Teachers are concerned that a crowded curriculum and teaching pressures are obstacles to the quality teaching of history in Ireland, a new report has found.
A Council of Europe report provides the latest detailed picture of how history is being taught across 16 countries and covers themes such as the place of the subject in education systems, learning outcomes and how students are assessed.
The council’s Observatory on History Teaching in Europe notes that issues facing teachers in Ireland are shared across many other countries in Europe.
It finds, for example, that history is prominent on the curriculum in Ireland, where it is compulsory at primary until the third year of the junior cycle (ages 15-16) second level.
The most commonly cited obstacles to quality teaching of history in Ireland were the time allocated to it during the school day, curriculum overload and time available to prepare for lessons.
The report notes that there is a great degree of flexibility for teachers in how the curriculum is delivered in Ireland, with decisions on which resources to use left to individual schools.
However, it found Ireland was unusual in the extent to which teachers’ notes are relied on as resources for students, in advance of primary documentary sources and textbooks.
The report also examines how “teaching to the test” is common in most countries that have high-stakes exams, such as the Leaving Cert.
While teachers attach the least value on rote-learning and place the most on critical thinking, it says the dominance of exams are a deterrent to focusing more on these higher order skills.
It also notes that high-stakes exams can pressurise teachers to emphasise memorising facts to pass the exam, “leaving no space for other activities or methods or the use of additional resources”.
“Because the grades of the students often impact the teachers’ performance evaluation, the teachers are pressurised to spend more time training students how to pass the exam, so-called teaching to the test,” the report states.
Notwithstanding this, the report notes that in Ireland education authorities say aims such as “enhancing critical learning and 21st-century skills”, such as problem solving, collaboration and creativity are represented “well” or “quite well” on the curriculum.
It also notes that Ireland is one of a number of countries that includes teaching about minorities – such as Travellers in the case of Ireland – and where civil society is able to have an input into the design and development of the history curriculum.
Overall, the council’s deputy secretary general Bjørn Berge said it was vital to teach history in a way that equipped citizens with faith in their democracy and an understanding of their democratic culture.
The observatory’s governing board chair Alain Lamassoure stressed that the organisation was born out of each country’s need to know how to respond to “new circumstances, to the constant flux of change in a complex world”.
“We turn to history to understand the present and how it may affect the future. But history can also be manipulated with serious consequences for human rights and democracy. Today, we must ask: how are young people in Europe prepared to hear about the history of their origins?”