Tom’s Terrible Take

The Junior Cycle Framework (2011, 2012 and revised 2015) is the outcome of qualitative research carried out initially in 1999 (yup, that old) and recently there have been some articles in newspapers arguing against those people challenging the fact that neither history nor geography is included in the core curriculum of this new Junior Cycle. Here, here, and here.  I’ve address Gary Granville’s argument here. In this post, I go through Tom Collin’s article.

The sub-editors headline automatically dumps Tom in at the wrong end of the argument;

‘If you want children to learn from history don’t make it compulsory, bring it to life’

The assumption here is that if history is compulsory, teachers can’t/don’t/won’t/ bring it to life. Bad teachers!

So Tom opens with

“Much of the current public debate about history in the second-level curriculum is in reality a debate about something else – namely about compulsion in the curriculum.”

What is interesting here is that for Tom to make his argument, he has had to ignore the fact that the new Junior Cycle has four compulsory subjects already – English, Irish, Maths, and eh, Wellbeing. But he has an article to write and can’t allow himself to get waylaid by logic.

Tom gives a simplistic analysis of the importance of history saying…

“Everyone agrees children should develop an interest in the past and an understanding of how things got to be the way they are.”

….and while he acknowledges that people sincerely hold these views, they should be challenged. But not because history is objectively an important discipline, but because history has previously fallen foul to compulsion. Bad history!

(It’s worth noting that the word ‘compulsion’ sounds much more negative than ‘compulsory subject’.)

“While there are deeply held and sincere views on this matter, they are views which need to be thought through and challenged, particularly given our experience of compulsory subjects in Ireland. “

Tom agrees that

“It is impossible to create a vision for the future in the absence of a shared analysis of the past.”

This is important because a core curriculum allows for a shared analysis, but the new Junior Cycle is specifically designed in a way that ensures there will be no such shared analysis. It is up to each school to pick and choose how it addresses the learning outcomes in each subject. There is no guarantee that all children will develop equal skills and knowledge in history. Under the new Junior Cycle, *if* students study history, what they learn in one part of the country could be completely different to what they learn in another part of the country. (The issue in this article is not the fault of the textbook, but the course approved by the NCCA).

Tom goes on to write about an appreciation of history, and about ‘historical imagination’ all the while failing, sadly, and utterly, to recognise that without learning about history in school, without it being compulsory, the average second level student will just not even register, in Tom’s example, the significance of Notre Dame. Where there is no history, there is no historical imagination. This is borne out time and time again in jurisdictions where history is optional, or where certain aspects of history are not taught.

Tom stretches even further and says

“This awareness would inspire a learner to explore further, to interrogate historical dogma, to seek actively to learn from the past, and to critically appraise dominant narratives.”

No, it won’t. The reality on the ground is very different to the middle-class reality of the drafters of the Junior Cycle Framework. There are swathes of this country where there are houses without a single book. None. Nada. The only positive historical awareness children in these households will ever experience is in schools. But only if history is compulsory. As recent events remind us, the alternative, sadly, is frightening.

Tom’s imagination then goes wild with…

“It (awareness, added) might begin by wondering that, if history is his story, what about her story – or whose story is it anyway!”

Which is all very nice even if completely divorced from the etymology of ‘history’ but it totally ignores again, the fact that without studying history, no student is going to suddenly find themselves having deep, meaningful conversations with themselves about the philosophy of history.

Tom settles back down again….

“If the learning objective is the development of the historical imagination, how best can this be achieved? Therein is the nub of the issue. While nobody in the current debate has to my knowledge queried the inherent value of history, not all agree it should be a compulsory subject. “

Well Tom, not all agree that the NCCA or the Teaching Council should exist but this should not be the basis on which we choose to dissolve them. If we use ‘not all agree’ as the standard, our democracy would collapse.

Tom ignores that there is more than one learning objective to history but this is necessary for him to continue his train of thought in the article. And while Tom says no one has queried the inherent value of history, he fails to recognsie that by removing every child’s entitlement to history, the NCCA has in one fell swoop dismissed the value of history.

Tom reminds the reader that primary school children study history – but ignores how this is done varies according to school and teacher priorities. It is simply impossible to implement the full primary school curriculum. Tom should know this. And he should also know that this curriculum is undergoing change so even at primary level history and geography is not guaranteed.

Tom also states that history is not compulsory in ETB schools or Community schools or colleges. But this is factually incorrect. ETBs (formerly VECs) are required, since 1999, to teach history and geography but *may choose* to continue to provide Environmental and Social Studies  (ESS) instead. Community and Comprehensive Schools have always followed the ‘Rules and Programmes for Secondary Schools‘ so both subjects were typically core in these schools. More on-the-ground stuff Tom should know about. Geography and history are compulsory for 86% of schools, but core, hence de facto compulsory, in almost all schools.

Tom then gets to the nub of his argument which contains a few digs at teachers.

“Irish education has a poor experience when it comes to compulsory subjects. Whether by reason of compulsion or other factors, such subjects beget resentment in learners and undermine the impulse for innovation at the teaching side.”

He makes the terrible mistake of using Irish as an example. He could have chosen English; or Maths. But choosing Irish is more likely, I have to assume, to get the reader on-side, especially those still suffering from the effects of PEIG (a compusory text students at Leaving Certificate had to study).

Tom quotes some of that ESRI research to state that students’ disenchantment with school focused on Irish and Maths. He goes on to state

“With regard to Irish, as a society we seem to be content with an outcome which results in little oral fluency, notwithstanding the scale of the investment. “ Tom should know full well that the issue is NOT that Irish is compulsory; it is that the curriculum designed by the organisation of which he was once chairperson, was horrendously inappropriate to achieving the goal he states (fluency). This is not society being ‘content’ with the outcome; it is the NCCA not having, on the face of it, a clue about how children learn langauges, and by the gist of Tom’s article, blaming everyone else for the NCCAs failings.

Tom then decides that since he has disconnected himself from the reality of teaching on the ground, some more wont go amiss. He states:

“History will survive in our schools not because it is compulsory but because it is interesting and meaningful.”

No.It.Wont. Because if history is not core, there will be fewer jobs. And with fewer jobs, there will be fewer teachers. And with fewer teachers, schools will drop the subject. This is already happening in modern languages. It will happen in science – which is also not the the new Junior Cycle core curriculum. Interestingly, Gary Granville, mentioned above, doesn’t think any subject should be compulsory. 

And where history and geography are choice subjects, students wont get to discover how ‘interesting and meaningful’ they are.

Tom’s drift continues….

“In the world of adult learning, there has in recent years been an explosion of interest in local history. Groups throughout the country work assiduously in researching the past as it has unfolded in all its richness and multiple tapestries in their own communities over the centuries.”

This ignores that adults learn differently and have different motivations to learn than children. It also ignores that these adults had the benefit of compulsory history and geography in schools. But now it doesn’t suit Tom to recognise that there are benefits to compulsory subjects. He then decides to tell teachers how it is done;

“The challenge for all second-level education is to engage the students in an active process of exploration of oneself and one’s world. There are some examples where it does this very well.”

Because like, we’ve never done that. Like, ever. He goes on,

“Students generally engage enthusiastically in subjects where they learn actively or through their hands – art, music, domestic science, computing, technology. They rise to the challenge and opportunities of extra-curricular activities, be it in sport, drama, music or social care.”

While this has some truth, it is not the full truth. The full truth is that *some* students engage well through tactile learning. But this doesn’t means that this is not a methodology available to students of history. And certainly not geography which bridges both the academic and the hands-on. But it also ignores the huge numbers of students who prefer, what for our purposes here we might call, more academic-oriented learning. It also ignores the fact that some students don’t engage in extra-curricular activities. Lastly, it is tantamount to saying we should teach only art, music, domestic science (it’s called Home Economics now Tom), computing and technology (whatever he means by that) and not anything else! Go figure. Except don’t. Because that involves Maths. Which mostly involves learning in your head. And is compulsory. Which Gary thinks shouldn’t be. I digress…

But really what Tom is doing here is describing a more vocational education. This is nice considering that we have destroyed vocational education in Ireland over the last 30 years!

What is not nice is enforcing, and imposing (because guess what? – the Junior Cycle is…..wait for it….. compulsory!) this curriculum on all schools. And at that, a curriculum that prides itself on not being a ‘one-size-fits-all’. Except it is; and it isn’t. And that is how bad it is. Confused? You’re not alone.

(just to note here; the above is not me arguing against a compulsory curriculum. It think we should have one, it should be available to all, and we should also have a vocational curriculum but with the flexibility to move across in either direction, but if Tom is going to argue about compulsion, then he should be consistent).

Tom strays further into the unknown…..

“They are less enamoured of narrow, text-based and teacher-centred subjects where learning is through instruction rather than construction.”

Well, actually Tom, lots of kids like text-based learning. And no, this need not be teacher-centred. Nor such a subject be teacher-centered. And learning via instruction (I think you mean direct or explicit instruction) works very well as John Hattie (video below) has shown (just as it does for adults, in university, you know Tom!). And construction works sometimes, but for the most part it is incredibly inefficient, time-consuming, dumbed-down wheel-reinventing nonsense. And kids know this.

Not done yet, Toms digs himself in further…

“So the debate on history might be recast as a debate on the limitations of the educational project when confined to the classroom and when it relies on compulsory attendance.”

Where else does Tom think kids are going to be during the school day? Sure, they might have the odd trip out, but school is where 99% of school learning takes place. And this is a good thing. It teaches things like focus, and attention, and personal discipline, and how to sit still, and…….

School itself is compulsory, unless Tom is arguing that school should not be compulsory. Is that really where we are going?

And then this bag of cats…

“Have we the capacity to grow high trust, democratic, active, self-generating and self-sustaining learning?”

None of this is antithetical to compulsory history or geography. Although I’d love to know how students would self-generate, from thin air if you like, a knowledge of the impact of ignorance of the British Empire on attitudes to immigration in the UK.

Significantly, no learning is self-sustaining without awareness. To be sustained, awareness has to be created. Even Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Herodotus, Ptolemy, Strabo……all of them, they all had teachers who told them about the world *before* their learning became self-generating. They may have complained and moaned as kids about the fact they ‘had to go to school’ but went they did, and learn they did.

Tom then seems to ignore the fact that if kids cannot invent unicorns they will still magically choose to study them at Leaving Certificate.

“…… surely this provides the best possible basis for an increase in students taking the subject to Leaving Certificate.”

It would be nice if children studied geography and history to Leaving Certificate level. But this is NOT the purpose of lower second level education. And it shouldn’t be. Lower second level should be about ensuring a common, agreed minimum and equal standard of education for all individuals in our society.

Tom is on the home straight…..

“So, rather than discussing compulsion should we not be asking how we can create a learning environment in which the past can be animated and explored by children hungry for learning? “

Ignoring, sadly but necessarily for now, the fact that many kids come to school just plain hungry (perhaps a better way to spend the €100 million given to implement the new Junior Cycle) and learning is the last thing they are hungry for, compulsory subjects are not antithetical to ‘animated and hungry’ learning environments. Teachers have for years created these environments when history and geography and science were compulsory. Where does Tom think the Young Scientists Exhibition entries came from? Sterile classrooms of teachers reading line-by-line from science books?

He’s nearly there….

“A child who directly encounters the local landscape as their primary learning platform cannot escape history.”

Yes they can escape it. Firstly, chldren are notoriously unobservant – they have to be taught it – explicitly! Secondly, unless they have been introduced to history, they wont notice it; it will not be in their awareness. Thirdly, encountering the local landscape can come down to schools giving permission for teachers to take students out to look at the landscape – many don’t; and at that, that is one day out of 167. What do kids do for the other 166? They are in the classroom. And finally, what about history, and geography beyond the local? The Junior Cycle is obsessively focused on the local, another weakness that ensures children do not have an equal opportunity to learn.

Tom’s last line

“The past is everywhere and ever-present. If we narrow it to text books in sterile classrooms, they will find multiple ways of escaping it.”

I’m happy to concede that this may have been Tom’s experience of school all those years ago when there was no video players, nor computers, nor multimedia this-and-that nor government investment in classroom materials and resources. He still did ok. But textbooks, funny enough, offer a broader picture of history, and geography, than the narrow local focus of the Junior Cycle. And how are we to encourage kids to read if we downplay the importance of textbooks? Remember, for many children in Ireland, their only books are their textbooks. Is literacy no longer important? Is studying, eh, history? (I’m ignoring the shortsighted view of textbooks both the the National Literacy Strategy, and in government circles).

As for ‘sterile classrooms’, I think Tom owes teachers an apology. This comment is simply infra dig. The implications just strip Tom of all credibility.


It is clear that all the arguments for the importance of geography and history in the Junior Cycle are beyond reproach.

To accept the importance of junior students studying geography and history but not seek to safeguard them in the curriculum, and more specifically, given the day-to-day realities of managing schools, students and timetables, in schools, is to speak out of both sides of one’s mouth. When the counter arguments are reduced to matters of ideology that ring hollow, one really has to ask who is benefitting from rejecting the obvious. Is it simply the sunk-cost fallacy thinking of people whose job it was to go to work everyday and be seen to produce something and now it has been laid bare, instead of putting their hands up, they need to defend it tooth-and-nail? Or is there some small section of society pushing a particular education agenda that suits their very particular vision – ‘revolutionaries’ if you like who think that everyone should have the benefit of their ideas whether they like it or not, regardless of its flaws? Or is it something else?

There should be a core, compulsory curriculum at Junior Cycle. There is a way to have this and still maintain the key ideals of the new Junior Cycle (get in touch Joe!). Geography and history are learning to which children are entitled. The Minister should uphold and safeguard that entitlement.


decaration: I used to teach history but haven’t for many years; I have published a textbook. I studied history and geography in school. None of my school experience was sterile.





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