An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Maria Immaculata Community College
Dunmanway, County Cork
Roll number: 76086P
Date of inspection: 27-28 February 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Maria Immaculata Community College, Dunmanway, conducted as part of a whole school evaluation. 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 subject teachers.
Maria Immaculata School offers History as a core subject to all students in first year. Thereafter, students are offered a set of subject options as they begin second year, so that History becomes an optional subject. As a community college, the school is thus satisfactorily acting within the guidelines of the Rules and Programmes for Secondary Schools 2004-2005. In some years, two Junior Certificate classes have been viable in History, in other years, one. The maintenance of History as a significant element of junior cycle is applauded, in keeping with both the area’s own rich historical heritage and also with the aspiration of providing students with a broad-based education. It is also encouraging that a nine-week module of local historical study is provided for all who opt for Transition Year (TY) at the school, regardless of whether they have taken Junior Certificate History or not. History remains an optional subject for Leaving Certificate and uptake levels have generally been healthy, with a senior history class having been viable every year since the formation of the school.
Timetable access for History, in terms of the amount of time allocated, is very good. While first-year classes have a low allocation of two periods per week, this is compensated for by the provision of four periods, constituted always as double periods, in second and third year for those students who take History. The subject does not lend itself to double periods ideally but the current provision is understandable in the context of the practical subjects which History invariably is offered against. TY provision of a double period and a single period is ideal in that it facilitates a number of field trips in the double period, with the single one being available for reinforcement or project work. Fifth-year and sixth-year time allocation is also very good, with each history class having a mix of single and double periods each week to a total of five periods.
An area of some concern from a timetabling standpoint concerns the spacing of periods. For example, it is not ideal that one of the third-year history groups has its entire weekly allocation on Monday and Tuesday afternoons, or that the other third-year group has double periods in History last on Wednesday and Friday. Elsewhere, all sixth-year history classes are in the afternoon, while two of the three first-year history classes have their classes on consecutive days, leaving a six day gap in class-contact time until the next history lesson. Such timetabling can restrict opportunities for homework, impinge on students’ concentration levels and even attendance, if matches and other activities are organised in the afternoon. The need to give History a more balanced spread of timeslots has been accepted by the principal for active consideration in future timetabling.
The school is commended on its decision in recent years to allocate a specific base room for History. Even in the short time since then, this room has been enhanced with some noticeboard displays relevant to the subject, including student-generated work and photographic records of history field trips, which are applauded. A challenge remains in trying to ensure that the maximum number of history periods are timetabled for this facility. At present, in a school week of forty-five periods, there are some thirty-three History periods being taught. Thus, particularly if a greater morning-afternoon balance can be struck, it may be feasible to have a significant number of history classes timetabled for the room. The provision of wall space for History in other classrooms is also commended, as is the access to television and DVD-playing equipment in these rooms. There have been significant difficulties with the school’s information and communication provision, which have impacted on History as will be alluded to later. Some subject-specific books are available in the school library and also in a press in the history room, while teachers have been loud in their praise of the supports offered by the nearby Dunmanway branch of Cork County Library, as well as by the local historical society and heritage centre. A number of history lessons are scheduled on request in one of the school’s computer rooms, to facilitate project work, and this provision is also applauded.
A good culture of departmental planning has been built up at Maria Immaculata College since its inception. There is a subject co-ordinator in place, with this appointment reviewed annually at the first department meeting each year. Subject planning time is allocated on days when staff meetings are scheduled and the school reports satisfaction with this structure. Agendas for minutes are developed for each meeting and minutes are kept. Additional informal meetings support this process, which is applauded. The subject planning folder which has been developed is a fine, thorough plan, constructed along the guidelines of the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI). The department is fortunate in that budgeting for History at whole-school level is as needs arise and is supportive of the needs of the subject. Suggestions have been made during the course if this inspection that the augmentation of the school’s stock of history periodicals would be a worthwhile investment to assist teaching and learning in all classes and this has been readily accepted by management and the department.
Department members have accessed good outside supports for their work. One department member who has a substantial number of history classes is an active member of the Cork branch of the History Teachers Association of Ireland (HTAI), has kept colleagues informed of HTAI news and brought students to revision seminars and other activities. The support of management for teachers’ attendance at the in-service training for Leaving Certificate History, even for teachers not currently teaching senior History, is applauded as an aid to future subject planning and provision at the school. It is recognised that the current organisation of history teaching at the school may need review and re-planning, as it sees a significant amount of teaching, including all of the senior cycle history teaching, resting on the shoulders of one teacher. This means that for most teachers involved in History, the subject occupies only a small part of their timetables. It will be important for the school to try to develop a greater balance in the distribution of history classes, and ensure that more than one teacher is experienced in senior History. There are some timetabling difficulties to overcome in this regard but the benefits in terms of supporting collaborative approaches and future-proofing the provision for History are self-evident as well.
A good focus has been maintained by teachers on preparation of materials for their classes. All lessons visited saw students covering material wholly appropriate to the relevant syllabus, with a number of visual resources used by teachers to enhance delivery. For future consideration, though mindful of the current ICT difficulties, it is suggested that teachers individually would benefit from devoting some collaborative planning time to the development and enhancement of visual resources. Such pooling of materials might be either stored on acetates for overhead-projector use or, preferably stored electronically for use with a data projector. If practicable, there could then be a significant bank of resources for all teachers to tap into and make teaching easier for everyone in the long run too. As a corollary, the allocation of time at future subject meetings to the simple but central discussion of teaching and learning experiences could help the department to identify ways of enhancing the use of visual and other stimuli in classes, again to everyone’s benefit. The commitment of teachers in the History department to co-curricular historical activities, ranging from entering local history competitions through ‘Discover Cork’ and UCC, quizzes, producing a historical video and partaking in some excellent field trips to local and national historical sites is roundly applauded.
The atmosphere in all lessons observed was both positive and productive. Students were ready for work as classes began, were very well behaved and an excellent rapport clearly existed between teachers and students in all classes. This held true even when students were out of their normal classroom context, as on a short field trip, both going to and visiting sites. It is unclear whether the shape of some classrooms, being more wide than long, is more conducive to student engagement or not. Certainly, matters like desk layout, wall décor and aisle space ensured that these classrooms were orderly and positive learning environments from the outset, allowing teaching to begin and, where desired, facilitating teachers in moving amongst the desks to interact with students.
The initial moments of most lessons were used to correct previous homework or tests. This work was done very effectively, deploying oral questioning in the main to elicit students’ answers and, where necessary, used by teachers to advise and improve upon the efforts of some students. In some lessons, it was noted that teachers also used such early activities to advise students collectively on matters such as the reasons why full marks might not have been awarded for some test answers, or to reinforce the distinction between facts and assumptions. This very formative approach to the monitoring of homework is deserving of great praise as is makes use of homework not just as an assessment tool or mere task to be completed but very much as something to learn from as well. There is little doubt that such a focus on the quality of work done by students, and on identifying ways of enhancing it, also bears fruit in examinations further on.
Teachers’ questioning centred around homework or, once lesson topics and objectives had been outlined, on developing lesson content. Occasional recommendations have been made on the issue of including more higher-order questions but as a rule there was plenty to applaud. Teachers used focused questions well, asking specific students to answer rather than just seeking volunteers. In some groups, there was a clear majority of students of one gender present but the strategy of focusing questions thus helped to ensure that no one was left out. It was good to see young students asked to interpret and answer on visual stimuli, such as on Celtic art or the feudal pyramid, and via handout questionnaires on a video about medieval castles and on a Famine field trip. It was also important to see that students in all classes were certainly encouraged to ask questions of their own and, where some younger ones went off on tangents, they were sensitively and expertly brought back to the point by teachers. A fine discursive approach to questioning of older students was evident also, teasing out the socio-political elements behind the Eucharistic Congress or indeed the nuances of a relatively difficult concept like ‘friendly neutrality’.
Occasional concern has been expressed about a tendency in some teaching observed to over rely on the reading of textbook extracts. However, this was ultimately managed well also, because such reading was interspersed again with questions to students, as well as explanations and some illustrations. It has been suggested that the reading aloud of historical documents, where they occur, might be assigned to students at times as a means of ensuring that their understanding of terminology and of historical language generally is satisfactory. Occasional suggestions have been offered about the need to ensure that difficult concepts are either explained or avoided with younger students but in the scheme of things, it bears reiteration that the standard of teacher explanations of such concepts was excellent. Given that there is no doubt that historical learning is enhanced by student interest, it was also good to note that teachers successfully included items of local interest, ranging from castles and Famine sites to planes that crash-landed in Clonakilty during World War II. In some instances, students have been encouraged to investigate such matters further, via project work, and it may be worth considering the allocation of small internet-research challenges to get students to find out more about such local events also, if possible.
Some very good use was made by teachers of support materials. Laminated colour illustrations of topic-relevant material were deployed in some lessons, while the aforementioned video and board drawings were also well used. This is an area worthy of further development, not least because of the mixed-ability make-up of most classes in History. Given that there are currently some significant difficulties around information and communication technology (ICT) in the school, it is unclear how much use could be made of data projectors at present to aid visualisation. Certainly, whether trolley-based ICT equipment or even overhead projectors could be employed, such equipment could significantly enhance the chances of presenting both visuals and documents in whole-class teaching, for analysis by students and reinforcement of verbal messages. The time and work which teachers thus far have put into lamination and printing is roundly applauded but there is no doubt that future directions using technology are deserving of exploration when practicable. Some very good opportunities for simple sketching on the whiteboard were taken by teachers, with the further tactic of using portions of a whiteboard to highlight key or new terms for students being also a simple and effective visual reinforcement observed in some lessons and deserving of even wider application.
While encouragements of greater visualisation are linked to the fact that classes are of mixed ability in general, it should be pointed out that very good work was done by teachers in terms of differentiating for the needs of learners. Good reinforcement, both orally and visually, was employed, and the practices noted in some lessons of getting students to write short notes, fill in cloze-style answers or effect simple drawing tasks is also applauded. In more history-specific contexts, it is also applauded that a good focus was evident on using material being covered to remind students of key course concepts, such as the distinction between primary and secondary sources, detecting evidence of development through visuals of high crosses, castles, etc, reinforcing awareness where events sat on timelines and ensuring that all students were clear on the correlation between dates and century numbering. Where a special needs assistant was in attendance in one lesson, the mutually supportive manner in which the teacher and special needs assistant worked ultimately for the benefit of all students in the class, was exemplary.
Overall, taking the few recommendations and suggestions above into account, a very good standard of teaching, enhancing learning opportunities for students in many significant ways, has been observed in History.
As previously mentioned, there is an excellent commitment in History at the school to student project work. Ranging from simple drawing projects with young students through local history illustrated projects and ultimately senior research study work, students are very engaged in this very productive self-directed learning work. Some notable successes have been achieved by students in the ‘Discover Cork’ competition in recent years. Projects are placed on display in some classrooms and supportively commented upon by teachers, in writing. The TY field trip observed during the inspection had a further assessment component, in the form of a related questionnaire which students had to fill in at different locations, guided by the inputs from a guest speaker of from their teacher. This is excellent practice. Senior research work is undertaken in a very structured fashion and is monitored and advised upon appropriately by the teacher at different stages.
A good regime of homework assignment has been noted in the history lessons observed, with correction of work generally undertaken at the outset of lessons. Some recommendations have been made relating to the possible use of significant-relevant-statement marking of answers with junior classes, as a relatively time-efficient means of monitoring writing tasks while at the same time showing students what constitutes good history writing. Guidelines on this are obtainable at www.examinations.ie, the State Examinations Commission’s website. Occasional drawing tasks with junior classes have been applauded as a good means of assessment, particularly where some students may not feel comfortable with the written word alone. Given that most history lessons at the school consist of double lessons, it has also been suggested that using simple crossword or wordsearch games in the middle of double periods could be an effective means of giving everyone, including teachers, a short break while at the same time assessing learning or revision in a student-friendly manner. Wordsearch games, tailored to the needs of individual lessons, can be developed using a number of websites, including www.discoveryschools.com. As senior classes are invariably of mixed ability ranges, it has been suggested that short exercises, asking ordinary level students to write paragraph equivalents on a topic and higher level candidates to write the introductory paragraph to answering a fixed question on the same topic might be a useful means of differentiating assessment when opportunities arise.
Whole-school assessment methods are satisfactory. Regular homework assignment and monitoring has been factored into the homework policy, teachers maintain records of student progress on an ongoing basis, and examinations are organised at terminal points within the school year. Reports on students’ progress are sent home and annual pupil-parent/guardian-teacher meetings are organised for each year group. This is satisfactory whole-school assessment provision for 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:
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, December 2008