ireland (HTAI) and the school is applauded for its policy of releasing teachers, who are teaching or about to teach Leaving Certificate History, to attend in-service training sessions given by the History Inservice Support Team (HIST).
There has been significant progress in subject planning in History in recent years. An outline department plan has been developed, using the templates provided by the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI). This has given a clear structure to the department’s modus operandi. A very thorough and honest appraisal of where the department stands in relation to the recommendations of the national Looking at History report published by the Inspectorate in 2006 has also been provided and is a very useful self-evaluative blueprint for the future. History resources not stored in the library are kept secure for teachers’ access in a designated office facility. Some very good plans for work in different year groups have been presented, while further evidence of a good degree of collaborative planning is found in the practice of holding common examinations for junior classes at end of term. The department is commended for its foresight in seeking the deployment of some relatively new teachers into senior history, while the continued presence of long-serving teacher expertise offering advice and support has helped to ensure continuity for the foreseeable future.
Some recommendations are offered in seeking to augment subject planning further. It is advised that the maintenance of agendas for and minutes of the three meetings held each year would bring a greater sense of formality to the department’s work. This said, the focus of as much planning time as practicable should remain on how best colleagues can share their ideas and experiences in the core areas of teaching and learning. Consideration of how the availability of ICT can assist the teaching of History is also worthwhile, perhaps to include the pooling of individual teachers’ resources on disc or on a school intranet system, now that all classrooms are networked and have Broadband access. Such a project, ideally done on a phased basis, can ultimately save teachers time, not add to their workloads. The department has itself identified the maintenance of healthy numbers taking senior History as a priority. Certainly, from the whole-school perspective also, this is a laudable aim. The possibility of establishing a subject-specific notice board or display area and highlighting how the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus grades nationally stand up to scrutiny are recommended for consideration. So too is the value of ensuring that any students interested in careers in commerce or enterprise are fully aware of the fact that the revised History syllabus has subsumed Economic History and is considerably more business-oriented than might have been the case heretofore.
At an individual level, teachers presented good, and sometimes exceptional, evidence of written planning for their classes. At an optimum level, such planning focused on time management, curricular relevance, resources, methodologies and assessment procedures. In all instances, clear structures to lessons were evident, as were clear links between the material being taught and the relevant history syllabus. Teachers have developed considerable banks of handout materials for use with classes and a number of these were distributed to classes as appropriate to the aims of lessons.
In all lessons observed, a positive teacher-student rapport was evident. Even where students arrived (unavoidably) late in some instances, classes settled quickly to work with the minimum of fuss. In general, the initial moments of lessons were used by teachers to correct orally some assigned homework, some teachers also monitored the work done by circulating around the room. The teaching of History was facilitated by good room equipment and visual stimuli on the walls in most instances, while desk layout in all rooms was ample to allow teacher movement as desired. In some lessons where group or pair work was employed, the lay out of desks in pairs or threes provided a ready-made facility for this work, with student-student interaction during such collaboration being again very positive.
Questioning was a central feature of early lesson development in all classes observed. In general, this was carried out effectively, varying from short factual questions on homework to more searching ones, seeking deeper understanding. This worked particularly well where teachers posed questions to named students in the main, and less so to volunteers. The need to ensure that as many students as possible are brought into the answering of questions has been stressed. In some junior lessons, very good higher-order questioning was employed, well targeted towards the sort of challenging questions which can occur in elements of higher-level examination papers. In senior classes, it was good to note that questions aimed at students whose views were diametrically opposed were very successful in developing the sort of discursive analysis of a modern period which should stand students in good stead in tackling more challenging written examination questions. Some good use was made of focused reading tasks which then acted as springboards for analytical questioning by teachers. It has been suggested that it is preferable to get students to undertake such short reading tasks, rather than have the teacher do the reading, as the former can help in gauging the degree of understanding students may have with either primary or secondary historical material.
In all lessons observed, good use was made of visual stimuli in an effort to explain material and engage students simultaneously. At times, visual material was presented on an overhead projector, as with topics on the ascent of man and eighteenth century revolutions, with concurrent questioning in relation to the visuals presented. On other occasions, short video features were shown relevant to archaeology and communism, with every reasonable opportunity for encouraging student analysis being availed of. While some minor recommendations could be made in relation to lighting and visibility of screens and subtitles, these should not take from a very high degree and quality of visual presentation in the lessons visited. With older students, ICT-based presentations, including PowerPoint and short DVD excerpts, afforded similar opportunities for visual enhancement of the topics being taught. Whether assistive technology formed part of a lesson or not, the successful use of visually supportive materials generally was evident in all lessons. In the main, teachers used their boards very well, judiciously adding key words and summaries to them as a visual reinforcement of what students needed to know. The quality of handouts used in a similar fashion, both to stimulate work on primary sources, including visuals and text, and to tie in revision notes and questions was very effective. Word puzzles and internet-derived questionnaires were also among the handouts used, while in several lessons, the students were asked to work in pairs or small teams on such handout-based tasks, with occasionally the textbook being used in a similar fashion or for pair research. Excessive reliance on textbook reading was never a feature of any lesson seen.
The good quality of teaching observed overall was significantly enhanced by the level of topical and student-relevant work done in classes. Very good comparisons and contrasts were drawn, for example, between modern Irish politics and those of a totalitarian state, and between the stone age and the lives of modern day tribes in South America. Explanations of historical terms were uniformly of a high quality, drawing often on students’ prior understanding of languages or of films and television programmes. Some of the more gory details regarding weaponry and executions were also successfully and appropriately employed to heighten student interest, as were some of the oddities of historical circumstance, including the reasons for the taking of oaths on a tennis court in 1789 and the throwing of tea into Boston harbour some years earlier. Senior students faced more challenging tasks, such as understanding the origins of an economic crisis or the spirit of revolution in the 1960s. Here, teachers worked very successfully to present the finer details and nuances in a fashion which students could readily engage with, often using visual and primary source materials to enrich the work. Merely as a possible enhancement of the high quality work done, the possibility of exploring cross-curricular links with English when examining political speeches is recommended.
In general, good strategies were evident in ensuring student learning and retention. The focus on pair work, group work and questioning already referred to contributed significantly to student engagement and learning. Teachers are encouraged to place a little more of the onus on students’ shoulders and a little less on their own delivery. These could include increased use of focused questioning, student reading tasks and discussion where practicable. In some lessons, a culture of note-taking by students had clearly been developed and this is worthwhile in all lessons, especially if the onus can be placed on students to decide what should be noted, rather than notes being given directly to them. In some instances, a culture of formal retention of notes in hard copybooks, and of handouts in folders, has been developed and it is recommended that such retention strategies ought to be employed across all history classes, if possible. In an overall context, the efforts of teachers to ensure that students have come to view History as an interesting subject and one relevant to modern life has done much to ensure that good levels of learning have taken place in the history lessons observed during the inspection.
As previously mentioned, good teacher-driven questioning has been observed as an informal assessment tool in all classes observed. Written assessment methods, including strategies for the correction of student work, have been found to be quite varied in History. Significant emphasis on the assignment of full written questions in senior classes, with related intensive teacher correction, has been applauded. As a norm, teachers here employed significant formative commentary on students’ work, with some instances of this being combined with the awarding of marks for paragraph-equivalents, as in the Leaving Certificate, also being highly commended. A strategy which might be worth employing would be the assignment of questions to students but asking them to write just the opening paragraph. This could help to focus them on the requirements of a particular question, or of a number of questions. Procedures in place for the completion of research study reports by senior students are very satisfactory and are based, or due to be based, on a staged, developmental approach.
Some similar formative assessment strategies were noted among junior classes, while other homework correction was done orally at the outset of lessons, with teachers either monitoring copybooks or placing initials at the end of homework. Some very good word puzzle games were seen as part of junior homework, while it has been recommended that a focus on training students from an early age in the ‘significant relevant statement’ (SRS) marking technique can not only allow for relatively speedy correction of work by teachers but also help to acquaint students with what constitutes good quality ‘history’. There is not, as yet, a generic homework policy in place for History or across the school. This would be worthwhile, particularly at junior level, in seeking to arrive at a degree of consistency in the assignment and assessment of homework. History always presents a challenge to the maintenance of a regular homework regime, given that it is on offer on just three days of the week, but as previously mentioned the spread of these periods across the timetable is very good and can be a fine support to the regularising of junior history homework. The occasional use of diagrammatic tasks is suggested for broadening the modes of assessment via homework, given the mixed-ability contexts involved.
Formal school assessment policies are satisfactory. Formal in-house examinations are held at Christmas and summer, with the summer examinations for third-year and sixth-year classes being replaced by mock examinations in Spring and, naturally, the state examinations themselves in June each year. A good system of parent-teacher meetings and reporting complements this school assessment system. It is particularly good to note that common assessment instruments are used with junior classes, in History and other subjects, as such common examinations undoubtedly contribute to a uniform approach to syllabus delivery and assist in gauging how students are progressing vis à vis their peers.
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 principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published October 2008