Stephens, David & Steve Flora: Simpson Prize

Stephens, David & Steve Flora

‘The Simpson Prize: history or civics?’ Honest History, 8 July 2014 and updated

There is a link below to a pdf of the article. In summary, the article analyses a number of aspects of the Simpson Prize, a Commonwealth-funded essay competition for Year 9 and 10 students, where the winners receive a trip to Gallipoli. The Prize has existed since 1999. Key headings in the article are:

  • What is the Simpson Prize?
  • What questions are asked? (In most years, the questions have been ‘cookie-cutter’ style, built around Anzac tropes, but the 2015 question marks a change from civics education towards genuine history questions.)
  • Who runs the Prize?
  • Which schools have entered students for the Prize? (In any year 2005-14, about five per cent of schools with Year 9 and 10 students, although Government schools have been heavily under-represented.)
  • How many students have entered for the Prize? (In any year 2005-14, about 0.2 per cent of Year 9 and 10 students Australia-wide.)
  • Which schools have provided the winners of the Prize? (Twenty-five per cent of winners and runners-up have come from nine schools.)
  • What is the standard of entries?
  • What is the significance of the 2015 question? (It asks a real history question, seeking consideration of causes, while avoiding explicit mention of Anzac tropes.)
  • What is the future of the Prize? (This depends, first, on the continuing interest of schools, teachers and students but, secondly, on political attitudes to the direction the Prize is taking.)

The article concludes:

As keen observers of Australian history and society we welcome the apparent new direction of the Simpson Prize towards asking proper history questions; we hope it continues. There are certainly more robust competitive models than ones that involve recycling the same or similar questions year after year in a way that encourages ‘cookie-cutter’ responses.

If the change to asking real history questions persists, perhaps the intrinsic interest of the questions will play a larger part in students’ decisions to enter than may have been the case in the past. Even if civics education reasserts itself an emphasis on non-military models might give the Prize wider appeal.

We do not necessarily oppose civics education but we believe it should be decoupled from military exemplars. There are many equally or more worthy – and more universally relevant – models in Australia and in the world than those that derive from the deeds of John Simpson Kirkpatrick and his fellow Anzacs during the invasion of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.

Finally, civics education should be separated from the teaching of history. History is – or should be – about contesting, evidence-based interpretations. Civics education is about inculcating particular behaviours. Civics education and history do not belong in the same timetable slot.

Simpson Prize history or civics (full text of article as pdf)

The authors acknowledge the co-operation of the Australian Federation for Studies of Society and Environment, the History Teachers’ Association of Victoria and the Commonwealth Department of Education. These organisations do not necessarily agree with the conclusions in the article. The authors welcome comments on the article and invitations to speak to conferences or meetings of teachers.

Funding for the Simpson Prize has been continued for three years (2 December 2014).

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