An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Coláiste na Toirbhirte
Bandon, County Cork
Roll number: 62061T
Date of inspection: 28 and 30 April 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste na Toirbhirte, Bandon. 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 to the subject teachers.
History is a core subject in the junior cycle curriculum of Coláiste na Toirbhirte, Bandon, in line with Departmental regulations. The subject is commendably allocated three single periods a week in junior cycle. With a few exceptions, these class periods are spread evenly across the timeslots available and across the days of the week, which is good practice. It is particularly commendable that all students in the school’s compulsory Transition Year (TY) study History for half-year modules running for three periods per week. In Leaving Certificate History, timetable provision is also satisfactory, with a double lesson and three single lessons provided for History in both fifth year and sixth year. History is an optional subject for Leaving Certificate but it is commended that option blocks are constructed only after an open subject choice is offered to students towards the end of TY. Furthermore, where History has been timetabled across from subjects with nationally strong uptake levels, invariably the other subjects have been offered in another option block as well. This means that every reasonable effort has been made to be fair to History in the options mechanism.
While there is no designated history room in the school, the provision of teacher-based classrooms has provided a good alternative. These rooms are well equipped with televisual and audio-visual equipment. Most rooms have overhead projectors and some also have data projectors, either fixed or deployed as portable units. This is commendable provision. It is suggested that the designation of one of these teacher-based rooms as a form of history base, with appropriate shelving and storage space, would be a good idea. This would ensure that issues like file, poster and general resource storage, for example over the summer holiday period, can be smoothly effected without the impact of room changes each year. The school is hopeful of augmenting its information and communication technology (ICT) equipment over time and certainly the use made of such equipment in history lessons suggests that the subject is well primed to move along with such augmentation as it occurs. The school is also commended on its excellent library facility and service. Not only is there an excellent book stock but the services of the librarian also ensure that good additional supports, including a newspaper cuttings resource, ICT and internet access and supportive advice on research studies are readily available to history students.
There is a fixed budget allocation for History, as for other subjects, with some flexibility built around this. The school is very supportive of student participation in internal project and quiz competitions, as well as in quizzes, field trips and visits to history-related shows outside. A fine display built around such activities was observed during the inspection and it is suggested that good reinforcement of a history ‘atmosphere’ could well be achieved by the deployment of a permanent display space dedicated to matters historical. This could incorporate local history, current affairs issues linked to History and some of the historical riddles and competitions already used so well in the school. Management is commended for its support of teachers’ membership of the History Teachers Association of Ireland (HTAI) and also for its release of the relevant personnel to attend the training provided by the History In-service Support Team (HIST) in recent years.
A very thorough department structure operates in History. A co-ordinator is in place, with a plan to rotate the position at intervals, which is good practice. Formal departmental meetings are provided for three to four times a year and an outline record of issues discussed is maintained. These might be developed into more full minutes in future meetings. Existing minutes document very sensible and realistic ambitions for subject enhancement, including ICT augmentation and the development of some history-specific signage. The departmental plan is very impressive. It is applauded for its thoroughness but also for the commitment, as stated in the list of departmental objectives, to making History fun and interesting. In many respects, this is and should be at the core of good subject delivery as, with such a focus, many other things including learning and retention fall into place more easily. The core plan contains class lists, teachers’ timetables and an outline of work to be covered in each year. Tremendous work has also been documented in developing history awards and competitions, while the proposal to form a students’ history association in the near future is also applauded.
Very substantial amounts of support materials have been compiled for communal use, in addition to the equally substantial amounts of materials which teachers have compiled individually. In addition to planning and preparation around established syllabuses in History, the programme in TY History is very impressive. Its focus on local studies and women’s studies, in addition to the quite unique work done in training students in research work, pedagogy and presentation skills, is richly applauded. With classrooms now networked and having broadband access, it is logical that augmentation of ICT provision over time would include consideration of the potential for electronic storage of such resources, via a history intranet system or an equivalent. This could also act as a significant support for any Post Graduate Diploma in Education (PGDE) students in the subject in future years, and help ensure that the work of such students is in line with department philosophy.
On a more individual level, every lesson observed revolved around a sensible lesson plan, with clear aims and timeframes for work. In all cases, teachers presented significant folders of prepared materials and also ensured that very good organisation of copybooks and resource files was something which transferred to students as well. Every lesson observed also focused on syllabus-relevant topics and was pitched at a level appropriate to mixed-ability contexts. Teachers made excellent plans for the use of a range of resources and materials, from visuals and video materials to objects as diverse as cuddly toys, ancien régime fashion accessories and even clumps of grass. The imagination and energy which has clearly been applied to planning and preparation for history lessons overall is deserving of the utmost praise.
The fact that History is generally taught in teachers’ base rooms at the school has given an excellent impetus to subject delivery in these classrooms. In all cases, classrooms have been well decorated with not only history-specific materials but also in several instances with examples of students’ projects, both in paper and solid forms. This is a good support to learning and to the creation of a real history atmosphere in classes. All rooms displayed good levels of equipment provision also, some with the assistance of data-projectors and others with overhead projectors. It was noted that where classrooms had potentially sunny positions, prior tinting of the windows allowed for the effective use of electronic displays with no viewing difficulties for students. All rooms visited had television and DVD equipment, while all also had good seating arrangements, conducive to student participation. This participation was of a high degree in all lessons observed, supported by an excellent teacher-student rapport and high levels of student motivation. Students’ efforts were frequently affirmed by declarations of ‘Good Woman!’ or equivalents and in all lessons students were clearly free to ask questions or volunteer comments as the need arose. In very many respects, the broad parameters of classroom setting and atmosphere reflected the history department’s ethos of making the subject fun and interesting.
One of the cornerstones of subject teaching was the effective use of a wide range of resources. Whether by means of data projectors or overhead projectors, an excellent focus on teaching through the use of electronic textual and visual stimuli was observed in all lessons. In most lessons, these stimuli were complemented with teacher-generated handouts, some of a summary type and others commendably seeking to assist students in the interrogation of the topics being studied. Thus, for example, a film excerpt dealing with the Industrial Revolution was accompanied in one lesson by a short pair task on a questionnaire. At other times, visuals on screen were used to stimulate discussion on Transport Revolution issues, the Renaissance and Revolutionary France. Some excellent PowerPoint slides on the Blueshirts focused as often as possible on making points through questions, thus urging students to analyse and think, not just absorb information. Objects as diverse as lino cuts and the school stamp were deployed to explain moveable type and woodcuts, with fashion accessories and other objects capturing students’ imaginations around revolutionary France, and still-life objects introduced to allow students to appreciate the skills of Renaissance artists. Isolated recommendations have been made around the desirability of increasing visual stimuli on occasion but the overall use of resources by teachers was outstanding.
Amidst the high levels of teacher-student interaction which obtained in all lessons, a commendable emphasis was placed by teachers on questioning as a lesson-development strategy. Where students were asked to put their hands up when some questions were posed, in an equivalent number of instances the teachers posed questions to specific students. This mixing of open and directed questions gave rise to a very good dynamic in the classroom and also to high levels of student participation generally. While lower-order, factual questions were commonly asked, so too were more interpretative ones, especially with older students. Students were, for example, shown charts of population growth or historical documents and were asked to tease out information from these sources. Frequently, teachers also took somewhat simplistic answers and pressed students to develop or reconsider as the need arose. In every lesson, where students struggled with any concept or word meaning, teachers explained such material very clearly, while any potentially awkward question coming from students was sensitively answered, using visuals and students’ own observations.
A significant feature of the good teaching observed during the evaluation was the focus placed on student-centred learning. The policy, for example, of getting TY students to do projects on women’s history and, moreover, to have every student give a lesson on her chosen figure is an excellent idea. In addition to the different perspectives on History which are thus encouraged, such as the observed presentation on Nazism through the eyes of Eva Braun, the training students receive on lesson development and delivery is clearly invaluable in terms of developing self-confidence. Similarly, the focus on using role-playing in another lesson, complete with costume accessories, a narrator and even some usage of the language of the historical period by students was very productive. Students were frequently asked to take action in history lessons, whether it was attempting to replicate the skills of a Renaissance artist or to place themselves in the positions of figures from the Industrial and Transport Revolutions.
Very good efforts were made in seeking to place historical material in various intelligible contexts for students. A comparison between the rising price of bread in pre-revolutionary France and the rising food prices of today was one such parallel drawn. The use of historical or folk songs was also observed, providing an alternative and student-friendly avenue through material at times. Some excellent comparisons of a cross-curricular nature were also drawn, linking historical topics to issues in German, Science, French and Art as appropriate in order to help students to learn from a broader perspective. Occasionally recommendations have been made to enhance the linkages made between modern famines and historical poverty, and between industrial development globally and that of Bandon itself, but these are of little import in the context of the very high levels of contextualisation achieved in history lessons overall.
The emphasis overall on ensuring student retention of learning was very good. Some suggestions have been offered in the area of cultivating note-making habits and perhaps historical dictionaries by students as they proceed through topics and new concepts. So too has the recommendation that short note-taking is best deployed after explanations and discussion, rather than before. However, such points do not take from the fact that the emphasis on retention strategies has been very good. Students generally maintain separate notes copybooks, in addition to homework and ‘People in History’ copybooks. Where handouts were distributed, a very solid culture of maintaining student folders has also been evident. Within some lessons, very good recapitulation sessions were used towards the end of class, sometimes via oral work and at other times through a spider or mind-mapping diagram. It was also noted that where student pair-work resulted in feedback, students were encouraged to add any new items that their own groups had not thought of to their notes, for retention and revision later. Other strategies observed included a form of ‘ABC’ brainstorming review of key points learned, and a critique of what had been learned from a student presentation. Such tactics, among others, ensured that students were given every reasonable opportunity to retain their learning and gain from the very high standard of teaching evident in all lessons observed.
Within the remit of departmental planning, a very good commitment to common assessment has been noted. End-of-term and end-of-year examinations in junior cycle are the norm. Teachers maintain very good records of student achievement, supported by a whole-school commitment to journal use, reports to parents and annual parent-teacher meetings. Less formally, in classroom contexts, the quality of oral assessment, by means of teacher-driven questioning, student presentations and role-playing tasks have already been alluded to as vibrant assessment tools, as well as good teaching strategies in their own right.
Turning to written homework, teachers display a uniform approach to both the assignment of homework and to the significant work involved in the formative correction of such work as time allows. In junior History specifically, a relatively uniform focus on the use of ‘people-in-history’ questions to tie students learning together has been noted, in separate copybooks, with a very strong commitment to the use of significant relevant statement (SRS) marking of such answers. The school has accessed whole-staff training on assessment for learning previously and there is no doubt that the use of the time-efficient SRS marking system, once it is explained to students, has been an excellent support to assessment as a means of teaching students about relevance and how to formulate good quality answers from junior cycle onwards. Leaving Certificate students, appropriately, are assessed regularly in both source-based and long-answer formats, with again a fine commitment to teacher commentary and the use of State Examinations Commission (SEC) marking schemes evident in the work examined. Occasional recommendations have been made around increasing the use of visual assessment, such as drawing tasks, comparative charts and diagrammatic presentations, all as a means of broadening the scope of assessment methods in mixed-ability contexts. However, this does not deny the fact that a wide range of appropriate assessment strategies is already in evidence, with some excellent word puzzles, cloze tests and other instruments employed.
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, January 2009