on what stu­dents want from Aus­tralian his­tory

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - ANNA CLARK

FOR too many stu­dents, Aus­tralian his­tory is repet­i­tive, bor­ing or both. But is that their fault or ours? It’s clear from in­ter­views with about 250 his­tory stu­dents, teach­ers and cur­ricu­lum of­fi­cials that the sub­ject is suf­fer­ing in the class­room. Top­ics are re­peated end­lessly, teach­ers com­plain of in­ad­e­quate re­sources and pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment, and chil­dren are be­ing turned off Aus­tralian his­tory in droves.

Take Fed­er­a­tion. Stu­dents over­whelm­ingly ac­knowl­edge it’s an im­por­tant topic to learn, but track­ing down some­one who en­joys it is an­other mat­ter.

When I asked a group of Year 10 stu­dents in Can­berra how they found Fed­er­a­tion, Morgan* was pretty dis­mis­sive: ‘‘ You do it lots of times,’’ she said, ‘‘ so you just get to know it af­ter a while.’’ But do­ing it lots of times hardly equates to his­tor­i­cal en­gage­ment. Kate thought there needed to be ‘‘ a new way to sort of in­tro­duce it — not just the same way that you’ve prob­a­bly heard like a mil­lion times — be­cause once you start hear­ing about it again, you sort of switch off’’.

It’s not just Fed­er­a­tion: top­ics such as in­dige­nous his­tory or the gold rushes are just as likely to be taught and re­taught with­out con­sis­tency. Many his­tory classes learn patchy, repet­i­tive ver­sions of the past that chop and change be­tween eras and events. There’s no guar­an­tee that stu­dents have any equiv­a­lent knowl­edge or his­tor­i­cal un­der­stand­ing. From the stu­dent in­ter­views, how­ever, it’s pretty clear that sim­ply teach­ing them more facts more of­ten won’t bring them any closer to it.

Teach­ers are as con­cerned as the rest of us about young peo­ple’s knowl­edge of the past. But like their stu­dents, they’re not con­vinced more con­tent is nec­es­sar­ily the an­swer. Amy, who teaches his­tory in Can­berra, fears any sort of approach to Aus­tralian his­tory that might make it some­thing ‘‘ they will never love’’. John from Syd­ney agrees Aus­tralian his­tory should be com­pul­sory, as long as its com­plex­ity and in­ter­est are as­sured. ‘‘ Just how best to do it, I’m not sure of,’’ he says. ‘‘ I know that if it’s too rigid, too chrono­log­i­cally struc­tured, and it has to go all the way back to some spe­cific point to work its way for­ward, it’s sort of very mech­a­nis­tic his­tory.’’

In other words, there’s no point teach­ing stu­dents Aus­tralian his­tory with­out any en­gage­ment from them, and that means a cur­ricu­lum that ex­tends their knowl­edge and his­tor­i­cal un­der­stand­ing, al­lows for dis­cus­sion and de­bate and con­nects stu­dents to the past.

Th­ese are the ideas that un­der­lie con­cepts such as his­tor­i­cal lit­er­acy, where en­gag­ing stu­dents with the com­plex­ity of the sub­ject is

‘‘ pre­cisely what gen­er­ates its in­ter­est and ap­peal.

This isn’t just some fan­ci­ful aca­demic ar­gu­ment: time and again stu­dents ex­plain what they want from Aus­tralian his­tory in th­ese terms ex­actly. They ac­knowl­edge the im­por­tance of know­ing the facts about Aus­tralian his­tory, but they also want his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives, dis­cus­sions and de­bates, and imag­i­na­tion in the class­room.

In Can­berra, Rick likes learn­ing his­tory us­ing ‘‘ a com­bi­na­tion of ap­proaches’’. ‘‘ It’s good to mix ev­ery­thing up just so you get dif­fer­ent learn­ing tech­niques,’’ he says. ‘‘ I mean, es­says are al­ways re­ally good to learn in depth on one topic, but then dis­cus­sions are good for gen­eral stuff, gen­eral knowl­edge. Ex­cur­sions al­ways keep you in­ter­ested be­cause it’s some­thing dif­fer­ent, some­thing new: you’re not in the class­room, you’re out do­ing some­thing else, so that helps you learn as well.’’

Ryan, a Year 12 stu­dent in NSW, likes the fact that ‘‘ ev­ery­one’s al­lowed to have their own opin­ions’’ in his­tory. ‘‘ Like, you’re al­lowed to have yours — I don’t care — as long as you can kind of back up your ev­i­dence.’’ For Martin in Perth, en­gag­ing with dif­fer­ent perspectives in class also makes the sub­ject in­ter­est­ing. ‘‘ I think his­tory’s all about view­points,’’ he says. But if ‘‘ you just write down notes on the board it’s only one view­point, and kids are go­ing to come and do a test on one view­point — so it’s all go­ing to be the same’’.

Brian, a teacher from the NSW cen­tral coast, calls it his­tory’s ‘‘ crit­i­cal di­men­sion’’: ‘‘ It’s the idea of know­ing it’s OK to think crit­i­cally,’’ he says. ‘‘ I just don’t like the idea that there’s an easy an­swer. My approach to his­tory is tak­ing the kid in there and im­mers­ing them in it and let­ting them en­joy it and think for them­selves, as long as they can back it up in­tel­lec­tu­ally. That to me is cre­at­ing a cit­i­zen for the 21st cen­tury.’’

In other words, learn­ing the facts is one as­pect of un­der­stand­ing Aus­tralian his­tory. There’s also the need to con­duct re­search, to rec­on­cile our present val­ues with the ac­tions and be­liefs of peo­ple in the past, to un­der­stand how his­tor­i­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tions change over time and to con­sider dif­fer­ent points of view.

The im­por­tance of Aus­tralian his­tory isn’t themain is­sue here: stu­dents and teach­ers al­ready recog­nise this. They just ask that it be taught well. * The names of stu­dents and teach­ers have been changed. Anna Clark is an Aus­tralian post­doc­toral fel­low in his­tory ed­u­ca­tion at Monash Univer­sity. This ar­ti­cle is drawn from her book, His­tory’s Chil­dren: His­tory Wars in the Class­room, pub­lished by UNSW Press.

Zoe Pol­lock re­view — Page 12

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

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