Thursday, 15 June 2017

Leaving Cert History 2017: Some Thoughts

Thoughts on Junior Cert exams here.

The second Wednesday of the exam timetable is always the same for me. A feeling of excitement and trepidation as if I'm about to enter the exam hall and sit the exam myself. Every year, without fail. I wrote before about the fear - which all teachers experience from time to time - that I failed to prepare my students enough for the exam at the end of the road. I fear that I let them down, and that a tough exam might catch them out and bring a disappointing end to a two year-long drive through the past. It's not the most rational of fears, but it's there all the same.

So it was with a sense of relief that I spoke to my students afterwards and looked at the papers they sat. They were all positive about it, save for one or two complaints which I'll add in to my own review below.

Ordinary Level:
Section 1: Documents-Based Question
Opening the page to find the Nuremberg Rallies will have been a good start for many students, it being the most accessible of the three case studies. The new formatting of the paper gave a different feel to the DBQ. I mentioned in my Junior Cert review how the font change takes away the formal, possibly intimidating look of Times New Roman, but the picture (Document B) is quite large and pops out at you as soon as you open it. Perhaps not the most relevant point to note, but it made an impression on me. The questions were quite decent, I particularly liked 2b (Which document gives the better insight on a Nuremberg Rally?) and 3a (Are the rules in Document A meant to keep people safe or to keep people under control?). Students would have had to engage their critical skills to tackle these questions. Meanwhile Q.4 was a nice easy one which allowed students to tie in to their broader knowledge of propaganda and dictatorship in Nazi Germany.

Section 2: Ireland
I'll avoid mentioning the topics I'm not very familiar with, namely Topics 1 and 4 - I have yet to even see a textbook for the latter.
  • Topic 2 had a lot of nice self-contained questions on various of its components, though the only case study-related question was on the successes and failures of the GAA. 
  • Topic 3 had a range of accessible questions which I was pleased to find covered a range of topics we focused on over the year - Home Rule, Anglo-Irish relations under de Valera, the Treaty negotiations and the Eucharistic Congress foremost among them for my own students. There was an interesting question comparing Countess Markiewicz and Evie Hone, while the Northern Ireland-specific question focused on James Craig. The annual Cosgrave/de Valera question was in Part B rather than Part C this time around.
  • Topic 5 was more generous with case study-based questions, a question on the failure of the Sunningdale power-sharing executive rather reminiscent of current goings-on in Stormont. Section B focused primarily on the 80s and 90s, with questions on Thatcher, Gerry Adams, the Downing Street Declaration and cultural responses to the Troubles. 
  • It's the last time we'll see Topic 6 here for a while, and the questions were a bit more mixed. Three of the main social change topics - health/social welfare, education and the Irish language took up most of Part B. Two questions on the Lemass era, one specifically on the First Programme for Economic Expansion. I had considered it a good possibility that this would appear given TK Whitaker's death in January. For anyone who wanted to write about other figures, there were questions on Jack Lynch and Charles Haughey as well. 
Overall, the Ireland section was quite straightforward. Accessible, self-contained questions with no hidden surprises meant it was well-received by students leaving the exam.

Section 3: Europe and the Wider World
  • Topics 1 and 2, which my brain always joins together because I did the pre-2006 History course, looked manageable. There were a lot of questions connected with key personalities and case studies, with a definite slant towards the World War I side of things in Topic 2 (in parallel to the World War II slant in Junior Cert).
  • Margaret Thatcher pops up again in Topic 4, but only in Part A. Again a range of key personalities should have helped students in this section - five of the eight questions in Parts B and C were related to them.
  • Topic 5 gave students a choice between case studies in Part C: straightforward questions on Katanga and race relations in France complimented shorter Part B questions on Sukarno, Ho Chi Minh and aid workers in Africa.
  • A lot of familiar questions in Topic 6. I had cautioned my students against relying on Marilyn Monroe and Muhammad Ali seeing as they both appeared last year, but lo and behold they were back again this year (with Betty Friedan). The obligatory Foreign Policy 1945-68 question focused on Johnson and Vietnam, while Truman and Korea were confined to Part A. Nothing out of the ordinary here really.
Higher Level:
Section 1: Documents-Based Question
When looking through my copy of the paper earlier on, my sister opened this question and happily exclaimed "JARROW!" (she loved it when she was in school). This satisfaction was matched by my own students earlier in the day, as the DBQ here was very easy for anyone who knows the ins and outs of the Jarrow March. It's to be expected for a topic as specific as this one is, but with the limited number of sources available to supply document excerpts, the whole section came off very much like the Edco sample questions on it. I thought the Q.2 and Q.3 were a bit lackluster compared to the Ordinary Level questions, a lot of repeats from previous years which don't really engage the students with the documents on a deeper level, I find.

Section 2: Ireland
  • Topic 2: A good range of questions on Home Rule, unionism via Carson, land reform, the GAA and the suffragettes - I expect students who studied this topic would have been happy with it.
  • Topic 3: A change from the tried and tested "physical force nationalism" question as we instead take a more political approach to the 1912-20 period with a question asking about the factors which contributed to partition. Aside from a World War II in the North and South question, the rest of this topic was very similar to the Ordinary Level paper: Anglo-Irish relations under Cosgrave and de Valera, the Eucharistic Congress and cultural identity via education and language.
  • Topic 5: Opened with a broad question on social and economic problems facing Northern Ireland from 1949-69, moving on to a more self-contained question on the Civil Rights movement. The fourth question here, asking about the Apprentice Boys of Derry, ecumenism and the cultural response to the Troubles, might have been a challenge to students attempting it if they hadn't already planned for such a question.
  • Topic 6: This topic also opened with a broad social and economics question, but students could instead choose the status of women or more specific questions on Jack Lynch/Charles Haughey (same as Ordinary Level, and the last time either of them will appear until 2020), the Irish language, RTÉ and John Charles McQuaid. No mention of Lemass or TK Whitaker (unless you count the broad question), which took my complacent self by surprise. "It was a Lemassive disappointment", joked a student afterwards.
Section 3: Europe and the Wider World
  • Topic 1 took a political philosophy approach: questions on cultural nationalism, trade unionism, socialism and mass politics were spread across two choices, alongside Metternich, the unifications of Italy and Germany, and Haussman. Topic 2 had an interesting question focusing entirely on the Russian revolution - the centenary of which is this year. Straightforward questions besides.
  • Topic 4 was Margaret Thatcher's third Leaving Cert exam appearance, with a good question on the effectiveness of her leadership. If that wasn't somebody's cup of tea, they could instead cross the red curtain to assess the success of Khrushchev as a leader, the strengths and weaknesses of the Western economies or focus on Vatican II and John Paul II.
  • India was conspicuously absent from Topic 5 on the Ordinary Level paper, but it had a question to itself here. A question on the spread of Islam, whether alongside Christianity in Africa or alone in Europe, was brand new, though it takes from different parts of the topic. It's presence seemed to reflect shades of current events with the rise in Islamophobic incidents in the west. It wasn't the only question that seemed influenced by the present though...
  • "From Roosevelt to Reagan, would you agree that American presidents have always acted for the good of America". It's too tempting to find a connection between this question being selected in 2017, the year of "making America great again". It's a rare one, only ever appearing once before in 2011, without the "for the good of America" angle. I didn't expect it to appear, though I probably should have. It might have been a challenge for any students who undertook it, the risk is to fall into a narrative description of what each of those presidents did, rather than take the critical approach called for by the question. Another risk would be a reliance on talking about foreign policy - domestic policy would be just as, if not more important for answering this one. Aside from that, we had a Montgomery Bus Boycott question - only the second since this course was introduced to focus specifically on Martin Luther King - an economics question (I'll admit that they're not my favourite) and a slightly different take on the "how did these people contribute" question - students had to compare the counter-cultural effect of Norman Mailer, Betty Friedan and/or Muhammad Ali.
There was a definite "fresh" feeling to this year's papers. Questions were styled differently to before - sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly - even if they were on very familiar topics. There were some moves to encourage more critical thinking - the Ordinary Level DBQs and the Higher Level Topic 6 being good examples of this.

Such small changes don't represent a huge shift by any means, but they're enough to make a difference to a set of exams which have been running the risk of being stale for some time now. It will be interesting to see if next year's papers go along the same vein, but I hope they do. The new sample papers should try tweaking things a bit as well. There's only so much we can do to avoid predictability when the course is finite, but that doesn't mean we can't make things a little bit more interesting! 

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Junior Cert History 2017: Some Thoughts

Well that's that. Another year done and dusted. I doubt I'm alone when I say that I experience a nice feeling of relief once the History state exams are done for the year. There's no more looking back after that (ironically), time instead to look forward to next year.

The overall response I heard from students of both levels was that the papers were very good. Any nerves going in were quickly allayed by exams which weren't out to catch people, but instead examine students' learning across a range of topics.

I have to say the change to Calibri instead of Times New Roman makes a huge difference to the look of the paper. It makes it less intimidating - Times being the go-to font for formality.

Ordinary Level:
This paper was laid out quite nicely. There definitely seemed to be an attempt to put together a decent examination rather than just sticking together some topics and asking questions not entirely relevant to the course (see 2015, Higher Level). The Picture Questions took a different approach to previous years in that the three pictures weren't exclusively tied to a single topic. There were links - rural Ireland, World War I, and social history were all a part of it - but the focus was more on context and source examination than it was a memory test on those topics. This brings the Picture Questions more into line with how the Document Questions work, and has shades of the proposed new Junior Cycle History Strand One, which focuses on the development of research and analytical skills.

The Short Questions looked over many topics on the course. Nearly all of the questions had appeared on previous papers, but there was one new one: Name one type of entertainment which was common during the Middle Ages. It would be nice to see more "new" questions, even new ways of asking the old questions.

The People in History Questions were likewise mostly familiar, but the third question in Part A took a new approach to an old topic: rather than ask about an explorer or a person sailing with them, this question asked the candidates to write as a native of the New World when the European explorers arrive. This should be easy enough for any students who revised the Age of Exploration properly, but to write a good answer they would have needed a good basic knowledge of this native's culture before the Europeans' arrival and what impact the subsequent colonisation had. The temptation with an Age of Exploration People in History is always to think of Columbus or Magellan, but this would have fitted more with da Gama, Pizarro and the Conquistadores.

Higher Level:
The Picture Questions on the Higher Level paper were straightforward (any teachers wondering if the Nuremberg Rallies would appear in the Leaving Cert papers might have been surprised to see Nazi rallies making an appearance here too), as were the Document Questions, though the examiners seem to have so much of a preference for basing one of the documents on World War II that it almost seems a permanent fixture (four times in a row for the last four years!)

There was a slight bias towards World War II in the Short Questions as well, though there were plenty of other topics to balance this out.

There was a nice surprise in the People in History section. There was the usual "named civilisation outside of Ireland" question but 2017's question specifically asked the candidate to write from the point of view of a woman. It's not a groundbreaking change or anything but it's nice to see an acknowledgement that women often get a short shrift on this curriculum. The remaining questions all previously appeared on past papers.

After a five year absence, the Reformation returns to the Source Question section, though it focused on John Calvin and Presbyterianism rather than the more predictable Martin Luther, though the C questions would have been familiar to students. One of the sources was an excerpt from John Knox's The First Blast of the Trumpet: Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, published in 1558. The title says it all about the content, but it was another move to include women, or at least attitudes to them, in the exam paper.

The Long Questions seemed to be a good mix. The Renaissance took up Part A, with another "women in history" type question: Give two reasons why there were so few female scientists and artists. Social Change avoided the more obvious "how life changed for women in Ireland" question and instead went with the first Junior Cert History question to ask specifically about the Internet (In relation to social change, mention one consequence of the introduction of the internet). Political Developments in 20th Century Ireland got a fair overview, while three of the five International Relations questions pertained to Hitler's Germany.

These were indeed nice papers. Any student who made sure to revise their notes should have done quite well. It was nice to see a move away from the established and overused formula of past papers, however minor the changes were, and it was especially nice to see an acknowledgement of women in history, again however small. One thing I would like to change - less World War II, even just for one year! 

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Junior Cycle History Classroom Based Assessments: Some Ideas

The new Junior Cycle History curriculum features two Classroom Based Assessments (CBAs), both of which are designed to facilitate the student in attaining "the big picture" and understanding history in context.

A Young Life in Time (Europe and the Wider World)
Towards the end of Second Year, students will undertake an evidence-based study on the life of a young person who lived in an historical era in Europe or the wider world. All that is known about this assessment for now is that students must explore the young person's life and experiences through research, and report on their findings. The report can take a number of formats.

The Past in my Place (Ireland)
In the second term of Third Year, students will undertake an evidence-based study on an aspect relating to the history of their local area. Local libraries, archives and interviews will likely form the bulk of the research for this assessment. Like A Young Life in Time, the students will report their findings to the class through one of a variety of formats.

Both of these assessments are to be subject to a SLAR review meeting.

On first impression, these CBAs seem promising. It's well past time that the History curriculum promoted the exploration of local history, and A Young Life in Time opens our lessons up to people from times and places that might otherwise have been ignored by the curriculum. Both CBAs will help students develop their research skills, and both can enhance the learning experience for our students. However, they present as many challenges as they do opportunities, and the limitations of each have been of concern to teachers.

Since the draft curriculum was released last week, teachers have been giving their views on all aspects of the proposed course, including the pros and cons of the CBAs. In particular the Cork HTAI has had lively discussions on both Twitter and Facebook.

How big is the picture?
One of the driving points of Junior Cycle History is that students should come to understand the people and events they learn about in a broad context, "the big picture" in other words. It seems odd, however, that the CBAs have so many limitations. One of the most prevalent concerns voiced by teachers about both CBAs is that after the first few years, originality will be replaced with repetitiveness as students begin turning in the same topics over and over.

For A Young Life in Time to remain original and varied, teachers will need to provide resources on a variety of eras so as to avoid an influx of young Romans modelled on the same lines as the existing People in History question. Likewise, teachers could easily find themselves dealing with the same local history topics year and year for The Past in my Place. There's also the concern that this CBA would end up being conducted primarily on revolutionary times.

If we strip the CBAs down to their bare bones, they are both presentation-based assessments. The content is up to the students within the framework provided, so why not just expand the framework? Leaving Cert History students must learn three case studies for the Document-Based Question in the exam. The case studies, which are proscribed, change every two years.It's not a grand change, for sure, and the case studies are never "new", but if we're in the business of reforming then why not think big?

A few days ago I made a somewhat idealistic suggestion for a solution to get around the limitations of the CBAs. I don't claim sole credit though, Kilkenny Presentation's Dan Campion and no doubt others who have thought the same thing.

Why limit the CBAs to just two topics? If they are assessed as presentations, we should be able to add more variety. The following is just an idea, itself with its own potential problems, but one that would go some way towards preventing some of those limitations. I have added ideas from other Cork HTAI teachers, with names attached.

The CBAs would be held at the same time (one in Second Year and one in Third), and would still be divided between the two strands (one would be linked to Ireland, the other to Europe and the Wider World). Instead of the CBAs being the same tasks every year, we could instead change them around every two years. Below I've made a list of alternative CBA ideas, some my own, some from other teachers, and some adapted from other elements of the curriculum.

There would be six options from the list below - three relating to Strand Two (Ireland, and three relating to Strand Three (Europe and the Wider World). Students would complete one of each. Given that school and class sizes can vary so much, I would leave it to the teacher's discretion whether to allow their students to choose individually, or to choose one each as a group.

Interview Project:
Format: Students would have to undertake research by interview. They could interview an elderly person about social change or an aspect of local history. Their findings can be backed up with further interviews conducted with local historians, archaeologists, community archives or museums.
Strands Involved: All three - a project such as this would help to develop students' research skills as described in Strand One. The content generated by these projects would probably relate more to Strand Two (Ireland) than Strand Three (Europe and the Wider World) but it would be possible to bring the latter in depending on what kind of experiences they research.

Art and Culture:
Format: Students would conduct research on a particular event or figure in the history of art and culture. The default era for this project would be the Renaissance, but we should have resources to promote other eras and artistic endeavours as well, not to mention other cultural events. The field is wide open on this one, which could lead to questions about what constitutes a relevant artistic or cultural event in history. In this case, the same criteria we use to judge Leaving Cert RSRs should apply. This project could also allow cross-curricular links with Music and Art, not to mention providing a link to Leaving Cert Art History for students who choose to study it.
Strands Involved: Both Strands Two and Three, but it could be limited to one or the other.

Life for Women:
Format: This project could take a number of forms. It could take a similar approach to A Young Life in Time wherein students would investigate the experiences of women in a particular time and place. Students could also choose an individual historic woman who would not appear on the curriculum, for example Joan of Arc, the Empress Matilda or Amelia Earhart, and women who only ever get a mention, such as Queen Isabella. Obviously one of these ideas focuses more on powerful and influential women than on ordinary life in the context of a time and place, but for now I'm just throwing both ideas out there.
Strands Involved: Both Strands Two and Three, but it could be limited to one or the other.

Format: Students could research the causes, course and consequence of a particular battle at any point in history. Like the two ideas above, this one is wide open. Ideally we would avoid the world wars and the Irish independence struggle, since they would be the default choices. For example, students could pursue a project on the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest and link their findings to their learning on the Romans.
Strands Involved: Both Strands Two and Three, but it could be limited to one or the other.

Impact of a Movement:
Format: The draft curriculum contains a learning outcome requiring that students examine how a movement or organisation contributed to historically significant change in Ireland. The Labour movement, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights movement, the IRA (both in 1916 and 1969) and the Catholic Church all come to mind, but if this learning outcome were to be co-opted to a CBA it could be opened to include other parts of the world too. Needless to say, the possibilities are endless.
Strands Involved: The learning outcome relates only to Strand Two, but it could include Strand Three.

International Organisations:
Format: The draft curriculum also features a learning outcome in Strand 3 requiring that students will reflect on the role of an organisation such as the UN or the EU in relation to human rights, peace and co-operation. This could easily form the basis for a CBA. It would also link in with CSPE.
Strands Involved: This one would pretty much only concern Strand Three.

Format: Strand Three will also include content on technological developments. Most likely this topic will be similar to the existing "From Farm to Factory" section on the Argicultural, Transport and Industrial Revolutions. It is possible that developments from other eras could be brought in to this, but a CBA on this topic would allow students to research and make a presentation on technological developments and their impacts from the discovery of bronze to the development of ICT.
Strands Involved: Strand Three is the more likely strand for this one, but ancient Irish civilisations could bring Strand Two in.

Modern Genocide:
Format: Strand Three also requires students to explore the causes, course and consequence of a genocide in the history of Europe and the modern world. The Holocaust is the foremost example, and students should absolutely learn about it. This CBA might work more if mixed with the above idea on Conflict.
Strands Involved: Strand Three.

Famous Photo: (suggested on twitter by @KenneallyEmma)
Format: Students could research the history behind a famous picture or photograph. There's a lot of potential in this one - the 20th century is full of famous photographs of defining moments. Students might also look at how photos can be used - Stalin and his frequent editing of photographs could come in here.
Strands Involved: Both Strands Two and Three, but it could be limited to one or the other.

Myths and Misconceptions:
Format: There are plenty of common misconceptions in history. Did Emperor Nero play the fiddle while Rome burned? Did Christopher Columbus discover America? We'd have to be careful with this one, and keep it to the same standards as the Leaving Cert RSR. Students could investigate the origin of the myth, the impact it had, and the truth behind it. If done well, this would make for an interesting presentation.
Strands Involved: All three would be involved in this one. Research skills would be especially important.

Post-Office Political Figures: (suggested on twitter by @MsBrowneHistory)
Format: The 2015 Higher Level Junior Cert paper threw some people a little when it asked students what post Mary Robinson held after her presidency. While some textbooks do mention it, Robinson's post-presidential career doesn't actually appear on the curriculum. She's had a very active career since, however, and she hasn't been the only one, and that's not to mention other former world leaders through time.
Strands Involved: Both Strands Two and Three, but it could be limited to one or the other.

Format: This idea would be dependent on any centenaries or anniversaries taking place. For instance, if the new course was in place already, a CBA choice could be announced wherein students have to research an aspect of the Russian revolution. In 2019, students could research an aspect of the Troubles. In contrast to most of the other ideas above, this one would be proscribed rather than open.
Strands Involved: Either Strand Two or Three, depending on upcoming anniversaries.

Demographic Change:
Format: The Cork HTAI had a very active discussion on Twitter yesterday on the learning outcome in Strand Two which requires students to recognise the effect of demographic changes such as settlement, migration and plantation. At first thought, this covers the Normans, the Plantations and the Famine, but students could also conduct research on migration from West to East (in a link with Geography) or the history of minority groups in Ireland - the history of the Travelling Community is something which should definitely appear in this new course.
Strands Involved: Strand Two.
Most Influential Person/Event: (suggested on twitter by @angelicboyne)
Format: Students would select a particular person or event which they believe has been the most influential (whether in the context of a time or place or possibly a broader context) and through their presentation they would have to justify their choice.
Strands Involved: Both Strands Two and Three, but it could be limited to one or the other.

Modern Events: 
Format: We don't yet know when the date parameters for the new History course will be. The existing Junior Cert course wraps things up around 1990-1. In the nearly 30 years since then, there have been a huge number of historic events. Of course, there's a good reason we don't cover current events in History class, but if a date parameter of, say, 1990 - 2010 was set for this CBA, students could choose an event or a prominent figure from that time. They would then explain its historical significance, its relation to historic events in the curriculum (if applicable) and its causes, course and consequences (if applicable). This CBA has the potential to link in with other subjects, and would help to promote the understanding that History isn't just things that happened to black and white people a long time ago - it's constantly with us, and what we see in the news today will one day be studied by future students.
Strands Involved: Both Strands Two and Three, but it could be limited to one or the other. 
What we need
For any of these CBA ideas to work, we would need clear instructions, clear parameters, and clear assessment guidelines. It is great that there is scope for teachers to be creative and to bring new and interesting facts and topics to the classroom, but at a very basic level we all need a structure from which to operate, and for Junior Cycle History to be the success we all want it to be, that structure has to be free of vague elements which may cause confusion.

Like I said, all of the above are just ideas - they each have their own pros and cons. The more ideas we have, the better. With teachers working together to help shape this new course, the end result will hopefully be something we can all undertake with optimism and excitement.

If you have any ideas for CBA possibilities which don't appear above, please share them in the comment section below!

Friday, 31 March 2017

Junior Cycle History: Challenges and Opportunities

It's been a few days now and we've had a chance to start digesting the draft specification for Junior Cycle History. I posted my initial thoughts about it on Monday evening, and after looking at it some more and discussing it with other teachers both at work has thrown light both the good and bad sides of the new course. My own personal view on it is that it ha a lot of potential, and if it's implemented well the subject can take on a new life. However, at this early stage, it's better to be cautious and so I've identified more challenges than opportunities. What do you think?


Downgrading History?
The new History course will be Common Level, as well every other subject except for English, Irish and Maths. The prospect of so many subjects being examined at Common Level has drawn concern from teachers since it was first announced. I try not to be cynical, but it is difficult to see this as anything other than a cost-cutting measure. Differentiation is something all teachers have to work with, and every teacher has learned different approaches and strategies for differentiating classes since their training. While I can understand a desire to do away with the supposed segregation of students into different levels, the fact remains that no subject is for everyone, and not every student will have the same aptitude for each subject. Seeing as the "big three" subjects are being kept at Higher and Ordinary Level, there is obviously a recognition within the powers that be that differentiation is necessary, so why is it being thrown out for History and other subjects?

This has been the most prevalent criticism I have heard of the new course, with nearly everyone I've spoken to voicing concern over it. However, if teachers want to challenge it then that challenge will have to be cross-curricular. If something will have a negative impact on one subject, that impact can travel to others - like cross-curricular dominoes.

One of the criticisms of the Common Level move is that is a symptom of History being downgraded as a subject. History teachers have been reacting for years now to the possibility of History ending up with a lesser status in schools. A few years ago I wrote a piece advocating the importance of studying History, and I stand by everything I said then. The authors of the specification write very eloquently about the relevance of history in our lives, and why it's vital that students understand their place in it. If this is the NCCA's view, then it needs to be reflected in their actions.

Photo from
The English Experience
My English-teaching colleagues have, like so many of their colleagues across the country, been occasionally baffled and bewildered by the new Junior Cycle English course and the manner in which it's been rolled out. Confusion over the Classroom Based Assessments and what exactly merits a "merit" has been an unnecessary burden on teachers who have been trying their best to facilitate the new course specification while also ensuring that their students are able to achieve their best. It's understandable that History teachers might express some apprehension about how Junior Cycle History will be implemented and how our two Classroom Based Assessments will play out. Until we know more details about the structure of the course, all we can do for the time being is hope that the DES and the NCCA have learned from the "first day" setbacks that have befallen English.

A Young Person in Local History
One of these Classroom Based Assessments requires students to research some aspect of their local history. This is a fantastic idea and long overdue, and if it's done well it can do a lot to enhance young people's knowledge of their local heritage. However, the danger with something like this is that, by 2030 say, teachers will end up dispassionately correcting the same kinds of project over and over. For instance, a student in Killorglin might do a project on the town's former railway, which would be quite interesting. The next year, another student does the same thing. The next year, another student chooses the same topic again. After all, even in the most historic towns, there are only so many things one can write about.

It would be unfortunate if the potential of this particular assessment ended up going to waste. There's not really a lot the NCCA can do about it, but teachers can take some measures to try to keep things interesting without drawing too much work on themselves. If schools linked in with local history and heritage groups, libraries and museums, plenty of opportunities for variety can hopefully be found. It would be worthwhile to make these links anyway in order to explore the local history ourselves. Not only might be find interesting topics for our students to work on, we might also find links to topics within the course - you might work in a plantation town, or have a portal dolmen nearby.

History does tend to turn up pretty much everywhere. (Photo: Flickr)

The other CBA, A Young Person in History, could potentially fall victim to the same problems. If this assessment is to be successful, then teachers must be supported with the right resources to help students understand the vast amount of possibilities for that choice, or else we end up with the same few over and over again.
The Mechanics
Strand One of the new course is all about developing students' research skills, both analytical critical, with the aim of helping them to see the broader context of events and people in history. Once again, this is a very welcome element which should have been introduced long ago, but it will only be successful if the details of this Strand properly support it. The last thing we need is something similar to our current "Work of the Historian" section in First Year, which teaches students the meaning of bias and propaganda, but doesn't really go into any more detail than that. We need a course that really does emphasise these key skills, and which allows for various exercises to help develop these at the same time that we make our way through the course's content with the students. The benefits of this are obvious for the study of History, and it also helps students develop important literary skills.

Of course, this is still just a draft. A lot of specifics are as yet unknown, and will be shaped by the consultation process following the draft's publication. The Junior Cycle English Pre-Examination was held in schools across the country with no sample marking scheme to be found, leaving teachers unsure of how to correct the exams. We're resourceful, but we can't come up with marking schemes and standards individually. If the CBAs are to be successful, we will need specific guidelines for their operation and their assessment.


Women in History
The outgoing Junior Cert course focuses very heavily on men and male figures throughout history. This isn't the Department of Education's fault, of course. So much of history has been dominated by men. However, throughout various sections of the course, women still end up getting short shrift - only a handful of textbooks make any real mention of, say, what life was like for women in the Middle Ages. Sample People in History answers for hypothetical people (as in, people from named civilisations rather than actual individuals like a named explorer) tend to be written from a male point of view. There is only one section of curriculum dedicated solely to women, and that's a subsection of broader topic.

Prominent women in the last century of Irish history.

The learning outcomes in the draft specification specifically mentions "the changing role of women in 20th century Ireland", which is certainly important, but that is the subsection mentioned above. We'll have to wait for a more detailed specification to make a full judgement on how much the lives and experiences of women will feature on this course, but luckily it does allow us opportunities to bring these experiences in by ourselves. The local history assessment is wide open in that regard, as is the Young Person in History, for which students have to research and make a presentation on the life and experiences of a young person in a historical setting of their choice. Needless to say, there's no reason girls can't be the focus of this assessment. Like I've said above, it's very important that students are shown the huge variety of choices they could make for this assessment - using the assessment to explore the lives and experiences of women in history is one avenue through which this could be done.

Archives and Interviews
What history teacher wouldn't want their own archive of historical sources? Encouraging students to go out and interview people who can tell them more about the past is something we should all be doing, and it's good to see that this element is featured in the specification. It might take a while but just consider what we can all do with a collection of interviews and other sources gathered by students over time - they can inform future lessons, shape future projects, and enhance the students' experience of learning not just the history of their local area, but of the whole world. The study of history can begin right in the home with a family tree. From there, students can learn more about how people lived in the area. From there, they can explore why circumstances in a certain time were as they were, and from there the broader context. Inevitably some sources and interview material will correspond with the course content. If all goes well, the archives will become one of the most valuable resources we'll have.

Causes and Consequences
The existing Second Year syllabus heavily focuses on the causes and consequences of various moments in History. In this new course, students will be required to learn the causes and consequences of a genocide in modern history (the Holocaust being the given example). While learning the causes and consequences of events which took place centuries ago can be remote, perhap this element of the course might give students a better understanding of how certain events can come about and how they can affect future events. Given that we are living in a time of considerable change, this is a very important lesson for them to learn. 

We Can Have Our Say
The consultation survey for teachers and other parties to give their views on the specification is here. Whatever your concerns about Junior Cycle History, please do fill out that survey and voice them all. If, like me, you have a lot of hopes about it that you don't want to see dashed by poor implementation and supports, write them down too. Hopefully, when the revised specification is released, it will allay a lot of our concerns and will help us to understand in more detail the elements of the course and how it will be assessed. If everything falls into place, then we're set to have an interesting and engaging time doing what we do best.

Monday, 27 March 2017

"The Big Picture": First Thoughts on the Junior Cycle History Draft Specification

The draft specification for Junior Cycle History has been released by the NCCA. It will take time for History teachers to get a complete sense of what changes it will bring, and the long and sometimes complicated language of these documents can sometimes get in the way. For now I've put down in my own words my understanding of the new course and my thoughts on what it will mean and how it compares to the now decades old Junior Cert course.

The Rationale of Junior Cycle History
The status of History in Junior Cycle has been a frequent subject of conversation over the last few years, with recurring rumours and reports that History was to be downgraded as a subject. Whatever the future holds, the authors of the draft specifications made a very good case for the study of History, defining it not simply as the study of the past but the exploration of the human experience over time and how that experience has shaped the world we live in today.

The big new keyword in the draft document is "the big picture", by which the authors mean the students' understanding of major patterns of change over time in a global context, coming to understand how and why history is characterised by 'eras' or 'ages'.

A stated aim of the new course is to deepen the students' understanding of the human condition through the development of their historical empathy. It's easy to judge people in history by our modern day standards (something one of my lecturers once dismissed as "presentism") but people throughout history and the decisions they made can only really be understood in the context of the time and place they lived, and it is by those values that students should try to understand them.

In order to help students achieve these aims, Junior Cycle History looks set to place a big emphasis on an area which got the short shrift in the old curriculum - key research skills and critical thinking.

The Course and Content
There are three main strands in Junior Cycle History:
  • Strand One: The Nature of History
  • Strand Two: Ireland
  • Strand Three: Europe and the Wider World
Teachers of Leaving Cert History will see right away that the course has been made to align with its senior cycle counterpart, though it's not yet clear if they will be studied as two distinctly separate strands as they are in Leaving Cert, or mixed as they have been in the old Junior Cert course.

Strand One is interesting, however. Not intended to be a separate strand studied before the other two, it is instead meant to be studied in tandem with them, as the skills students should develop through it should inform their learning in Strands Two and Three.

For years, First Years have learned about primary and secondary sources and the problems one can encounter when studying them. However, that treatment is brief and its relation to the rest of the course depends on the attentiveness of the textbook and the teacher. It is in this strand that historical empathy is featured, as is the importance of examining controversial or contested issues from more than one perspective - while maintaining a grounding in facts and evidence.

As before, students will learn about bias and objectivity as well as assessing the importance and usefulness of sources, something that isn't properly done until Fifth Year under the current system. Students will also learn about the provisional nature of historical judgements and how they can sometimes be re-evaluated when new evidence comes along - to give a minor example, it was generally believed that the Titanic sank in one piece in 1912, despite some witness statements. It wasn't until the wreck was discovered in 1985 that we abandoned that idea.

Chronological understanding is also emphasised as part of helping students develop "the big picture".

Strands Two and Three are each divided along three elements:
  • Key moments of change
  • People, culture and ideas
  • Thinking historically
Pages 23-26 of the draft specification outline some of the learning outcomes expected of students, using the three elements as categories, similar to how the Leaving Cert course arranges things in terms of Politics and Administration, Economy and Society and Culture and Religion. I won't copy and paste the outcomes here, but I will jot down my own speculations about the content of the course from reading through them.

Strand Two: Ireland 
  • Irish artistic and cultural achievements (possibly similar to Ancient Ireland in the old course)
  • The importance of religion to historical development in Ireland (Early Christian Ireland, the Reformation)
  • Demographic changes such as settlement (Ancient Ireland, the Normans), migration (the Famine), and plantation (that one speaks for itself).
  • Rebellion in pre-twentieth century Ireland (1798 Rebellion, and others?)
  • The Famine and the role of the diaspora in other parts of the world (this links in with the little-studied Leaving Cert topic about the diaspora)
  • Rise of nationalism and unionism in early 20th century Ireland (no change from the current course, except it specifically mentions tracing the emergence of unionism, so perhaps a more in-depth exploration of unionism will feature, allowing a study of the Irish independence movement from different perspectives). 
  • Debating the idea that the 1960s was an important decade on the island of Ireland (Seán Lemass, Social Change, Northern Ireland)
  • The changing role of women in 20th century Ireland (as in the old course)
In an example of an old feature being used to promote something new, there is also an emphasis on using archaeology to understand Irish history using local examples where appropriate (see Classroom Assessments below).

Learning outcomes also include studies of individual Irish people who achieved distinction in various fields of human endeavour, such as culture. This seems similar to the current People in History format. Students must also examine how a movement or organisation contributed to historically significant change in Ireland and contribute to a class archive on family or local history by contributing to a repository of interviews, artefacts, family trees etc.

Strand Three: Europe and the Wider World
  • Investigation of the lives of people in a civilisation of their choosing (similar to Ancient Rome/Greece/etc. in the current course, but hopefully with more real variety this time!)
  • The experiences of people living in medieval/feudal times (as before, but with more detail?)
  • The Renaissance (as before) 
  • Migration, conquest and colonisation (The Age of Exploration)
  • The historical importance of religion and its contribution to historical events (Reformation)
  • The causes, course and consequence of a revolution in pre-20th century Europe (as before)
  • The rise and course of fascism and communism (the old course focused on fascism with small cameos from Josef Stalin)
  • Technological developments (the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions, with perhaps more modern developments given a mention too?)
  • How political tensions can lead to war (World War I, World War II, the Cold War)
New features explore certain aspects of modern history in more detail. Students will explore the causes, course and consequences of genocide in the history of Europe or the wider world (e.g. the Holocaust). They will reflect on the role of an organisation such as the UN or the EU in relation to human rights, peace and co-operation, and they will also debate the importance of the 1960s in a European and global context.

Students will also illustrate changing patterns observed in the study of a theme relating to life and society across different time periods. The examples given include crime and punishment, food and drink, and fashion and appearance among others.

These new features seem quite interesting and engaging. Creating a class archive allows History to be a properly collaborative class. Reflecting on the roles of supranational organisations and genocide can help develop the students' research skills and hone them for the Leaving Cert Research Study Report. The examination of themes over periods of time allow students to study history through the lens of their interests (sport, music, fashion etc.). Along with the local history study promoted in Strand Two, the new course comes across as far more immersive and engaging than the old one.

Classroom Based Assessment (CBAs)
I won't go on for much longer, but the last important aspect to note for now is the Classroom Based Assessment. The assessment is split into two parts:

A Young Life in Time (Europe and the Wider World)
Towards the end of Second Year, students will undertake an evidence-based study on the life of a young person who lived in an historical era in Europe or the wider world. All that is known about this assessment for now is that students must explore the young person's life and experiences through research, and report on their findings. The report can take a number of formats.

The Past in my Place (Ireland)
In the second term of Third Year, students will undertake an evidence-based study on an aspect relating to the history of their local area. Local libraries, archives and interviews will likely form the bulk of the research for this assessment. Like A Young Life in Time, the students will report their findings to the class through one of a variety of formats.

Both of these assessments are to be subject to a SLAR review meeting.

Conclusions... for now
This is, of course, just a draft. However, if I'm being honest it's a lot better than I was expecting. Given the ongoing difficulties surrounding the provision of CBAs and the roll-out of Junior Cycle English, I was wary about what shape Junior Cycle History would take. More than anything else I feared that the subject would be watered down, as some reports and rumours hinted it might be. However, the opposite seems to be the case. Between now and May 5th, teachers and other interested parties can take part in the consultation on the draft specification, which can be found here.

This is a course with great potential, but so was CSPE when it was first envisioned, and that subject's twenty years of life have not turned out particularly well. In order for this new History course to be a success, the commitment to deepening the students' understanding of research and history has to be kept. The commitment to fostering critical thinking has to be kept, with the skills involved being developed at the same time that the students are learning new content. There are a lot of questions over this new course being Common Level (as will all other subjects except for English, Irish and Maths), but that's an argument for another day. The rollout of Junior Cycle English has been problematic, to say the least. We can only hope that lessons learned from that experience will make History's transition an easier one.

Early on in the document, the authors say that "hearing and telling the stories of people who lived in the past helps students to understand more about how people live today, and can help students to learn from the past in thinking about how to address the problems of today." Given that our world is full of problems which have their roots in the past, this sentence is probably one of the most important in the entire document. Whatever shape our History course takes, it has to be a course from which students will genuinely learn and develop. It has to help them understand the world in which they live, and how it came to be the way it is. Hopefully, this new course will help us to do just that.