on what students want from Australian history
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.
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