Wednesday 22 November 2017

Curriculum must not be just for 'white Irish' only, expert warns

In a reflection of shifting attitudes, the UK’s prestigious Oxford University announced last week that it was making it compulsory for history students to sit one paper on non-British, non-European topics. (Stock picture)
In a reflection of shifting attitudes, the UK’s prestigious Oxford University announced last week that it was making it compulsory for history students to sit one paper on non-British, non-European topics. (Stock picture)
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

The teaching of history and other subjects in Ireland must develop to reflect the cultures and experiences of new immigrant communities, an education expert has warned.

Dr Victoria Showunmi of Maynooth University (MU) said the curricula in schools and third-level colleges had to keep pace with the changing face of Ireland, and include perspectives that are not white Irish.

She warned of a risk of migrants feeling alienated if they were unable to see how what is being taught has any bearing on their experience or personal background.

With immigration a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland, Dr Showunmi said education policymakers must learn lessons from the experience of the UK, over decades, to do more to help integration.

She spoke about the subtle difference between assimilation - adopting the ways of another culture - and integration, which is defined as incorporating individuals from different groups into society as equals.

"The onus is typically placed on the person coming into the country to assimilate, but many migrants feel that they lose part of their identity through this process," she said.

"Those in charge of education policy should look to meet migrant students half-way by placing an emphasis on integration. The first step we can take in this case is to look at the content of the curriculum.

"An increasing proportion of young people are unable to see how what is being taught in schools and universities had any bearing on their experience or personal background.

"Integrating different viewpoints into the classroom is an important step to prevent this alienating experience that sours many young people on education."

Dr Showunmi pointed to how challenges posed by curricula for those from migrant backgrounds prompted the student-led "Why is My Curriculum White" campaign in the UK.

The campaign advocates more diversity on reading lists and course content.

In a reflection of shifting attitudes, the UK's prestigious Oxford University announced last week that it was making it compulsory for history students to sit one paper on non-British, non-European topics.

Dr Showunmi, who is a senior lecturer in MU's Department of Education, was speaking to the Irish Independent ahead of the university's annual education conference, next week, which will discuss the experience of ethnic minorities in education.

She said many immigrants in Ireland were white European and others were people of colour, and one group could be assimilated, or become less noticeable, than the other.

"If you look at migration in terms of people of colour, what is quite different is they change the face of Ireland; Ireland is looking very different," she said.

They may not have language needs because many, such as Nigerians, already had English as their first language. But she said: "We need to be able to ensure that their history is included in our history."

Dr Showunmi said that in history classes, students needed to be allowed to see that there are various role models, and that it was "not just people who look at it in a certain way".

Dr Showunmi said the same could apply to other subjects, such as English.

She said reading lists were a very powerful tool in education "and we are asking educators to think, are they just a particular type of book".

Irish Independent

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