Lessons in History for Everyone

 

timeline

Last week marked the 100 years of the very first Dail and my Monday group told me they had planned to watch the event on the news.  This particular group are fantastic. They make my Monday morning very easy as an adult education tutor. They are engaged, interested in any topic and one woman in particular watches the news every day and is great at keeping the others updated on every subject from Brexit to the shark that arrived in the Liffey before Christmas.

I started last week by asking the group, that if it was 2019 now, how would you write the date 100 years ago? Trickier than it sounds.  We can assume that people structure their lives and see things in timelines; that most people would have a vague idea of when things were in history.

Apart from reading about history, I realised that most of us have a basic knowledge from the structure of schooling.  Even in preschool, children make pictures and posters to mark the different seasons and changes of the year – autumn leaves in October, holly in December and daffodils in March.  Throughout school, the different periods of history are covered – from matching pictures in the junior classes under the headings of ‘the past’ and ‘now’ to topics like Ancient Ireland, the Vikings so on.  Yet history is often seen as something linked to formal learning. History is in books and only certain people can access it.

We all have an interest in history even if we don’t know it yet.  Thinking about and engaging in talking about history in the adult learning classroom encourages us to ask questions.

Why are things they way they are? What brings us now to this time and place?

On this Monday, I had planned a reading piece on the Victorians. It was a piece from a former exam paper but a good piece to use as pitched at the right level for the group.   I thought it might be a good way of looking at timelines – reading and talking about the past. I thought it was a good idea to start off with an icebreaker that asked the question:

‘If you could have lived in any period of history, when would it be and why?’

Some wonderful answers:

  • Cleopatra during Roman Times
  • At the 1916 Rising
  • A solider in the British army when it was a great empire. Perhaps based in India
  • The jazz era of the 1920s
  • A Viking
  • A World War 2 code breaker that sings in a Glenn Miller style band
  • 1980s Dublin

We got everyone to rearrange their timeline in the right order. Someone asked what BC meant. A rich and collaborative exercise.

From this, the group spoke about how these histories linked to their own life stories. We had discussions about 1916, one man asked what shops might have been there at the time on O’Connell Street. Another man took his kids on the Viking splash tour last summer. One woman said she saw a program on Holocaust Day and how it related to the war.  One man was a distant relative of Sean T O’Kelly.  One woman remembers the 1980s Dublin of her childhood and how the landscape had changed because of all the housing developments. Someone mentioned Brexit because they thought it was a bad reason to try and get back the great empire that was Britain and wondered if this was the reason why people voted for it?

Lots of questions and more importantly, lots of reasons for researching to discover more – what engaged and active learning is all about. We are planning to do a project to find out more about all the above and perhaps a trip to the Dail and the National Museum.  A history curriculum but this time, one dictated by the group themselves.  A learner centred history curriculum.

Learning can take you on your own timeline. You start off doing one thing and it leads you down other paths.  Or rather, to a crossroads with a sign marked in lots of different places you like the sound of and can’t wait to explore.

stairs dalc