Tuesday 18 June 2019

Tom Collins: 'If you want children to learn from history don't make it compulsory, bring it to life'

Valued: The fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral illustrates how history and heritage are so important to 21st-century civilisation. Photo: PA
Valued: The fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral illustrates how history and heritage are so important to 21st-century civilisation. Photo: PA

Tom Collins

Much of the current public debate about history in the second-level curriculum is in reality a debate about something else - namely about compulsion in the curriculum.

Everyone agrees children should develop an interest in the past and an understanding of how things got to be the way they are.

While there are deeply held and sincere views on this matter, they are views which need to be thought through and challenged, particularly given our experience of compulsory subjects in Ireland.

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It is impossible to create a vision for the future in the absence of a shared analysis of the past. Whether at a personal or social level, an awareness of the past will draw attention to former failings and shortcomings, isolate issues which need to be addressed, and foreground personal and social priorities in shaping the future.

But an appreciation of the past is more than this. The tragedy of the fire in Notre-Dame calls attention to the importance of the built heritage to 21st-century civilisation. It enriches life. It binds people together and it enhances the aesthetic in the everyday world.

A historical imagination may be viewed as a quality of mind conscious of the interplay between the past and the present.

This awareness would inspire a learner to explore further, to interrogate historical dogma, to seek actively to learn from the past, and to critically appraise dominant narratives. It might begin by wondering that, if history is his story, what about her story - or whose story is it anyway!

If the learning objective is the development of the historical imagination, how best can this be achieved? Therein is the nub of the issue. While nobody in the current debate has to my knowledge queried the inherent value of history, not all agree it should be a compulsory subject. By way of background, it should be pointed out that every primary school child studies history and currently it is compulsory only in the voluntary secondary schools. It is not compulsory in ETB schools or Community schools or colleges.

Irish education has a poor experience when it comes to compulsory subjects. Whether by reason of compulsion or other factors, such subjects beget resentment in learners and undermine the impulse for innovation at the teaching side.

The fate of Irish is salutary in this regard. The NCCA/ESRI longitudinal study of 1,000 second-level students as they progressed through second-level education between 2004-2012 drew attention to the fact that in second year about 25pc of the students became alienated from school and never re-engaged at an emotional or psychological level.

Their disenchantment coalesced around two subjects - Irish and maths.

With regard to Irish, as a society we seem to be content with an outcome which results in little oral fluency, notwithstanding the scale of the investment.

History will survive in our schools not because it is compulsory but because it is interesting and meaningful.

In the world of adult learning, there has in recent years been an explosion of interest in local history. Groups throughout the country work assiduously in researching the past as it has unfolded in all its richness and multiple tapestries in their own communities over the centuries.

This phenomenon is holding out against a background of the collapse of many other communitarian activities in civil society, as people withdraw into the sanctuary of privatised, home-based recreation or learning.

Local history groups are thriving because they are inherently enriching and developmental and cast light - sometimes very painfully, as in the case of the Tuam Mothers and Babies home - on corners of our past which are dark and sinister as well as triumphant.

The challenge for all second-level education is to engage the students in an active process of exploration of oneself and one's world. There are some examples where it does this very well.

Students generally engage enthusiastically in subjects where they learn actively or through their hands - art, music, domestic science, computing, technology. They rise to the challenge and opportunities of extra-curricular activities, be it in sport, drama, music or social care.

They are less enamoured of narrow, text-based and teacher-centred subjects where learning is through instruction rather than construction. So the debate on history might be recast as a debate on the limitations of the educational project when confined to the classroom and when it relies on compulsory attendance.

Have we the capacity to grow high trust, democratic, active, self-generating and self-sustaining learning? History in the new Junior Certificate is one place where this is happening - and surely this provides the best possible basis for an increase in students taking the subject to Leaving Certificate.

So, rather than discussing compulsion should we not be asking how we can create a learning environment in which the past can be animated and explored by children hungry for learning? A child who directly encounters the local landscape as their primary learning platform cannot escape history. The past is everywhere and ever-present. If we narrow it to text books in sterile classrooms, they will find multiple ways of escaping it.

Tom Collins is chairperson of Dublin Institute of Technology and Institute of Technology Blanchardstown

Irish Independent

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