Taming ‘the new monster’

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2006), News, Volume 14

Charles Stewart Parnell. ‘The document question on the elections of 1885 and 1886 provoked some disquiet . . . question 4 asked a very general question on Parnell which might have been drawn directly from the old syllabus’. (National Gallery of Ireland)

Charles Stewart Parnell. ‘The document question on the elections of 1885 and 1886 provoked some disquiet . . . question 4 asked a very general question on Parnell which might have been drawn directly from the old syllabus’. (National Gallery of Ireland)

The sky did not fall. Following more than five years of planning and two years of teaching, the new Leaving Certificate history syllabus faced its first practical test in the examining session of summer 2006. And, despite the grumblings of indifferent sceptics and the dire warnings of its open opponents, nothing calamitous happened.
There had been grounds enough for unease. In the best traditions of the Department of Education and Science, the provision of in-service support was agreed-upon late, under-manned and utterly under-resourced. The refusal to supply sample papers well in advance (another departmental tradition) only added to teachers’ anxieties. The manner in which pre-submitted work would be marked remained uncertain; and, right to the end, the kind of questions that might be attached to the new unseen document seemed, despite strenuous efforts by the support team, quite indeterminate.
Yet other forms of encouragement for teachers and students confronting the big change had been provided. Pat Callan and his small in-service support team did splendid work, travelling the country to meet with teachers and by means of the invaluable website History In Service (www.his.ie). The History Teachers Association of Ireland rose to the challenge, organising several conferences and providing valuable information and documentation through their website. The National Library, in collaboration with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, provided funds for the production of a set of excellent ‘case-study’ packs. Academic historians, both individually and through the Royal Irish Academy, also lent a hand. And most importantly of all, their misgivings and complaints notwithstanding, the teachers themselves weighed in, engaging energetically in the struggle to tame ‘the new monster’ (as the syllabus was on occasion referred to) and transforming it into a source of enlightenment, liberation and occasional fun for those students obliged to come to terms with it.
And so 14 June last was no Black Wednesday. Yet if the sky did not darken, there was no new dawn either. There was relief, certainly, but there was also a sense of anti-climax, at first expressed accurately, if inelegantly, in the downbeat  judgement of the education journalists that the first examination set was ‘a mixed bag’. The weeks since the examination have provided an opportunity to reflect on the sources of this strange disappointment, and many of those who have been close observers of the development of the new syllabus have come to the conclusion that it is to be found not in any intrinsic flaws in the design or in the practical implementation of the syllabus in the classroom but rather in the opportunities missed or mistaken in the examination papers themselves.
Dissatisfaction with the examination papers of 2006 among teachers and other observers has been widespread and serious. Yet it has been neither unthinking, negative nor entire. Initial misgivings, for example, about the papers set at ordinary level have given way to the more reflective view that, though the questions seemed a little more demanding than expected, they were in general clear and fair, and fully in line with the modest but crucial objectives of the syllabus to provide a basic foundation in historical knowledge and thinking for future citizens. Aspects of presentation remain to be improved, and though the interactive imperatives of the syllabus planners have been faithfully followed by the examiners, there is still room, it is generally agreed, for a more imaginative and more attractive approach in the conceptualisation and design of questions. But overall the fears that the new syllabus structure might prove too formidable for students taking the subject at ordinary level have proven unfounded. This year rates of failure fell from over 17% in 2004 to just 3.8%, while the number of those gaining a C or above rose from 64% in 2004 to over 71%. This is a major achievement on the part of both the course designers and the examiners which should be built on by sustained attention in the coming years to the specific needs and interests of this group.

US President Ronald Reagan (right) with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva, 1985. ‘The singling out of this one individual for special examination [a question on “the political career of Ronald Reagan”] seems to indicate a misunderstanding on the part of the examiners.’ (Bill Fitzpatrick/Whitehouse)

US President Ronald Reagan (right) with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva, 1985. ‘The singling out of this one individual for special examination [a question on “the political career of Ronald Reagan”] seems to indicate a misunderstanding on the part of the examiners.’ (Bill Fitzpatrick/Whitehouse)

The real concern—and the continuing sense of disappointment—arises, however, in regard to the higher-level papers, especially on the Late Modern course. There was a general feeling among those who read this paper of a missing dimension. Important themes in cultural history and social history, notably the history of women, that the syllabus designers had worked hard to introduce did not appear to receive the proportionate attention that had been hoped for, and the shadow of the political/military emphasis of the old syllabus, a source of complaints over the years, could still be seen in the selection and phrasing of questions. In a paper of this range of coverage and variety of modes of treatment, it would be unfair to single out for criticism individual questions that were unclear, poorly phrased or too demanding. Though such were present, there were equally some very well-judged questions, and in the main it can confidently be expected that these matters can be remedied by more sustained attention and broader consultation as the syllabus settles down.
Yet some questions raised more disturbing issues. In topic 6, ‘The United States and the World’, for example, a question on ‘the political career of Ronald Reagan’ might just about be seen to have fitted in with the element listed in the syllabus as ‘The Presidency from Roosevelt to Reagan’. But given the fact that the theme being explored under the element was the evolution of the institution itself over nine highly significant presidencies, the singling out of this one individual for special examination seems to indicate a misunderstanding on the part of the examiners of what might reasonably be expected of those who had studied it. In view of the fact that this topic is shortly to be selected for the document section in the examination paper, it is particularly urgent that special attention be given to the matter of what is wanted and what can realistically be expected from students coming to this large and complex subject for the first time.
Similarly, the document question on the elections of 1885 and 1886 provoked some disquiet. On the whole this section, which had been the cause of great anxiety at the time of the launch of the syllabus, worked remarkably well. The document chosen was apposite and attractive, and the questions asked were clear and relevant, with one important exception—the last one. Here question 4 asked a very general question on Parnell which might have been drawn directly from the old syllabus, and the most prepared candidates must have felt under considerable pressure to give a satisfactory answer (worth 40% of the marks) for the question within the advisory time of fifteen minutes.
Equally troubling was the perceived misfit between the case-studies that formed such a central part of the syllabus and the paper. In the light both of the official guidelines and of the circulated sample paper, teachers had been led to expect that one of the four questions within each topic would draw closely on materials considered in the relevant case-studies, and many had apportioned their teaching strategies to align with this expectation. In the event, however, these expectations were only partially met. Case-studies were referred to in nine out of the twelve topics in the Later Modern course, but the remaining three from which they were absent turned out to be the most popular choices of candidates.
The ambiguous and unfinished character of the great syllabus change at higher level is most clearly reflected in the overall results. Again to confound the critics there was no catastrophe. The numbers of students taking the subject actually increased at a time of overall falling numbers, and registrations for the present fifth year are higher still. But there was no signal victory either. Everyone may take some comfort from the fact that failure levels fell from 8% in the last year of the old syllabus to just 4.2%. But in a competitive examination the focus should be on achievement rather than failure, and here there is little to celebrate. Despite the intensity of effort and interest, the unprecedented clarity of the syllabus and the invaluably detailed advice of the Guidelines, the numbers receiving A and B1 grades actually fell marginally. Rechecks, it is true, whereby an extraordinary 40% of those who applied received upgrades, have somewhat altered these statistics, but the perception of higher-level history as a difficult and unrewarding subject remains to be challenged.
That challenge, in the form of the most exciting and most responsive syllabus ever constructed, is well under way. And none of the problems raised here, whether in regard to the document section, the case-studies or the elements of the topic, are beyond remedy. What they require, however, is a sustained and enlarged commitment to that intensely fruitful interaction between teachers, examiners and students through which the new syllabus was conceived, developed, adapted and finally implemented. It was the history teachers who for long extracted so much profit from the old syllabus even as it diverged inexorably from the cultural interests and cognitive processes of recent cohorts of students. It is these same teachers who will realise to the full the extraordinary potential of the new syllabus as a unique instrument for the intellectual, methodological and personal development of Leaving Certificate students. It is up to all of us with a commitment to the subject—but above all to the state’s inspectors and the examiners—to support them in this great cultural adventure. Perhaps those recheck results, curious though they are, are an indication that this engagement has already begun.

Ciarán Brady is Associate Professor of History at Trinity College, Dublin, and has been a member of the History Course Committee of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

'


Copyright © 2020 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568