An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
St. Mary’s Secondary School
Mallow, County Cork
Roll number: 62350D
Date of inspection: 6-7 November 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St. Mary’s, Mallow. 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. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
St. Mary’s, Mallow offers History as a compulsory element of junior cycle, in keeping with its status as a voluntary secondary school. It is good to note that all junior classes have three single periods of History per week and that in general these are well spaced across the days of the week and mixed between morning and afternoon timeslots. Some junior classes are currently taught History by student teachers and the school has a good system of mentoring support in place to facilitate this. All junior history classes are of mixed ability.
In senior cycle, while Transition Year (TY) is optional, a sizeable portion of Junior Certificate students subsequently opt for the TY programme. Encouragingly, History is a core element of TY, with fine provision of two periods per week for each class group. Sometimes this provision is configured as a double period and at other times not, but this is not seen as a difficulty by teachers. For Leaving Certificate, History enters an options system built on an open choice. In the current year, fifth-year History is offered against Home Economics, Biology, Geography and Physics, with the other subjects apart from Physics also being available elsewhere in the timetable. In sixth year, History sits opposite Biology, Home Economics, Music and Business, with Biology and Home Economics available elsewhere on the timetable too. This is a satisfactory arrangement. In both fifth year and sixth year, History has an allocation of five periods per week, configured as a double period and three single periods. This is also satisfactory.
Good whole-school resourcing of History has been evident. Teachers are classroom-based in the main, facilitating excellent visual displays and resource storage, with very good levels of access to equipment, including information and communications technology (ICT). An annual budget is set down for the subject and good, student-relevant resources have been developed over time. A very fine library has been created and includes several excellent history books, some coming from a private bequest. Management has also been supportive of efforts to hold historical field trips, subject planning meetings and a History Day held two years ago which was a great success. In light of the in-house aims of promoting the uptake of History in senior cycle a little further, the use of a designated noticeboard to promote historical issues and a campaign to ensure that students are aware of the links between the revised Leaving Certificate syllabus and careers in business are worthy of consideration. These might help to offset the feeling that the availability of the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) at any school can have an indirect but negative effect on uptake levels in History.
A very good departmental structure operates at St. Mary’s. The history department itself, comprising a total of six teachers at present, has joint co-ordinators, each of whom teaches senior and junior classes from year to year. A fine culture of full-team meetings, supplemented by occasional focused meetings of partial teams, such as of people teaching TY or first-year classes, has been noted in the minutes of departmental meetings. This is applauded. The range of issues identified at departmental meetings has shown an excellent emphasis on supporting the teaching and learning of History, with matters like the appropriate use and development of the library and the transfer of departmental video material to DVD being well discussed. Some suggestions have been made around the acquisition of periodicals to supplement the resourcing of the subject. In particular, the possibilities of enhancing resource storage and pooling individual teacher resources for common use by means of ICT, now that most classrooms are networked, deserves consideration. Despite the school’s distance from meeting venues, it is good that contacts with the Cork branch of the History Teachers Association of Ireland (HTAI) have remained strong.
It has been evident that the department is giving serious consideration to raising the profile of History generally and as a senior cycle option in particular. While uptake levels for Leaving Certificate are good, the department is mindful of the need to promote historical awareness generally, especially with the LCVP a strong option at the school, as previously discussed. It has carried out a SCOT analysis of History and hosted a very successful ‘History Day’ two years ago. The possibilities of developing a history noticeboard, which could also celebrate the history of the now-replaced convent school, as well as items of local or curricular relevance, deserve to be explored as a further means of maintaining the profile of History. Excellent collaborative planning has been evident in a range of departmental activities, and in the departmental plan. These have included a common and very imaginative approach to TY History, the organisation of trips along the Michael Collins Trail, links with the Mallow Field local-studies group and structured visits to Mallow public library for research-study work. Such a commitment to the promotion of exciting educational opportunities outside the classroom is roundly applauded, as is the significant time commitment of department members to such activities.
The very good departmental work in planning and preparation has transferred to individual teacher levels also. With most teachers being classroom-based, every opportunity to develop a print and image-rich environment for history teaching has been seized upon. Every lesson observed was very well structured, with clear aims identified, direct links to the relevant syllabus or to the aims of the programme where TY classes were involved. Teachers had prepared significant amounts of handouts, overhead acetates or ICT-based materials for classroom use, and were also very mindful of issues like seating arrangements and time constraints in ensuring that lessons went according to the plans prepared. In particular, the commitment to visual learning, learning through aural stimuli (music and poetry), planning around topical issues like the anniversary of the end of World War I, and learning-by-doing in terms of the preparation of history-based drama productions was wonderful to observe. The quality of such preparation and planning on the part of teachers had a very positive impact on the learning of students in all classes.
In the classrooms visited during the inspection, the high levels of teacher preparation were evident from the outset. Students arrived to rooms which already had the relevant equipment or resources in place, while the seating layout of some rooms was obviously conducive to group work without disruption, as required. In some instances, clear outlines of what was to be examined in a lesson were presented on the board, or diagrammatic templates were ready for use in lesson development, either on boards or via data or overhead projectors. Some suggestions have been made in connection with ensuring the full visibility of prepared images or text on screens but these have been minor concerns. The result overall was that lessons were underway in a focused and purposeful manner within moments of students’ arrival, which is applauded. In all lessons, teachers made good use of questioning early on, to engage students, to gauge previous learning and move the pace along.
A particularly significant element of the teaching seen, in terms of bringing topics home to students, was the commitment to topicality. The fact that the lessons coincided with the imminent 90th anniversary of the end of World War I provided an interesting backdrop to several lessons, particularly but not exclusively in TY. Yet, teachers also created good links for students between historical material being studied and the recent election of a new President of the United States. Elsewhere, comparisons were drawn between life in Bronze Age times and being on a reality television show, to humorous effect. In another lesson, some very good focus on localised details from the early 20th century - post boxes, barracks and other elements - was seen in setting the scene for study of pre-1914 Ireland. Beyond the suggestion that some more use of localised World War I material might be possible, the commitment to topical and student-relevant topics is roundly applauded.
In keeping with the approaches recommended in all current history syllabuses and in TY philosophy, a highly visual approach was taken to teaching in all lessons observed. Lesson aims were identified in writing on the board in some lessons. This is worthy of development in all classes, as is, occasionally, to give visual reinforcement to key words by placing them on the margin of the board as they occur. Where student presentations were being given, a fine use of the board to pre-teach the key elements or sections of the presentations was noted, something which might also be considered in highlighting any potentially difficult concepts for students at the outset of lessons. Similarly, another suggestion has been made where an overhead projector is available, whereby the responses of students to questions about key learning outcomes could be recorded visually on a projected acetate sheet and hence stimulate student retention even more than the aural input alone might do. Pictures and political cartoons were used in other lessons, using screen projections or handouts, and always to good effect. Students were asked ‘What strikes you?’ style questions, avoiding any risk of too much teacher input but focusing instead on students’ development of their own analytical skills, which was most appropriate. A very good triptych of Irish social groups was noted in another lesson, providing a lovely visual reinforcement of the main elements of society viewpoints being discussed on a political topic.
A central feature of lessons observed was the promotion of students’ learning-by-doing. This is highly commended. Several lessons saw students broken into pairs or small groups, for work on historical source material or to use historical imagination in arriving at answers to questions. The commitment in some other lessons to students giving presentations, incorporating visual and aural stimuli, was equally impressive self-directed learning, and very good in building self confidence. Students were actively encouraged to ask questions, or to compose questions in groups which were then put to student presenters. They were also asked to put questions to their teacher on another occasion and to watch out for deliberately incorrect answers. In all contexts, teachers moved very easily from being ‘teachers’ to ‘facilitators, placing the onus on students for their own learning in a very intelligent manner. Once or twice, suggestions have been offered on encouraging students to talk a little more during group work, or to make notes of any good ideas gleaned from their partners, but the overall result of the commitment to pair work and group work was a fine productive ‘hum’ which typified learning and enjoyment by students in equal measure and is roundly applauded.
In turning to strategies which promoted retention and deeper understanding, beyond those already mentioned, it is pointed out that the quality of teachers’ explanations of difficult concepts, and the relevance of the material being covered to the various syllabuses, was very good. Where some material had to be taught as background to a syllabus event, as with World War I to a junior cycle class, this background coverage was at a most suitable level. Among suggestions offered include the desirability of exploring cross-curricular links, perhaps through films in TY, the linking of factual details about war to the emotional responses of the nations involved, and a little more emphasis on encouraging students to make notes of key points as lessons proceed. These are offered merely as suggestions, in the context of the very good standard of teaching, and excellent learning opportunities for students, which permeated the lesson delivery observed in History.
General assessment practices in History are very thorough. Most teachers presented clear records of students’ attendance and performance in tests. Such tests are held at intervals during the school year, with more formal testing taking place at Christmas and summer in particular, unless classes are sitting State examinations. For these classes, there are pre-examinations in the spring. In TY, assessment is carried out in a number of programme-relevant ways, including oral presentations and project work. Very satisfactory methods of communicating such assessment outcomes to parents are in place and include annual parent-teacher meetings, written reports sent home after formal assessments and progress reports, while the students’ journal is a further systemic support to linking assessment with the monitoring of progress. Second-year and third-year classes have not always sat common examinations but this is the case in first year. The extension of common assessment is recommended as practicable, as a good means of ensuring consistency of approach and of course coverage across year groups, and ultimately of saving valuable teacher time.
Turning to more subject-specific informal assessment practices, in-class questioning has been observed in all lessons, with a very good mixing of lower-order and higher-order questioning by teachers. The occasional placing of the onus for question composing on students’ shoulders, as previously intimated, has also worked very well. Some excellent blank templates were used for written tasks in class, requiring students to give structured responses to documents during lessons, or to complete word-pairing tasks in small groups, under teacher guidance as required. These, and other strategies within lessons, worked very well and contributed to in-class assessment being very much part of the learning process for students.
Very clear homework assignment was a feature of every single lesson observed, with the board generally used to clarify to students what was being asked of them. Some very interesting drawing and image-related activities were noted in classroom and homework tasks. A little more emphasis on telling students how many significant pieces of information may be required of them in a written homework task would be a good means of training them in techniques relevant to examination-question handling, especially for junior cycle students. Some possibilities of using ICT as a means of formatively assessing samples of students’ work for whole-class learning have also been discussed in senior cycle. So has the desirability of having students see longer answers as questions to be answered, rather than as essays. Where crosswords or other homework tasks have been given on handouts, it has been recommended that such completed work should be stored in folders in the same way as other handouts, as corrected tasks like these can be useful revision aids later on. Beyond such isolated recommendations in individual assessment practices, it is reiterated that assessment practices in History, ranging across formal and in-class assessment, as well as homework assignment, have been very thorough. The commitment by teachers to oral feedback and discussion within classes, and to the comment-based assessment of longer homework tasks has been an impressive feature of assessment for learning, evidenced across the lessons visited and the students’ work examined during the inspection. Such practice is highly 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 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, February 2009