What is history?
If we are to teach history effectively, we must have a clear understanding of what history is and what contribution it can make to the education of pupils. For many of us, history is synonymous with the past: a collection of facts about people and events presented in a narrative form. ‘The story of the past’ encapsulates this commonly held view of history, yet the broad aim suggested by this definition is impossible to realise. We can never produce a single, complete, accurate account of the past: the surviving record of what happened in the past, though enormous, is incomplete and necessarily less than the full story. Moreover, historians produce differing accounts of the past because their work involves selection, not only from the surviving incomplete evidence but also from the almost infinite range of topics and issues available for study. This process of selection is influenced by the personal interests and views of the historian and by the values and preoccupations of the wider society in which the historian lives. For example, women’s lives were largely omitted from historical accounts until relatively recently; the current growth of interest in women’s history has mirrored (and helped to foster) the concern of contemporary society to achieve gender equity.
So, we should view history as an attempt to reconstruct and interpret the past, rather than the past itself. We must understand history as encompassing two inseparable aspects: the interpretation of what are considered to be significant human activities in the past and the process by which these activities are selected, investigated and analysed.
History in a child-centred curriculum
The view of history outlined above implies that a rounded historical education is not concerned solely with the transmission of a body of knowledge about the past but that children should also experience something of the way in which historians go about their work. Through exploring the past in this way, children can acquire knowledge and concepts while simultaneously developing important skills and attitudes appropriate to their individual stages of development. History in the primary school can then make a unique and vital contribution to the harmonious development of the child in a truly child-centred education.
Thus the history curriculum provides opportunities for the child to
- acquire a broad and balanced understanding of local, Irish and international history through the study of a range of peoples, events and periods,
while at the same time
- developing and practising historical investigation skills concerned with time and chronology, cause and effect, change and continuity, the use of evidence, synthesis, communication and empathy.
A history curriculum which reflects these aspects of the subject can make a unique and powerful contribution to the education of the child. The Introduction, Aims and Broad objectives of the history curriculum provide more specific detail on the nature of the subject and on how its role may be best realised in the primary school. However, these aspirations cannot be achieved in isolation. History should be viewed as having a distinct but complementary role together with geography and science within SESE and as a contributor to the wider childcentred curriculum.