I spent a fascinating couple of days in Belfast attending the Euroclio history educators’ conference in late March. The theme of this year’s conference was ‘dealing with the legacy of a violent past in history education’ and I wanted to attend since we have a number of controversial topics on our specifications, and ones which, depending on who you are and where you come from, can stir up much emotion and debate. I was expecting to enjoy the debates, discussions and atmosphere of history educators all together. But what I came away with was surprisingly much more emotional.
What I experienced at the conference was real discussion and insight into the challenges of teaching history in Northern Ireland, and other conflict and post-conflict societies such as Bosnia, Macedonia and Cyprus. History curricula and specifications are hot-button issues in all countries, as they are useful political tools, but even more so in countries with violent recent pasts, where feelings run high any time the past is discussed. Indeed, my taxi driver wasted no time in telling me exactly what he thought of the 1916 commemorations, on spending tens of millions of pounds on the Titanic Museum, and on what I should see, and avoid seeing, on my trip to Belfast. It became clear to me very early on that even though I have not shied away from controversial topics and lessons in my own teaching career, it was quite another thing to be doing it in the relative comfort and isolation of schools in England and Germany. How I would have fared teaching the history of the 1990s in Sarajevo, or the Easter Rising or the Battle of the Somme in Belfast, is unknown to me, and I pay tribute to the enormous contribution history teachers in these societies have made in developing effective critical thinking and citizenship skills in their students – the question of ‘what is history for’ is a practical, not a philosophical one, in these societies. For these history educators in post-conflict situations, what matters is not the position in the league table, nor the average points score of the pupil, but something much more fundamental – the character of the students they teach.
An emotional reaction
I have always defended the idea that teachers can make the subject ‘come alive’ for students in the classroom, and that site visits are simply not always practical or affordable, and therefore excellent teaching and learning resources can be effective substitutes for this – Mrs Tilscher’s class in the Carol Ann Duffy poem is a good example. But walking up the Falls Road seeing the mural artists touching up their works ready for commemorations, the bustling groups of tourists angling for the best selfie with Nelson Mandela or Bobby Sands, the stark, bleak ‘peace’ wall gates open for the delivery drivers and postmen to move through on their rounds, I was struck by the impact it had on me. To see, after more than thirty years of listening, watching and talking about what was going on in Belfast, the road itself shorn of its scariness was amazing. The power to be in a famous historical location is strong. You can see, smell, touch, feel and hear the place, and perhaps in some instances, there is no substitute for that.
There is a Giles cartoon from the Daily Express in the mid 1980s, gently mocking the idea that an American family has won a competition but the prize is an apartment on the Falls Road in Belfast. At the time I’m sure it provided much mirth for the readers over their breakfast. But surely what progress it is that in 2016, I, like so many hundreds of other people that day on bikes, buses and in special taxis, were happy to be there, doing nothing more provocative or controversial than taking our selfies.
Asher Goodenough - Subject Specialist - History
Asher has worked at OCR since September 2015, and is a History Subject Specialist and also looks after Critical Thinking. His degree is in Modern History with a focus on British and American history since the 19th century. Previously, Asher was a teacher of History, Co-ordinator of Critical Thinking, and Head of History, working in schools in England and Germany. In his spare time he is an avid cricket, travel and cooking enthusiast.