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! 

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