An Roinn Oideachais agus EolaŪochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
Ballymahon Vocational School
Ballymahon, County Longford
Roll number: 71690F
Date of inspection: 6 March 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Geography
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Ballymahon Vocational School, Co Longford. 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 studentsí work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachersí 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.
In Ballymahon Vocational School, Geography is a compulsory subject at junior cycle. The subject is allocated three teaching periods per week in each of the three years. At senior cycle, Geography is an optional subject within a structure where students are offered an open choice of subjects. Time allocation to the subject at this level is in line with syllabus guidelines. The majority of lessons at junior and senior cycle are evenly distributed across the school week. This is good practice as it provides regular contact for students with their teachers. It was noted, however, that at senior cycle geography lessons are assigned a number of lessons at the end of the school day. As this is not optimal, it is encouraged that this distribution be reviewed.
The uptake of Geography in year two of the Established Leaving Certificate (ELC) is very good, however, there are no students studying Geography in year one. This is a cause of concern. It is strongly recommended that management consider why this is the case. Both management and the geography teaching team should consider strategies that would address this situation. The recent revisions to the Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus have made Geography a very accessible subject for all academic levels. Given the mixed-ability nature of students in Ballymahon Vocational School it would be disappointing that Geography no longer be offered at senior cycle. Managementís support of the geography teacherís attendance at the recent in-service for the Revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus is commended. Resources and materials provided at these courses should be integrated into the teaching and learning of Geography and be utilised to increase the profile of the subject within the school.
School management is commended for the wide range of resources provided to support teaching and learning in Geography. These resources are catalogued in the subject plan in a general manner. They include posters, maps, globes and rock samples. It is recommended that all of the resources be listed in detail in the subject plan. This will enable teachers to readily identify the resources available to support teaching and learning in the various syllabus units and will also assist in establishing new resource needs. While there is no geography room the majority of geography lessons take place in one classroom. This provision is commended as it facilitates the storage of resources and the creation of a print-rich learning environment. Future timetabling should aim to ensure that as many geography lessons as possible are timetabled in this room.
Evidence of the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) by teachers was observed through the preparation of Ordnance Survey (OS) maps using the OSi Trail Master software. This is commended. It was reported that there is limited use of ICT in the delivery of the geography syllabuses. Teachers have access to a mobile data projector and laptop. Teachers should explore and exploit the potential of ICT as a valuable teaching and learning resource where possible and practicable. The materials and resources available on the Geography Support Service website www.geog.ie would be useful in this area
A number of extra-curricular activities are organised for students to expand and enhance their experience of Geography. These include fieldtrips to Dublin Docklands, Achill and Enniscrone. The work of the geography teachers in this regard is highly praiseworthy.
There was evidence of collaborative planning amongst the geography teachers. There have been a number of formal department meetings. While records of some meetings have been documented it is suggested that the main outcomes of all meetings be recorded to support continuity of planning. Given the present situation of falling uptake of Geography at senior cycle, it is of particular importance that the department structure is formalised so as to plan for the future of the subject within the school. It is recommended that a co-ordinator be appointed in order to focus responsibility for leading subject planning. This role provides valuable opportunities for professional development for teachers and should therefore be rotated on a regular basis. The rotation of subject co-ordinator also ensures that the work and responsibility involved is shared.
The geography teachers have developed long-term plans for each year group which make reference to topics to be taught and in some cases the timeframes involved in teaching them. The textbooks in use are also indicated. Whilst this initial planning is commended, it is recommended that more comprehensive plans with greater detail be drawn up for each year group so that these documents can meaningfully support short-term curricular planning. It is recommended that the curricular plan for each year group indicate a breakdown of topics to be covered, the corresponding resource materials used to support their teaching and learning, statements of the desired learning outcomes and the modes of assessment used to test studentsí knowledge and progress. Consideration should also be given to the inclusion of a variety of teaching methodologies and strategies, including the use of ICT, to support the delivery of the various units of the syllabus. It is acknowledged that this work will take some time to complete and thus it is suggested that it be undertaken on a phased basis. The collaborative development of these plans will lead to further dialogue among the geography teachers and enhance the sharing of practice, ideas and resources.
Teachers are engaged in a significant level of individual planning for teaching. Individual lesson plans and teacher files containing resource sheets, notes, visual stimulus materials and special education needs provision were observed during the evaluation. This level of individual planning is to be highly commended. To build on this, the geography teachers should focus on the need to plan individually for active teaching and learning methodologies to fully engage the range of students in the mixed-ability classroom settings in the school.
Good quality teaching was in evidence in the geography lessons observed. Established classroom routines helped to focus students at the beginning of each lesson. Learning intentions were set out clearly and shared with students. This is very good practice. There was good reference to the local environment where relevant. This is very effective as it creates meaningful links for the students between the topic for study and the real world.
Teachers employed a variety of methodologies to deliver course content including questioning, repetition, explanation and worksheets. Questioning strategies were used in class to revise material covered and to introduce new topics. Questions were also used throughout lessons to repeat new material covered. Repetition of material within lessons consolidates the learning process. In some cases global questioning tended to dominate and in these cases it is recommended that greater use be made of a targeted questioning strategy requiring responses from named individuals. This approach will ensure the increased participation of all students. Sufficient time was given to students to answer and students were continuously affirmed and supported by their teachers. This good practice is both commended and encouraged.
Teacher instructions were clear and all material was explained in a comprehensive manner. There was very effective use of simple visual examples to explain difficult concepts and processes. For example, silt in a jar of water was used to explain the processes of transportation and deposition. This is praiseworthy as it reinforces the learning for students. The geographical materials on display created colourful and motivational learning environments and teachers are commended for this.
In some cases lesson content was presented on handouts in bullet point format with a very appropriate examination focus and structure. These handouts serve as very useful revision aids for students. It is recommended that there be a greater balance between auditory and visual approaches to teaching and learning in all lessons. To that end greater use should be made of the board or the overhead projector for displaying key words or geographical terms as they are being taught. Mind maps, flow charts or other simple visual representations should be used as a means of summarising material or recording studentsí feedback from discussions. Before introducing new material a brainstorming activity could be used to gauge studentsí previous knowledge of a topic. Student feedback could be recorded on the board. This serves both the visual and auditory learner and also affirms students as their opinions and ideas are acknowledged.
The incorporation of worksheets and practical activities into lessons created opportunities to reinforce and test student learning. Cooperative learning should be developed through the introduction of pair work or group work. These and other similar activities would engage students in their own learning and provide the teachers with short periods of time in the lesson to monitor individual studentsí progress.
There was a skills base to some of the lessons observed and students were appropriately assisted in the practical application of map-reading skills. As students completed map reading exercises the teacher circulated so as to provide one to one assistance to any student requiring it. It is recommended that during such lessons, the Ordnance Survey map be displayed on the overhead projector to further facilitate whole-class teaching.
The geography teachers are aware of students with special educational needs and the nature of their various learning difficulties. It was reported that informal links exist between the special education support team and the geography teaching team. This involves the sharing of subject specific resources and key words. It is recommended that formal links be established with the special education support team and the geography teaching team to ensure the inclusion of all students in geography lessons. This collaboration should focus on the exchange of information on methodologies and resource materials to assist the geography teachers in differentiating the syllabuses.
Classroom management was effective in all lessons. Teachers were encouraging and affirmed students for their contributions. This contributed to a positive learning environment. It was clear from classroom observations that students were learning and they displayed a good understanding of the topics under study.
Continuous informal assessment of studentsí progress is carried out in lessons. This is achieved through questioning, in-class exercises and monitoring of homework. In some lessons detailed formative comment was provided to students in the monitoring of their written work to guide the further development of answers. This is to be highly commended. As part of the ongoing collaborative planning process it is recommended that the geography teachers focus on the type of feedback given to students. The methods set out in Assessment for Learning (AfL) should be used to implement these strategies. Information on AfL is available on the website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) www.ncca.ie.
Formal assessments take place at Christmas and the end of the year for non-examinations students. State examinations classes sit mock examinations in the spring. Teachers also employ regular class tests on the completion of topics to assess studentsí knowledge and progress. AfL principles should be applied to the monitoring of these also. The outcomes of formal and informal assessments are reported to parents through parent-teacher meetings and school reports.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
∑ There is an even distribution of lessons across the school week for the majority of classes.
∑ School management provides a wide range of resources to support teaching and learning in Geography.
∑ OSi Trail Master software is used for the production of OS maps.
∑ A number of extra-curricular activities are organised for students to expand and enhance their experience of Geography.
∑ There was evidence of collaborative planning and long-term plans for each year group have been developed.
∑ A significant level of individual planning was in evidence.
∑ Good quality teaching and learning was in evidence in the geography lessons observed.
∑ Students were continuously affirmed and supported by their teachers.
∑ Colourful and motivational learning environments were in evidence.
∑ Classroom management was effective in all lessons.
∑ There was an appropriate focus on examination preparation.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
∑ School management and the geography teaching team should consider strategies to address uptake of Geography at senior cycle.
∑ Teachers should explore and exploit the potential of ICT as a valuable teaching and learning resource where possible and practicable.
∑ A subject department co-ordinator should be appointed and the role rotated regularly.
∑ A more comprehensive subject plan with greater detail should be drawn up for each year group.
∑ Greater use should be made of a targeted questioning strategy requiring responses from named individuals.
∑ There should be a greater balance between auditory and visual approaches to teaching and learning in all lessons.
∑ Formal links should be established between the geography department and the special education needs support team.
∑ The geography teachers should use strategies associated with Assessment for Learning.
Post-evaluation meetings were 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.
Published October 2008