“Wasn’t there a lot of fuss about remembering 1916 in schools for the last couple of months?” a friend, who is not a teacher, observed. Many of us have noticed that all over Ireland children have been coming home from school talking about the Easter Rising; schools organised concerts and other commemorative activities to mark the centenary. “How can schools justify spending so much time on one topic this year just because it’s 100 years since the Easter Rising?” the friend asked.
For someone who doesn’t know how teaching works, that might seem like a reasonable question, along the lines of why children spend so much time rehearsing for a school concert, training for a football league final, or preparing for sacraments in religious schools.
This year the Rising is being marked by wider society in Ireland, so it makes sense to spend time on the topic when children’s learning is reinforced by media, exhibitions, and ceremonies outside school. Furthermore, rich quantities of relevant resources to support teaching the topic are more widely and easily available to teachers than before.
The key point is that by learning about the Easter Rising, children are learning history. By studying one event in detail, children gain insights into how and what we learn from history. Although children and teachers spend lots of time working on 1916 this year, the legacy of such teaching is what children learn of and about history more generally.
At an age-appropriate level children learn what it was like to stand in the shoes of different people at a critical time in our country’s history, to imagine how various people felt, thought, acted and experienced daily life, and particular events, of the time. They learn to appreciate that actions and reactions of the time were manifestations of how people thought. They begin to realise that human affairs are characterised by change.
Newspaper accounts from the time, local folklore from the period, songs and stories of the era, relevant artefacts and buildings help children become acquainted with the events and to imagine people’s thoughts and feelings at the time. Their imagination may be fed by visits to local or national places associated with the happenings. Children and their teachers can discuss what happened from the perspectives of different people using suitable evidence. They can interrogate evidence and other accounts of events – including accounts in their textbooks – for their authenticity. Such activities help children today to relate to how people at another time acted. By working as young historians, children learn to evaluate the influence events of 1916 had on people who are alive today.
In helping children to learn The Idea of History, every topic in history can be taught in this way. By exploring 1916 in a rigorous and deep way, children are excited by history and they learn how to understand other historical events concurrent with, prior to and subsequent to those of 1916.