Junior cycle reform is a chance to give meaningful lessons in history
Getting hung up on the removal of history as a core subject misses the bigger opportunities in the new curriculum
On the curriculum: The many faces of history: President John F Kennedy at Áras an Uachtaráin, 1963 with President de Valera
Junior-cycle reform remains a contentious topic. For many history teachers it represents a threat to the subject they love. Some have voiced concerns about the removal of history as a core subject, suggesting students will be left without a sense of the story of our past and a means to put current social and political events into context.
The Junior Certificate history syllabus as it stands is ambitious in its scope, encompassing early Irish settlers, Roman civilisation, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the plantations, the age of revolutions, the Great Famine, the first and second World Wars, the cold war, and the EC. Irish history includes the Civil War, independent Ireland and social change. Few three-year history degrees would aim to cover such a range, yet, often in just four history classes per week, teachers are expected to cover the course. As tapestries of past events go, this one is just too vast.
This leaves our passionate and dedicated history teachers with little time to explore the “teachable moments” that arise in class. They are deprived of freedom to teach history as more than a textbook story to be rote-learned as a series of dates and facts. They cannot even explore how this textbook narrative relates to local, tangible heritage and to teach to their strengths.
In the current syllabus, history is a long story to be galloped through at breakneck speed. Students and teachers need a better experience of history than this. The new junior cycle offers students a real opportunity to do history. Let’s embrace it.
Accessing history through local heritage has a central role to play in the way we teach junior-cycle history from now on. Work on lesson plans and short courses is already under way. Students can start by coming to understand the imprint of history in their place, on their community, and then to put these events into a broader context, whether national or international. They can choose to pursue topics that have never been investigated before, to assemble evidence never assembled before and to do the thing that all historians love best: to discover things as yet undiscovered. The resources for this kind of genuine, contextualised research are now just a mouse click away.
History will not be a core subject in the new junior cycle. But on this island, where heritage sites are so ubiquitous and we are surrounded by the evidence of thousands of years, many short courses are sure to address history, historical geography and archaeology in a multidisciplinary way. For those who do study history it will be a really meaningful subject.
Over the past 10 years a vast number of primary sources have been digitised and placed online in a searchable format. They allow students to learn about the past through inquiry. In the right surroundings this inquiry can lead to the full use and practice of the skills of a historian, such as close reading of sources, contextualisation and corroboration.
Students can learn not only the content that they seek to understand, interpret and synthesise but also the skills to accomplish these complex tasks. These skills have applications across disciplines and for information literacy.
There seems to be a misunderstanding among some commentators junior-cycle reform about the inextricably linked areas of “knowledge” and “skill”. Simply stated, they contend that the old junior cycle was about “teaching content” and students “learning knowledge” to spew out at the terminal exam with no emphasis on skills.
Conversely, to them the new junior cycle is concerned only with developing the skills of finding and presenting information, with no emphasis on learning knowledge. As all good educators know, the case cannot be stated so simply. The differences between teaching and learning are far more complex than this.
The aim of the new junior cycle is to make learning active. Student learning will be based on tangible information need: the need to know things, to find things out, to fathom, problem-solve, hypothesise and create. And while students enact these processes they will be finding knowledge, using it and coming to deep understanding of it.
That’s what we need our students to be able to do in this rapidly unfolding 21st century. And they can start practising these skills by exploring and shaping their knowledge of the past.
Dr Danielle O’Donovan is an Irish Research Council p ost doctoral enterprise fellow at Bridge 21, at the centre for research in IT in education at T rinity College Dublin and the Irish Heritage Trust