An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
Saint Patrick’s Comprehensive School
Shannon County Clare
Roll number: 81007U
Date of inspection: 27 November 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in geography
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Patrick’s Comprehensive School, Shannon, conducted at 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 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 and subject teachers.
In St. Patrick’s Comprehensive School, Geography is a compulsory subject at junior cycle. The subject is allocated three teaching periods per week in first year and third year. In second year, two teaching periods per week are assigned to Geography, one of which is thirty-five minutes in length. Given the breadth of the junior cycle syllabus it is recommended that the class periods allocated to Geography in second year be at least of forty minutes duration. The majority of classes are evenly distributed across the school week. This is good practice as it provides regular contact for students with their teachers and with the geographical material being studied. It was noted however that there are a small number of class groups at junior cycle level that are assigned geography lessons on three consecutive days. It is encouraged that this distribution be reviewed.
At senior cycle, Geography is an optional subject within a structure where students are offered an open choice of subjects. Geography may be included in a number of the option bands subsequently created depending on the number of students opting to study the subject. This provision is commended for facilitating students’ access to the subject. The uptake of Geography is good given that the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) is a popular option at senior cycle and that Geography is not included within the LCVP subject groupings. Time allocation to the subject at this level is in line with syllabus guidelines.
School management is commended for the wide range of resources provided to support teaching and learning in Geography. There is a dedicated geography room and the majority of teachers have base classrooms. This provision is commended as it facilitates the storage of resources and the creation of print-rich environments. Many of the classrooms visited displayed some maps and were decorated to varying degrees with student-developed materials and geographical charts and posters. This is commended as it serves to stimulate students’ interest and supports their learning. It is suggested that some of the teachers give further consideration to developing the potential of their rooms as print-rich and motivational learning environments. It is recommended that all of the geography classrooms be equipped with large maps of Ireland, Europe and the world. These are an essential resource to support the teaching of locational Geography, which is relevant to all areas of the syllabus.
The geography department benefits from a good range of subject-specific resources. These resources that are catalogued in the subject plan in a general manner. They include videos, DVDs, Ordnance Survey (OS) maps, aerial photographs, reference books, weather and fieldwork instruments 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. The geography teaching team also has easy access to audio-visual equipment such as TVs, CD players, VCR/DVDs and overhead projectors.
The school has excellent information and communications technologies (ICT) facilities. There are three computer laboratories that can be accessed by a booking arrangement. One of the geography classrooms is equipped with an interactive white board and the geography room has a dedicated computer and data projector. There are also three desktops for teachers’ use in the staffroom. It was reported that ICT is used to varying degrees in the teaching of Geography. It was clear from discussions on the day of the evaluation that the integration of ICT is well advanced at senior cycle to support the teaching of the revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus. This is commended. It is recommended that all teachers explore and exploit the potential of ICT as a valuable teaching and learning resource.
Management encourages the professional development of its teachers and the relevant teachers have attended the recent national in-service training for the revised Leaving Certificate Geography syllabus. It is suggested that the resources obtained at these in-service sessions be discussed with all of the geography teaching team as they would be most useful in supporting the teaching and learning of various sections of the junior cycle syllabus.
A number of co-curricular activities are organised for students to expand and enhance their experience of Geography including field trips to the Burren and foreign tours with a geographical focus. The Leaving Certificate students on a recent trip to Italy had the opportunity to climb Mount Vesuvius and visit areas of geographical interest. The work of the geography teachers in this regard is praiseworthy.
There are currently seven geography teachers in the school, two of whom teach senior cycle Geography. Classes generally retain the same teacher throughout junior cycle and again in the senior cycle. This is good practice as it enables a consistent teaching approach to be developed from year to year.
School management has facilitated the planning process by providing opportunities for a formal planning meeting to be held at the start of the school year. There is also a weekly dedicated planning time slot which can be availed of by subject departments as the need arises. It is recommended that records be kept of the outcomes of all formal meetings to support continuity of planning. The geography teachers also have regular informal meetings to discuss pertinent issues.
One teacher acts as co-ordinator and leads subject planning and the development of the geography department. It is recommended that this role be rotated so that the skills this position requires can be developed by all members of the geography teaching team. Teachers have worked collaboratively to produce the subject plan and the considerable work carried out to date is commended. Long-term curricular planning has been undertaken for each year group. To further build on this good work it is recommended that these plans be developed into short-term schemes of work. These documents should outline topics to be taught within shorter timeframes and indicate the corresponding resource materials, methodologies, assessment modes and learning outcomes to be attained. The development of these plans will necessitate further collaboration among the geography teachers and provide a rich opportunity for the sharing of good practice, ideas and resources.
In some cases teachers had compiled folders of revision notes, overhead transparencies, worksheets and assessments for use in their lessons. This extensive planning and preparation for their work is commended and will enrich the quality of teaching and learning in their classrooms.
The curricular plan for first year Geography focuses on physical Geography and meteorology. These aspects of the syllabus require students to understand complex geomorphic processes and they also contain a lot of technical terminology. It is recommended that this provision be reviewed and that consideration be given to the introduction of less technical topics at this stage. The development of map and photograph skills should also be considered in first year.
There was evidence of effective individual planning in most cases which impacted positively on the pace and structure of lessons. Where teachers had prepared resource materials these were appropriately integrated to support students’ learning and they contributed to the quality of those lessons.
In the majority of lessons good quality teaching and learning was observed. However, in some cases there was limited coverage of topic material relative to class contact time. Given the breadth of the junior cycle syllabus it is recommended that planning be undertaken to ensure that there is adequate progression through the syllabus and appropriate continuity from the previous lesson.
Most lessons had definite teaching objectives and students were made aware of these. This is good practice as it provides a clear focus to both teachers and students on the direction of the lesson. Informing students of the work in hand also facilitates and encourages students to monitor their own progress. It is encouraged that this practice is used in all lessons.
Teachers employed a variety of methodologies to deliver course content including questioning, board work, explanation, pair work and worksheets. In all lessons teachers demonstrated a good knowledge of the subject and their explanations were clear and accurate. There were many instances where students’ understanding of geographical concepts was clarified and supported by linking the theory to concrete examples drawn from the local environment. This is good practice.
There was regular recap of key learning points built into each lesson. The students were challenged to apply and reinforce their learning through the provision of worksheets and other practical tasks. Pair work was also introduced in some lessons, which allowed opportunities for peer learning. It was also noted that teachers provided students with mnemonics and other strategies to assist them in remembering important information. These provisions are commended as aids to the retention of information.
Questioning was used in classes to revise material covered and to introduce new topics. In one lesson there was excellent use of this methodology to advance and scaffold students’ understanding of the rock cycle. Through a series of carefully planned and structured questions students were prompted and directed along specific lines of enquiry. Using this strategy the teacher skilfully linked the various elements of the cycle and seamlessly elicited the required information from the students. This approach is in line with best practice as it gives the students a strong sense of ownership of their own learning. Higher-order thinking skills of analysis, deduction and synthesis were also challenged and exercised for the duration of the lesson. In many lessons global questioning tended to dominate which frequently led to the same group of students providing the answers. It is recommended that teachers increase their use of directed questions as a means of challenging individual students and keeping the entire class group alert and attentive. This strategy will also enable teachers to more effectively gauge the level of students’ understanding and knowledge.
The geography teachers are appropriately informed of students with additional educational needs. Extra classes have been created to support students with special educational needs in their study of Geography. It was clear from the planning documentation viewed for some of these classes that the methodologies employed in the lessons are specifically tailored to suit the needs and ability levels of the students. This provision is commended. All of the mainstream geography classes are of mixed ability. There was evidence of differentiation by intervention as teachers provided individual assistance to students who were experiencing difficulties in completing tasks. In order to support the full range of abilities within the mainstream setting it is recommended that formal structures be put in place to facilitate regular liaison between the geography department and the learning-support department. This contact should focus on the exchange of information on methodologies and resource materials to assist the geography teachers in differentiating the teaching of syllabuses. The website of the Special Education Support Service (SESS) www.sess.ie will also provide some useful guidelines to support this work. It is also recommended that key word lists of technical terminology be developed and displayed in a strategic place in the classroom as topics are taught. These visuals will help to reinforce the language of Geography and thereby enhance the subject’s accessibility to the students.
Classroom management was effective and a respectful relationship was evident between the students and their teachers. The students were interested in their work and engaged willingly in all activities in a spirit of diligence. The mixed-ability nature of classes was evident from the varying standards of work completed in students’ copybooks. In general students displayed a good level of knowledge and understanding of the topics under study relative to their abilities. Teachers affirmed students in all of their responses, which contributed to a positive learning atmosphere.
Continuous informal assessment of students’ progress is carried out in lessons. This is achieved through questioning, the correction of homework and written tasks completed in class. There was evidence of the purposeful movement of teachers among students as they worked on class assignments. In this manner the work of individual students was monitored and assistance provided where students required further direction. This good practice is commended. It is suggested that teachers consider the increased use of project work as an instrument of assessment. It is also suggested that such work be put on view in classrooms to enhance the visible presence of Geography.
It was clear from a sample of copybooks reviewed during the inspection that homework is frequently set. The students’ written work showed limited evidence of developmental comments. It is recommended that such commenting be further developed to provide constructive feedback to students on improving the quality of their work. The website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment www.ncca.ie provides direction and ideas for the implementation of ‘Assessment for Learning’ principles.
Formal assessments take place at Christmas and the end of the year for non-examination students. State examination classes sit formal Christmas examinations and mock examinations in the spring. An analysis of the results of the certificate examinations takes place and these are discussed at departmental level. This practice is commended. Teachers also employ regular class tests on the completion of topics to assess students’ knowledge and progress. In some cases the results attained in these form part of the students’ overall grade in the end of term assessments. This practice is commended as it serves as an additional motivational factor for students to work consistently throughout the year. In one class the students were provided with insightful feedback on their performance in such a test. The teacher highlighted areas where students had done well and appropriately explained where and why they lost marks. The students were also required to review their work using the marking scheme for the test. This practice is highly commended and its use is encouraged in all classes.
The teachers maintain records of students’ attendance, homework that is not completed and assessment results. There is a variety of procedures in place to ensure that parents are kept well informed on students’ progress including school reports, parent-teacher meetings and the student journal. This level of communication with parents is commended.
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 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 June 2008