An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Baile Mhic Íre, Co. Cork
Roll number: 70920O
Date of inspection: 30 November 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Ghobnatan. 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 one day during which the inspector visited classrooms and observed teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with students and teacher, examined students’ work, and had discussions with the teacher. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and the teacher’s written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and subject teachers.
Coláiste Ghobnatan offers History as a core subject for all students in first year, where there are two class groups, but as an optional one from the start of second year. This is in line with the guidelines for vocational schools contained within the Rules and Programmes for Secondary Schools. History enters an open choice system for students as they near the end of first year, with the result that it is not placed opposite any particular subject in the initial selection process. Healthy numbers of students have opted to continue with History in second and third year, although it is noticeable that all but two of the second-year class are girls, which suggests that ongoing monitoring of the gender breakdown in history uptake would be worthwhile. The breakdown in third year is reported to be more even. It is also noted that for those students who opt to do the Transition Year (TY) at the school, History is again a core subject, with a fine focus on local study being evidenced. Beyond TY, History is available to students as an option for Leaving Certificate, with a small class having been viable in the present fifth year but insufficient uptake numbers militating against there being a history class in the current sixth-year group. Overall, the school’s provision of access for students to History is very fair.
Timetabling in junior cycle sees History have an average of 2.5 single periods per week in first year, alternating between three periods and two periods each week to facilitate a taster system for students. This is satisfactory. In each of second and third year, History has an excellent four periods per week. These are mostly configured as double periods, due to the fact that the subject is generally placed on the timetable across from subjects which require double periods for practical work. This may well contribute to the gender imbalance referred to in second year previously. The prevalence of double periods is not ideal for History but the provision of four periods overall is a strong support to the subject and teaching strategies have been adapted to take account of the double periods. In one instance, it is unfortunate that the timetabling for History sees it have two double periods on consecutive days and then none for the remainder of the week. This is not ideal and has been acknowledged by management very readily as something which ought to be avoided in the future.
In senior cycle, it is commendable that all students who opt for TY are expected to study History for an average of 1.5 periods per week over the year. These are configured as three periods per week for two distinct time blocks, the period from September to Hallowe’en and another period in the second/third term. This is satisfactory time provision, perhaps with the suggestion that having a double period for TY History instead of two of the single periods might better facilitate project work. This is offered merely for consideration, as the standard of the project work previously undertaken has certainly been satisfactory regardless of timetable layout. In fifth year, where History had been placed this year against Biology, Engineering and Accounting after students had chosen their preferences, the subject has a healthy five periods per week, again mainly positioned as double periods. These are well spaced in the weekly schedule.
In terms of broader provision, the school is highly commended for the manner in which it has supported the development of information and communication technology (ICT) as an aid to teaching History. Each teacher has been provided with a laptop computer, several classrooms have data projectors, all have broadband internet access and are networked. The school has a relatively small stock of history books in its library and accesses the resources of the local branch of Cork County Library as well as Cork City Library’s services, particularly for senior project work. History does not have a fixed annual budget but management has confirmed that money is available to meet all reasonable requests. Certainly, the merits of some investment in subject-specific periodicals have been discussed productively during the inspection. It has not been feasible to create a designated history room in the current school building. However, when the school’s anticipated extension programme comes to fruition, it is planned to move to teacher-based classrooms as much as possible. This should allow for the easy decoration of such classrooms with history-based maps, charts and other visual stimuli which could enhance the relevant rooms, and support teaching and learning, at relatively low cost.
Coláiste Ghobnatan has begun subject department planning in recent times. With just two teachers of History on staff, and each dealing with a different cycle in terms of subject delivery, it has been acknowledged that the departmental structure is looser than might be were more teachers involved. This is not a criticism per se and the good work which has been done by teachers through occasional formal and frequent informal meetings has been very evident. Clear plans have been applied to the work in each year group, with a very fine TY programme which focuses very well on skills development, social and local history being particularly commendable. The senior cycle teacher has also attended the in-service sessions provided by the History In-Service Team (HIST), including those specifically geared towards those teaching the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus through Irish. Indeed, some excellent lesson notes have been developed by attendees at the Irish-language in-service sessions, including input from Coláiste Ghobnatan, and these have been made available to teachers online at national level.
A challenge which history teachers at Coláiste Ghobnatan have identified, and which has been very evident during the inspection also, is that of teaching the subject through Irish while having to rely on significant amounts of English-language resource materials. This has meant that the teachers have developed large amounts of their own written materials, generally via computer, which are of an excellent standard. Excellent vocabulary sets, specific to historical study and produced by COGG, have also been used. The aim in much of teachers’ preparation work has been to break down the historical material into intelligible Irish for students, given that some of the existing Irish language material is felt to be of a standard which is excessively challenging for second level students in the Gaeltacht. Given the body of work which teachers have thus developed, and their expertise in ICT use, it has been recommended that they consider pooling their separate resources via an intranet system, which could be set up relatively easily within the school. Such a facility could allow for the sharing of materials common to both cycles and perhaps facilitate the pooling of scanned images, articles and so on into the future. An intranet could also allow for the storage and deployment of some of the excellent student projects in TY, which have been done via ICT. This recommendation is made in the interests of making life easier in terms of preparation for teachers in time, although initial set-up time would certainly be required too.
As a means of building on the outline planning done to date, it would be worthwhile for the history teachers to designate a co-ordinator, perhaps on a rotating basis annually, simply to progress the work and retain records of meetings. Good work has already been undertaken on identifying aims, learning outcomes and resources. Discussion of teaching and learning, monitoring student performance, sharing ideas and continued development of resources for teaching through Irish are obvious future directions for the department to take and these will be done when time permits. One of the teachers has been an active member of the Cork branch of the History Teachers Association of Ireland (HTAI) and certainly membership of this association is a worthwhile support for all involved in teaching the subject, particularly with the emphasis now returning to a greater balance between junior and senior cycle support nationally after the initial years of the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus.
Although lessons in History are not held in a subject base room, teachers had no difficulty in settling students down to work and preparing ICT and other materials. Early interactions with students were all positive and purposeful, whether student numbers were small or quite large. In not a single instance did a student need to be told to pay attention, behave or even take out a copybook, such was the good classroom atmosphere which prevailed in the lessons observed. In some instances, questioning around previous learning and visual stimuli was used to introduce the topic for the lesson, while junior students engaged in short reading tasks, using the textbook to provide a context for the coming topic. Such reading worked satisfactorily because it was not over done, allowing almost all students to share the reading tasks and taking no more than six or seven minutes to complete. All the textbooks in use in History are in English but once the initial reading tasks were accomplished the lessons subsequently were carried on substantially and seamlessly in Irish.
Given the bilingual challenges to be met in all lessons observed, it was appropriate that teachers placed considerable emphasis on developing understanding. Explanations were given in very clear Irish, with plenty of questions asked to ensure students’ comprehension. Questioning was varied very well, with senior students being asked a range of higher-order questions relating to American history and junior students being given a mix of lower and higher-order questions on early Irish Christianity or the Reformation. Variety was also employed to ensure that students who were a little more reticent about raising their hands were asked questions. The quality of student responses was very good in all lessons, whether to questions on basic facts or, for example, when senior students were asked to distinguish between the theories of traditionalists, revisionists and others in America. A very good emphasis on discussing viewpoints and bias with senior students, and distinguishing between fact and legend with junior students has been observed. In all lessons, students were free to ask questions as they saw fit and these were dealt with positively by teachers in all instances. Isolated recommendations have been made around the value of highlighting parallels for students between historical events and current affairs, and perhaps in dwelling a little more on the meaning of acronyms with an eye to the potential difficulty they present when translated into Irish. These, however, were minor points in the context of a fine emphasis on ensuring student understanding overall.
ICT was employed very effectively in all lessons, with images and text projected by data projector being very important in presenting students with visual and textual reinforcement of the material covered. Photographs, drawings, political cartoons, diagrams, text summaries and ‘spider-diagrams’ were all productively employed either to stimulate questioning or to aid retention. The clever use of an online project done in another school around St. Patrick was particularly effective. It may be possible to locate some pictorial material in the textbooks occasionally, to supplement what is presented electronically, and it has also been suggested that slightly more emphasis on the use of documentary sources in providing stimulus material should be considered. Giving students visual presentations of core material, in addition to aural and textual stimulation, are undoubted supports to learning in any mixed-ability context and teachers are applauded for the manner in which they have done this overall.
From the standpoint of aiding student retention, it is good to note that students in the main are asked to retain separate notes and homework copybooks. In one instance, students were assigned note-making tasks where they had to summarise the main issues that had been dealt with in the lesson thus far. In another lesson, sentences in simpler Irish were presented to students on the screen and they were asked to write these down. A suggestion has been made that the placing of just the keywords which relate to a particular topic on the whiteboard, or on the screen via data projector, could be worthwhile in showing students what the core ‘history’ terms they need to use in answers are. This has been taken on board in a subsequent lesson seen and certainly may well help students to write focused answers and develop their thinking skills.
When students in all lessons were questioned by the inspector, the quality of their responses was very satisfactory, suggesting that very good levels of understanding had been achieved. It was also very noticeable that the students were still as focussed towards the end of lessons as they had been at the outset, a tribute to the good quality of engagement and interest which the teaching observed had succeeded in bringing about.
Informal assessment processes noted have included the high-quality oral questioning as previously discussed, as well as the assignment and monitoring of written homework on a quite regular basis in most lessons. The structured approach to student research project work in TY has already been noted and applauded. More formally, a regular regime of student testing is reported, with all classes having examinations at Christmas. State-examination classes sit mock examinations in the spring each year while all other groups have formal summer examinations. Parent-teacher meetings are held for first-year and sixth-year classes at Hallowe’en, for state-examination classes (including sixth-year students a second time) after the mock examinations and for other groups immediately after Christmas each year.
Good, short and supportive teacher comments have been noted on students’ homework. Occasional drawing tasks have been noted in students’ notes copybooks in junior classes. Such tasks, as well as the making of diagrams, questions based on visual and source-based stimuli, or completion of cloze tests could also be tried in the interests of assessing classes of mixed ability. It has been suggested that a focus on ensuring that students are familiar with the concept of ‘significant relevant statements’, as per the Junior Certificate marking schemes available on www.examinations.ie , could be a useful instrument in assessing their longer answers and ensuring that an awareness of what constitutes good quality history is developed. This has been taken on board. With senior students, it has been recommended that essay-style tasks which are assigned should, as far as possible, be assigned as interrogatives rather than headings. This would not only help focus students on a specific question to be answered but also be in keeping with the assessment principles espoused within the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus.
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, November 2008