Don't worry, Mr. Trimble. We can handle it' Balancing the rationale and the emotional in teaching of contentious topics


By Alan McCully, Nigel Pilgrim, Alaeric Sutherland, Tara McMinn, published 1st March 2002

A common line amongst teachers and policy-makers seeking to theorise a workable relationship between history and the new subject of citizenship is to say that there must be a link with the present. This is harder than it sounds. If the implication is that the study of the past should impact in some way upon how pupils operate in or reflect upon the present, then difficulties instantly appear. We are used to debating those difficulties associated with preserving the integrity of the discipline but what of the starker, practical problem of whether such an effect on present attitudes is even possible? Drawing upon their experience in Northern Ireland, Alan McCully and his teacher colleagues question some of the assumptions associated with the supposed impact of our traditional teaching and learning approaches (‘traditional’ in the much of the U.K. since the influential Schools Council History Project was launched in the 1970s). They argue that these do not necessarily shift pupils’ preconceptions. After engaging in critical thinking using sources, pupils often revert to the preconceptions ingrained by stronger influences of the local community. Using the curricular idea of ‘interpretations of history’ as theorised by McAleavy and others, the authors attempted to tackle this problem. Pupils from largely Protestant working class estates managed to sustain critical reflection on how understandings of past and present interact.

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