An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Terence MacSwiney Community College
Roll number: 71123Q
Date of inspection: 27 April 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Terence McSwiney Community College. 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 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.
Terence McSwiney College is a community college under the auspices of the City of Cork Vocational Education Committee (VEC). As a community college, the school is within its rights in opting to offer History as a non-core element of its junior cycle programme. Essentially, History is offered in alternate years, with Geography offered in the intervening years. When the present second-year students started at the school, those in the two banded classes had the choice of selecting either History or Materials Technology (Wood), while those in the remaining class were automatically assigned to History. This system is applauded for at least ensuring that students may have access to a social studies subject. It should also be kept under review as the school identifies the most appropriate strategies for junior cycle development and considers issues like banding, mixed-ability and team teaching on an ongoing basis.
A very positive result of the current provision for second-year History in the optional class is that the timetable allows for a total of four class periods per week to be allotted to the subject. These are configured as a double lesson and two single lessons and constitute excellent time allocation. The second-year class which has History as a core subject has a more customary three periods per week for History, but it is again commendable that these periods are given good morning slots on this year’s timetable. The fact that all junior cycle history students also now fall within the remit of the Junior Certificate School Programme is an added support in History through the identification of learning targets, keywords and other supportive strategies.
There has been a senior-cycle history class in some years at the school, but numbers have not been viable in others, due in part to the popularity of the school’s Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme. At present, a good sized fifth-year history class has been formed, with students having been given the option of selecting either History or Design and Communication Graphics, with an open choice of subjects not being deemed feasible at present due to student numbers. Timetable provision for fifth-year History is good, with a double lesson and three single lessons provided, spread across four days of the week and between morning and afternoon timeslots.
Some additional whole-school supports are highly commended. The school’s library and librarian are a tremendous support to historical studies. Both the book stock and the bright student-friendly displays, several with historical themes, are highly commended. The school does not operate a fixed subject budget system but it is evident that reasonable requests for resources are dealt with positively. There is good availability of technological supports to the delivery of History in the classroom, as teachers decide, and the fact that the history teachers have their own baserooms has allowed for very good levels of storage space and wall displays, including some of students’ own project work. This is also commended. Finally, the designated ‘Terence McSwiney Room’, close to the school’s entrance and filled with pictorial and documentary displays about the life and times of the Cork patriot, is a very vivid link to History for all in the school community and is a virtual museum in its own right.
Although there are currently just two teachers involved in the delivery of History at the school, the work done in collaborative subject planning is commendable. A designated subject convenor is in place by mutual agreement, and a thorough folder of subject department activities has been compiled. The convenor hosts subject meetings, maintains minutes of main decisions reached, provides curricular information for new staff and ensures that news about in-service training relevant to History is given to staff members. Important contacts have been forged with the History In-service Support Team (HIST), latterly with the Second Level Support Service (SLSS) and on an ongoing basis with the Cork branch of the History Teachers’ Association of Ireland (HTAI). The school funds a membership of the HTAI, which is applauded. Information on syllabuses and curricular guidelines are made readily available to history teachers within the department, and teachers are commended for the department’s focus on identifying appropriate textbooks for particular class groups.
Teachers have stated that a yearly review of results in State examinations takes place. This is commended. Now that all second-year students fall within the JCSP framework, it is suggested that time be allocated at a future department meeting to assess how best JCSP methodologies can enhance teaching and learning for everyone. Furthermore, it remains important for the department to focus on identifying students capable of higher level in State examinations and nurturing their ambitions along the way. Some very good cross-curricular links with CSPE have been reported, as have local historical inputs into elements of the LCA programme on occasion.
Individual teacher planning has been good. A keen awareness of syllabus requirements has been evident in all lessons observed. Furthermore, all classes had covered a satisfactory amount of the syllabus in both junior and senior cycle at the time of the inspection. A second-year folder examined showed a fine outline of termly work and a clear focus on methodology, assessment ideas, available resources and learning outcomes. Some good handouts, prepared acetates for class use, attendance records and individual items of preparatory material were evident in this folder. Where necessary, sets of textbooks for students’ use deemed were distributed and collected in a seamless fashion. When group working tasks were anticipated in junior cycle, high levels of preparedness by the teacher ensured that issues like task cards and seating arrangements were sorted with the minimum of disruption. An appropriate balance between Irish and non-Irish topics has been struck in fifth-year planning, and preparatory planning is underway for students to undertake Leaving Certificate research projects, which is appropriate. The involvement of some students in an Antarctic challenge recently is recommended as a stimulus to some possible historical research studies in senior cycle, with the Local Studies room of Cork City Library being a potential source of assistance in this regard.
All lessons commenced in a positive manner, with teachers giving an outline to students of the topics for consideration. A little more tailoring of such outlines towards the identification of learning outcomes would be worthwhile, perhaps including questions such as ‘What are we learning today?’ and ‘What are we looking for? in the introductions. Lesson themes were subsequently developed through a core focus on oral questioning, with teachers mixing lower and higher order questioning very well and getting good levels of answering and engagement from students, even where the class group was particularly small. At all times, teachers were most encouraging of their students, and deserve great credit for creating positive learning atmospheres in classrooms. At times, a little more emphasis on student involvement and less on teacher direction would be worthwhile. In this light, a good example of pair work, used to encourage students’ self-direction in placing historical events in sequence, is the sort of student-centred activity which is worth developing further in other lessons too.
In all lessons to varying degrees, fine emphasis was placed on human interest in History. Teachers employed interesting anecdotes, sometimes of personal experiences, and touches of humour to bring the past to life for students. Where possible, particularly in discussing relatively modern events, very good links were made to popular music, concerts, television shows and other features of popular culture in order to explain sometimes challenging socio-political developments in the USA. Very good links were made elsewhere to students’ own experiences of works of art, local churches and of activities like planting grass seed. This simple focus on History as something that has links to a multitude of human experiences is richly applauded.
Following observation of lessons, it is recommended that the focus on visual stimulation in the teaching and learning of History be increased. Some very good use was noted of text and visual stimuli via an overhead projector in one lesson. On the occasions when visual stimuli were deployed, there is no doubt that they enhanced learning. Some further suggestions in this vein are therefore offered. Where possible, places referred to in lessons should also be located for students on a wall map. Similarly, visuals which can enhance an explanation and add interest ought to be located for students in their textbooks. Furthermore, JCSP keyword charts or a structured summary like a mind map or diagram on the board could be used to remind students visually of the central issues being covered and of learning outcomes being achieved. In most lessons observed, the ability ranges and likely learning styles of students varied quite considerably and this recommendation on visuals is offered as a means of assisting differentiation in such contexts.
In all lessons, teachers have been commended for the clarity and syllabus-relevance of their explanations. At no stage was an important term or idea left unexplained, and such explanations were always pitched at a level appropriate to students’ ages and ability. With junior students, the concepts of change and social revolution were addressed very clearly and practically, as were for example the sometimes-complex links between the Renaissance and the Reformation, between the invention of moveable type and the growth of learning. For older students, key concepts like ‘consensus’ and ‘counter-culture’ and personalities like Kennedy and Johnson were expertly woven into the fabric of a lesson and linked to the syllabus. It was particularly good to hear a teacher emphasise at one point: ‘These are important words you need to know’. The previous recommendation on using visual reinforcement, if adopted, should merely enhance such good work further.
Some very good retention strategies have been applauded in different lessons, such as a clever acronym used to help remember the abuses in the pre-Reformation Church and the encouragement given to students to retain handouts in folders for future use. At times too, simple repetition of key ideas around enclosures and crop rotation, linking to words which students already knew, had similar positive outcomes. At other times, as intimated earlier, teachers had a tendency to do a little too much of the work in lessons. In addition to encouraging student activity, as above, a greater emphasis on student note-making is recommended as a further vehicle to promote retention. This would be best employed if students are encouraged to make notes for themselves as lessons proceed, for example around the significance or meaning of key words, or in diagrammatic form of the key elements in a topic and main dates in a historical development. Such discerning note-making is inseparable from understanding and engagement and would complement the good work done in the lessons observed towards promoting students understanding of and engagement with History generally.
The most common form of assessment employed in the lessons observed consisted of oral questioning. This was used in all lessons and involved almost all students in an active manner, with teachers using mainly lower order questions to elicit student knowledge. At appropriate intervals, some more testing higher order questions were used, particularly where students deeper understanding of issues like the link between the Renaissance and the Reformation, or the ways in which a counter culture manifested itself in 1960s USA. This was good practice.
Assigning written homework has been a difficulty in some classes. Teachers have shown very good sensitivity to the challenges faced by some students in completing such work. The use of a stimulus-driven task at the end of one lesson was a good idea, giving a focus to the work students were being asked to carry out. It would be worthwhile using the last few minutes of some lessons to assign homework tasks and allow the students the chance to commence the work with the benefit of initial teacher support in the classroom. Certainly, the use of visuals as part of homework assignments is also worthy of consideration, either as stimuli to written questioning or as drawing tasks with a historical focus. Some good examples of cloze tests and wordsearch games were noted in a planning folder and these are also commended as good assessment devices where students may feel challenged by pure writing tasks. In one classroom, the display of examples of students’ projects was commended as it both enhanced the history atmosphere of the room and also gave students a fine sense of achievement. With senior students, including some potentially higher-level students, the use of writing frames or of tasks where students are asked to write the opening paragraph of an answer, showing the angle they would take on particular questions, could be particularly worthwhile. Naturally, a focus would also be required on the assessment of students’ research work and documents-handling skills, and these are in hand.
The school does not have an overarching assessment policy. This is worthy of active consideration, particularly with a view to identifying meaningful ways of using differentiation in informal assessment practices. It is not feasible to consider common assessment for in-house examinations at present, given the numbers of students taking History and the significant differences between the class groups in second year, including subject-contact time. Arrangements for Christmas and summer in-house examinations, for parent-teacher meetings annually and for written reporting home on students’ progress are all satisfactory.
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 2009