History education: changing the narrative

The teaching of history and meeting its associated objectives in a deeply divided society is a complex endeavour. Ciarán Galway visits the DCU Institute of Education at St Patrick’s Campus, Drumcondra to interrogate history education with Ulster University honorary research fellow, Alan McCully.

Initiating the discussion, McCully indicates that there are clear, and occasionally divergent, perceptions of what history education should be about. These definitions include oft-repeated clichés about connecting the past and the present, contextualising identity and acting to avoid repeating the mistakes that went before. The former senior lecturer in education prefers to say that we are informed by the past, though whether this has an impact on present and future judgements cannot necessarily be assumed.

“Getting down to the specifics, I think history teaching has always had a role in developing people’s critical thinking, their ability to understand different viewpoints and to look at the relationship between statement and evidence,” he suggests.

With the ‘new’ inquiry approach to history, this is more pertinent than ever. “History is particularly good at getting young people to think rationally and to think about cause and effect. While that is obviously valuable to their understanding of history, a lot of those skills are transferrable, particularly in the modern era where we are bombarded by opinions, viewpoints, statements and online content that have varying degrees of authenticity.”

While McCully believes in the inherent, or intrinsic value of history as an important facet of study, he contends that there must also be an extrinsic aim with the potential to effect social change. While transferrable skills constitute one element of this, there is also an attitudinal factor.

“You cannot ignore the way in which history in all societies is used for political or cultural effect,” he asserts, before adding: “That is particularly true on this island. Therefore, it is really important that we do make the connections between the history that kids study and their contemporary environment – a dialogue between past and present.”

In McCully’s analysis, the history teaching community in Northern Ireland comprises three groups:

  1. “Those who teach in a fairly traditional way and maybe pay lip service to a lot this stuff”.
  2. “Those very effective teachers of critical history who direct a lot of their attention towards examinations and less to exploring history’s contemporary relevance”.
  3. “The risk-takers, who do not see high achievement as an end in itself, or as only one end”.

The latter group regard themselves as agents of change with a social mission to make young people think critically about what they encounter in the community, in the home and anywhere else.

Collective memory

Collective memory is defined as being “how ordinary people beyond the history profession understand the past”. In societies emerging from conflict, partisan opinions of the past naturally feed into the collective memory and subsequently influence how sections of society envisage history. Its potency should not be underestimated.

McCully argues forcefully: “When we teach history, even at KS3, we should be engaging with collective memory. This means helping kids to understand why they see history in a particular way, to start to interrogate their own backgrounds and to begin to realise the power of collective memory.”

Simultaneously, he concedes that we must be realistic about the effectiveness of formal history teaching as a bulwark against the collective memory. “At KS3 in high schools and even grammar schools, a lot of what you do simply washes over you, especially if you haven’t really engaged with your own sense of cultural and political identity by the age of 14.”

Why, then, is history so popular among adults?

“I think it’s because by that stage people have begun to interrogate and question their sense of identity. Therefore, the question is, what is the best age to engage with difficult history? It’s probably 16 or 17, but then exam preparation begins to kick in.

“On the other hand, we know that by the age of five or six, some kids are already framing their lives in terms of sectarian structures, even though they may not have developed sectarian attitudes. So, can we afford to leave the teaching of history [to a more advanced age]? But if you teach history to a younger age group, how much impact does it have? However, if kids move on and don’t study history after 14, you don’t get another opportunity. For all of those conundrums, I have no answers.”


The veteran researcher recognises a wider tendency to overemphasise the impact of history teaching on social change. For many, he accepts, education becomes compartmentalised and while there may be a cumulative effect, “the idea that it is going to change people’s lives is pretty fanciful for the vast majority”.

Indeed, while acknowledging history as “one of the better subjects to try to bring about some form of social change”, McCully argues that a major limitation is that it is framed by a discipline.

“This is where I would be quite traditional in saying that, if we are going to teach history in the Curriculum, we have to be constrained by the rigour of the discipline. There has to be a point where we acknowledge to kids that we are moving beyond the discipline and into contemporary debate,” he explains.

“There has been a danger in recent times that in chasing the social utility, history has become conflated with community relations. To me, history is at its most effective when it is informing and providing the critical mechanisms which can then be transferred. I have argued that there must be a relationship between subjects. History is there, but we do need a place in the Curriculum where kids can engage directly in current affairs – whether that be called ‘citizenship’ or ‘social studies’ or whatever else.”


Despite the relatively healthy status of history within school structures, there are also several real-world constraints on the ability of history educators to act as change agents. Firstly, McCully identifies the obsession with examination results – a component of “the neo-liberal agenda that has dominated education since [Tony] Blair” – as a constraint on time-poor educationalists.

“There are teachers who would say, ‘my job is to teach history, to get people through exams, I teach history well and it is for others to carry that forward.’ But most history teachers would like to think that they make a contribution beyond that. My experience is that many teachers have imperfectly grasped the inquiry approach, never mind going beyond that and getting into difficult or controversial issues,” he remarks.

While unconvinced that the pervasive rhetoric of history education is being matched by the pedagogy in all instances, the UU researcher proposes: “People know what they’re trying to achieve or what history should be doing, and they maybe think that they are doing it, but I’m not sure that practice would demonstrate that that is always the case.

“I think there are many teachers who don’t get too far down that road but would still say that they are contributing. Maybe they are to some extent, but whether that is strong enough to move kids out of more entrenched positions, I’m not sure.”

Likewise, as teachers progress in their careers and increase in seniority, they begin to redefine their role. “That obviously gives them access to bright, articulate and discerning young people,” explains McCully, “but on the other side, there are pressures of getting those people through exams.

“I think it is unfortunate that, sometimes, the role and status of the teacher is defined by the examination classes that they teach. While many of those teachers are superb at engaging with young people in the wider ramifications of history, there are others who baton down the hatches and it becomes almost exclusively about ensuring people get their grades. They’re in a groove and are not going to find the time to ask, ‘what’s the impact of A on B’ or ‘what does that mean for modern day Sinn Féin’ and that sort of stuff.”

“When we teach history, even at KS3, we should be engaging with collective memory. This means helping kids to understand why they see history in a particular way, to start to interrogate their own backgrounds and to begin to realise the power of collective memory.”

Conversely, McCully maintains that often the obstacles to teaching controversial issues in schools are superficial. This, he surmises, is often related to teacher motivation rather than the concern for the threat of parent or community objection, “which I think is more often imagined than real”. It becomes a question of a fostering risk-taking in teaching and encouraging individuals to move beyond the basics.

“I think many teachers find it difficult because they haven’t really sorted these things out in their own heads. They’re thinking, ‘I’m a unionist or I’m a nationalist. I feel strongly or emotional about these things and I just don’t want to go there.’ It requires confidence and also engaging with those types of discussions yourself,” he elaborates.

Alluding to his own research, as well as that of Gail Weldon in South Africa, McCully affirms: “Once teachers get into that area and start to have those conversations, it’s a transformative experience. Those sorts of conversations have had a positive impact on ‘me’ and now ‘I’ really need to share that – my kids deserve to have those experiences as well.

“Those sorts of conversations are less likely to take place in a segregated school system. I think it has taken a long time even within the integrated sector because, in some ways, the conversations are even harder when people are working side-by-side and the mission of the school is a positive one, with everyone working towards a common goal. It becomes harder to raise those sorts of issues. That’s why schools themselves have to be facilitated in that type of work.”


Within the Curriculum, McCully laments the relegation of citizenship education from the ‘environment and society’ area of learning into ‘learning for life and work’ as “a huge mistake”.

“The Northern Ireland Curriculum, as it was designed – but virtually never implemented – was a real opportunity for each school to work holistically to ensure that they had a curriculum where history, geography and English contributed to thematic ‘connected learning’ and knew what they were trying to achieve.

“The citizenship teacher could then be given the space to apply that learning to contemporary issues, be they from science, controversial Irish history, controversial politics or literature. I wonder how far that has happened.”

Similarly, McCully questions how far shared education, as “the big show in town”, has actually embraced the 2007 Curriculum. “It’s almost as if shared education exists as the big driver above while the Curriculum comes below, rather than the two working together and the Curriculum becoming a strong vehicle,” he observes.

This, he specifies, was reflected in the poor attendances at ‘teaching controversial history’ sessions that he conducted for shared education teachers last year alongside Seán Pettis. “The usual excuse was ‘we can’t get time off’, suggesting that exams are driving the Curriculum while shared education is driving the extra-curricular, without a connection between the two.”

Simultaneously, the flexibility of the 2007 Curriculum has facilitated subject departments in taking a path of least resistance. It was so radical in eliminating mandatory subject content and enabling schools and teachers to decide upon the topics and approaches which best suit their pupils, that history schemes of work simply stood static.

Nevertheless, McCully maintains: “Some of the work being done, particularly in grammar schools has been really good. I think it would be a much better strategy, in theory, to try and make the current Curriculum work. But, as to whether that could be resurrected in its full form, I don’t know.

“However, I wonder to what extent the Education Training Inspectorate (ETI) is monitoring subjects in the Curriculum. I know at the time, there were reservations within the Inspectorate. CCEA were pushing and the Inspectorate were cautious.

“Based on the last seven to eight years, ETI very rarely carry out subject inspections. So, the forensic approach of people like Dan McCall in my time, going into history departments and calling them out if certain things were not happening is not there. This is partly because the Inspectorate seem to be working on school ethos, Every School a Good School, literacy and numeracy and history falls down the list.”


Having spent over two decades in Ulster University, with research largely focusing on education and conflict, as well as contributing to work on initial teacher training, McCully remains optimistic. After training successive groups of PGCE history students, he detects a clear trend in the willingness of teachers to embrace more extrinsically-orientated history education.

“They are much less constrained by the violence of ‘the Troubles’. I think among the new generation, there are many who are keen to get involved. Certainly, I didn’t meet the resistance that I might have met 20 years before.

“I am optimistic about the place of history. I’d be much more downbeat about citizenship education, but we’re willing to have another go to see if we can recover its status. Maybe to do that we have to be savvier and use politicians. Over the years, politicians haven’t engaged with curricula. I think it’s because they don’t see it as important – they’re confident and know they can pull rank over teachers in their own communities. But if we can get politicians to believe that it is in their interests to have a real debate around political situation, political unity, the border, Brexit and all the rest of it, I think we could get somewhere,” he concludes.

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