Pupil thinking

Research indicates that young people in Northern Ireland are well aware of how their historical perspectives and identities have been influenced and shaped by what they hear from their families and see in their surrounding communities. They are aware that some historical messages have been interpreted and manipulated for contemporary purposes. However many have acquired ‘at best a sketchy knowledge of key events, whether these occurred during the Troubles or in the more distant past’. They tend to see events that are set too far in the past as boring, unless the relevance of these events to the present is drawn out.

Despite this lack of in-depth knowledge, there is evidence to suggest that young people engage in quite complex processes of thinking about these events. They want history to inform their thinking. They believe that school history, by exposing them to the motivations and experiences of others, provides them with a more objective view of the past. While some seek to ignore these messages altogether, many struggle to come to terms with the competing versions of school and community history that they encounter. The research findings suggest that young people engage in what is described as “internally persuasive dialogues” through which they try to either:

  • assimilate messages in ways that align with their own historical perspectives and backgrounds,
  • reinterpret and use insights to reinforce and justify underlying political opinions religious values and beliefs; or
  • take a purely academic stance, that is not emotionally congruent with their underlying beliefs and orientation.

The psychology of what is happening here with young people is do with meaning and perception. What we do or do not perceive, comprehend, and remember is profoundly influenced by the meaning schemes and perspectives that have been created in childhood. According to (Goleman, 1985).’We trade off perception and cognition for relief from the anxiety generated when the experience does not comfortably fit these meaning structures’. When experience is too strange or threatening to the way we think or learn, we tend to block it out or resort to psychological defense mechanisms to provide a compatible interpretation (Merizow 1990).

A common factor was that most young people were seeking greater contemporary relevance for their historical learning than they were likely to encounter in school. What they want is to connect the past with the present and to try “look at both sides,” but they find this process very difficult. The researchers conclude that it is hardly surprising that young people have trouble in arriving at more sophisticated understandings, ‘since even educated adults in Northern Ireland struggle to make sense of the region’s difficult history’. (Barton K & McCully AW, 2009: 45). The message is that

“educators may need to challenge more directly the beliefs and assumptions held by students of varied backgrounds, as well as to provide a clearer alternative to the partisan histories encountered elsewhere”

(Barton K & McCully AW, 2005:)