An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
Ennis Community College
Ennis, County Clare
Roll number: 70830N
Date of inspection: 8 May 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Geography
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Ennis Community College. 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 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 some subject teachers. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
In Ennis Community College Geography forms part of the core curriculum at junior cycle. A combined timetabled allocation of five teaching periods is allocated to History and Geography. As each class group has the same teacher for both History and Geography the allocation of class periods to either subject is at the discretion of the teacher. Given the breadth of the syllabuses for both History and Geography it is recommended that this time provision be increased to six teaching periods in at least one of the junior cycle years.
Class structure at junior cycle consists of streamed classes for some subjects, including Geography, where students are placed according to their ability. It is recommended that the policy of streaming in certain subjects be replaced with a mixed-ability system of class organisation for all subjects. This provision will positively impact on setting expectations for learning, student motivation and participation rates in studying the subject to higher level.
School management is actively planning for the introduction of Geography to the senior cycle curriculum in September 2009. This is highly commended and encouraged.
The geography department benefits from a good level of resource provision including subject-specific resources and access to audio-visual equipment. Wireless broadband is available throughout the school and the school’s information and communication technologies (ICT) facilities are available to the geography teachers via a booking schedule. It is commendable that teachers are assigned base classrooms as this facilitates the creation of visually stimulating geographical learning environments. Some rooms were very well decorated with geographical posters, keyword lists and in some cases students’ project work. It is recommended that all of the geography teachers’ base classrooms be developed in this regard.
The continuing professional development of staff is well facilitated by senior management through the provision of whole-school professional development seminars on a range of topics such as inclusion, differentiation and use of interactive whiteboards. The geography teachers are also commended for their commitment to their own professional development and some of them hold postgraduate qualifications in special needs and teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL).
The school offers the ORBITAL (Outside Resources Brought into Teaching and Learning) programme which is run in conjunction with Ennis West Partners, Clare Vocational Educational Committee (VEC), the Burren outdoor Education Centre and Clare Sports Partnership. This programme which has a cross-curricular focus provides the opportunity for all first-year students to participate in six fieldtrips which include visits to the Cliffs of Moher, the Burren, archaeological digs, and other places of geographical interest and relevance. These learning activities are highly commended for enhancing students’ experience of Geography and extending their learning beyond the classroom. It is encouraged, if possible, that small-scale co-curricular activities based in the local environment be undertaken with other junior cycle class groups.
There are currently three geography teachers in the school one of whom acts as subject co-ordinator. In leading the future development of the subject in the school this position is to be assigned to the teacher with responsibility for the introduction of senior cycle Geography in September 2009. This teacher has attended the in-service courses provided by the Geography Support Service for the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus including ‘Scoilnet maps’ and ‘Geology in the classroom’. As part of the collaborative planning process it is recommended that the resources obtained at these courses be discussed and made available to other members of the department as many of them are useful and relevant for the teaching of junior cycle Geography. These resources should also be detailed in subject plans.
The geography teachers have developed a subject policy document which outlines practices and procedures within the department and curricular plans for each year group. The work achieved to date in subject planning is commended. It is recommended that the specific resources used for teaching the various syllabus topics are detailed in the curricular plans as a means of enabling teachers to readily identify and access these resources as appropriate to the needs and abilities of their particular class groups. The modes of assessment employed to appraise students’ progress should also be included in these plans.
The planned teaching programme for first year includes topics from geomorphology, meteorology and climatology. This places considerable demands on students in terms of technical vocabulary and complex geomorphic processes to be understood at an early stage. It is recommended that the teaching of physical geography topics in a linear sequence in term one of first year be reviewed and that less challenging topics be introduced first. It is also recommended that the study of meteorology should be deferred until third year due to its complexity. It is commendable that maps skills are developed in first year and integrated into the planned teaching programme.
Short-term planning for lessons was evident in the preparation of worksheets, a PowerPoint presentation and the use of videos. The learning objectives were communicated to students at the outset, lessons were well paced and in most cases pitched at a level appropriate to the needs and abilities of students.
Teachers employed a variety of methodologies to deliver lesson content which included whole-class instruction, questioning, use of video clips and worksheet activities. These strategies were most effective where they were combined in a manner which appropriately limited teacher input and facilitated active student engagement with the lesson material. Where the didactic model of delivery dominated it is recommended that planning for lessons should ensure that instruction is punctuated with short tasks based on the lesson content. Such a strategy will add variety to the lesson and afford students’ the opportunity to apply and consolidate their learning. This is particularly important in the context of student concentration and mixed-ability class groups which have some students with English as an additional language (EAL). Visual stimuli were incorporated into lessons including video clips on the River Shannon and migration and a range of digital photographs depicting various urban functions. The use of visual resources is commended and further recommended as a means of contextualising geographical concepts for students and catering for the range of learning styles within mixed ability classroom settings.
Geographical terminology was well explained and students were questioned on terms as they emerged in the lesson. In some cases teachers had developed key word lists which were displayed in the classrooms and their students maintain glossaries in their copybooks. Given the significant number of EAL students studying Geography it is strongly recommended that all the geography teachers should have key words displayed on topics as they are being taught. This provision will assist students in developing their literacy skills and consequently enhance their access to the subject. It is suggested as part of small-scale project work that students produce key word posters and provide matching visuals linked to each word as a further means of supporting them in the acquisition of subject-specific language.
In one lesson there was very good reference to the town of Ennis in explaining and scaffolding students understanding of urban functional zones. Linking Geography to students’ direct experience is good practice and provides for a meaningful learning context. The students engaged in the class discussion with interest and it was clear that learning was taking place. The implementation of such an approach is encouraged as much as possible.
Formal links have been established between the geography department and the learning support department in relation to students in receipt of additional support in Geography. The geography department has developed lists of key geographical terms for use by the resource teachers and EAL students have been provided with translated terms. This is commended. In some lessons teachers used differentiated strategies to support students’ learning. This is commended. It is recommended, as part of the subject planning process for the subject that the geography teachers discuss and share good practice on active learning methodologies and differentiated strategies to effectively cater for the range of students’ abilities in classes. In this regard teachers should give consideration to the collaborative development of a bank of resources for use within the various class groups.
A review of a sample of students’ copybooks and folders indicated that work had been completed on a range of topics. In some cases students’ copybooks had notes on topics. It is recommended that such lesson material is presented using visual graphical supports such as mind maps, spray diagrams and flow charts. These will provide simple summaries of lesson content and help the students to establish connections between different parts of the topic.
A positive atmosphere marked by good rapport between teachers and students was evident in all lessons. The teachers praised students for their contributions and efforts and any questions asked by students were addressed. In cases where tasks were assigned to students the teacher circulated and provided assistance to any individuals experiencing difficulty. The students generally showed good interest in the subject and engaged with all class activities.
Informal assessment of students’ progress was noted in all lessons through questioning and in one lesson the correction of homework and the provision of a class exercise. It was evident from a review of a sample of students’ copybooks that homework is regularly set. In some cases students’ written work was acknowledged solely by a correction mark. In other cases teachers applied assessment for learning (AfL) principles and provided students with developmental feedback on their written work. It is recommended that this practice should be developed across the department as a means of helping students to improve the quality of their work. In this regard the geography teachers should develop an agreed policy in relation to the application of assessment for learning practices in the correction of students’ written work. The website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) at www.ncca.ie will provide guidance on the implementation of AfL principles. While the presentation of some students’ handwriting and written work was of a good standard there was room for improvement in other cases. In this regard it is suggested that neat handwriting, completion and presentation of homework are factored into end of term assessments.
Standard arrangements are in place for formal assessment of students at Christmas and the end of the school year. A pilot scheme based on continuous assessment has been introduced for first year students this year. For other year groups teachers are encouraged to include tests conducted throughout the term in the grade awarded to students at the end of the term. This will serve as a motivational factor for students over the period of the term. There are appropriate mechanisms in placed to keep parents informed of students’ progress including use of the student journal, annual parent-teacher meetings for each year group and school reports.
An analysis of results obtained by students in Certificate examinations reveals that uptake of higher-level Geography is low. The junior-cycle geography syllabus is designed as a common syllabus apart from a few extra components of study at higher level. It is thus recommended that an increase in the uptake at higher level be identified as a key priority for the future development of Geography. Given the introduction of the subject at senior cycle this is also very important as uptake of levels at junior cycle has a direct effect on level uptake at senior cycle. It is also recommended that decisions in relation to choice of examination level be deferred to the latest possible time, at least until after the trial pre-certificate examinations. This will avoid a premature decision to study the ordinary level and will also set high expectation for learning outcomes.
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 some of the teachers of Geography 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 November 2009