An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
Mercy Heights Secondary School
Skibbereen, County Cork
Roll number: 62490T
Date of inspection: 20 October 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Geography
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Mercy Heights Secondary School. 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.
Geography is in a strong position in Mercy Heights Secondary School and is well supported by school management. Geography is a compulsory subject in junior cycle and first-year geography has an allocation of three class periods per week. This allocation increases to four class periods per week for both the second and third year of the cycle. Geography also forms part of the compulsory Transition Year (TY) programme and is allocated four class periods per week. The subject receives an allocation of five class periods per week in both the fifth and sixth year in the senior cycle. This allocation of teaching time to the subject is commendable.
Uptake of Geography in senior cycle is strong notwithstanding the availability and equally strong uptake of the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) in the school. This programme can limit uptake of Geography as the subject is not included within the subject groupings required for qualification. The presence of the LCVP does not limit the uptake of Geography in Mercy Heights. On completion of junior cycle, students are offered an open choice of subjects for Leaving Certificate. Arising from this open choice process, subject option blocks or bands are created. This allows students make their final selection of subjects. Therefore, in advance of entering the compulsory TY programme, students have selected their subjects for Leaving Certificate and have purchased the required textbooks. It is questionable whether the TY programme for Geography differs significantly for the normal two-year Leaving Certificate syllabus. There is evidence in the geography department planning documentation and from classroom observation that substantial areas of the Leaving Certificate syllabus are delivered in TY using Leaving Certificate textbooks, teaching methodologies and assessment procedures. The TY geography classes are also used to provide time for local studies, projects and fieldwork. While these activities are commendable, it is recommended that school management and the geography teachers review the TY programme to ensure that students are provided with significantly different learning experiences than those in the two-year Leaving Certificate geography syllabus. In this regard reference should be made to circular M1/00 which outlines clearly the relationship between the TY programme and Leaving Certificate programmes.
Geography class groups are mixed ability in nature and students are allocated to base classrooms, many of which contain examples of students’ project work and displays. This room organisation requires teachers to use mobile audio-visual equipment and other teaching resources. The geography teachers have a number of storage areas for their teaching resources throughout the school that facilitate ease of access and sharing of these resources. The geography teachers are also engaged in the integration of information and communication technologies (ICT) into teaching and learning in Geography. Laptop computers and the school’s mobile digital data projectors are used to very good effect in geography classrooms. The geography teachers are enthusiastic to further develop the use of ICT in geography teaching. Their commitment in this regard is praiseworthy.
Individual planning was of a very high standard for all the lessons observed during the evaluation. The geography teachers had planned and prepared very detailed lessons for their geography students. Individual tasks, worksheets, group work and stimulus materials were effectively integrated into almost all lessons. The use of ICT, overhead projectors and the whiteboard had been planned to deliver the lesson topics and the associated geographical skills and underpinning concepts. The use of these resources enhanced the lessons and the learning of the students. This level of engagement and commitment to individual planning and preparation by teachers is to be highly commended.
The Geography teaching team is also engaged in very effective collaborative planning. There is an identifiable, active and supportive geography department in the school. The geography teachers support each other with advice and collegiality and through the sharing of resources and fieldwork strategies. This praiseworthy level of informal collaboration generates a sense of teamwork at subject department level and enhances the experiences of students in the classroom. Evidence of more formal collaborative planning can be seen in the ongoing development of the subject plan for Geography. Within this plan the teachers have agreed a common teaching and assessment programme for all year groups. The plan also focussed on differentiated strategies to include students with special educational needs in geography lessons. Progress in formal collaborative planning is impressive. It is recommended that this ongoing process be further developed based on agreed priorities within a fixed time scale. These could include a review of Geography in the TY programme, a focus on the further development of active-teaching methodologies and the integration of “Scoilnet Maps”, a web-based geographical information system (GIS), into teaching and learning.
The quality of teaching of Geography was of a very high standard in the school. Teachers had prepared effective lessons that engaged students actively in learning. The quality of learning in Geography was equally high. Students demonstrated a detailed understanding of the syllabus topics for study and were competent in the application of geographical skills. Achievement in state examinations was good and uptake of higher-level geography was significantly strong in both junior cycle and senior cycle. These patterns reflect high expectations of teachers for their students. Students were challenged to study at the higher level for as long as possible in the final year of each cycle. Teachers are to be highly commended for both the quality of teaching and learning and for their commitment to their geography students.
In all the lessons observed, the students were engaged by the teaching methodologies employed. Students were focussed, in many cases, by a review of homework tasks and by detailed questioning on previous learning by the teacher. The learning intention of all the lessons observed was clear and was shared with students from the outset. Progression in the lessons was well paced and appropriate to the mixed abilities of the students. Lessons were focused on the presentations by the teachers using the whiteboard, overhead projector or digital data projector. In each case the presentation of material was clear and appropriate to the syllabus topic. The learning topic was deconstructed by the teacher through diagrams, short notes or oral presentations. Understanding was constantly gauged through questioning. Teachers engaged students through note-taking, responses to questions and in a minority of cases through short tasks and pair work. While these methodologies did engage students in their own learning, teachers should consider and plan for the further development of active teaching and learning methodologies. Discussion should take place in relation to increasing the level of independent learning by students in lessons. This could be achieved through the interspersing of lessons with challenging student tasks, using the textbook or other visual stimulus materials. Individual investigations on topics for study and note-making rather than note-taking could be introduced. This could result in enhancing the already very high quality of teaching in evidence but also transfer some of the responsibility for learning from the teacher to the student.
In all lessons the classroom management was purposeful and fair, resulting in a very positive learning environment. Interactions between students and teachers were courteous and mutually respectful. The atmosphere in classrooms was sensitive and caring of students while well structured, and useful learning activities were ongoing. All students were included in lessons, were named when questioned and affirmed for their contributions. The geography classrooms were both challenging and effective learning environments.
Students’ understanding and knowledge of Geography was assessed in lessons through the monitoring and review of homework and questioning by the teacher. Homework was assigned and tasks completed were monitored and annotated by the geography teachers. Formative feedback on homework assignments in line with Assessment for Learning (AfL) strategies was used in some lessons to good effect. This involved the sharing of the learning intention and the learning outcomes with students. Students were then clear on what they should know and be able to do at the end of the lesson. This strategy was then linked to the associated homework tasks and to formative assessment of those tasks. The wider use of detailed formative comment on tasks is encouraged.
Students are given informal assessments throughout the year as the class group progresses through the common agreed teaching programme. The outcomes of these assessments are recorded by teachers to monitor students’ achievement and progress. Although these assessment modes are also used in TY geography, a wider range should be considered within the recommended review of the subject in the programme. The outcomes of formal assessments at Christmas and summer are reported to parents through the student journal, parent-teacher meetings and school reports. Third-year and sixth-year students sit pre-examinations at appropriate times in preparation for state examinations in June.
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 2009