An Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna
Department of Education and Skills
Subject Inspection of History
Christian Brothers Secondary School
Thurles, County Tipperary
Date of inspection: 26 November 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Thurles CBS. 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 informal 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 representatives of the subject department.
Thurles CBS is commended for its overall timetabling of History. The subject is a core one in junior cycle, which is appropriate in a voluntary secondary school, and the provision of three periods per week for all junior history classes is good. At present, the school is in the midst of some curricular change, which will see History have an additional period in third year next year. This constitutes very good provision. Classes are generally of thirty-five minutes’ duration and all are formed on the basis of mixed ability. In a number of instances, it is unfortunate that the periods in junior cycle are somewhat bunched together and it is recommended that greater attention be paid to ensuring that the three periods are always offered on three separate days and, ideally, be well dispersed across the days of the week.
In senior cycle, it is good to note that History is a compulsory subject in Transition Year (TY), whereas a few years ago there was no History in TY. The three periods of History per week allocated to each of the three TY classes across the full academic year is very good provision, though again a little more emphasis on ensuring a spread across the full week would be desirable. In one instance, these classes are configured as one double period and one single period, while in the other two TY classes there are three single periods per week. Very good time provision in senior cycle continues into fifth and sixth year, where each history class has a total of six periods per week, allocated as a double period and four single periods. History is an optional subject for Leaving Certificate, offered initially in an open choice before being placed in a set of option bands which aim to give students their preferred options to the maximum extent possible. The very good uptake levels in fifth-year and sixth-year History suggest that this system is operating satisfactorily.
A number of non-curricular supports for History deserve significant commendation. Management is applauded for its efforts to ensure that the school is well supplied with qualified history teachers. Furthermore, the very high levels of information and communication technology (ICT) support deserve particular mention. All seven classrooms visited during the evaluation were equipped with computers, data-projectors and screens for lesson delivery, which is excellent. At present, the history department stores a substantial amount of pooled resources on a USB drive and, in time, it is hoped that a school intranet system will accommodate all such subject folders, to facilitate the use of such resources in any networked classroom at any time. The school policy of assigning teachers, in the main, to their own base rooms, has also contributed to fine visual displays relevant to History in a number of rooms, and has assisted in the development of storage space, book shelving and other supports in many rooms. The school’s support for students with special educational needs was also very evident in the integration of special needs assistants and of assistive technology in some lessons observed. Budgeting for History is on a needs basis, which is sensible, and there is clear evidence of whole-school support for subject association membership, teachers’ attendance at Leaving Certificate training, and for history trips.
Some very good systemic supports for subject planning are in place at the school. Formal meeting time is provided annually for the history team and this is availed of. However, the minutes of departmental activities also show that a significant amount of focused, informal meetings are recorded annually. This is evidence of very good teacher commitment to planning and preparation. The subject co-ordinator, operating on a voluntary basis, takes responsibility for minute-taking and also for the development of a very comprehensive subject folder and plan. The plan includes outlines of yearly schemes of work to be followed by all teachers, information of assessment and state examinations materials, resources gleaned from in-service sessions, and other subject-related supports. In terms of plans, the only area which may need some further refinement is in TY, where a very wide range of issues is delved into, and some discussion of whether double periods or all single periods are preferable to TY teachers may impact on the plan’s focus.
The development of an electronic bank of history resources, including previous test instruments, is another example of the important work of the co-ordinator and department. The department is highly commended for its involvement in history competitions locally, organising field trips to venues like the National Heritage Park, the Dunbrody Famine ship and Kilmainham Jail, and for its important contacts with the nearby, excellent ‘Source’ library and local studies centre. The department’s stock of history books is good and has been electronically catalogued. Plans to subscribe to the Tipperary Historical Journal are eminently sensible. Further examples of very good planning activity generally have included the erection of a history notice board with local and topical material, the development of a bank of history podcasts from radio shows and interesting cross-curricular links in TY plans. It might be possible to enhance contacts with the History Teachers Association of Ireland (HTAI), beyond the levels already achieved, through a rotation system of attendance at meetings. The work of the department in general is deserving of great praise.
The levels of individual teacher planning and preparedness for lessons maintain the high standards of the department. In all lessons, high levels of preparation went into the development of handout materials for use in class, including the integration of the special needs assistant and technological supports for students with special learning needs, and the setting up of ICT or other teaching aids in advance of when they were required. Some teachers presented individual lesson plans and all were teaching material which was fully relevant to the syllabus and appropriate to both the year group and time of year concerned.
Across the range of lessons observed, very good lesson structuring was in evidence. The practice of emphasising intended learning outcomes in the initial moments of lessons is a good one, and it is suggested that keeping the written outcomes on a corner area of the whiteboard as a reinforcement for students is worthy of consideration. Where screens were due to be pulled down for ICT use, writing such lesson aims, or key words as they arise, on the side margin of the base whiteboard would ensure that such important issues would remain clear to students at all times. An instance where the initial lesson aim was written and left on a side whiteboard for the duration of a lesson was very helpful in this regard.
Students benefited from clear teacher instructions about the aims of the lesson, anticipated homework and the general manner in which the lesson would proceed. These introductory strategies, and very good teacher-student interaction, ensured that lessons took place in a purposeful and pleasant atmosphere at all times, and student concentration remained very good throughout lessons, even in double lessons or lessons immediately prior to breaks. In general, lessons revolved around one central theme or issue, which is appropriate. A good balance was found between the sort of biographical approach to ancient civilisations, plantations and revolutions, suited to younger students, and the more thematic and abstract treatment of topics such as propaganda and causation with older students. At times, as happens when student responsiveness is good, lesson plans were a little too ambitions in trying to cover too much content, but when this happened, teachers were quick to adjust the lesson content accordingly and did not allow time pressures to inhibit student participation, which is commendable.
Teachers engaged in significant amounts of dialogue with students in the early moments of lessons and, in most instances, throughout the lessons. This mainly took the form of activities like the oral monitoring of homework and the development of new content through questioning. Occasionally, a little more emphasis on breaking down the meaning of difficult terms or on pinpointing questions to non-volunteers was recommended, but the general level of such interaction was very good in all lessons. In almost all lessons, a good balance was struck between teacher delivery and student contributions, with good teacher-student discussions developed around homework or stimulus material as lessons proceeded.
The level of usage of ICT in lesson delivery was excellent. Most of the ICT material deployed contained a good mix of verbal and visual material and was very easily read from all angles in the classroom. Handouts were similarly engaging and were used in all lessons observed as further supports to learning. Some handouts were created as summary printouts of PowerPoint presentations while others were more interactive, used to stimulate student question-answering and to promote good document analysis work on primary sources. Such handouts were also appropriately tailored, when necessary, to suit students with specific learning needs. In some lessons, it was recommended that other visual stimulus materials could be sourced through, for example, textbook illustrations or wall maps. However, the variety of ICT and handout materials used reflected a significant amount of visual stimulation to lesson development, and included pictures, woodcuts, maps, document extracts and some excellent documentary film footage which facilitated deeper discussions with senior students.
In some lessons, very good provision was made for students to learn by doing. This included pair work on identifying key issues in a document or the correct answers in a cloze test, and also analysis of the key messages being given about Irish society in a woodcut image. This focus on self-directed learning is an area for future development. It should be possible, for example, to use ICT to project stimulus material directly onto the regular whiteboard in classrooms at times. This would enable teachers to build in students’ comments on aspects of the material as discussion evolves, or ask students to move to the board to do so themselves. Seating layouts would need some consideration for optimum facilitation of student movement or activity. Similarly, a little more emphasis, in pair work or group tasks, on transferring the oral responses of students into mind map or diagrammatic summaries on the board, which students could make note of as feedback proceeds, could assist retention further. These suggestions are offered for future direction and would be worth discussing at a departmental meeting.
Towards the end of all lessons observed, teachers made excellent provision for summary time, using oral questions to recapitulate on the content covered and in some instances to revisit the stated learning intentions, which is good practice. It is reported that the excellent handout materials, distributed in different lessons, are stored by students in designated history folders. This is very sensible and an important aid to retention. Students were reminded of key issues, terms or personalities relating directly to syllabus content or certificate examination requirements, which is also very sound practice. The responses of students to the summary questions of teachers at the end of each lesson, and to the inspector’s questioning, showed a very good level of engagement and understanding.
Informal assessment strategies, linked to day-to-day class work in History, are good. Good question-and-answer work was a feature of all lessons, and some very successful in-class use of cloze tests and pair-working challenges was noted. It was impressive to observe the degree to which some of the principles of assessment for learning permeated class work, including the identification by teachers of learning outcomes at the outset of most lessons and linking anticipated homework tasks to these learning intentions from an early stage in some lessons. Homework was assigned and monitored by teachers in all lessons. Copybooks showed a good regime of teacher monitoring and some formative assessment practices in use. Generally, teachers included reference to the number of significant statements which would be required on an issue in the Junior Certificate, or reminders of the enquiry-based approach favoured in Leaving Certificate questions over the old essay style of questioning. This sort of reinforcement is applauded and recommended for continued use, alternating with formative commentary as outlined. It is recommended that junior cycle assessment could benefit from an increased emphasis on varied assessment, such as drawing tasks, map sketching and diagrammatic homework, simply to test more skills and appeal to a broad range of learning styles in mixed-ability classes.
Assessment issues have featured significantly in departmental activity in History. Excellent homework planning templates have been developed for junior classes particularly. Common tests have been set for year groups in recent years, though it is recommended that in some of these at least, a greater emphasis on stimulus-driven questioning is merited. The department monitors outcomes in certificate examinations on an annual basis and deserves commendation on fine results and the high percentages of students sitting higher-level papers each year in both Junior and Leaving Certificate History. Reported TY assessment practices include the use of homework, end-of-term examinations, projects on local history, PowerPoint and oral presentations by students. These are commended, though again the use of stimulus-driven questions in TY examinations is recommended for more consideration than was obvious in the sample tests examined.
A network of whole-school supports to assessment includes annual parent-teacher meetings, reports home at key stages in the academic year and more regular contacts as needed. As previously intimated, the impact of a whole-school training session on assessment for learning has been evident in a number of the practices which have been observed and praised in History.
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:
A post-evaluation meeting was held with the principal and some representative teachers at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published May 2010