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History has become increasingly contested territory

feature jean some respondents said the development of national pride was more important than developing a sense of european identity
Some respondents said the development of national pride was more important than developing a sense of European identity

First ever study on history teaching in Europe

A significant percentage of history teachers in Cyprus don’t see the benefit or don’t have time for training courses, say they are constrained by state-approved textbooks, rigid curriculums and too much focus on exam results to teach ‘outside the box’.

The revelations came in the just-released, first-ever study on history teaching in Europe carried out by the Council of Europe’s Observatory on History Teaching in Europe (Ohte) in which 6,500 history teachers from 16 member-countries were interviewed.

“Knowledge of the past becomes important not only for its own sake but also, perhaps primarily, for developing young people’s analytical and critical thinking skills, not just providing them with factual information but also developing their historical thinking. In turn, this should allow them to become informed, active citizens, thus playing a crucial role in building and maintaining democratic societies,” the Ohte report said.

“At the same time, few would disagree that history has become of late an increasingly contested field. As the democratisation of the discipline has engendered more plural narratives that have given voice to previously marginalised groups, from women to minorities, it has come to challenge established narratives intended to sustain notions of national or European identity, long held as sacrosanct.”

The report itself doesn’t examine any history books and is not a tool for monitoring the education systems of member states, nor does it provide any recommendations that countries should follow.

“We all have to maintain our own narratives but the idea is to create common ground,” said Ohte’s governing board chair Alain Lamassoure at a news conference to launch the study.

“In the next phase we will open up the text books and find different narratives and depictions of events of the past in Armenia, in Cyprus…” he added.

“We turn to history to understand the present and how it may affect the future. But history can also be manipulated with serious consequences for human rights and democracy.”

A detailed assessment of the data gathered from the teachers at member-state level showed that there was highest agreement that history textbooks do provide the necessary material and activities for the development of historical thinking concepts and skills among participants including Slovenia (78 per cent) and Serbia (63 per cent).

The biggest share of respondents who disagreed came from Cyprus and Greece (both 51 per cent).

Accordingly, half of the surveyed teachers in Cyprus (54 per cent) and Greece (50 per cent), but also more than one third of those in Turkey (37 per cent) expressed a view that the textbooks set major constraints on the way they teach history.

A participant from Cyprus stated to interviewers: “If history as a subject is going to be examined, you cannot escape the curriculum; you have to go period by period, hour by hour”.

“Thus the presence of high-stakes exams at the end of the school year or cycle pressurises teachers to teach students with a view to memorising facts to pass the exam, leaving no space for other activities or methods or the use of additional resources,” the report found.

The biggest share of teachers who responded that they view the curricula as rigid or very rigid were in Greece (42 per cent), Malta (40 per cent), Ireland, Portugal, and Cyprus (38 per cent each).

Respondents found their textbooks outdated especially in North Macedonia (33 per cent), Cyprus (31 per cent) and Greece (29 per cent), although a larger share of participants from North Macedonia (38 per cent) and Greece (34 per cent) and an equal one from Cyprus (also 31 per cent) perceive them to be up to date.

Also, in several member states more respondents found the development of a sense of European identity to be more relevant than the development of national pride.

This was most clearly the case for Andorra (+50 per cent), Portugal (+47 per cent) and Luxembourg (+39 per cent), but also for Greece (+28 per cent), France (+23 per cent) and Cyprus (+17 per cent).

There were also several Ohte member states where more respondents found the development of national pride more relevant compared to developing a sense of European identity. This was most clearly the case for Turkey (+41 per cent) and Armenia (+41 per cent), the report said.

When it came to diversity in history, the largest share of respondents indicating that the curriculum addresses diversity insufficiently or not at all were from Greece (58 per cent), Cyprus (46 per cent) and Ireland (38 per cent).

While more than one third of teachers from countries such as Slovenia (40 per cent) and Ireland (35 per cent) believe that gender history has a place in history textbooks, the majority of surveyed teachers in Greece (73 per cent) and Cyprus (69 per cent) stated that gender history was not adequately considered in textbooks.

When it came to ongoing training, the report said there were notable differences between the countries.

“At one end of the spectrum, a remarkable percentage of history teachers from Cyprus (37 per cent), Spain (29 per cent), Luxembourg (28 per cent) and Greece (26 per cent) selected one of the negative options (‘No, I do not see the benefits’, ‘No, I have no time’ and ‘No, no need for further training’), while at the other end teachers from Albania (75 per cent), Armenia (71 per cent), France (76 per cent), Malta (72 per cent), Serbia (69 per cent) and Turkey (74 per cent) are asking for more opportunities for professional development but only if the total or part of the costs will be covered,” said the report.

Also, although the education authorities of all member states claim that a great variety of training seminars are provided, more than half of the history teachers in Cyprus, Greece and Turkey said they had attended fewer than one seminar a year.

“Although almost all the state authorities said that educational reforms had been recently introduced in this area, nearly half of the respondent teachers claimed that the opportunities for professional development remain the same, while the majority of the most experienced teachers believe that provisions for training have gotten worse,” the report concludes.

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