An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
Our Lady’s College
Drogheda, County Louth
Roll number: 63850F
Date of inspection: 24 January 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Geography
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Our Lady’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 Geography 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 geography teaching team is extremely well supported by school management with the provision of a dedicated geography room and a wide range of resources, especially in the area of information and communication technology (ICT). The school has recently acquired an interactive whiteboard. Resources have been catalogued and this inventory is included in the subject department plan. This level of resource provision has enabled teachers to be creative in the delivery of the planned teaching programme to students.
Environmental awareness is promoted within the school and this has resulted in the award of the Green Flag. To promote this awareness notices are displayed throughout the building reminding students of their responsibilities in this regard. The issuing of a Green Schools Newsletter, a copy of which was provided during the evaluation, further reinforced this. This attention to environmental awareness gives a practical expression to the aims of the geography syllabuses and is highly commended.
All students in junior cycle study Geography and all classes have been allocated three teaching periods per week. Geography is present in the Transition Year (TY) programme where it is studied under the title ‘Environmental Studies’. This is delivered as a module over fifteen weeks and is allocated two class periods per week. For the Established Leaving Certificate Geography is an optional subject and is allocated five single class periods per week. Students are presented with pre-set option bands from which they choose their subjects. The uptake of the subject is in a very healthy state with three or four class groups in each of the Leaving Certificate years. All classes are concurrently timetabled and this is used to create higher and ordinary level class groups. However as the Leaving Certificate syllabus in Geography is designed to be delivered in a mixed-ability class setting and as a means of increasing student choice it is recommended that Geography should appear on a number of option bands for the Leaving Certificate students.
The current geography teaching team consists of twelve teachers, some of who teach the subject to only one class group. A number of the teachers have worked collaboratively particularly in developing and delivering fieldwork exercises. A subject coordinator and school management facilitate collaborative planning. The good practice of rotating the role of coordinator amongst members of the department is in place. As a means of facilitating further subject department planning and of developing a more cohesive subject department it is recommended that a more compact team with a reduced number of geography teachers be created. Teachers have participated in continuing professional development (CPD) for the revised Leaving Certificate geography syllabus and have attended conferences organised by the Association of Geography Teachers of Ireland (AGTI). It is also commendable that CPD has been provided by members of the geography teaching team to each other, notably in the use of ICT and its integration into the planned teaching programmes. This reflects teachers’ commitment to the subject and has enabled them to keep their knowledge of the subject up-to-date and to develop further their pedagogical skills.
Subject department planning is very well established and written plans were provided for the subject and for the TY module ‘Environmental Studies’. Minutes of subject department meetings were also provided during the evaluation. School management on two occasions during the school year provides formal planning time. It was reported that many informal planning meetings take place to deal with issues as they arise and to facilitate a collaborative approach to planning for out-of-class learning and the organisation of assessment procedures.
The subject department plan based on the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) template outlines an agreed teaching plan for all year groups, makes reference to teaching methodologies and agreed procedures for assessment and recording of student progress. As the school has students from many cultural backgrounds commendably the plan recognises the contribution Geography can make in relation to catering for a culturally diverse student population. The unique contribution of these cultures is recognised throughout the teaching programmes and is particularly focused on in the study of optional unit six ‘Global Interdependence’ and unit eight ‘Culture and Identity’ from the Leaving Certificate geography syllabus. It is praiseworthy that notices in several languages and the national flags of countries are displayed in the school.
The development of a fieldwork programme for junior cycle classes is identified as an area for further development and this is very highly commended. In reviewing the curriculum plans for each year it is suggested that teachers focus on expressing the syllabuses in terms of learning outcomes rather than in terms of content alone. The learning outcomes could then be related to curriculum content, teaching methodologies, resource provision and assessment. This would conform to the most recent National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) recommendations. The planned first-year teaching programme contains a focus on topics from geomorphology, meteorology and climatology. This places significant demands on students at this early stage in terms of technical vocabulary and the understanding of complex processes. It is recommended that the planned teaching programme for junior cycle classes be reviewed and consideration be given to the development of map and photograph skills, using large scale maps and photographs of the local area, at an early stage in first year. These skills could then be practised and integrated into the teaching programme for succeeding years.
Planning and preparation by individual teachers was of a very high standard. Some teachers not visited during the evaluation process made planning documents available. All lessons observed had clear aims that were shared with students at the outset. In most lessons teaching and learning was supported by the provision of very high quality and appropriate teacher-generated resources. These resources included: OSi Trail Master, worksheets, atlases and globes, supplementary textual materials, articles from the print media, and support materials for an urban field study. The use of PowerPoint presentations with accompanying worksheets prevented an over-emphasis on teacher activity, as students were required to engage in the learning activity as they completed the worksheets. This is an example of very good practice. The provision of such a wide range of resources is a measure of the dedication of teachers to provide appropriate, up-to-date and stimulating learning experiences for their students. This is very highly commended.
Out-of-class learning is a notable feature of the geography teaching programme in Our Lady’s College. In addition to the geographical investigation for the Leaving Certificate, trips to significant geographical sites such as the Burren and the Giant’s Causeway are undertaken. The planned delivery of fieldwork in the junior cycle is a significant and praiseworthy development. During the evaluation, worksheets and maps used by second year students in carrying out a study in urban geography were made available and discussed. The good practice of evaluating the learning outcomes of such an activity was evident.
Classroom management was of a very high standard in the lessons observed with some examples of excellent practice. Student learning was scaffolded; students enjoyed the lesson and were affirmed by their teachers. Particularly effective in engaging interest and stimulating discussion was the use of examples drawn from current news items, the local environment or from the students’ personal experiences. Interesting and lively discussions were noted particularly when students discussed the causes of migration from West Africa and as they discussed plans for the future development of Drogheda’s docklands.
Teachers in Our Lady’s College support students’ learning by the provision of some classes with small numbers of students in the junior cycle. Further support in geography is provided for students as teachers moved around the classroom offering one-to-one guidance to individual students as appropriate. Members of the geography teaching team could further support students by means of team teaching. This method of support should be considered. As a means of providing for the learning and language needs of the variety of students in the school it is recommended that teachers work collaboratively to develop strategies for differentiated learning. This could include a focus on the development of literacy and numeracy skills needed in the teaching programmes. Examples of how this might be done include the display of key terms in classrooms and the judicious use of articles from the print-media. Resources to support this were made available during the evaluation. Language support for students with English as an additional language (EAL) could be developed by the use of differentiated worksheets containing the key geographical terms used in lessons and by requiring students to use a dictionary to write and then learn these terms in their first language. Resources for language support are available from Integrate Ireland Language and Training at www.iilt.ie and teachers are encouraged to access these resources.
An investigative and exploratory approach to learning was evident in most of the classrooms visited as teachers used a variety of teaching methods to stimulate interest and to actively engage students in the learning process. Through focused questioning teachers challenged students to reflect on their knowledge and to offer possible solutions to geographical problems; ‘what do you think?’ or ‘we will investigate this further’ were recurring phrases in some of the classrooms visited. The integration of ICT into the teaching and learning process was a notable feature in most lessons observed and this provided a strong visual approach to teaching the subject. Teachers had frequently obtained resources from the Internet and students were encouraged to visit appropriate websites referred to by their teachers. A very good balance was struck between teacher input and student activity in almost all of the lessons observed. Activity-based learning was observed as students completed worksheets, engaged in pair work and small group work or were involved in question and answer sessions with their teachers. Topics taught in the lessons observed included: language as a cultural indicator, fluvial deposition and human interaction, migration, landforms due to marine erosion, global warming, Ordnance Survey (OS) map skills and fluvial processes and human responses.
Students were knowledgeable about their courses, were keenly aware of environmental issues and willingly expressed their strongly held views in a number of lessons observed.
A highly commendable feature of assessment was observed in one of the classrooms visited where, arising from the assessment of a previous lesson, the teacher had identified difficulties being experienced by students in relation to specific OS maps skills. This was used to inform planning for the lesson where the skills causing difficulty were re-visited. By the end of the lesson students’ increased ability and confidence were evident.
Teachers use a variety of methods of assessment, both formal and informal to monitor students’ progress. In all of the lessons observed teachers used focused questioning to monitor students’ understanding and they moved around the classroom to assess how students were developing their geographical skills. Homework is regularly assigned, corrected and monitored. Class tests are set when sections of the teaching programme have been completed. Records of attendance, homework and class tests are maintained and used to inform reports of students’ progress and at formal parent-teacher meetings. It was noted that in most cases students had received constructive feedback by way of comments in their copybooks. Where appropriate, students had completed work on past certificate examination questions. A policy in relation to assessment for learning (AfL) should be developed and included in the subject department plan. It is suggested that ‘comment only’ marking be employed in the early stages as students begin to answer past examination questions.
Continuous assessment of students’ progress takes place during the first term. First, second, third, TY and sixth-year students receive reports toward the end of the first term. Fifth-year students sit a common examination in October. Results from this are used to monitor if students have chosen the most appropriate level in the subjects being studied for the Leaving Certificate. Third-year and sixth-year students sit pre-examinations in the second term. End-of-year examinations, with common papers and marking schemes, are held for all other class groups. The setting of common examination papers is commended. It was reported that an analysis of results in certificate examinations is carried out by the principal and the geography teaching team and this is good practice. There is scope for the school to review the levels taken by students in the Junior Certificate examination, and in so doing more students could be encouraged to attempt the higher level.
Work in students’ copybooks was generally of a high standard, reflecting the high expectations of their teachers. Work was presented in a logical order, maps and diagrams were carefully drawn and appropriately coloured and the overall presentation was clear. It is suggested that an agreed policy be developed in relation to how students’ learning can be scaffolded by having separate copybooks for notes and summaries of courses, and homework.
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.