What’s really wrong with the National History Curriculum?

Is anybody happy?

Prime minister Tony Abbott drew attention to his concerns about our national history curriculum in the last week of his election campaign, stating that it focused too much on trade unionism, neglected to reference the work of great coalition leaders and, perhaps most tellingly, didn’t place enough emphasis on the heritage of western civilization.  Commentators have been quick to interpret this last point as criticism for the level of Indigenous history content within the curriculum, and while it is true that this type of sentiment is not an unusual angle for conservative politicians to take (John Howard banged the same drum last year in his lecture to the Sir Paul Hasluck Foundation), you could be forgiven for thinking that the Right are the only ones with an axe to grind about how young Australians are taught to understand their history and heritage.

On the other hand, you might not be surprised to learn that criticism for the curriculum has been fielded from other quarters.

In 2011, Helen Moran, Indigenous Co-chair of the National Sorry Day Committee labelled the draft curriculum as “clumsy” and “insensitive and insulting”.  She claimed that it didn’t “have enough content regarding Aboriginal history” and more specifically explained that there was inadequate discussion surrounding the Stolen Generations and removal policies (Moran 2011).  These sentiments were supported by the Independent Education Union of Australia (IEU 2011), and some academics concluded that challenges to Eurocentric perspectives within the curriculum were at best ‘rhetorical’ (see Salter 2010).
But is content the real problem with our national history curriculum?

How did we get a national history curriculum, and what is it supposed to do?

To better understand what all the fuss is about, it is worth taking the time to look at the political context in which the curriculum was developed.

In 2006 the Australian History Summit was convened in order to draft a national curriculum for the teaching of history in response to the perception that Australian school students lacked a basic knowledge of critical historic events.  Instigated by the Howard Liberal government which was subsequently defeated in the 2007 election, the outcome of this process, namely the Guide to the Teaching of Australian History in Years 9 and 10 (Australian Government 2007) was discarded by the Labor government in 2008, and Stuart Macintyre was appointed to the newly established National Curriculum Board, the remit of which was to produce framing documents for the development of a new national history curriculum.  In December of that year the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians was approved by all states and territories, and in 2009 the Board released the Shape of the Australian Curriculum: History.  It is these two documents that ultimately guided the content of the existing version of the National History Curriculum.

What is significant is that the change in government is believed to be clearly reflected in the socio-political perspective of these documents.  Whilst conservative governments have sought to enforce the teaching of a version of Australian history centred around Western civilisation, Christianity and Australia’s Anglo-Celtic heritage, Labor’s curriculum is seen to have a distinctly ‘multicultural’ flavour.

The prevailing rationale behind the existing curriculum is that students will be better equipped to live in today’s globalised world if they can understand the history of their country within an international context (ACARA 2013).  In keeping with the principles outlined within the Melbourne Declaration, it has three main foci: understanding the value of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, appreciating Australia’s position in the Asia-Pacific region and developing awareness of global interrelationships. 

Although ACARA’s ‘trinity’ of socially and politically expedient themes seems somewhat incongruous, the objectives of the curriculum are at least admirable.  It aims to ensure that students develop not only an interest in ‘historical study’, but also an appreciation of the ‘forces that shape societies’, an understanding of the ‘use of historical concepts, such as evidence, continuity and change, cause and effect, perspectives, empathy, significance and contestability’ and, finally, the ‘capacity to undertake historical inquiry, including skills in the analysis and use of sources, and in explanation and communication’ (ACARA 2013).  If these aims are achieved, students should, at the very least, emerge from school with the ability to question the historical narratives they are presented with, and appreciate that our understanding of history and heritage is value-based, never truly objective, often contentious, and always open to interpretation.  If this is the case, the actual content of the curriculum becomes less problematic.

So what is the real problem?

Are the concerns about how the curriculum has been politicised really valid?  Perhaps not.   The reality is that within the 222 page curriculum document there is scope for teaching just about anything you want.  The curriculum is structured in such a way that only minimal time is intended to be devoted to teaching an historical overview and the remainder is comprised of elective studies of particular societies, events, movements or developments.  Teachers must select their own historical examples to demonstrate the themes they are trying to teach.

Therefore, with the left wing/right wing debate aside, the real problem with the teaching of history in Australian schools today comes down to the question of resourcing.

One of the major concerns levelled at the curriculum with respect to Indigenous history, questions how teachers will be equipped to implement it (for example, see Harris-Hart 2009, Henderson 2008, Salter 2010).  As Anna Clark explained in History’s Children: History Wars in the Classroom (Clark 2008), ‘some teachers feel reluctant to touch on aspects of Indigenous history because they’re not comfortable speaking about someone else’s experience’.  Similarly, as educator Chris Sarra points out, the real problem is how teachers deliver what is in the curriculum (Sarra 2010).  Sarra also concludes, however, that the new curriculum provides the scope and mechanism for the involvement of local Indigenous communities in the teaching of history.

The teaching of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history is undeniably a critical part of our curriculum. Neglecting to address these topics within primary and secondary schools potentially leads to indifference, and this might just be one of the greatest threats that faces Indigenous history and heritage today.  The real challenge then is to find ways to firstly support teaching staff in the teaching of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, and secondly develop opportunities for the involvement and participation of Indigenous communities in the teaching of their own history.

References

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority  (ACARA)  2013   The Australian Curriculum: History.  Version 5.1 dated Monday, 5 August 2013.  Retrieved 1/9/2013 from http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/Download/.

Australian Government  2007  Guide to the Teaching of Australian History in Years 9 and 10.  Canberra: Australian Government.

Clark, A.  2008   History’s Children: History Wars in the Classroom.  Sydney: University of New South Wales.

Harris-Hart, C.  2009  The national history curriculum: tragedy or triumph?  Draft paper presented at the Biennial Australian Curriculum Studies Conference Hotel Realm, Canberra, October 2-4, 2009.  Retrieved 4/9/2013 from http://www.historyteacher.org.au/htdocs/national_curriculum/ACSA%202009%20Paper%20Catherine%20Harris%20Hart.pdf.

Henderson, D.  2008  The apology, the Aboriginal dimension of Australian history and a national history curriculum: beginning a new chapter?  QHistory, December. pp. 8-22. Retrieved 1/9/2013 from http://eprints.qut.edu.au/17843/1/17843.pdf.

Howard, J.  2012  Sir Paul Hasluck Foundation Inaugural Lecture,  Winthrop Hall, The University of Western Australia, 27 September 2012.  Retrieved 11/9/2013 from http://resources.news.com.au/files/2012/09/27/1226482/801957-sir-paul-hasluck-foundation-inaugural-lecture.pdf.

Independent Education Union  2011  National Curriculum Needs to Tell the Real Story of Australia’s Indigenous History.  Media Release – Monday 26 September 2011.  Retrieved 1/9/2013 from http://www.ieu.org.au/index.php/tista-branch/item/273-national-curriculum-needs-to-tell-the-real-story-of-australia-s-indigenous-history.

Moran, H.  2011  Aboriginal History Lost in New School Curriculum – Interview with Simon Santow, ABC.  Retrieved 10/9/2013 from http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2011/s3324015.htm.

Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs  2008  Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians.  Retrieved 10/9/2013 from http://www.mceecdya.edu.au/verve/_resources/National_Declaration_on_the_Educational_Goals_for_Young_Australians.pdf.

National Curriculum Board  2009  Shape of the Australian Curriculum.  Retrieved 4/9/2013 from http://www.acara.edu.au/verve/_resources/Australian_Curriculum_-_History.pdf.

Salter, P.  2010  The new national history curriculum: we can’t change history…can we?  Proceedings of the 2010 Australian Teacher Education Association Conference, 4-7 July 2010, pp.1-11.  Townsville, QLD: Australian Teacher Education Association.

Sarra, C.  2010  Response to Indigenous Perspectives in ACARA National Curriculum – Audio Interview.  Retrieved 10/9/2012 from http://www.mediafire.com/play/yeq53jzzm2z/CHRIS_SARRA_Curriculum_EDIT.mp3.

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