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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jason,
    Thanks for your summary. It looks very interesting. I like the idea of the 2nd year and 3rd year evidence based study. It may sharpen minds to have goals and deadlines. Also the new class archive could build to a good resource. The focus on archaelogy is welcome (to me anyway).
    The Common Level structure may pose issues for us. I will read the blurp in full.
    Angela O'Donnell

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