One of the big problems that I have faced as a Politics and Society teachers over the first five years of the course is the fear that information I give my students, or data they gather themselves, will quickly go out of date. Unlike other subjects, where old examples of a phenomenon aren’t too much of a problem (the eruption of Vesuvius in C.E. 79 could still be a valid example of teaching about volcanoes in Geography, even if it isn’t exactly recent…), the Politics and Society subject specification consistently tells teachers that students should engage with ‘Contemporary’ examples. This applies in areas such as “Media”, “Systems of Government”, “rules and laws of contemporary societies”, and the “cultural make-up of contemporary societies” (See particularly, page 14 of the spec). All of this is fine, and even to be applauded, but there’s always an elephant in the room.
The problem is that the ‘spec’ never defines what the word “Contemporary” actually means, even in general terms. By my count, the word is used 14 times in the spec, but I’m still unsure what timeframe we’re talking about.
Now, in most instances, it’s not a major problem. Trump was around for 4 years, and everyone knows he’s gone. We had a General Election in Ireland in Feb 2020 and that government might conceivably be around for 5 years, so that’s not too difficult to get our heads around. Changes in the constitution through referendums are relatively infrequent, so there’s no difficulty there. However, laws change a lot which presents an issue. The critique of the Direct Provision system, around which I used to base many of my discussions in class, is now very much in flux. Every time I look at the news the mean of ‘Brexit’ has changed (except for the fact that ‘Brexit means Brexit’). What do we do here? Let’s consider this with a tangible example in one specific area.
I’ve recently started to plan for teaching the media module of the course. In reality, I’m constantly talking about media – where students source their information – what the reliable sources might be – the benefits and problems of Social Media, and so on. But there comes a point where you have to actually sit down and dig into the ideas of Noam Chomsky (one of our 17 Key Thinkers) in a way that is systematic. We have to put a bit of shape on the key concepts listed below and help students to gain a working definition and adequate examples of the areas we are supposed to address. A brief look at Learning Outcome 2.6 reveals that word again – ‘Contemporary’.
Where does this become a problem for the teacher? Take, for example, the seemingly innocuous sub-heading here “Ownership and Control of Media”. This is one, seemingly very small heading, in a list of other big key terms. In previous years, I had relied on an article in the Village Magazine by Roderic Flynn from 2013 (generously suggested to me by Hugh Holmes in Newpark Comprehensive) as the basis for explaining the Irish media landscape to students. Combining this with metrics like the World Press Freedom Index (here’s a Data-Based Question you could use to help students in this topic) let me feel that I was at least doing a reasonable job in this regard. But the ‘media ownership’ landscape has changed considerably in the last few months (and I would guess) will continue to change quickly in the coming months and years. Any material I had ‘prepared’ in previous years, is now largely obsolete and I have to go back to the drawing board on what seems like a semi-annual basis, and more frequently in some areas.
For what it’s worth, Hugh Linehan’s recent Irish Times article is going to be the basis of this section of the course this year. Here it is as a classroom-ready pdf with comprehension questions and an example of an extension question that students could engage with:
This general problem makes it very difficult to ‘teach’ that material and causes anxiety amongst both teachers and students. But we have to find some kind of way around this in a classroom setting. So, when a student asks me, how up-to-date does ‘contemporary’ have to be, I give them this rule of thumb:
With the exception of massive global events (like Trump losing the election to Biden), think of the word ‘contemporary’ as meaning “if it was true during your Senior Cycle course of study (from TY to 6th Year) then it should be considered as up-to-date for the exam”.
This obviously isn’t the definitive answer, but it’s my starting point. I’d be keen to hear how other teachers are dealing with this issue, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on getting any specific clarification or guidance from the NCCA/SEC/DES… Even with students gathering a large proportion of the data they use to support their ideas, their own data will still be out of date by the time they get to the exam. One can only hope that examiners will remain reasonable in the face of the wide array of ‘contemporary data’ that students are likely to present to them each June.
This is a problem in-and-of-itself, but combine it with the problem of having little guidance as to how much detail students are supposed to have at their fingertips about each of the sub-headings in the Learning Outcomes, and you’ll see how guidance around and clarification of the exact meaning of the word ‘contemporary’ might make the life of both students and teachers considerably less stressful.
Overall, this is a problem that I describe as ‘Spec Creep‘, but will have to be a topic for another day…