Teaching Australian History

An article in last weekend’s Weekend Australian Magazine has revealed (Shock!) (Horror!) tAustralian high school students find Australian history boring.

Yea, verily. Shock and, indeed, horror....

Mind you Australian history was boring in my school days, and has probably been boring over most of the period between the late fifties and the early noughties, though the reasons have probably varied at different points in time.

On my way through school, Australian history was comprised largely of the First Fleet, valiant British explorers, Federation and the Anzacs for a bit of patriotic excitement.

When I got to Teachers’ College, my brief exposure to something called Social Studies Method introduced me to the concept of the spiral curriculum which was, at the time, the very latest trend in up to date pedagogy.

In this curriculum model, students studies the same strands at a very basic level in the early years, and then revisited the strand repeatedly. In 1975 Bruner, one of the chief advocates of the concept described it as a:

“...metaphoric spiral in which at some simple level a set of ideas or operations were introduced in a rather intuitive way and, once mastered in that spirit, were then revisited and reconstrued in a more formal or operational way, then being connected with other knowledge, the mastery at this stage then being carried one step higher to a new level of formal or operational rigour and to a broader level of abstraction and comprehensiveness.”

Which is all very well in theory, but in practice, when the Social Studies syllabus for Year Five indicated it was time to turn our attention to Australia’s indigenous inhabitants, the introductory activity was frequently met with Aborigines again? But we did them last year. And the year before...

Those cries weren’t helped by the fact that the school’s library resources at the time meant that the kids were looking at the same books year after year.

Point #1: If you want to maintain student interest, you need to present new resources each time they revisit a topic.

In the thirty years since I heard those comments, we’ve seen changes in syllabus design from the old prescriptive model, through the source book era into the integrated unit phase.

When I started teaching, we had a Social Studies syllabus that had, if I recall correctly, basic units with standardised content - except at the start of Year Five where you kicked off  with a Local Study where the content varied from place to place, though there was a fairly prescriptive structure and strong indications of the sort of content that was appropriate.

Over time, that metamorphosed into the Source book approach where each unit had a number of ready made activities for teachers to choose from, along with the possibility of individual teachers creating their own activities should they feel so inclined.

From there Social Studies disappeared into something called Studies of Society and the Environment which was to be taught through integrated units with content drawn from a variety of disciplines.

Some time in the middle eighties I encountered the statement that Nothing matters very much and very few things matter at all which I felt was a reasonably sane approach to the slings and arrows of life’s outrageous fortunes.

Unfortunately, during the nineties, there seemed to be a strong push to apply a perfectly reasonable attitude to life’s misfortunes as a model of curriculum development. I’d like a dollar for every time I’ve heard comments suggesting that we since we don’t know which facts kids will need in later life we don’t need to teach them any facts at all.

Point #2: If you’re going to teach Australian History, or any other content, the overall approach as well as actual content of the subject needs careful consideration.

That, of course, lands us smack bang in the middle of what have been termed the History Wars and here the Weekend Australian Magazine has further Shock! Horror! content.

Quite simply, it seems students are equally turned off by content influenced by so-called Black Armband historians and the study of topics favoured by their ideological opposites. Now I don’t find this particularly surprising. There’s a pile of ideological baggage that needs to be discarded while the actual content of a course in Australian History is being considered.

I wouldn’t deny for a moment that I’d fit, more or less, on the Black Armband side of the fence. That’s hardly surprising given the academic environment that I found myself in during the early seventies.

1971 was my second year of Teachers’ College, and I was also studying at James Cook, majoring in History. The previous year I’d tried combining the two and had scraped through. I liked History and I needed to work smarter.

Fortunately, the Teachers’ College second year History subject was Australian History, and JCU had a second year Honours subject called Problems In Australian History. Equally fortunately, I found that I was down for the College subject in second semester.

The JCU subject was a weekly seminar to discuss a particular issue in Australian History, with participants producing a couple of papers each until the while twenty-something topics had been covered. It wasn’t, in other words, a narrative approach. Unsurprisingly the College version of the same subject had weekly seminars covering more or less the same topics, though the expectations were nowhere near as high. So, in effect, I was going to be studying the same content, more or less, in each course.

Prior to the start of the academic year I bought a couple of general histories of Australia, including one by Russel Ward which started, if I recall correctly, with the statement that the settlement of Australia was more or less peaceful.

Half way through the year the supervision of the JCU subject changed. Jean Farnfield, a lovely old Englishwoman whose husband had been one of the Few in the Battle of Britain was replaced by Henry Reynolds. 

Significantly, at the same time the marks I was getting for my seminar papers went up by about fifteen percent without any significant difference in my approach or the amount of effort expended, which suggests that I was, more or less, operating in friendly academic territory.

Over the next few years Henry Reynolds went on to become one of the leading authorities on frontier violence and other related issues. For a while I was involved in researching some of the same areas.

If you asked me today why that happened, I’d have to reply that I was appalled by the discovery of these extremely unsavoury parts of my country’s history, and I wanted to know, to paraphrase the title of one of Henry’s books why we weren’t told about all this.

Prior to the early seventies we were peddled the furphy that, barring the aforementioned First Fleet, valiant British explorers, Federation and the Anzacs Australia didn’t really have anything much in the way of history and if we were interested in the subject, we’d be better off heading overseas where they had something more exciting.

Any attempt to limit the Australian History curriculum to First Fleet, valiant British explorers, Federation and the Anzacs is likely to generate a Black Armband backlash down the track.

When ex-PM John Howard was spruiking the importance of kids studying Australian history I couldn’t help feeling certain aspects of the subject were going to be swept back under the carpet.

Point #3: If you’re going to teach Australian History, you’ve got to teach all of it. Not just the bits that you like or are comfortable with (see comments about curriculum changes above). And if you’re wondering about the preceding comments about Hughesy’s academic background, they’re there to point out that I have, at some point in the distant past, studied the subject in some detail, and if some of the following content sounds like something Mr Howard would have liked, I’m actually coming from the other side of what has, at times, been a yawning ideological divide.

So what should be in the Australian History curriculum if we’re going to address the view that the subject is boring?

First up, there should be formal standardised assessment. Every time a kids turns around and points out that this subject or this bit of this subject is boring the presence of a test on the horizon permits the response Yeah, I know, but you need to pass the exam and I know they’re going to be asking you something about this.

Second, there should be dates. Like it or not, history has a sequential element to it and getting things in order can be important. In the test, students should be expected to correlate significant events and dates and to place events in the correct chronological sequence.

Third, there should be people. If you’re looking the subject as our national story there are characters you can’t leave out and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect kids to be able to identify the significant players on the national stage and to indicate some awareness of why they’re important.

Fourth, there should be conflict. One of the kids quoted in the Weekend Australian Magazine lamented our lack of a civil war. There are plenty of themes running right through Australia’s national story that can be discussed in terms of a clash of interests...

Aboriginal Australia v the environment

European explorers v the environment (which also raises the issue of why one group of people did so well in an environment where others starved)

“Exclusives” (would-be aristocrats) v “Emancipists” (ex-convicts)

“Stirling” (British born) v “Currency (locally born)

Squatters v Selectors

Employers v Unionists

That’s half a dozen off the top of my head, without going into the Conscription referenda or the White Australia policy.

Fifth, there should be plenty of Why. If it looks like I’m hung up on things like dates and people, I’d counter that being able to place events in chronological sequence and being able to identify important personalities are very helpful if you’re looking at explaining why things turned out as they did. And in the test, students should be expected to supply the generally accepted explanation for some events as well as their own opinions about others.

Sixth, there should be extensive use of primary sources (official documents, newspaper reports, diaries, letters) throughout the curriculum, and these items should not be endlessly repeated as kids travel through their school years. The need to generate this content might, by the way, provide an impetus for preserving archival material that would otherwise be lost.

But surely, Hughesy, I hear you suggest, the presence of assessment would mean that teachers would teach to the test?

Yes. Certainly. They would. 

If you were to start from a defined set of themes and content and the test asked a variety of different types of questions the authorities would be able to deliver a detailed list of what would be covered in the test and, if you were a conscientious teacher you’d have to cover ALL the content - otherwise your students aren’t going to pass.

And the content?

Over the course of twelve years of formal schooling, kids should end up with a working knowledge of the history and development of their local area and their state and of the major themes that run through Australian history. That’s it.

And if they move from place to place? 

Within the same state, that wouldn’t mean a change in anything beyond the local details, which would include details like the traditional owners, the reason why the settlement was established, significant early settlers (whose identities are often preserved in street and locality names) and important events over the years. Given the fact that it wouldn’t be anything more than an overview, it shouldn’t be too hard for a kid to “swot up on” and complete a short multiple choice test.

So that’s my blueprint for the Australian History revolution. 

Boring? Doesn’t have to be. 

If you tell the whole story, there should be enough good bits in there to intrigue any student, regardless of where their interests lie.

And for the other bits. Easy, Yes. I know. Actually, I agree. But there’s this test you need to pass, so let’s get on with it.

© Ian L Hughes 2021