An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Tullow Community School
Tullow, County Carlow
Roll number: 91356F
Date of inspection: 7 and 8 October 2009
REPORT ON THE QUALITY OF LEARNING AND TEACHING IN HISTORY
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Tullow Community School. 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. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
History is a core subject for junior cycle students at Tullow Community School and this is commended. Each class has three single periods each week for History, which is good provision, and in general these periods are well balanced across the days of the week and between morning and afternoon times. One anomaly in this good provision is the fact that one third-year class, called a Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) class, does not study History. This means that the students in this group study History for two years and then drop it in third year. While it is open to the school, as a community school, to make History an option for some students, it is unfortunate that these students are not encouraged to continue with History to Junior Certificate, having studied it for two full years up to then. This current practice may also impact negatively on the motivation of these students during second year, knowing that they will be dropping History. It is equally important to bear in mind that the JCSP itself is not intended to be a one-year initiative and, thus, this practice needs to be reviewed in a more general way.
There is no Transition Year (TY) on offer at the school at present. Timetable provision for fifth-year and sixth-year History is good. Each class group has the subject for two double periods and one single period per week. While double periods are not necessarily ideal for a language-rich subject like History, their occurrence is explained by the placing of History opposite a number of subjects with practical elements in the senior options structure. The overall provision of five forty-minute periods per week is satisfactory. The school does not offer an open subject choice for Leaving Certificate but the fixed bands are quite satisfactory and fair to History. It is offered against Chemistry, Construction Studies, Accounting, Geography and Biology, with the latter two subjects available elsewhere in the options as well. It is suggested that the written information provided to students about senior History should be slightly updated, to emphasise the fact that the subject has significant economic-history content in the revised syllabus, making it more relevant for students interested in business careers than heretofore.
A number of other whole-school supports for History have been noted. The school is striving to develop its information and communication technology (ICT) teaching supports. One interactive whiteboard has already been installed in the library and the support of the parents’ council has set plans in train to augment this with other such boards in each classroom area within the building. The history department has been actively seeking such supports for subject delivery at its meetings in recent years and it is to be expected that this proposal will support the department’s work in time. The fact that History is generally taught in teacher-based classrooms has also allowed for the development of some excellent print-rich environments, full of historical stimuli to help engage students. The school promotes mixed-ability teaching in the main, although it has been noted that parallel efforts to ensure optimum numbers taking certain subjects has contributed to gender imbalance in some junior classes. Management has been supportive of history teachers’ attendance at continuing professional development (CPD) courses and subject association events in recent years. The school’s support for the internal junior history competition and for a range of historical trips is also applauded.
The school has a very substantial number of history teachers and it is good to note that a departmental structure has been employed in subject planning. Two volunteer co-ordinators have been appointed and much good work has been undertaken, including the development of distinct junior and senior history plans, using the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) template. The co-ordinators take overall responsibility for liaising with management on subject requirements, including timetabling and resource issues, in addition to chairing and retaining minutes of subject meetings and other activities. Minutes of meetings show significant work being done on the development of a catalogue of subject-relevant resources, on-going efforts to promote common assessment, and collaboration with the geography department in seeking the augmentation of ICT resources and equipment for teaching the humanities.
One meeting of the department has been facilitated in each academic year. This is below the optimum number of three but the difficulty of facilitating the full departmental body of ten teachers for formal meetings is acknowledged. Teachers deserve great credit for their use of informal or focused planning time to supplement the formal meeting at the start of the year, with examples of such meetings including the organisation of the junior cycle project competition, a host of historical trips at home and abroad, debates and quizzes over the years. If more meeting time can be accessed, it is recommended that a significant focus of further collaborative work should be on sharing ideas and practice in teaching and learning. For example, agreement on a common pace of course coverage in junior classes is desirable. This could, in turn, stimulate more pooling and sharing of resources and methodologies among teachers.
With the core elements of subject planning already well established in History, department members are urged to build on possible mutual support strategies. Even before the anticipated improvement in ICT availability, for example, discussion of how visual media can enhance teaching and learning can begin. Teachers are encouraged to share practice in how they use visually rich handouts, overhead projector acetates and data-projectors with a view to informing overall department practice. A similar collaborative approach to identifying how group and pair work can best support learning should be taken, perhaps with those teachers who make most use of such strategies offering practical examples to colleagues for consideration and discussion. A wide variety of practice has been evident in terms of individual planning and preparation by teachers, ranging from extremely comprehensive and varied to planning based substantially on textbook use and whole-class delivery. The merits of all approaches deserve discussion at future departmental meetings, as time permits, with a view to developing as much cohesion as possible in subject delivery within the classroom.
In most lessons observed a pleasant, natural atmosphere was prevalent from the initial roll-taking and other activities. Teachers generally set about the work without delay, outlining the aims of the lessons and monitoring homework from a previous lesson. Where teachers were using ICT for lesson delivery, everything was well prepared in advance, with screen displays already prepared as introductions to the particular lessons. In some lessons, getting students to settle to work proved a little more of a challenge. It is recommended that a greater focus on getting lessons started in an orderly, cohesive manner, more use of the whiteboard for identifying lesson aims and clarifications, and the transmission of positive messages through teachers’ tone of voice and body language are all potential supports to be tapped into in this regard. Excellent practice in all of these areas was observed during some history lessons and a team discussion of how such strategies can impact on the classroom management would be worthwhile.
Variation in the methods of lesson delivery was very successfully employed in a number of history lessons. Teachers in these contexts made excellent use of visual materials, either ICT-generated or otherwise. Where ICT was used, screen presentations of paintings, photographs and political cartoons were clear and uncluttered, with PowerPoint presentations appropriately mixing visuals and limited amounts of text at any one time. In a number of lessons, excellent wall posters, framed pictures, laminated photographs, visually rich handouts and occasional maps were also successfully drawn upon at times. In most lessons, teachers employed the whiteboard to present key words or points to students, again reinforcing visually what was being first offered orally. There is no doubt that the use of visual stimulation, as thus described, improved lesson delivery and student engagement significantly. The mixed-ability context of all history classes in the school makes the mixing of verbal and visual delivery an important consideration and deserving of more widespread use. In some lessons which were heavily textual or oral, reference to images in textbooks, the drawing of simple sketch maps or diagrams on the whiteboard or use of more visually oriented handouts should have been considered, to add variety to lesson delivery.
The overall level and quality of teacher questioning in the history lessons observed was good. Some teachers asked an excellent mix of factual and interpretative questions, including questions on the interpretation of visuals, like photographs and paintings. Some very good questioning on the meaning of words was also a feature of most lessons, with students asked to tease out the meaning of terms from ‘emigration’ to ‘tariffs’, ‘external relations’ and ‘acoustics’ in different lesson topics. Sometimes, though not uniformly, such questioning stimulated the development by teachers of short lists of key words and terms on the classroom whiteboards, and this is commended, and recommended for wider use if possible. In most lessons, teachers’ questioning appropriately combined ones seeking hands up with individually focused questions. Where students sought to ask questions this was readily facilitated, with a careful eye maintained by the teacher on not allowing such questioning to distract from core lesson themes too much. Occasionally, a little more questioning of students on their responses to short reading or document tasks was merited, or interpretative questioning might have probed more to identify students’ understanding, but the overall level of questioning observed in lessons was satisfactory.
In a number of lessons, good provision was made for student activity, with a focus on learning by doing. Students were, for example, asked to work on in-class cloze tests and quizzes, sometimes on source material and at other times following whole-class teaching on an aspect of the lesson topic. This worked well, adding variety to lesson pace and placing some of the onus for their own learning on the students themselves, which is good practice. Such tasks, ideally, should last no more than a few minutes at a time. Some excellent small-group tasks were particularly effective, with students asked to discuss screen-projected images of Roman life or Nazism, or documents on the Irish independence struggle. The appointment of a ‘mini-teacher’ who had completed project work on a particular topic, to act as a group facilitator was a particularly effective method of bringing focus to a lesson on Renaissance painting. In some instances, it was evident that working in pairs or groups was something which students were very accustomed to, so that such elements of lessons happened without disruption. As intimated in a previous section of this report, some consideration of how the outcomes of such group or pair work can be recorded is recommended, to include the use of the white board to capture students’ feedback and add visual reinforcement to otherwise aural messages. Where the reading aloud by teachers of documents or textbook extracts was employed in some lessons, it is suggested that short reading tasks should be given to the students themselves, as a means of further engaging them and measuring their comfort with the language register of such material.
In some lessons, progress with student learning presented more of a challenge than in others. Some lessons observed, although of mixed ability, were weighted numerically towards students of one gender and this may not be conducive to a good classroom dynamic. On the occasions where students were unfocused in their work, some consideration of previously mentioned behaviour strategies, and of changing seating arrangements and the deployment of the agreed student report procedures was recommended. The discussion of teaching methodologies generally, as recommended in the previous section of the report for departmental consideration, should also consider the potential impact of student-centred methodologies on classroom atmosphere, behaviour and ultimately on learning.
The overall pitch of the material covered in lessons was good. The level of detail and the language used in lesson delivery were well tailored to the ages and syllabuses being covered by classes. Very good pre-teaching of potentially difficult terms was done by some teachers and this is recommended for further use, ideally with the board or screen used as a reminder for students. The dictation of lengthy notes by teachers occurred in some lessons. It would be preferable if such notes were shorter and more focused. There is, however, much value in the encouragement of students to make short notes for themselves, jotting down key words, blackboard-generated summaries and other aids to retention. Some very good opportunities were planned for by teachers, using prepared ICT slides or board summaries, to bring learning together for students towards the end of lessons. A focus question: ‘What have we learned today?’ and a return to check whether the initial learning objectives had been accomplished were examples of such review practices which worked well and merit discussion at department level.
A number of very good assessment practices have been observed in lessons visited. Clear homework tasks were assigned in all lessons, with good oral monitoring of completed homework also being part of the initial stages of lessons. As intimated earlier, some excellent visual tasks, cloze tests and worksheets were employed as both homework and in-class assessment strategies. These were successful because they added variety for students, supported the mixed-ability contexts of the classes by lessening the emphasis on lengthy written tasks, and tied in well with the source-based nature of both junior and senior syllabuses in History. Oral questioning within lessons was generally very well done, while the use of feedback sessions from pair or group work was another important support to gauging students’ learning observed in some lessons. Some very good use of supportive commentary by teachers, written on students’ homework, was also noted in some lessons and the teachers concerned are commended for their commitment to the use of such time-consuming but valuable practice to support student learning.
Departmental collaboration has been and can be a very important support to common assessment practices. The use of an excellent project competition has been a very successful aid to the assessment and engagement of junior students, with the focus on both written and model-making work being particularly valuable. A move towards common end-of-term testing has been implemented in part and, if developed, could ease pressure on teachers in terms of examination preparation and can assist greatly in trying to ascertain whether students should sit higher or ordinary level papers in the Junior Certificate. The annual monitoring of higher and ordinary level uptake levels among boys and girls in History, and their comparison with national norms, would also be a worthwhile activity. Some very good use of the significant relevant statement (SRS) marking process with junior students, and awareness of Leaving Certificate equivalents, has been noted in the examination of documentation during the inspection. The dissemination of such practice and awareness across the subject department would be a further support to assessment of, and for, learning in History. Some excellent documentation was provided to senior students, reminding them of issues like deadlines for the completion of research study reports and also of the necessity for verification of the different stages of the work. The use of end-of-term and end-of-year tests, annual parent-teacher meetings and a fine reporting system which ranges from journal entries to formal written progress reports are all commendable assessment supports offered by history teachers and by management.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· The general time allocation for History in junior cycle and senior cycle is satisfactory
· History is well supported by the school’s options structure, with the provision of the subject as a core element of junior cycle for most students being particularly commendable.
· Other whole-school supports for History are good and plans to augment the availability of ICT for lesson delivery are timely.
· Significant planning has been undertaken at departmental level and in most instances good planning and preparation have been evident at individual teacher level too.
· Some excellent teaching methodologies, involving the use of ICT, group and pair work, structured handouts and questioning have been observed and deserve wider application.
· A number of good informal and formal assessment practices, including an awareness of SEC marking processes, have been observed in History and are applauded.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The school is urged to review its practice in relation to the provision of a JCSP class in third year only, including the manner in which History is offered to such a group.
· In a minority of lessons, a greater emphasis in planning for the use of visual stimuli and of strategies to promote student engagement was needed.
· Departmental discussion of teaching methodologies, with a view to sharing good practice and pooling ideas, should be given priority in future subject meetings.
· In some lessons, progress with student learning presented more of a challenge than in others and suggestions have been offered in the body of this report to address such issues.
· An annual focus on monitoring uptake levels and performance of students in State examinations is recommended for consideration.
A post-evaluation meeting was held with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published April 2010