“You can form your own point of view”: Internally persuasive discourse in Northern Ireland Students’ encounters with History

Alan McCully, K.C. Barton

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    72 Citations (Scopus)


    Research on historical understanding has sometimes depicted adolescents and adults as either appropriating or resisting particular narrative accounts, and resistance seems to be especially common when school-based narratives differ from those encountered outside school. In Northern Ireland, however, school history does not present an alternative narrative to community-based histories but takes a different approach altogether; school history represents an evidence-based, analytic subject that emphasizes multiple perspectives and avoids connections to contemporary identifications or political positions. In this study, we sought to understand how young people in Northern Ireland approached historical information both in school and, and how they made sense of conflicting perspectives on the past. Using qualitative, task-based interviews, we interviewed 253 secondary students, approximately equal numbers of whom had completed each of the three required years of historical study; these interviews included students of both genders, from differing school types, in a variety of regions within Northern Ireland. We found that these students had experienced history in more complicated ways than has been evident in most previous research. They had learned about the past in a variety of formal and informal settings, and they navigated among these multiple sources in a conscious attempt to refine and extend their historical understanding, as they followed up on interests initiated in one setting by seeking out information elsewhere. Although some students simply assimilated this information into dominant community narratives, most were aware that such narratives can be used for contemporary political purposes, and they appreciated the fact that school history encouraged a more complete and balanced historical perspective, particularly by exposing them to the motivations and experiences of the other community. Even as they sought expanded historical viewpoints, however, they were unwilling to abandon the political commitments of their communities, and they sought greater contemporary relevance for history than they were likely to encounter in school. These students thus were not simply appropriating or resisting particular historical narratives; they were engaged in a more complex process that involved developing internally persuasive discourse as they drew from multiple historical discourses in an attempt to form their own point of view on the region’s troubled past. This research suggests that students in Northern Ireland and elsewhere might benefit from a curriculum that attends more directly to their active construction of historical meaning and supports them in constructing critical perspectives on the contemporary relevance of the past.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)142-181
    JournalTeachers’ College Record
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - Jan 2010

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    • History Education
    • Identity
    • informal learning
    • formal learning
    • divided societies
    • education and conflict
    • enquiry-based history


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