Published as ‘Balancing act’, Geelong Advertiser, Monday 20 October 2008, p. 15.
By Roy Hay
While most attention has focused on the provision of computers to students in our schools as the key element of the proposed education revolution, perhaps a more significant change is forecast in the new approach to teaching history. A new national history curriculum is being drafted and the role of history in the overall education of our children is to be enhanced. It is none too soon that this is happening.
The history which the curriculum advisory committee recommended this week ‘should have a broad and comprehensive foundation from which its implications for Australia can be grasped’. In other words students can only understand Australia properly if they appreciate how it fits into the history of the world and our region. Some people have seized on this as a downgrading of Australian history, but it is arguable that Australian history will become more interesting in this new approach. The distinctiveness of Australian experience, as well as the common elements we share with other parts of the world and their peoples will come into clearer focus.
Factual knowledge, the basis of current understanding of ‘chronology, geography, institutional arrangements, material circumstances and belief systems’, will be a key element particularly in the early years of historical study. As students develop the capacity for thinking historically they can gradually appreciate how historical knowledge is obtained, modified and developed through research. The arguments which lie behind historical judgments can then come into play. By the time students reach the later years of school they will be equipped to tackle historical debates and the uncertainty which will always exist about even the most well-accepted facts.
Conservative commentators wish to continue the history wars and have tried to make capital out of the background of the chair of the history advisory group, Professor Stuart Macintyre of the University of Melbourne. But the group he leads includes historians and educators from across the political spectrum and the recommendations and the advice offered is driven by a concern to make history informative, relevant and exciting for our diverse range of students. A high proportion of these students have both domestic and overseas heritages and the world they are living in is now much more interconnected than it has ever been in human history. The resources available for the study of history have also multiplied so the critical skills necessary to interpret and analyse that material and draw well-founded conclusions are more important than ever.
The committee argues that too close a specification of the detail of the curriculum will be counterproductive as experience of the compulsory history syllabus for Years 9 and 10 in New South Wales showed. Engagement with history has increased since content and close control were relaxed in that state. At junior secondary level the suggestion is that history should cover four very broad elements—from the very earliest human existence to around 500 AD, from then until the origins of the modern period around 1750, modern history from 1750 to the present, and finally Australian history from around 1900 to now. The first three phases should be taught as world history, with Australia’s place therein as a significant component. In Years 11 and 12 more specialised units will continue to be offered, along with the possibility of research project work and methodologies as currently offered in New South Wales.
History does not exist in isolation and the committee is quite explicit that literacy, numeracy, information and communications technology, languages, the arts and civics should be linked in fruitful ways with the teaching of history. Overall, history should occupy about ten per cent of teaching time and be a substantial contribution to the national curriculum. It is a challenging agenda and the opportunity exists for everyone to comment on the draft advice over the next few months, before detailed work on the curriculum commences next year. To make the new syllabus work will need a concerted effort to train history teachers and upgrade the knowledge of existing ones for at present many of those teaching history have not studied the discipline. As always, enthusiastic and knowledgeable teachers are the key to success in any field of education.