An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Geography
Skerries Community College
Skerries, County Dublin
Roll number: 76078Q
Date of inspection: 6 May 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Geography
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Skerries Community College. 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 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 co-ordinators. 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.
Skerries Community College is a co-educational post-primary school under the patronage of County Dublin Vocational Education Committee. It has a current enrolment of 938 students, 626 males and 312 females. The organisation, teaching and learning of Geography is very well supported by school management. Teachers have been assigned base classrooms one of which has a store room where a wide range of teaching resources for Geography has been collected. The geography department is provided with an annual budget and the members of the department decide on priorities for resource acquisition. This has resulted in the development of information and communications technology (ICT) facilities in a number of classrooms. Teachers are encouraged to use the school’s ICT facilities as a means of storing and of sharing resources such as lesson plans, worksheets and supplementary textual material. Up-to-date wall maps and charts have also been provided. An inventory of all available resources is included in the subject department plan and a sign-out, sign-in system is in place to ensure the efficient use and tracking of resources. School management is particularly supportive in making arrangements for students to engage in the geographical investigation which is a compulsory component for the Leaving Certificate examination.
In the junior cycle Geography is a compulsory subject and is allocated three single class periods per week in each of the three years. At this level a banding form of class organisation is in place and all students are encouraged to pursue the higher level course in Geography. At senior cycle students’ geographical knowledge is extended by studying a ten-week module in Geography within the optional Transition Year (TY) programme which is allocated three single class periods per week. Geography is an optional subject for the Leaving Certificate and is allocated one single and two double class periods in each of the Leaving Certificate years. This time allocation for Leaving Certificate classes is in line with syllabus recommendations. The uptake of the subject is in a very healthy state with four and sometimes five class groups in each year. Students and parents are provided with a range of supports prior to making subject choices. The school offers a wide range of subjects and Geography appears on a number of option lines thereby maximising students’ choice. All classes are of mixed ability at this level.
Teachers are made aware of students with special educational needs in their classrooms and the geography teachers refer students to the learning support department as needs arise. This two-way communication is good practice.
Eight teachers currently deliver the geography programme in Skerries Community College, all of whom are graduates in the discipline. Teachers have availed of continuing professional development (CPD) in relation to Leaving Certificate Geography, the use of ICT in teaching the subject and have attended seminars organised by the Association of Geography Teachers of Ireland (AGTI). In-school CPD has been provided in relation to assessment planning.
During the evaluation a very comprehensive subject department plan was provided. The plan commenced with the school’s mission statement and then outlined the aims and objectives of the department. The organisation of the department in relation to resources, personnel, assessment, and recording of students’ progress was outlined. A detailed planned teaching programme for each year was also included. The planned teaching programme for each year in the junior cycle outlined the topic to be covered within a given timeframe, a description of the topic, and a statement of the learning outcomes. Some of these learning outcomes could be stated more clearly. It is recommended that the planned teaching programme for the junior cycle be reviewed. Map and photograph skills should be introduced at an early stage using large-scale maps and photographs of the local area. Consideration should also be given to introducing topics from Section C: Patterns in Economic Activity of the Junior Certificate syllabus at an early stage as this would add greater variety in the topics studied by first-year students. The planned teaching programme for Leaving Certificate refers to topics to be covered within time frames, units of study, skills to be developed and teaching methods. Consideration should be given to the timing of the study of the Option, Geoecology, so as to better cater for the mixed-ability class structure in place. Discussions held during the evaluation will support this consideration.
This plan has been developed by the collaborative work of the geography teaching team. Teachers clearly see themselves as part of co-operative team, provide mutual support, sometimes in each other’s classes, review the work of each other’s students and share their professional expertise. The subject benefits from the work of two subject co-ordinators, one who takes responsibility for budgetary matters and the other who focuses on subject planning. These roles rotate amongst the members of the department in line with good practice. Teachers meet formally and informally to plan and to review progress. Minutes are kept of formal meetings and are included in the department planning folder. It was evident that the department plan has been reviewed as minutes showed that teachers had discussed what was working well and what needed further attention. This review has resulted in discussion around agreeing a common textbook for all first-year students and in teachers providing mutual support in planning for and in the execution of the geographical investigation for Leaving Certificate.
The planned teaching programme for the TY is innovative and provides for an exploratory and investigative approach to learning. There are three strands to the programme: ‘Geographical Studies’, which explores geo-political themes in developing nations, involving film studies using such films as Blood Diamond; ‘Destination Europe’ where students are required to plan a short break to a European destination of their choice and a geographical investigation in the local area. A notable feature of the programme is the use of local, European and international settings. Documents provided during the evaluation indicated the level of detail required and the supportive worksheets provided to students to guide their research. The development of key skills was also evident throughout the module, these included: research and presentation skills, the use of ICT, report writing, map and statistical analysis and by working in groups the development of key social skills. There was evidence of cross-curricular links as students had been on an educational tour to mainland Europe, were completing the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) in computer studies lessons and their knowledge of Mathematics was used in statistical analysis and presentation of data. All of this makes for a very worthwhile educational experience for TY students in Skerries Community College.
Planning and preparation by individual teachers for the lessons observed was of a very high standard. All lessons had clear aims which were shared with students and the lessons formed part of a larger planned unit of work. Planning for the lessons observed included the preparation of appropriate resources to support students’ learning. Resources used included: a PowerPoint presentation, acetates for use with the overhead projector, writing frames, worksheets and sketch maps. The preparation of these resources reflects teachers’ desire to support learning and to provide interesting learning experiences for students. As is appropriate at this stage in the school year it was evident that teachers were supporting students’ preparation for examinations by planning and delivering a revision programme.
Very high quality teaching was observed in most of the classrooms visited. Most teachers used teaching strategies that actively engaged students in the learning process and they used a variety of well-planned activities to ensure that all students could relate to the subject matter of the lesson. This was very effectively done in a lesson observed where students were introduced to the concept of settlement patterns. Students were invited to explain to the class various formations that occur in rugby. The lesson followed a major international rugby match so students were engaged by this use of current events from outside the classroom. As students used various terms like ‘scrum’ and ‘back-line’ and the teacher explained how a try is scored these were recorded on the whiteboard using dots to show the different resultant patterns. The terms nucleated, linear and dispersed referring to settlement patterns were then introduced and related to the patterns drawn on the board. This enabled students to grasp the concept of pattern, to relate it to a visual image and to learn the correct geographical terms. They were then provided with an Ordnance Survey (OS) map and asked to identify examples of each of the patterns on the map. This led to a discussion on why and how these patterns occur, thus moving to higher-order questions. This focus on developing appropriate geographical skills and the careful introduction of the language of Geography are examples of very good practice. Students were then provided with a prepared sketch map and asked to draw and label the settlement patterns onto the map as a means of further developing their skills and of re-enforcing their newly acquired knowledge. It was evident that students were familiar with the use of OS maps and were well able to successfully complete the set task. As the students were engaged in this activity the teacher moved around the classroom offering support and affirmation.
In another very effective lesson observed, students were processing the results of a recent geographical investigation. Following a recapitulation of the aims of the investigation and a discussion of the experience of practical fieldwork students were given clear instructions as to how they were to complete a results sheet from the data collected before dividing into small groups. The results would then be used in a follow-up lesson to present findings using the school’s computer system. This would enable students to use their computer skills and develop appropriate methods for presenting geographical data. In talking to students in each of the groups it was evident that students clearly understood the task they were engaged in and were impressive in their ability to record and analyse the data from the investigation. The use of small groups is an effective way of engaging students in their own learning and of enabling them to learn from each other.
The pacing of lessons was generally very good. However, in one lesson observed transitions from one part of the lesson to another were too fast given the range of abilities among the students in the class. It is suggested that the pace of lessons should be more in tune with the responses of students and that, when questions are posed, time should be provided for students to comprehend, reflect, and respond. This approach would be particularly useful when students are presented with a visual image and asked to respond to a question such as ‘tell me what you see?’ Care is also needed in pitching the content of lessons at an appropriate level for students. In another lesson observed students were discussing the concepts of core and peripheral regions with a view to being able to contrast these different types of region. As the lesson progressed examples of these regions were discussed and their distinctive features outlined by the teacher. However, at the same time students were asked to identify their contrasting features before they fully grasped their individual characteristics. This was particularly challenging given the ability level of the students and that the examples came from two different countries. It would have been more suited to the students’ abilities if each region had been discussed separately before presenting them with the more challenging task of identifying contrasting features.
A notable feature in fewer than half of the classrooms visited was the use of ICT to enrich the learning experiences of students. In one lesson observed a PowerPoint presentation was effectively used to introduce students to the identification of tourist attractions on OS maps where appropriate prompts were used to stimulate students’ interest and to support learning. The use of photographs also catered effectively for visual learners. The visual approach to teaching Geography was evident in most classrooms when teachers used the overhead projector and provided satellite images to stimulate discussion and to clarify issues for students. The use of these visual stimuli was particularly effective when accompanied by a worksheet or a writing frame that students completed during the course of the lesson. Such activity provides students with some ‘quite time’ when they can reflect on and digest new subject matter.
The display of maps, charts, key words and photographs of students engaged in fieldwork created a stimulating and attractive learning environment in all of the classrooms visited. It was noted that the structure of certificate examination papers was displayed; this is useful as it helps to familiarise students with the requirements of the examinations.
Teachers were aware of students’ learning needs and the geography teachers maintain informal and ongoing contact with the leaning support department. It is recommended that more formal links be established between the geography teachers and the learning support department. Students requiring learning support, for example, would benefit from being provided with list of key geographical terms related to various topics, and the geography teachers would benefit from advice on appropriate teaching strategies.
Classroom management was very effective in the classrooms visited. Students were encouraged to participate in the planned learning activities and were frequently affirmed by their teachers. Good classroom management was supported by the establishment of clear and consistent routines. Students willingly responded to invitations from their teachers to seek clarification or to contribute to discussions. This was particularly evident in classes where students were preparing for certificate examinations.
There is a whole-school homework policy in place and homework in Geography is regularly set for students. Commendably the policy includes details on the range of homework activities that may be assigned. Teachers also assess students’ progress through careful questioning during lessons and by setting class tests when sections of the planned teaching programme are completed. Formal assessments are held at Christmas and summer and students sit pre-examinations in the second term. Parents receive progress reports following formal assessments, at parent-teacher meetings and, when teachers are concerned about a student’s progress, they contact parents or communicate with them through the student’s journal.
The quality of written work in students’ copybooks varied considerably as did the arrangements for the development and retention of notes and supplementary learning materials. Good practice was evident where students had two copybooks, one for homework and the other for notes; handouts were inserted in an appropriate place in notes to facilitate revision of course work and notes were kept in a logical sequence, with headings clearly indicated and maps and diagrams accurately drawn and appropriately annotated. Such high-quality work enables students to take pride in their work and reflects the high expectations of their teachers. The geography teaching team should agree strategies to facilitate an improvement in the quality of students’ written work and to advise students on appropriate ways to store supplementary learning materials. It was noted that in some instances students had completed past examination questions and had received constructive feedback from their teachers. This use of assessment for learning is important in enabling students to improve the quality of their written answers.
An analysis of results in certificate examinations is carried out by the geography teachers and these indicate a high level of uptake of the higher level for both Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate and that students in Skerries Community College are achieving good learning outcomes in these examinations.
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 subject co-ordinators and the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published December 2009