Pre-1968, Northern Ireland history teaching displayed the content driven, rote learning characteristics of Mary Price’s “History in Danger”. We can only speculate as to how far partisan or inadequate history teaching contributed to division which exploded into violence. Whatever past grievances – real, exaggerated, imagined, distorted – were ingrained in social and political structures on each side of the community, history teaching did not do enough to challenge each side’s myths and partial truths.
Refractions and Reflections
My writing here is more personal reflection than professional thesis. Alongside glaziers and undertakers, I have shaped a career out of the NI conflict. I was an A level student between 1968 and 1970 during the civil rights campaign when the conflict kicked off. For most of the Troubles period, I was a classroom teacher in a strongly loyalist area. From 1995, encompassing the peace process and post Good Friday Agreement years, I was a teacher educator.
As practitioner and researcher, I have lauded the way many in the history teaching community in NI have responded to division by developing approaches which challenge the history of the streets. However, increasingly, I have become frustrated at our collective failure to build on progress by carrying the work forward into mainstream schooling.
The Emergence of Disciplinary History
For educators who wished to play a pro-active role in challenging sectarianism, the medium of history had distinct advantages. As well as its possibilities for influencing contemporary attitudes, it had high academic and examination status; and, crucially, it had the potential to access all young people. Two external influences aided risk-takers. The first came via the academic Irish history community. In the second half of the 20th Century that community, north and south, became a forum for dialogue, controversy and revisionism, thus contributing to critical awareness amongst young teachers emerging from universities. The second was the advent of “New History” through the Schools’ Council History Project (SCHP) in England. For a small but significant minority of teachers in NI, SCHP’s emphasis on enquiry, evidence, second order concepts and multiple perspectives offered both an escape from teaching simplistic single narratives and a chance to influence societal change.
The initial NI History Curriculum in 1990 built on over a decade of development work by embedding enquiry into the 11-14 curriculum with the clear intent that it should have a positive influence on community division. It was accompanied by a common core of key events in Irish History to be taught in all schools. Impressive for a society still at war! By the mid-nineties, an external examination module dealing with the recent Troubles period was included in the GCSE programme, albeit as an elective option.
Further research indicated that curriculum changes were having some impact. Kitson concluded that teachers were committed to teaching “as ‘balanced’ a view of the past as they can.” Studies demonstrated that students understood the primacy of evidence when reaching historical judgments and they valued history as offering alternative perspectives to the partisan accounts often heard in the community. Barton and McCully concluded that students, when they encountered multiple sources of information, did so critically even if they often struggled to break free of interpretations dominant in their own communities.
Research also identified other constraints and weaknesses. Students frequently found the history they were taught was too divorced from their everyday experiences, especially when it concentrated on the mechanistic examination of sources. What students sought above all was for history to help them to make sense of the situation around them – yet, too often, they were left to make connections between past and present for themselves with little teacher mediation. Also, students were often presented with dual rather than multiple perspectives, stereotypical unionist and nationalist positions, which lacked nuance and complexity grounded in real lives, and this sometimes convinced them that the conflict was intractable.
Post 1998, younger pupils were receiving inadequate, incomplete accounts of the Troubles at home. They were curious to know more but this was not covered in the junior school curriculum, nor were many teachers prepared to tackle the recent, contentious past. Kitson argued that teachers, not curriculum, was the critical factor governing student experience and that teacher avoidance continued to be a major constraint in the post Good Friday era.
Nevertheless, I was optimistic as we entered the second decade of the Millennium. Policymakers were aware of weaknesses and were willing to address them, and an increasingly active civil society was engaging with remembering the momentous Decade of Centenaries, 1912-22 at community level. Optimism was reinforced in 2007 by the introduction of a radical revised 11-14 curriculum. It explicitly promotes history’s role in understanding contemporary NI society and schools are offered flexibility to choose content relevant to the needs of their students within a prescribed framework. Young people are asked to investigate:
- how history has affected personal identity / culture / lifestyle;
- how selective interpretation / stereotyping / abuse have been used to justify views and actions;
- how historical figures have behaved ethically and unethically;
- how the cause and consequences of Irish Partition have influenced modern NI.
Thus, we now had the curriculum, pedagogy and resources, alongside a cohort of skilled practitioners and a growing societal impetus, for history teaching to fulfill its potential as a change agent.
Instead, arguably, the situation has stalled since 2010 with little development toward mainstreaming best practice. The full potential of curriculum is unrealised, and avoidance and containment continue to shape many classrooms. Recent reports have highlighted the failure of education to contribute effectively to the difficult task of dealing with the legacy of the recent past. The Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition concluded that “many young people were not given the chance to explore culture, identity and tradition in schools” while research on citizenship education suggested a failure to teach children about the Troubles “leaves the deep-rooted causes of conflict and division untouched.”
There are complex reasons for failing to overcome avoidance and not effectively mainstreaming our considerable knowledge and skills in regard to teaching difficult histories. For a start, teachers are not simply conduits for official curriculum goals. In class, they teach in ways that are consistent with their own values and personal understanding of the purpose of history. They are products of the society in which they teach, and this is especially so in conflict affected societies where external interference from community influences, real or perceived, is feared.
However, not all resistance is externally generated. Controversial issues trigger strong views and teachers must be prepared to facilitate, manage and work through emotional reactions. For teachers, adopting such pedagogy sometimes threatens a key platform of their professional identity, their sense of classroom control. History teaching in NI has relied too heavily on cognitive processes rather than embracing the potential for affective learning to unlock the constraints imposed by upbringings which lack proper perspective on the other community.
There is one further factor which limits horizons, the tyranny of external assessment. Teachers are frequently criticised for their reticence to tackle difficult histories but, in reality, it is not on such matters that they are professionally judged. Predominantly, accountability in the NI school system, both within and between schools, is measured by examination results. It is not surprising that teachers channel their energy into the demanding, but quantifiable, outcomes of exam preparation rather than risking the swamplands associated with teaching the difficult past.
Even the GCSE module on the Troubles, now covering the whole 1968 to 1998 period, has limitations. Arguably, senior students benefit from greater maturity when encountering the contested past and its contemporary ramifications. However, teaching the module is subject to considerable pressures imposed by content delivery and time. Its political focus provides little space for exploration of, and dialogue on, ordinary peoples’ experiences, which is where today’s sensitivities to the Troubles usually rest. Further, examination culture drips down to stifle the transformative aspirations of the junior history and citizenship curricula.
So how can we balance the factors identified above –the past with the present, the cognitive with the affective, and exams with contemporary relevance? Those challenges have caused me to re-think two of my previous maxims; the first is that my faith in disciplinary boundaries, including that history and citizenship are connected but distinct, has been questioned. I now believe that greater inter-disciplinary flexibility between history and the social studies is required if students are to meaningfully explore history’s contemporary relevance. Only when students understand powerful emotions associated with cultural identity, symbolism, legacy and loss can they better explore why studying history can be emotive and contested.
My second re-think relates to external examinations. I have come to realise the futility of blaming exams for taking teachers’ and students’ attention away from history’s extrinsic, societal role. Examinations are an established part of the education system and have their own social utility. They are motivationally powerful. Therefore, why not seek to modify current exam practice by endorsing content and approaches that would provide students with greater opportunities to engage with the human aspects of past events and their contemporary significance?
For example, why not re-vamp the GCSE NI Troubles module by creating two strands? First, students might examine political events, 1968-98, as an outline framework and then study in-depth the social history of the period by concentrating on the impact conflict had on people’s lives – including the families of politicians, combatants, victims and ordinary citizens. In addition to using printed and visual sources this would allow for the use of oral evidence and visits to national and contemporary museums. All lend themselves to rigorous historical enquiry. The second strand would focus on contemporary relevance in relation to issues such as cultural identity, how history is used and abused, dealing with legacy of conflict and how we remember and commemorate. In the current century, an impressive academic literature has built up around remembrance, memorialisation and commemoration which can give rigour to such studies.
Realistically, examination teaching always imposes constraints, but I argue that the module as outlined above could be a catalyst for changing teacher practice. It has the potential to better meet the needs of young people by giving them insight into the troubled past but also into why that past continues to inhibit social progress in the present. Of course, my proposal will meet resistance but is there not a growing momentum in the UK generally that external examination provision requires reform? I also wonder how far the past / present structure (including investigating remembrance, commemoration and contemporary representations of the past) might be relevant to wider studies of empire, colonialism and warfare in other parts of the UK?
- McCully, A. & Waldron, F.. “A question of identity? Purpose, policy and practice in the teaching of history in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.” History Education Research Journal 11(2), 145-158 2013. DOI: 10.18546/HERJ.11.2.12
- Kitson, A., & McCully, A. “‘You hear about it for real in school.’ Avoiding, containing and risk-taking in the history classroom.” Teaching History, 120 2005, 32-37.
- McCully, A. W.. “Teaching history and educating for citizenship: Allies or uneasy bedfellows in a post-conflict context?” In T. Epstein & C. Peck (Eds.), Teaching and learning difficult histories in international contexts: A critical sociocultural approach (216-234). New York: Routledge 2018.
- Flags report: Stormont publishes £800k report without action plan https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-59266116 (last accessed 27 June 2023).
- History Education in the Northern Ireland Curriculum: Alan McCully https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-EEPRBL0BJg (last accessed 27 June 2023).
- A Decade of Anniversaries Schools Resource https://www.creativecentenaries.org/toolkit/case-studies/a-decade-of-anniversaries-schools-resource (last accessed 27 June 2023).
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 Dominic Murray, (1985) Worlds Apart: Segregated Schools in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Appletree Press. Milliken M., Bates J. and Smith A. (2020) Teaching Across the Divide: perceived barriers to the movement of teachers across the traditional sectors in Northern Ireland, British Journal of Educational Studies, 69: 2, 133-154
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McCully, Alan: Teaching Difficult Histories and Countering Avoidance. In: Public History Weekly 11 (2023) 5, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2023-21809.
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