An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Coláiste na Sceilge
Cahirciveen, County Kerry
Roll number: 76068N
Date of inspection: 11 May 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste na Sceilge. 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.
The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report, and the response of the board will be found in the appendix of this report.
Subject timetabling for History at junior cycle in Coláiste na Sceilge is very good. All classes study History as a compulsory element of their Junior Certificate, with all having three single periods per week. First-year provision was of just two periods per week some years ago but the current allocation is much more suited to course completion. With very few exceptions, the spacing of history periods is very fair, balanced between morning and afternoon timeslots and across the different days of the week. At present, due in part to outside circumstances, the school is somewhat challenged by the lack of subject specialists in History at junior cycle. While the unqualified personnel have slotted into the gaps with considerable success, the school is hopeful that this situation should be rectified to some extent in the coming year. It is also noted that some qualified history teachers on the staff are not involved in junior cycle subject delivery at the moment and this may also need reconsideration.
The introduction of a history element to the school’s Transition Year (TY) programme some years ago was a good potential support to the subject. The provision of one period per week has proved a little problematic, in that some significant time lapses tend to occur between the lessons due to TY activities, outings and so on. Given that there are two TY classes in the year group, each timetabled currently with one period per week of History, it is recommended that consideration be given to allocating two or even three periods per week to History, over a half-year module for each class. Two periods per week allocated to a half-year module for each class would have no additional resource implications in terms of teacher time. It would also help to ensure that at least one period per week might not be disrupted and it could facilitate more productive outcomes, including student project work and perhaps fuel student enthusiasm for selecting History for Leaving Certificate. The Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) is already strong at the school and, since the vocational subject groupings with this programme militate against the uptake of History, the provision of a more concrete block of time for the subject in TY, even over half a year, would give students more of a taste for History and could help uptake levels for Leaving Certificate at the school.
It has not been possible to facilitate a class group for Leaving Certificate History every year, due to limited uptake. There is, at present, one sixth-year class with good numbers but no fifth-year history class. While mindful of the staffing challenges facing the school, the maintenance of a senior history class, even if numbers are small for a year, should remain a priority. Despite some previously mentioned issues which may affect Leaving Certificate uptake, the school is commended for the open choice of subjects it offers students. Following on from an initial survey of preferences, the current sixth-year students were asked to select History from an option band also containing Music, Agricultural Science, Business, Physics, Home Economics and Biology, with the latter two subjects being available in other bands also. The time allocation of a double lesson and three single lessons for sixth-year History is also satisfactory. At present, just one teacher teaches History to Leaving Certificate level and should it be possible to have a history class in each of the two Leaving Certificate years, it would be important to restore the complement of Leaving Certificate teachers to two at least.
Turning to broader whole-school supports relevant to History, the provision generally of teacher-based rooms is an excellent support, allowing teachers to store materials and mount displays relevant to History. Some teachers have indeed used their base rooms to create significant historical displays and subject supports, although this has not been as feasible for teachers who have History as a relatively minor element of their teaching timetable. A greater focus on historical displays, which might include a notice board about local, school or topical historical interest, would be an additional support to History if prominently located. During the inspection, one of the five classrooms visited was equipped with a data projector. Due to the highly visual nature of much of History, such equipment can be an undoubted support to subject delivery. Given the cost involved in installing further such equipment, the school is simply urged to give consideration to the provision of one or two laptop computers with data projectors placed on trolleys. If resources allow, these could be used by teachers as required, and at a fraction of the cost of installing a suite of such equipment in every room.
Some very positive features of collaborative planning in History were observed during the inspection. Very strong contacts have been established with outside supports such as the providers of in-service training for Leaving Certificate History and with the History Teachers’ Association of Ireland (HTAI). Yearly work schemes have been agreed upon and there is also an outline TY plan which seeks to factor in appropriate activities like research projects, time capsules and oral history. Teachers have also worked well in the development of common assessment instruments. Some excellent guidance has been given to colleagues by a senior teacher on state-examination marking criteria, and the members of the history-teaching team have shown a desire to develop their collaborative practice wherever possible.
It has not been possible to have regular subject-department meetings as only one teacher is involved in teaching a significant number of history classes. Most teachers are more heavily involved in one or even two other subjects. Accordingly, it is difficult to ascribe the term ‘history department’ in the current fluid circumstances. This is an area which needs to be rectified in the structuring of future subject-planning meetings. Where meetings have been held, minutes have been recorded and show a firm commitment to the practicalities of subject planning. It is recommended that all possible steps be undertaken to form a more cohesive history department when circumstances permit, with the rotation of co-ordination duties or sharing of tasks between team members being logical options to pursue. It is also recommended that at least one formal meeting each year be facilitated to help history teachers share their ideas on teaching methodology, experiences of classroom practice, successes and failures.
Good levels of individual planning and preparation by history teachers have been noted. The commitment of non-subject specialists to thorough preparation for lessons is deserving of particular commendation in the present circumstances. Substantial amounts of folder-based support materials were used by teachers in almost all lessons, with other supports being developed on computer and deployed through information and communication technology (ICT). If it becomes feasible to extend the use of ICT in other history classes, the collaborative storage of individual teachers’ resources on an inexpensive school intranet system would be well worth exploring. In general, teachers’ planning was in line with where their classes should be at this stage of the year and showed good awareness of overall syllabus structures. In all documented preparation, the pitch of material, in terms of content and language, was well suited to the classes concerned, largely of mixed ability. Where classes were being taught through the medium of Irish, planning also took good account of the need to develop students’ vocabulary alongside their historical knowledge. Good preparation was also evident in terms of issues like seating arrangements and board visibility, despite occasional difficulties with sunlight, with all teachers also having materials and handouts ready for student use as required.
A good standard of teaching was evident all through the lessons observed during this inspection. Proceedings were characterised by good teacher-student rapport and the use by teachers of a very good language register for the mixed-ability classes being taught. All topics being taught were directly relevant to the syllabus prescribed for the specific year groups and were covered in appropriate detail. Classrooms were well organised and teachers worked productively to make them pleasant learning environments.
Amid the variety of lessons observed, a clear structure was evident in all cases. In some instances, teachers gave initial outlines of the learning intentions underpinning the coming lesson. This was a good support to students’ engagement and should be used in all lessons, ideally accompanied by a brief written outline or heading for visual reinforcement. In some cases, good variety in lesson delivery was allowed for, with students given short pair tasks, or source-based challenges, to complete in a number of lessons. More use of such self-directed tasks is recommended, with a view to adding not only variety but also to place more emphasis on students’ active participation. Where the aim of self direction was to assist students in identifying social change across a lengthy period of time, the use of a three-section board diagram to give a beginning, middle and end form of structure to the outcomes is recommended. Where lessons were taught to classes preparing to sit state examinations within a few weeks, they were structured around the approaches which might be taken to answering questions on particular topics, which is sensible. The use of a presentation by an individual student in order to stimulate others was a very successful format in another lesson. In a small number of instances, an extended period of unstructured student writing was factored into the central part of lessons. This kind of task would be better kept for homework in the main as it can cause something of a lull in lesson development if too long and can take valuable time from what is available for lesson development through discussion and more participative strategies. In general, good review sessions were factored into the final minutes of lessons, with recapitulation questions used in the main. In lessons taught through Irish, an appropriate focus on newly learnt vocabulary was also evident, and it is suggested that a brief revisiting of the initial learning intentions would also help in rounding off all lessons, including those taught through Irish.
A very good range of teaching aids and resources was used by teachers in lesson development. In most lessons, considerable use was made of handouts, including worksheets and pictorial sources.
Sometimes, an overhead projector, television or images from students’ textbooks were deployed to offer the variety of further visual or film-based stimuli, which is applauded. Some very good comparative tasks were assigned to students, using pictorial handouts of scenes from different periods and asking students to identify the changes which had occurred. Elsewhere, good pictorial handouts on art history were used to help students develop a broader understanding of Renaissance developments. In some lessons, a major emphasis was placed on the use of computer-based text and film resources. This also worked well, not least because such materials were integrated on an ongoing basis with discussion, teacher explanation and students’ questioning. The highlighting of ICT-based keywords in a different colour and the continuous mingling of opportunities for students’ oral participation are suggested for consideration in the development of ICT use, which was very good in the lessons observed. Textbooks were used judiciously and never over-used, while the additional supports offered to students studying through Irish included both textbook and ICT-based resources which involved considerable preparatory work by the teacher and were very helpful.
Good questioning was a feature of most lessons observed. Teachers asked questions of a wide range of students, mixing volunteers and selected students as they did so. Sometimes, the oral answers supplied by students to teachers’ questions were used to develop keyword lists on the board, which was a good reinforcement and worthy of more use if possible. Developing spider diagrams or asking students to make word glossaries from such responses could also be tried. In some lessons, somewhat more emphasis on higher-order questioning is recommended. In addition to asking students for factual information around the when and where of History, it is suggested that more delving into how students themselves would feel if placed in the position of a historical figure, what they would do, what conclusions they would draw, and so on would be beneficial in developing deeper thinking and empathy. In all lessons, the way in which teachers encouraged students in their answering, sometimes supplying parts of answers or prompts to help the more reticent students, was very good supportive practice.
The lessons observed generally provided good learning opportunities for students. Some good differentiation strategies were used to assist more reticent students, with the previously mentioned focus on visual stimuli, emphasis on key terms and learning outcomes all deserving of praise. It is recommended that students’ learning can be further reinforced by increasing the degree to which they are asked to take responsibility for their own learning. This can range from as direct a means as encouraging them to make notes as lessons proceed, to more collaborative practice like pair or group work. In some instances, it was good to observe older students spontaneously making notes as lessons proceeded. Some very good examples of teachers making the material covered relevant to learners, through local examples and details drawn from oral history or pictorial sources, have also been noted. Such an emphasis on linking historical material to students’ own lives and interests - the human-interest side of History, so to speak - can have a significant impact on learning outcomes also. Individual examples have been given during the inspection of places where modern football rivalries, television shows, commercial sponsorship, comparing students’ ages and experiences to those of historical personages, and breaking down difficult words into their component parts or language origins can be a further aid students’ learning. The use of a separate notes copybook as a further support to student retention is applauded in a number of classes.
Informal assessment practice was characterised by good oral questioning in all lessons, although in some cases it is recommended that higher-order questions be asked more prominently in order to ensure that students are challenged to think for themselves, as well as recall information. Some very good questioning around old photographs and on an oral presentation was observed and commended. Homework tasks were assigned in all lessons observed, with good links made to the work which had just been done in class and some imaginative use of worksheets was also commended.
In examining homework copybooks, in some instances gaps of a number of weeks appeared between the monitored dates on homework. It is recommended that this is an area which needs greater formalisation and perhaps departmental discussion. Where tasks are done on separate worksheets, for example, it is urged that such worksheets be retained by students in folders or copybooks for later revision purposes. If the formative correction of homework is not feasible in the time available, as is understandable, then the use of a strategy like peer assessment might be considered, where one student may give an answer orally while a second is challenged to assess whether the answer is appropriate or not. The very good advice made available to teachers by a colleague could also be put into practice in the marking of some homework tasks using the ‘significant relevant statement’ (SRS) formula of Junior Certificate History. With older students, the assigning of homework by asking students to write simply the introductory paragraphs to answers could be tried at times as an alternative to time-consuming essay writing and marking. Given the broad mixed-ability composition of most history class groups, the wider use of visual stimuli, drawing tasks, supported and unsupported cloze tests and word-search games are all further assessment tools which could be considered as time allows.
On a whole-school level, a very thorough and systematic analysis of students’ results in state examinations takes place and this is commended. In-house examinations are held at Christmas for each year group, and in summer for non-state examination classes. Students preparing for state examinations sit pre-examinations each spring, which is commended, as is the school’s policy of facilitating parent-teacher meetings and written progress reports for students annually. The school’s homework policy, called ‘learning policy Draft 4’, was examined as part of this evaluation and is a fine document. It is suggested, from the perspective of History and probably other subjects too, that it might additionally refer to skills development and to assessment for learning (afl) as further aims of homework assignments.
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 December 2009
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1 Observations on the content of the inspection report
The report was positive in its tenor, well balanced, constructive and helpful.
The school was commended on its open choice of subjects, on the use of teacher based rooms and more importantly on very positive features of collaborative planning.
Teaching and Learning, our raison d’etre happily came in for some very positive comment: A good standard of teaching was evident all through the lessons observed…All topics being taught were directly relevant to the syllabus…And were covered in appropriate detail. Amid the variety of lessons observed, a clear structure was evident in all cases…A very good range of teaching aids and resources used by teachers…
Criticism was constructive and pointed the way forward-these issues will be dealt with in Area 2.
Area 2 Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection
activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection.
The lack of subject specialist in History at Junior Cycle
The situation at the time was due to one of the two subject specialists being on maternity leave. Presently nine of the eleven groups at Junior Cycle History are being taught by subject specialists, the other two groups are being taught by a Greek and Roman specialist and from Christmas onwards the subject specialist, presently on maternity leave, will take over.
Transition Year students are enjoying two periods of History each week for all of 2009/10. Archaeologist, Michael Gibbons will be visiting the school in January and will meet Junior and TY History classes. Historical displays are being encouraged in the TY programme.
We have installed four data projectors this year. The sensitivity and huge expense of replacement bulbs - €300 – make this preferable to trolley projectors.
We are currently up-dating ICT in the school, the purchase of teacher laptops is being facilitated through Kerry Education Service.
Communities of Practice - (COPS)
COPS within Kerry Education Service is engaged in sharing best practice and are, of course, engaged in the collaborative storage of individual resources.
Subject Planning Meetings
At the start of the school year each department is afforded two hours for subject planning, this will be given further time in the future.
Pair and Group Work / Peer Assessment
We are currently working on this with our staff as part of a programme for enriching teaching and learning in Kerry Education Schools.
Spider Diagrams / Higher Questions
In-service in the above areas is planned for March, as is some work on Concept and Mind Maps.
The staff had a briefing on AFL in September and this will be developed further in the course of this and forthcoming school years.